Part of the What Do You Know About That series
by Ruth Orr
Hav yoo ehvehr wisht to no y wee spelle woordz the w-a wee doo? If you were able to interpret that first sentence I commend you, I barely can and I wrote it. But I imagine just about anyone who has ever had to take a spelling test at school has bemoaned the way we spell things in English, with all the extra bits and bobs and weird rules that go with.
To figure out why we spell things the way we do, first you have to figure out where our words came from. There’s been a long-standing joke that goes something along the lines of ‘English is just three other languages stacked on top of each other, wearing a trench coat and pretending they count as one thing’. And while you and I might think it a fine language, the joke isn’t entirely wrong— English, perhaps more so than most other European languages, is a pile of words from other languages that have been borrowed and browbeaten into a new lexicon.
The earliest base English we’ve got is a Germanic language, something you can see in words we still commonly use today. Wanderlust, for instance, comes from the German wander, meaning to hike, and lust, which means to desire, but in the same way you’d desire an ice cream, not a new boyfriend. Kindergarten is also straight-up German— kinder meaning ‘children’ and garten meaning ‘garden’. It’s kind of cute actually. Less cute is the word ‘angst’, which is a German word meaning ‘fear’.
But we didn’t stay with just German, oh no. As more folks invaded the British mainland looking for gold and glory or maybe just sheep and slaves, they brought their languages along with. The Romans certainly threw a lot of words into the mix, with roughly thirty percent of our language today having Latin roots. Words like dentist have the root ‘dent’ meaning teeth, any time you move to the center court you owe Latin for ‘centri’, etc. Actually, etc is an abbreviation for et cetera, another Latin phrase.
I’m sorry, did I say we owe the Romans? I meant the French. For all that England and France often hated each other throughout history, French was an incredibly dominant language in England, in large part due to the fact that the nobility were all French speakers after William the Conqueror popped over from Normandy and did what the name says in 1066. As a result of generations of mixing and matching, up to 45% of our vocabulary has French origins. You’d think that would make it easier to learn! But still, things like advice, honesty, denim, car, city, juice, person, beef, different, etc. are all based in French.
So that’s the origins bit figured out. Of course, plenty of other languages loaned us words, including Greek, Italian, and Spanish, but the big three are sorted. But now that we had all these shiny words to play with, we had to figure out the spelling. That opened a whole new can of worms however, because it turns out that in the days before widespread communication and education, most people didn’t agree about what those shiny new words actually were, let alone how to spell them. This is where dialects reared their funny-sounding heads— folks in different towns up and down the British Isle had mostly adopted the same words, but not necessarily all of them from the same places. If you asked a lady in one town to sell you an egg, she might understand, because her area had been settled (cough cough, raided) by the Norse, and their word stuck. But twenty miles down the coast, a housewife might stare blankly at you, not understanding, until you asked for an ei, because it was originally a German settlement. Even if you had the same word, odds are good you’d spell it differently— ‘not’, ‘naught’, ‘nawt’,’naȝt’ etc.
Enter Geoffrey Chaucer, an English poet and author in the 1300s. Chaucer is called the father of English literature and the father of English poetry, largely down to his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales. Some of you probably had to read it in high school, which is impressive if you think about it, considering how old it is, but you may not have understood the full significance of the impact it had on the language we speak today.
Chaucer was the first person to write popular works in English. Prior to that, you could get books and poems in Latin or French, but those were inaccessible to the everyday guy who didn’t know speak them. Chaucer’s works were open to everyone who could read (okay admittedly, that was still not a huge part of the population, but those who did could read aloud and share with their neighbors) and so became wildly popular. In fact, The Canterbury Tales remained so popular and influential that it was the first substantial book to ever be printed in Britain, almost 100 years after it first came out.
The thing is, in order to write them down, Chaucer had to spell stuff. While the period shift between late Middle English and Early Modern English is marked by a general standardization of spelling, he was a huge part of it. Chaucer used his dialect, the London dialect, when making his choices, and thanks to his popularity, the London dialect, grew and began to become the dominant way to speak and write.
Chaucer was also an impressive font of vocabulary himself, coining roughly 2000 words. He may not necessarily have invented them all, but he is most definitely the first one to write them down and preserve them. Words like absence, agree, elixir, examination, funeral, galaxy, observe, princess, scissors, vacation, and wallet are all first attested to in Chaucer’s works. It should be noted he did have other words that didn’t catch on so well, like besmottered, corrumpable, and withinforth. Some of his words were not French or Old English in origin either, or even Latin, German, or Greek— words like almanac, borax, satin, and checkmate all actually have their roots in Arabic.
Right, so spelling’s all done, nice and standard now, yes? Nah, because the British decided they needed to strech their borders a bit and took over half the world. And once more, you ended up with a populace that more or less has the same language, but is so spread out and with communication so slow that any local languages have plenty of time to influence the newbies. Perhaps the best case in point is us, the good ol’ U.S.of.A, and our refusal to write things down in proper British English. Freedom!
Perhaps the most famous example of that is our determination to take the ‘u’ out of words like colour and behaviour. The trick is, in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, both the Latin -or and the French -our endings were used on words with Latin or French origins, almost interchangeably. After the Norman conquest however, the Brits standardized the whole of it over to -our, regardless of where the word originally came from. That became official in the 17th century, when a court ruled that the -our endings were the correct thing to do, even in Latin and Greek words.
Enter Noah Webster, an American lexicologist. He wrote down the first American dictionary, and unlike his British counterparts, who quite liked having the fancy little French flourish at the end of their words, he thought we ought to be spelling things as simply as possible, for the most part anyway. Webster wanted English words to sound like the letters in them, so he went about getting rid of silent letters, replacing the soft ‘c’ in words like defence with an ‘s’, swapping harder ‘s’s with ‘z’s like ‘realize’, and getting rid of miscellaneous double letters. Obviously he didn’t get them all, of course, and he himself thought that things like ‘hed’ instead of ‘head’ and ‘speek’ instead of ‘speak’ looked dumb. We do still put the -our on words that do have French origins, like glamour.
Webster also is the reason we have words like ‘curb’, which can mean to restrain something or it can mean the stone or concrete edging along a street or path. The Brits differentiate by having ‘curb’ be to restrain, and ‘kerb’ be the edging. It sounds the same, but there’s no room for misunderstanding in reading. While ‘tire’ for us can mean either to become sleepy, or it can mean the round rubber wheel bit of your car, in the UK, ‘tire’ is to be tuckered out, and ‘tyre’ is what goes on your car.
The language is still growing and evolving, and new words are being added all the time as other cultures and influences pop up. British English is being heavily influenced by incoming migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, while Americans have strong influences from Spanish-speaking immigrants. As time moves forward, British and American English will continue to diverge, and I for one, think that’s pretty cool. Who knows what we’ll do next?