Opportunist orthography

Interesting bit in a NYT review of David Crystal’s The Fight For English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (via Conversational Reading):

Crystal is … especially good on the Middle Ages. When printing came to Britain in 1400, English was a merry old mess. Choices had to be made, he says, and typesetters were often the ones making them. “If a line of type was a bit short on the page, well, just add an -e to a few words.” And if it was too long? Just “take out some e’s.”

Latin scholars, meanwhile, tried to help by adding silent letters to show where words came from. Thus “debt” acquired its “b” (from the Latin debitum), “island” its “s” (from insula) and “people” its “o” (from populus). Thanks, fellas.

I imagine Iberian printers & such got up to similar tricks, but Lepe‘s the only case to spring to mind.

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  1. Hi Trevor,

    A little late, sorry, but very funny that about Lepe. The ‘ñ’ falls into some category, as does the silent ‘h’ in place of the latin ‘f’. What was it? The Iberos couldn’t pronounce it, or what? The ‘ll’ had until very recently a pronunciation slightly distinct to that of ‘y’.

    There may be progress on the meteorological front.


  2. Some of the variation seems to be caused by the inability to pronounce, other stuff by simply fooling around with the language. Nice post here by Amando de Miguel mentioning the tendency of the spoken language to diverge from the written. Who was it said Spanish was simple compared to English?

  3. All the soft consonants cause pronunciations to be acquired as if shouted from a long distance away to a hearing-impaired person. The edible mushroom that is a ‘níscalo’ in castellano, in the province of Jaén is known as a ‘guíscano’, for example. Two vowel-accompanied consonants and they got them both wrong.


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