A Short Comment on English Spellings Reflecting Their Origins

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We can't change spellings because the current forms reflect their histories...? The "s" in "island" was not in the original spelling, but was inserted later -- and thus is etymologically incorrect. The "b" in "crumb" and "thumb" were intentionally added a few centuries ago as silent letters. So was the "g" in "foreign" and "sovereign" (those two words are completely unrelated to "reign"), the "h" in "ghost," and the "p" in "ptarmigan." The "h" and the "y" in "rhyme," and the use of "ch" in "ache" are similarly spurious (one could make a case for the "c" in "ache" having a historic basis, but the use of the "h" after it is purely spurious). "Iland," "crum," "thum," "forein," "soverein," "gost," "tarmigan," "rime," and "ake" are spellings that more closely show the true origins of those words, while the current forms that "look right" are not really showing the correct history.

Do you think "glamour" is a word that we got directly from French? Not quite. *Indirectly*, yes, it does come from French, but not in that form or with that meaning. The original word in this case which came from French, from Old French, was "gramaire" -- which is the word "grammar," and which came into English as a linguistic term. In a Scottish English dialect, this word was altered so that the "r" became an "l," and the meaning altered and specialized to become associated with magic. This was extended to an association with charm and enchantment, and then thru another association or two to today's meaning. But this all comes from a Scottish dialect, not the Parisian world of haute couture, and the "-our" is quite spurious.

There are other examples, involving, say, "a's" in classic roots having been changed to "e's" in today's spellings, and other cases where one letter has been changed to another. Or has been added. The "a" in "cease" wasn't there in its French or Latin ancestors.

The spelling "through" must be kept as such to show the way this word has always been spelled in English? You'd be hard pressed to find the "ough" form in Chaucer's day. The "Oxford English Dictionary" gives well over a dozen ways that this has been spelled in the past, and there's nothing sacred about "through" as the main or only one. "Thurh" was common, "thruh" was one of the forms used, and the spellings for this in Middle English often bear a closer resemblance to "thru" than they do to "through."

Viewing the premiss that English spellings reflect their histories, I note that, yes there are many words whose spellings indeed do that -- many more do than don't. But there are still many words where the spelling's origins have been altered, enough cases in fact that it's not quite the situation that we're preserving a completely true-to-form historical record of word origins by keeping English spelling just the way it is.

BY Cornell Kimball