ThinkStock
ThinkStock

Why is English Spelling So Messed Up?

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

If you're a kid learning how to write, or an adult speaker of a language with sensible spelling, English spelling can seem like a cruel prank. And even if you're a completely literate adult native speaker of English, you will still run into situations that make you wonder how English spelling ever got so messed up. Here are some answers for the next time you clutch your hair yelling, "WHYYYYYYYY?!?!?" They may not comfort you, but they may make you see English as less of an arbitrary meanie and more of a victim of history.

1. Spelling was established while big pronunciation changes were underway

Before the printing press came along, there was a lot of flexibility in English spelling. Look at some of the ways beauty used to be spelled: bealte, buute, beuaute, bewtee, bewte, beaute, beaultye. People did their own thing, trying their best to match up tradition with current pronunciation. But after the printing press came to England in the late 1400s, texts could be spread more widely, and printers started to standardize spelling. The unlucky thing for English spelling is that during the very same time, huge changes in pronunciation were happening. Middle English was becoming Modern English. When this period was over people had stopped pronouncing thek in knee, the g in gnaw, the w in write, the l in talk, and the b in lamb. They had also stopped using the back-of-the-throat-sound (represented by the ch in German words like ach!) that had been spelled by scribes with gh and had been pronounced in words like nightlaughthought, and eight. But by the time all those sound changes were widespread and complete, the spellings for those words had been established.

There was also a massive change to the vowel system during that period. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift, and by the time it was over we had settled on spellings that reflected a mix of the old system and the new. So we get one spelling for many vowel sounds—ea in knead, bread, wear, and great—and multiple spellings for one vowel sound—due and dewso and sew.

2. The literate class used French until the 15th century

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought their own words with them. While the general population carried on speaking English, French was used in universities and the courts, eventually leaving its imprint on the whole of English vocabulary. Most French words from this period were adapted to English pronunciation and spelling (attend, blame, enchant, flower, farm, join, lesson, minister, proof, etc.), but plenty retain traces of their origin that cause little spelling headaches today: people, jeopardy, muscle, marriage, autumn.

3. It was cool to change spellings during the classical craze 

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a craze for the ideas and artifacts of antiquity caused some writers to introduce spellings for English words based on Latin and Greek, even when those words had never been pronounced according to those spellings. They thought it looked more educated and fancy to write February; (on analogy with Latin Februarius) rather than Feverere, and receipt (like Latin receptum) rather than receyt. This is also how debt and doubt got their b, salmon and solder got their l, and indict got its c.

The re-Latinized words did have a very distant connection, through French, with the Latin words they were based on, even though they were borrowed into English without the extra sounds. But sometimes re-Latinizing introduced letters that had no business being there on any etymological grounds. That s in island, for example, never had any reason to be there. The word came from Old English íglund, and was spelled illond, ylonde, or ilande until some fancy-pants picked up the s from Latin insula and stuck it in and made the word more complicated than it had to be.

Other scholars complicated perfectly clear words by making them look more Greek. So asma,diaria, and fleme became asthma, diarrhea, and phlegm. Don't they look classier that way?

4. We let words keep their spellings when we borrow them

As we discussed in No. 2, English got a lot of words from French after the invasion of 1066. Around 700 years later, we willingly borrowed a whole slew of other words from French, many of them referring to the finer things in life. We let them keep their spellings, but we pronounced them our own way, so now we've got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigretteprotégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, faux pas, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres.

Of course, French isn't the only language we've borrowed from. When we see something we've got use for, we take it as is. Guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini have been welcomed into the fold. It's the least English can do, as it spreads around the globe: Let the globe spread into English as well.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
iStock
iStock

The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios