Gloriously Wacky English! Part 1: Spelling and Pronunciation


Gloriously Wacky English! Part 1: Spelling and Pronunciation

This is the first of (at least) two essays on the strangeness of English spelling and pronunciation on the one hand, and grammar and usage on the other. It would only be a matter for linguists to ponder, if English were not such a world phenomenon today.

A good way to distinguish between the two problem areas is through two anecdotes:

To symbolize the issue of English’s highly irregular spelling and pronunciation, we can recall the quip usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but actually from William Ollier Jr. in 1855: that the word “fish” should be spelled “ghoti”: gh from tough, o from women, and ti from nation.

On the other hand, the seemingly strange syntax and grammar of English can be represented by this humorous statement purportedly from Winston Churchill. Apparently, someone was demanding that the common grammatical rule against ending sentences with prepositions should be emphasized. The Prime Minister is said to have replied, facetiously, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

Today we will begin the exploration symbolized by Ghoti: Spelling vs Pronunciation. But first, why should we care?

As we move through the second decade of the 21st Century, English is the most widely dispersed language in the world, and third in number of native speakers as of 1999, behind Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is the lingua franca of a number of fields worldwide, and is steadily growing as a second or third language for learners.

Lingua Franca

A Lingua Franca is a bridge language used to facilitate communication when parties do not speak one another’s languages. Historically the term is Latin for “Frankish Language,” although it was originally an amalgam of Italian (80%), Turkish, French, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish used in the Eastern Mediterranean for trade and other purposes around the time of the Italian Renaissance. It lasted until the 19th Century in some places.

It may seem strange that it was called “Frankish (French) Language,” when French did not make up the majority of its vocabulary. Due to the dominance of France and other Frankish-related kingdoms in Western Europe during the western Middle Ages and Renaissance, and particularly after the Crusades began, many in Eastern Europe, the Roman Empire (then centered in Constantinople) and the Muslim world referred to all Western Europeans as Franks. A few examples include the Greek Φράγκοι, Frangoi, still used on some of the Greek isles to refer to Roman Catholics, the Arabic al-Faranj, Farsi farangi, all meaning Western European Christians. Even as far away as Thailand, ฝรั่ง Farang, means European foreigner, as travelers to Thailand know so well. Derivatives are widely used to refer to foreign foods, etc. In India today, Feringhi refers to foreigners.

The Farsi ستان Frangistan was used to designate Western Europe and Latin Christians in general in the Middle East, while the Arabic  الرُّومُ ar-Rūm, referred to the citizens of the Roman Empire (which continued in the East until the Fall of Rome (on Tuesday May 29, 1453 at about 2pm in the afternoon–not that we Easterners have long memories!) and Orthodox Christians. Still today in Arabic, Rūm Ortodox refers to Greek Orthodox Christians, while Rūm Katolik designates Greek Catholics such as Melkites.

The ultimate word on Franks comes–as it so often does–from Star Trek. The space-faring merchants, the Ferengi are probably named after the Western Europeans in their role as traders and merchants. In Modern Greek, φερέγγυος, ferengios means a merchant who is trustworthy. That’s also why in English we say someone who is truthful is being frank.

English Spelling and Punctuation

Now that we have voyaged around the world with Western European traders, let’s get back to the subject at hand. For this huge lingua franca we call English, spelling and pronunciation are a real problem. Just ask any ESL student! We have to take years to train our own children in the intricacies of English spelling. It is so difficult we have contests–Spelling Bees–to reward the best of our youth at this skill. Although spelling bees do exist outside of English and French speaking nations, they are much more rare where the language is pronounced phonetically on a regular basis. (French shares the heritage of weird spellings with English, and as we will see, there is a reason for that.)

To begin at the beginning, English is a West Germanic language, ultimately descending from Proto-Indo-European, through Anglo-Saxon, and by the 8th-11th Centuries, the Late West Saxon dialect came to dominance, and it is in this dialect that the epic poem Beowulf was written. The Late West Saxon dialect of English gradually became standardized, centering around Winchester, the seat of the English Kings. The use of this form of English as an official and standard language began to die out after the Norman Conquest in 1066, and was replaced by Latin and Norman French. English was relegated to the countryside, the language of the common people. We’ll explore some of the ramifications of this when we discuss English Grammar and Usage in another essay.

For our purposes here, this confluence of Old English, Medieval and Church Latin, and  Anglo-Norman French began to contribute to part of the problem we are exploring today. English demonstrated its ability to absorb large numbers of new words from other languages, and to incorporate them, making for a very rich number of ways of expressing things and ideas.

There is no universally-agreed upon way of counting how many words a language has in its vocabulary; however, English is usually at or near the top, with, by varying counts, 250,000 to over 1,000,000 words. The process of rapidly assimilating foreign words ramped into high gear during the Anglo-Norman period.

So Many Different Words!

English Vocabulary presents a considerable example of having several synonyms to describe something, due to its blending of word origins. Wikipedia gives several good examples, for instance:

“In English, many synonyms evolved from the parallel use, in the early medieval period, of Norman French (from Latin) and Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words, often with some words being used principally by the Saxon peasantry (“folk”, “freedom”, “bowman”) and their synonyms by the Norman nobility (“people”, “liberty”, “archer”).” English has the richest Thesaurus (Treasury) of any language.

Another well known category is animals/food.

Many of the live animals we eat have their names from Germanic roots, and the food that is the result of their sacrifice is from Latin via Norman French. For example:

Cow Beef

Pig Pork

Chicken Poultry

In this context, I cannot resist telling an old joke I learned in Tecate México in Spanish many years ago. The translation is mine.

A chicken and a pig were taking their afternoon walk. The chicken said, “Hey, this breakfast thing the Norteamericanos have is a great idea…Eggs and Bacon!”

The pig snorted, “Sure, for you, Breakfast is a contribution, for me it’s a complete disaster! (Claro, para tí, el desayuno es una contribución. ¡Para mí, es un desastre total!)” The punch line seems more chistoso in Spanish!

It’s all in your point of view!

This is only one result of English penchant for assimilating foreign words (we really are the Borg of languages!). Of course, this also makes our language so incredibly rich!

How Authentic Should We Be?

There is even an Atlantic divide. British English tends to anglicize the pronunciation of foreign words more decisively, while American English tends to preserve the original pronunciation, even when it violates English phonetics.

In Britain, it is more common to hear “Don Kwikset” as the pronunciation for Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote (Quijote), while in North America, it is pronounced more or less like the Spanish original “Don Keyhote.” (I am not using the International Phonetic Alphabet at the moment, since not everyone is familiar with it. In another essay, I will introduce readers to this indispensable tool, as well as to the Unicode Fonts which make language representation so easy on computers!)

In the same vein, the British say “Don Jewan” for Don Juan, while we say “Don Hwan.” Now I am all in favor of our North American usage in this regard, but during the late 20th Century, it got a little out of control, especially among newscasters, who usually speak “Network Standard,” essentially the flat American accent of St. Louis, MO.

Some newscasters began to exaggerate the foreign pronunciation of, especially Spanish American, place names, so that the usual “Hwatemala” for Guatemala came out as a very guttural “Chwatemalah.”  It sounded like they were getting ready to expectorate. When we have a standard English word for a place, we should use it. We say “Moscow,” not the original “Moscoba,” and “Pair-iss” for Paris, not “Pah-ree.”

In addition, American speakers sometimes suffer from language crossover. Here in San Francisco, there is a street in the Richmond district named Cabrillo, between Anza and Balboa (yes, we have a whole section of alphabetical streets in the Richmond and Sunset Districts).

Since most of us here are familiar with Spanish pronunciation, many people pronounce the street name “Kabriyo.” Unfortunately, Cabillo is the Spanish version of the explorer’s actual name in Portuguese, João Rodrigues Cabrilho, and so the street name should be  pronounced “Kabrillo.” That’s OK, but kids, don’t even try to imitate the real Portuguese pronunciation for Rio de Janeiro: it would be something like “Rhee-oo they Hen-ay-roo.” If you would like to learn Portuguese, it is a wonderful and beautiful language, but we can keep our somewhat anglicized pronunciations. After all, here in North America, we are ultimately practical and utilitarian. In this I stand with Garner’s Modern American Usage, a great work!

Another example of import confusion is the term “Fjord,” which makes no sense in English phonetics. It was originally “Fiord,” but then, since the Nordic spelling is fjǫrðr, we changed. In the English speaking world, only New Zealand holds on to the original English phonetic spelling. After all, Fjord phonetically should be “fha-jord.” English, especially North American English, loves exotic words…they sell cruises!

No One Controls the English Language!

It is not only the importation of non-Germanic words that makes for the confusion. Unlike the French and the Spanish, there is no official regulating body to control English. Personally, I believe that is why English is so wonderfully flexible and so international. Stephen Colbert can invent “Truthiness,” and it sticks! U da Bomb means you are outstanding, and Cool has survived from the 50s for my Baby Boomer Generation, and has been re-appropriated as Kwel. Wow!

English as so many exceptions, the ESL student by now is pulling out her/his hair. There is a rescue. First, I would like to promote the role of Native Speaker Tutors. We can guide you through the intricacies of the most widely dispersed language in the world. If you want to go it alone, Mark Rosenfelder’s 2000 site is a tremendous, if ponderous, resource. I use it all the time. For example, the suffix “-ough” can be pronounced 10 different ways, and Mark explains why.

Another factor influencing English spelling/pronunciation was an old attempt at re-syncing English words with their roots. For example, our current word Debt is pronounced dette. That’s because it is from the Germanic and French Dette. However, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary intuited that it ultimately came from the Latin Debitum, so he re-spelled the word. Actually, all of these words come from the French and Germanic words without the “b.”

As we had mentioned above, French went through an even more severe re-classicizing period, where the word for son, in Medieval French, fil (filh) was re-Latinized from its origin Filius, and so became Fils, pronounced “Fiss,” against all standard French phonetics.

As Cicero says, “O Tempora, O Mores!” Oh Times, Oh Customs!

Finally, the death blow to the congruity of English Spelling and Pronunciation came with the Dictionaries. First in line was Noah Webster, an American of the best possible motives, and a true patriot, staunchly opposed to Slavery. He had a prodigious knowledge of languages, but lacked our modern understanding of how languages evolve. Therefore, he froze English spelling in a state of disarray, and that is what we inherit todayl Historical spellings abound, such as “Light:” pronounced “Lye-t,” which now has a modern homonym “Lite” (less caloric, less substantial). These are called “Historical Spellings.”  French has them too. So we have Light Bulbs and Lite Beer. Try explaining that to a Mandarin Speaker, or someone from Alpha Centauri.

He was followed by the incredibly eccentric team that created the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive work on the English Language.

So English spelling and pronunciation is a mess, and will continue to be, as spelling reform is not realistic. What is happening, due to texting and other mobile communication, is that we are evolving a shorthand version of English: How R U? Im
Gd. U? But this is based on the original living language. Pidgin English is important, but it must have a basis.

I sincerely hope, and am working daily to make sure that our diversity of languages does not vanish. We need the thought patterns, the approaches and the viewpoints of all human cultures and languages to face the challenges before us, no less than we need to biodiversity of the Amazon and other regions to sustain our lives. Someday, we will encounter a problem that only the thought-processes of Basque or Magyar will resolve. We need all the arrows in our quiver. Meanwhile, English will serve as the Lingua Franca of the 21st Century, with all its worts.

We look forward to the visit of the Vulcans, who will be able to demonstrate to us how Mandarin, English, Greek, Hebrew, Gaelic, Thai, Arabic, Coptic, etc. are all dialects of Human-Speak.

Next: You learned English Grammar in school. Almost everything you learned was wrong. Why is English grammar and syntax so complicated, and why can’t we teach it to our children?

Thank you!


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