CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock

Why is English Spelling So Messed Up?

Original image
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.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
Original image
A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
iStock

We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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

Original image
arrow
Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
Original image

A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios