Spelling is a very rigid branch of the tree of knowledge, and some people fall off it on a regular basis. The problem begins in grade school, where weekly spelling tests can engender sweaty palms before and despairing puzzlement after. You were sure there was only one r in embarrass! How can there be only one e in judgment? Can anyone make sense of misled (mizzled?) or forearmed (for-earmed?). Why does dispirited have only one s?
The answer is simple and complicated: English is a mongrel of astonishingly mixed parentage. And like all mongrels, it displays exceptional vigor and a hodgepodge of traits.
The language began, more or less, with the Angles, for whom England is named. They were one of several peoples to overrun that green and pleasant land, along with fellow Germanic-speaking Saxons and Gaelic- and Gaulish-speaking Celts, not to mention marauding Danes, Norsemen, and Vikings. Some of the marauders stayed and founded settlements, such as the Viking outpost that became the great city of York. The languages spoken by these peoples had little or no written expression. Even if there was a writing system, there was no need to write for a population that couldn’t read, material to write on was rare and expensive, and the rulers were little different from the ruled in refinement and education.
The Romans brought luxurious baths, straight roads, and straiter Latin, which became the common language, spoken and written, of the educated in every Roman-occupied territory. The arrival of Christianity vastly increased the spread of Latin, so that eventually even humble serfs were exposed to it in church. Along with Latin came Greek, because when Rome conquered the Greeks, they recognized the superiority of the Greek culture in the arts, sciences, and other fields, and Greek became the language of the Roman upper class. A great many Latin words have Greek roots, and much of the vast English lexicon derives directly or indirectly from Latin.
The fall of Rome brought on the Dark Ages, and the young Roman Catholic Church struggled to protect its heritage through the monasteries, which served as centers of learning and repositories of knowledge. Outside the monasteries, the unschooled masses went about their hard daily lives, and the highly structured language of the Romans began to devolve and meld with the vernacular tongues of the natives and the invaders from points north and east, which themselves devolved to lesser complexity and precision. The Romance languages, principally Italian, French, and Spanish, retained gender distinctions for masculine and feminine but lost neuter; they also lost case distinctions for nouns other than pronouns, letting position determine a word’s function within a sentence. They retained multiple verb conjugations and a different suffix for almost every person for every tense and mood.
English devolved further than the Romance languages. It gave up gender distinctions altogether except in reference to creatures that actually had gender. It did so despite its origin as a Germanic tongue that used all three genders, as present-day German still does. I have never seen the point of assigning gender to nouns. When gender determines declension, it makes sense. The nominative ending tells you the gender; for instance, in Latin, -us is (generally) masculine, -a is feminine, and -um is neuter, and each is inflected differently to form the genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative cases. (Never knew what English was missing, did you? Actually, English does retain some of this, but only for pronouns, and you’ve been inflecting them for case since you first imbibed grammar with your mother’s milk.) But when inflections for case and declension disappear, so do gender clues. Remembering the perfectly arbitrary gender of every single noun becomes an enormous effort. Also, associating gender with the word rather than the person leads to needless ambiguity. In French, both His Majesty and Her Majesty are Sa Majesté, because the word majesté is feminine. This makes no sense to me. If someone says “Go wake up Sa Majesté,” do you go to the king’s chambers or the queen’s?
Just as it had done away with gender, English also gave up making adjectives agree with their nouns in number. We have one blue flower and five blue flowers, whereas French has une fleur bleue (feminine singular) and cinq fleurs bleues (feminine plural). Perhaps the Saxons were thumbing their noses at the French-speaking Normans who were the last to successfully invade the sceptered isle (the Normans themselves began as Norsemen, ceded a coastal province to stop their raids on Paris upriver). English also left behind the second-person singular pronouns and verb forms; thou, thee, thy, and thine have passed beyond old-fashioned to archaic. French retains the familiar tu for intimate conversations with a spouse or with God.
Most English verbs require only five permutations to create every person, tense, and mood, with the help of a mere handful of helper verbs, also with limited permutations. For example, the verb to see can appear as see, sees, saw, seen, and seeing. In French, the equivalent verb, voir, has five different forms for the present tense, another five for the present subjunctive, five more each for the simple past and future, and three for the imperative. Yikes! My French dictionary (published in France) has 27 pages of a table, presented sideways in small type, that spells out every one of the multiple forms of verbs regular and irregular in four different conjugations. The same information for English verbs, a simple alphabetical list that includes every form for every irregular verb, fills only four pages in full-size type. The phrasal infinitive in English is particularly neat; the infinitive form is identical to the verb stem, which simplifies many derivations, including future, subjunctive, and imperative.
Finally, English let go of many plural forms inherited from various of its parents; the plural schoen became shoes, although the -en plural ending survived for men, women, and children, among other very old words. (Speaking of very old words, many of the world’s languages have a word for mother that includes the phoneme ma. Desert-born Arabic, however, uses umm for mother and reserves the nurturing ma as the word for water.)
All these changes simplified the English language. Speakers and writers of English didn’t have to worry about the gender of sexless objects and concepts. They didn’t have to parse every sentence as they formed it to make sure all the nouns were in the correct case; they only had to put them in the correct order. They had only one verb conjugation, irregular verbs notwithstanding, and many fewer forms to wade through. They didn’t have to match adjectives to their nouns in number or gender (which gives English a propensity for dangling participles, but that’s another rant).
These simplifications helped make it easy for English to embrace new words. There was no need for an authority to assign a gender (what gender is blog?), no worry about adapting case or tense inflections (blog, blogs, blogged, and blogging cover all the bases), no problem with making it plural. (For most nouns, just add s; if that looks odd, try es. Do not use ’s, or I’ll smack you down.) English accepted words from Arabic (algebra, safari) and Malay (amok, kapok), Japanese (origami, sushi) and Tibetan (lama), Hawaiian (lanai, lei) and Hindi (veranda) with equal ease. There are more words in the English lexicon than in any other language, and the total increases daily as we invent new words for new things and new processes (photocopy, Internet, and website come to mind).
However, the diverse provenance of this vast vocabulary is reflected in the wide diversity of spelling rules that shaped the words in their native tongues. Also at work are different styles of transliteration for words from languages with different alphabets or no alphabet at all. (For instance, Peking became Beijing and Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong when the system for transliterating Chinese changed.) English spelling has no overriding logic, no simple set of universally applicable rules. The spelling of old English words evolved over centuries and only began to be codified after the invention of the printing press spurred the production and dissemination of written works at a pace impossible for hand copying. The words borrowed and adapted from Latin had the benefit of standardization by generations of scholars and clerics, but borrowings from the Romance languages were less straightforward.
The English words for food animals are mainly of Anglo-Saxon origin: cow, pig, calf, deer. But the words for the meat of these animals are often of French origin, their spelling Anglicized: beef, pork, veal, and venison. This dichotomy is a potent reminder of who could afford to eat meat after the Norman invasion. Embarrass has two r’s because that’s how the French decided to spell the Portuguese word embaraçar (baraça, by the way, means noose). Arabic words involve transliteration from an alphabet that has several versions of d and h and awards the glottal stop its own letter (the hamza) but dispenses with those pesky vowels, which it reduces to optional diacritical marks. (The glottal stop is what you do with your throat if you try to say “a apple” without interposing an n. In other words, English purposely avoids it.)
There have been attempts to derive rules, but they all have loopholes. Everyone remembers “i before e except after c,” but then we have weird and heir, among others. The suffix -ize is used to create verbs in American English (sanitize, verbalize), but not every word that ends with that sound is spelled with a z: surprise and advise are just two examples. Britons spell most such words -ise (summarise, memorise) but have to remember the exception prize.
Spelling is a talent. Without it, you have to memorize every single word added to your vocabulary, which usually has mixed results. (At least we don’t have to remember gender and declension and multiple conjugations too.) The talent for spelling is a form of eidetic memory, the ability to make and retain very detailed mental images. A person with this ability doesn’t have to remember exactly how to spell curious; he has a picture of the word in his head against which to compare the word he writes on the paper. If the pictures don’t match, an alarm goes off, and he’ll fiddle with the written word until it jibes with the mental image.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to be born with eidetic memory, don’t despair and don’t beat yourself up. The ability to spell has nothing to do with intelligence. Extremely bright people can be terrible spellers, making everyday errors such as tommorow, surprize, and seperate. (Word is programmed to outright fix all three of these without a by-your-leave, that’s how common these errors are.) With hard work and sheer determination, a person might memorize as many as a hundred thousand words, but not everyone’s willing to make that effort, especially now that Spellcheck can rescue the hapless. However, the effort to turn on the spelling check feature of your word-processing program should be considered an absolute minimum. Mine is always on. Most of the time it has very little to do; I am one of the lucky ones with an eidetic memory. When I am writing fiction, however, and see squiggly red lines on the screen, I know I’ve been especially inventive—it’s a good thing. Use the spelling checker! It won’t take long and can spare your reader paralyzing confusion and spare you embarrassment (getting caught in a noose).
One major caveat: the program will only tell you if the word you’ve chosen is misspelled. It won’t tell you if you’ve chosen or correctly spelled the wrong word; it can’t. The title of this article contains two misspellings, only one of which (mispellers) upsets the spelling checker. Untie is a misspelling of Unite that happens to be a correctly spelled word, so the program won’t flag it; you have to proofread. See Crotchets articles 1 (Who’s To Blame?) and 4 (Eat Here, We Have Heavy-Metal Windows!) for cautionary examples of failure to use a dictionary to check meaning as well as spelling and failure to proofread.
This is article 7 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson