Tag Archives: orthography

The old “ye olde”

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of Editors Canada

If you want to make something look, y’know, old, and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta, has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And of course there are all these plain old olde things.

And that’s where we cranky up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in ye olde candy shoppe. And As ye sow, so shall ye reap. And perhaps, at the RancheHouse, ye haw.*

Only those aren’t the same word. And the ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words often kept them, such as þe (the) and þat (that). They would be reduced with the aid of superscripts, like þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ – if he had known to do so.

So. Ye as in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be their problem, but the ye in hear ye is you.

Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.”

Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style. And, now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time, and scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end e, the easiest one, prevailed. And over time it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald and came with the changes of the time to be auld and aud and awd and old – and many other forms – could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see old (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s in spite of coming from Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding. You know, as they do to cattle at ranch houses.


*Calgarians, please do not write to me telling me that it should be yahoo, not yeehaw. I know. I was making a funny.

The quick way to know what that language on the imported cookie package is

After a bit of a pause while I was busy doing and writing other things, I’ve written another article for The Week. This one is on a shortcut to knowing what language you’re looking at (when it’s written in the Latin alphabet and is a language you’d reasonably likely see on merchandise or in mass media or social networks). The short of it is: It just takes a little character.

How to identify any language at a glance

(My editor wrote the title. Obviously it’s not really any language.)


To say or spell indict
or, even worse, indictment
could lead to much excictment
but not so much insict…
If spelling’s your delict,
you know that dereliction
could lead to interdiction
if you don’t keep it tict.
If out loud you indite,
pay close heed to the diction
lest you pronounce a fiction
due to an eye-tongue fict.
But if you will recict
and wrict as indicated,
you will be vindicated –
not derelict but delict.
Pay heed to my invict
and you’ll be an invictus,
your face a grinning rictus
because you did it rict.

Ah, isn’t English spelling a treasure? Sure, like a treasure-hunt in a sandbox – one that’s in current use as a kitty litter box.

But actually the offending nuggets are not so fresh. Most of the worst booby-traps in English orthography came about during and after the English Renaissance (i.e., the time of Shakespeare and thereafter), when various scholars felt that English words that were descended from Latin ought to wear their fine ancestry on their sleeves. (See “What’s up with English spelling?”) The idea that spelling should simply reflect sound was too plebeian; orthography offers such a panoply of finery, why not come out in full dress, unburdened by quotidian chores? 太好了! 你學吧!

So we had a word endyte or endite coming from Old French enditer, which in turn came from Latin in plus dictare ‘say, declare’, and the scholarly pedants of the time felt that it should therefore claim its nobility and sit on the page as indict. The same fellows gave us the o in people (because of Latin populum) and the b in debt (because of Latin debitum).

I do not think we owe a det of gratitude to these peple. I would rather see them indicted.

But not indited. You see, the unaltered spelling indite also persisted, with a slightly different sense: ‘dictate; enjoin; compose; put in words; recite’. It’s a word of literature now, and a rather high-toned precious one. Meanwhile, indict is a word known to the basest members of society. Oh, the irony.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for reminding me that I wanted to taste this one.

English isn’t the only language with messed-up spelling

Today: my latest article for TheWeek.com, on other languages with weird spelling, and how they get that way.

English spelling is terrible. Other languages are worse.

Many languages use an alphabet borrowed from a different language. It’s like building a dining room set using an IKEA kit for a dresser.

One little correction, a typo I spotted too late: in the Irish Gaelic, shuiamhneas should be shuaimhneas. Of course.

What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading