Tag Archives: English history

America’s liberties with English

My latest article for the BBC is about how American English came to be so different from British English – and why it didn’t come to be more different:

Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?


Hello, Ireland!

My latest article for the BBC, on how our messy English spelling is the result of greed, laziness, and snobbery, got me a live interview with an Irish radio talk show this week: the Moncrieff show on Newstalk. It’s on line now, so you can give it a listen. Go to part 2 of the June 10 show and I’m about 1/3 of the way in (there’s a thin red-on-grey progress bar near the top; just click about a third of the way from the left, and drag right or left as necessary). The link, for those who prefer copying and pasting to clicking, is http://www.newstalk.com/listen_back/8/19227/10th_June_2015_-_Moncrieff_Part_2/

Plough through enough dough to make you cough or hiccough

This article was first published on June 9, 2015, on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada (the Editors’ Association of Canada)

You want some tough spelling for an English learner to plough through? Head to ough. There are six different ways it can be said at the end of a word, as in plough, through, dough, enough, cough and (for those who spell it that way) hiccough. (Never mind the versions with another letter after it!)

Nearly all of the ough words trace back to the same final consonant in Old English (what our language was from the seventh to 11th centuries), but to several different vowels — vowels that do not match tidily to modern sounds.

What was the Old English final consonant? It was g, also written as h. In certain places, the Old English g softened to a fricative and, at the end of a word, tended to become voiceless. So, in different texts, you could see g or h both standing for the “h” sound. In Middle English (what we spoke from the 11th through 15th centuries), the fricative version of g was written as ȝ, a letter called yogh (which, by the way, is the only current English word ending in ogh).

Over time we stopped making that sound and replaced it with other sounds or with nothing … but we kept writing it. However, when we got printing presses, the type sets we bought from Europe had no yogh in them. So we got gh instead (just as the lovely letter þ was replaced with th).

What were all those vowels that ended up as ou in ough? Some were o’s, short or long; some were u’s; occasionally there was a long a. In the normal course of things, the modern English descendants of those sounds (after a millennium of mutation) are as follows: long á became “long o,” so hám became home; short o became “short o,” hardly changed in pot and bottom; long ó became “long oo,” so fóda became food; long ú became ow or ou, with mús becoming mouse and dún becoming down; and short u ended up sometimes as in put and sometimes as in putt (which sound the same in certain dialects).

But the ough words are not the normal course of things. There was this velar fricative after the vowel, and in Middle English it gradually weakened and caused rounding of the lips (velar fricatives tend to do this because they make the sound contrast more). So plog became our word plough, and slog became the rhyming slough, because they had the vowel in “pot” plus a “w” sound. For some reason, bóg took this course too and became bough. From dáh, which naturally evolved towards the vowel in home, we got dough. The history of burg to borough and þuruh to thorough is more chaotic — in some modern English dialects, the final vowel is like “uh.” Meanwhile, we got through from þurg because it made it to Middle English with the u before the r, so it kept the “oo” sound, and then the u and r swapped places while the final fricative stopped being said.

And then there are the ones that kept a stronger stressed “wh” sound in Middle English — or that only appeared in the language then — such as the Old English genóg, tóh and ruh and the Middle English slohu and coȝ. The strong “wh” sound at the end was dominant enough that the vowel was shortened to the one we hear in “book” (except in coȝ, which had a short o with no u influence). But then we strengthened the “wh” sound at the end of words to make it “f.” And so we got enough, tough, rough, slough and cough.

Oh, and what about hiccough? That’s due to pseudo-etymological mischief. The word was hicke up or hikup — readily reflected today as hiccup — but some silly fellows decided it must come from cough and so, because they wanted words to show where they came from (that classist obsession with pedigree), they started respelling it. It’s a mere parvenu, a poseur. A hiccup.

English spelling is a mess because people are greedy, lazy snobs

The BBC has commissioned another article from me, and it’s just gone live today. It’s on BBC.com:

How the English language became such a mess

(It’s specifically about spelling, but the headline doesn’t say so.)

I’m told that people in Britain don’t have access to this BBC site because it’s intended for international audiences! But I’ve also been told that if you view it through Google Translate (tell it to translate from, I don’t know, Chinese or Russian or something like that; it will just show you the English as though it’s being quoted by Chinese or Russians), it will let you see it even if you’re in Britain.

English language time machine

Hop into a time machine to travel back in the history of the English language! How do you think it will go? Step out and talk with people from olden times who use quaint words and a bit of thou and –eth? Heh heh. Find out what’s really waiting for you as you travel back through the history of England in my latest article for The Week:

What the English of Shakespeare, Beowulf, and King Arthur actually sounded like

Complete with video clips!

(And yes, before you say it, “the English of King Arthur” is, shall we say, a trick question.)

For anyone who hadn’t noticed…

…I am not a prescriptivist grammar Nazi and I don’t think the language is going to hell in a handbasket.

I had thought that this was fairly obvious, but I guess that some of the things I say may lead one to that conclusion if one does not have the context of my other opinions. I shall have to be careful to be clearer.

I mention this just because I had a debate with a fellow editor recently, my side of which I revised a little and posted here as “Streamkeepers of the language.” I’ve just found out that said fellow editor characterized that debate as “a lengthy debate with a fellow editor who feels very strongly that the English language is going to hell in a handbasket.”

Oh dear. The fact that I disagree with people who are trying to exert certain influences over certain usages, and that I wish to encourage others to resist those influences, does not mean that I think English is going to hell in a handbasket. Apparently this is less obvious than I thought it was.

Just to make sure anyone who is interested can know what my positions on language and language change are, here are some particularly germane posts:

For an in-depth exploration and appreciation of language change, check out “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion.”

For a detailed explanation of register, which is the question of different levels of English usage for different situations, go to “What flavour of English do you want?

For good ammunition against people who complain that the language is going to hell and who want to impose prescriptivist rule, read “When an ‘error’ isn’t.”

There’s plenty more where that comes from, of course, including salvos against grammar Nazis at “A new way to be a complete loser,” “For a thousand years it’s good English, then it’s a comma splice?“, and “Fulford fulminates – pfui!” among others.

I hope that sets the record straight.

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
Continue reading