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Adventures in Orthography part I


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Old May 14, 2008, 03:55 PM
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Adventures in Orthography part I

I believe it may have been Alfonso who recently said that if someone knew how English spelling got so messed up, that maybe they would like to share. Well, I had some idea already, from various readings in my English classes (Beowulf, Arthurian Legend, Chaucer) as well as some broader knowledge of language. And after two days of research, I consider myself informed enough to give a little class on the matter. Not everyone is as big of an etymology head as I, and the three languages I most concern myself with herein are all extinct--at least in the vernacular--so you might quickly bore of what I've written here, but some of you might take interest. And it was mostly an exercise in self-edification anyway.

Personally, our bizarre spelling, or orthography, is one of the things I love most about the language. It gives it a quirky kind of character and allows for a poetic device impossible in Spanish, that of eye rhyme, where two words that look alike but don't sound alike are rhymed, like glade and facade, or rough and through. Also, contained in its awkward orthography is the history of its parent land, England, with her various conquests by Germanic tribes, her merger of two distinctive and competitive cultures, and her rediscovery of ancient sciences and wisdom.

This is my second effort at explaining the spelling of English. The first was based on some studies of etymology, Old English, Old French, and Latin from a few years ago, and I think it suffered from that interim as well as from the lack of a clear outline. In my second attempt, I've made efforts to refresh and update my linguistic knowledge, as well as to better lay out a plan for my writing. I will begin with a brief introduction of the three principal component languages, illustrating some aspects of their respetive grammars and orthographies, and follow with an explanation of their synthesis into modern English. I plan to first upload the three introductions--each as a seperate post, with the preface attached to my synopsis of Latin--and then follow up later with the details of their synthesis. So let's begin.


The orthography of English is a blend of spelling systems from three fundamental languages--Latin, Old English, and Anglo-Norman, a language closely related to Old French--with some additional flavor from Greek and later French. The good people at Wikipedia have given me a great way of illustrating the language's basic three components. They point out that English has three words meaning roughly of or relating to a king: kingly from Old English, royal from Old French, and regal from Latin. Much is made of the wealth of words in the English language--it has very few competitors in this regard--and this has a great deal to do with its tri-fold engendering.

Latin is an Italic language, with an alphabet evolved utimately from that of the Greeks. It bears a complex system of noun declension and verb conjugation, making for a highly flexible word order with very few smaller articles. Not only do the verbs explain who is doing what, when, and with what likelihood, but also the nouns, pronouns and adjectives bear far more information than they do in Latin's offspring, the Romance languages. They undergo a great deal of formal alteration in order to detail this information, relating gender and number, by what means an action takes place, who the subject, object and indirect object are, etc. Languages that do so are said to be synthetic, and Latin is termed a fusional language as well for its extensive use of prefixes and suffixes serving other roles. It was influenced earlier on by a language not of the same liguistic branch, that of the Etruscans, but it is still very close to Proto-Indo-European, the mutual forefather of it and Old English. The dialect of Latin we're concerned with for the purposes of orthographical discussion is Classical Latin, which varied significantly from spoken Latin, known as Vulgar Latin, a somewhat ambiguous term.

Classical Latin's orthography was basically composed of just letters. There were no spaces in between words, though dots might be used to break things up a little bit, so a sentence would look something like this: CALIGULAERATFILIUSNATUMINIMUSGERMANICIETAGRIPPINAE MAIORIS ("Caligula was the youngest son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder.") The sign to sound relationship was even closer than that of Spanish which, though a nearly perfect spelling system, requires accents such as that in vergüenza, as well as certain pairings of letters, such as Q and U, to represent one sound. You all know this. What I want you to note is that no distinction is made in the pronunciations of the G in CALIGULA and GERMANICI. They are both hard. Likewise, the C in each name is pronounced identically, like a K, no matter which vowel happens to follow. We have a one-for-one, perfectly standardized spelling system. I'll get back to why all this is important. And moving on...

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Old May 14, 2008, 04:17 PM
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Adventures in Orthography part II

Old English was a West Germanic language, or more specifically, a continuum of dialects that coalesced around the fifth century A.D., in what is now northern Germany and the Netherlands, and soon spread into Britain through a series of conquests. This was made possible by a power vacuum created when Roman rule abandoned the lower Isles. Throughout most of Britain, whether through displacement, adoption, or a combination of the two, it quickly replaced the Celtic languages spoken there. Of course, the predecessors of Gaelic and Welsh, among other dialects, survived into modern times, but only in small populations. Like Latin, Old English was an extremely synthetic language, also very similar in construction to Proto-Indo-European. Though eventually, during the Danish conquest of Britain, it would be influenced by Northern Germanic dialects, mutual comprehension was possible between the various Germanic tongues spoken in what are now England, Netherlands, and northern Germany, right up until around 1066. Why this changed, I'll get back to.

In order to discuss the orthography of Old English, we need a text, and I can think of none better than the famous intro to what is considered the oldest English masterpiece, the anonymous long poem, Beowulf. It was likely written somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries, but it is important to note that it preserves a much older form of the language than what was being spoken at the time.

Analagous to spoken Latin, which had lost much of the character of written Latin by the end of the first millenium, and was breaking down into the Romance languages, spoken Old English had begun to fracture a bit, becoming less of a synthetic language, and, like the Romance languages, much more of an analytic one. Analytic languages depend more on sentence structure and the aid of smaller articles--prepositions, pronouns, definite and indefinite articles, etc.--than do synthetic languages. This is simply because the nouns, verbs, and adjectives themselves don't convey as much meaning. Chinese is often used as an example of the extreme in analytic languages, its sentence structure being absolutely fixed for lack of any other way to relay information otherwise borne in synthetic languages by prefixes and suffixes. Spoken Old English had not reached nearly such an extreme, of course, but its complicated declension, or case system, had simplified a bit, as had its conjugation, and its sentence structure was certainly becoming more rigid.

I present here a faithful transcription of the unique manuscript preserving Beowulf. Linguistic evidence would have us believe that the poem was originally composed in Mercia, in what is now termed the Midlands of England, but the manuscript we have has been translated into the West-Saxon dialect of southwestern England. Oddly, and tellingly, the poem has little to do with the Isles themselves, but instead deals with the Danes and Geats, two Germanic tribes living in what are now Denmark and Sweden. Critically, it is most interesting for its attempted fusion of two jarring ethical systems, that of Christianity, and a tribal ethics based largely on blood-feuds. I first present a transcription of the original copy (oxymoron, I know), spacing and punctuation faithful to the manuscript:

na ingear dagum· þeod cyninga
þrym ge frunon huða æþelingas ellen
fremedon· Oft scyld scefing sceaþena
þreatum monegum mægþum meodo setla
of teah egsode eorl syððan ærest wearð
fea sceaft funden he þæs frofre gebad
weox under wolcnum weorð myndum þah·
oð him æghwylc þara ymb sittendra
ofer hron rade hyran scolde gomban
gyldan· þæt wæs god cyning·

Last edited by gatitoverde; May 15, 2008 at 04:03 AM.
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Old May 14, 2008, 04:26 PM
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What follows shortly is a copy I found online, paired with a line by line translation, the words standardized, the lineation regularized, and the vowels accented to distinguish long vowels from short. This is important because, like Latin, Old English carried forward from Proto-Indo-European different vowel lengths. Long vowels were exactly that: they lasted for a longer period of time. This contributed to the way we pronounce our words today but, for the most part, our vowels are now pronounced for an equal duration. You might find it takes some getting accustomed to in order to vary your vowel length, and of course there are no extant recordings to aid in reading. What we can discern of Old English pronunciation comes from a broad and intensive study of the surviving Germanic languages in general, certain commentaries from Latin texts of the day, and the fact that it was written, after a point, with the Latin alphabet, aided by a few Germanic runes. This is important in understanding modern English spelling.

The various spelling systems invented to represent the sounds of Germanic dialects were adapted straight from the Latin alphabet, one not designed for the distinctive sounds of Germanic languages. Where early missionaries, trained doggedly in Latin, lacked an appropriate symbol, they either borrowed from the Germanic runes they knew, or they combined Latin letters to represent single sounds. The letter W is a perfect example, combining two Latin V's to indicate a more noticably voiced consonant than that of the Romans. Yet the missionaries on the coast and in the Isles were unable to communicate with one another across the vast expanse of the German heartland, and so each came up with many of his own innovations. There is no letter in the Latin alphabet for an unvoiced TH sound, (think, thorough, thunder), represented here with the runic þ, yet represented otherwise in other texts. There is no SH sound, represented here by the combination of letters SC, as in in scyld, but with an SH combo elsewhere. There is no CH sound as in the Scottish loch, represented here with a simple H, but elsewhere with an HH--to distinguish it from a softer initial H sound--or with a GH, or a CH, etc. Already, we have complications. There's no longer a one-for-one corellation between sound and symbol, as exists with Classical Latin. Yet still, the orthography is fairly simple, and more importantly, standardized within a given text. Y should be pronounced like a German ϋ or French U(versus OU), or something like a cross between a short I and the Spanish U. U is pronounced like the OO in moon. I've heard the ð symbol pronounced like the initial D in dude, as well as the TH in there. My personal instinct tells me to go with the latter, as I don't see why there would be two symbols, D and ð, for the same sound, and the TH in there is not represented by any other means elsewhere. Also, the words using ð are sometimes the forerunners of modern English words containing the TH sound. In my first crack at explaining our bizarre orthography, I'd attempted to more thoroughly guide the reader through pronunciation, but in checking my sources, I find that various studied recordings differ the phonology significantly, and I also feel that my own interpretation may be misguided by some study of High German. I would only suggest trying to avoid stressing any syllables, and instead trying to focus on pronouncing the vowels with varying duration, as I noted above. I believe æ should be pronounced like the A in hat, for much the same reason I argue for a TH pronunciation of ð, but I've seen differing accounts. Note that otherwise, the letters are pronounced much as they would be in Latin.

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon·
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah·
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád·
wéox under wolcnum· weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan· þæt wæs gód cyning.

Listen! We --of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore,
of those clan-kings-- heard of their glory.
how those nobles performed courageous deeds.
Often Scyld, Scef's son, from enemy hosts
from many peoples seized mead-benches;
and terrorised the fearsome Heruli after first he was
found helpless and destitute, he then knew recompense for that:-
he waxed under the clouds, throve in honours,
until to him each of the bordering tribes
beyond the whale-road had to submit,
and yield tribute:- that was a good king!

Note the word geardagum in the first line. If you break that down, you have gear, dag, and -um: yore, day, and then the suffix -um, denoting the genitive case of the plural form, so that dagum, together, means of days. (Actually, I believe it's functioning here more like in days, but elsewhere in the passage, -um is closer to of, and I didn't want to muddy the waters.) Those of you who've studied German, Russian, Latin, Hebrew, etc. should be comfortable with this. If not, you might be surprised by declension. There are only two vestiges of this in Modern English: in the addition of an -s or -es suffix to regular nouns--lions, tigers, bears--much as the suffix -as in æþelingas denotes the plural form of the nominitive case of the word for noble; and when an apostrophe and an S follow a noun--Mary's, Maggie's, May's--indicating possession in a much simplified form of the genitive case. That of Old English requires that one vary the suffix based upon gender and number. Another word of note is cyning. This is the ancestor of the word king and is remarkably close in phonology to the modern German word for king, könig. Other cognates include the previously mentioned dag, very similar to modern German's tag; gyld, now gold in both languages; and under, which is unter in modern High German. Yet other cognates aren't nearly as discernible as one might expect, telling of a gentle change already occuring in the spoken language, and a linguistic revolution soon to follow the penning of Beowulf.

Lastly, I present the Irish poet Seamus Heaney's endearing rendering. I'm a personal fan of his edition as he has foregone literal translation, taking liberties with the strict Germanic form not only to make the poem accessible to modern readers, but also to dodge some of the hurdles of translating a highly synthetic language into a more analytic one. He goes so far as to translate proper names, so that we might get a better feel for the characters, and I'm especially fond of the way he opens and closes this particular passage:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan of the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Whew! That was a task, but finally, I've dispensed with my Old English synopsis. Onward.

Last edited by gatitoverde; May 14, 2008 at 09:58 PM.
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Old May 14, 2008, 04:35 PM
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Adventures in Orthography part III

Anglo-Norman is most interesting to me in that it was a Romance language spoken by a Northern Germanic people as their native tongue. You see, in the year 911, a man named Charles the Simple, a descendant of Charlemagne ("Charles the Great") in the line of kings known as the Carolingian line (Carol ~ Charl ~ Charles), allowed a Viking by the name of Rollo to settle with his men in northern France. The idea was that the fierce Vikings could help protect the northern border. And it was a sound plan. Rollo's Vikings not only stayed, but integrated into the culture there, adopting Christianity as their religion, and adopting the language spoken there, a langue d'oïl ("language of oui," from Dante's classification of the early Gallo-Romance languages based upon their manner of saying "yes"), as their own. This they flavored with their distinctive Norse dialects, and the resulting dialect would susequently by flavored by a similar Gallo-Romance language, Old French, once the speakers of the last rose to supremacy. This distinctive blend, carried by the Normans into England during the Norman Invasion, would later be called Anglo-Norman by historians.

The Norman Invasion, led by William the Conqueror, took place in 1066. Whereas the earlier Danish invasions had failed to stamp out all resistance, only managing to sequester the Anglo-Saxons in southern England, the invading Normans swept through the country entire, crushing Danish and Anglo-Saxon resistance alike. Most significantly, they supplanted the ruling language with their own. Old English would still play a limited role in some negotiation and trade, and was still spoken around the hearth, but the language of law and administration became Anglo-Norman. Though it's supremacy would wane toward the latter fourteenth century, being completely re-supplanted by the coronation of Henry the V in 1413, it added some 10,000 words to the spoken language, about three quarters of which survive in some form to this day, and many of which--parliament, rule, order, court, castle--hint at the social dynamics within England at the time. Also, interestingly, the names of many of our animals in food form, if you will--beef, pork, mutton--come from the Normans, whereas the corresponding names for the field forms of these animals--cattle, pigs, sheep--are of Germanic origin.

One of the more renowned writers in the Anglo-Norman dialect went by the name Marie de France. Despite her surname, indicating a French birth, it would seem likely that she resided for much of her life in England. She wrote in the twelfth century, at the height of the Anglo-Norman supremacy there, and for these reasons and more, I've chosen one of her lays to illustrate the Anglo-Norman dialect. The translation is one I found online that I like because they stayed true to the syntax, without being too literal, or taking any liberties in order to duplicate the rhyme scheme. For example, the first line would translate "The adventure of another lay, as it was, I'll recount to you all," which sounds rather awkward to my ears. If you can read French, you should find much of it fairly easy to interpret yourself.

Much of the phonology of Anglo-Norman can be discerned from words carried over into English. If you speak French, don't be tempted to silence your final consonants. They continued to be pronounced in northern Gallo-Romance dialects. Nor would the letter G, though palatized, become the ZH sound of the modern French J, or G when followed by an I or E. To make it simple, pronounce J, and the G in gentil and damagoënt as you would the J in jump, and that of Loengre as the G in grape. Also, there are none of the distinctive nasals of modern French. EN, ENT, AN, etc. are all pronounced similarly to modern English. Anyway, it occurs to me that I could be here for awhile with all this, so let me just say that if you're that interested, check out Wikipedia, which is where I got all of this. I'll give further examples later on to illustrate the orthographical points I'll be making, largely involving the pronunciation of G, OU, the earlier mentioned Germanic CH/GH sound, and a few other phonemes. Without further adieu (pun intended):

l'aventure d'un autre lai,
cum ele avient, vus cunterai:
fait fu d'un mut gentil vassal;
en bretans l'apelent Lanval.

Kardoel surjurunot li reis,
Artur, li purz e li curteis,
pur les Escoz e pur les Pis,
que destruieient le païs:
en la tere de Loengre entroënt
e mut suvent la damagoënt.

I'll share with you all an adventure
as it went down, one more lay,
about a congenial vassal;
In Breton, they call it Lanval.

Arthur, the courtly and valiant king,
stayed for awhile at Carduel,
on account of a number of Scots and Picts,
wrecking the countryside there:
Often they'd trespass the grounds of Logres
doing great harm to the place.

And that will be adieu for now. Having given everyone some basic idea of the three orthographical systems I'll be using to make my points, I can now eat. Toodles.

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Old May 14, 2008, 04:56 PM
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Originally Posted by gatitoverde View Post

And that will be adieu for now. Having given everyone some basic idea of the three orthographical systems I'll be using to make my points, I can now eat. Toodles.
Wow, Gatito, that was quite some work.

Bueno mañana a las diez. Coge el 7 y deja el tren en la calle 82. En la esquina de la calle 79 y Roosevelt se encuentra Tulcingo del Valle. Les espero allí.
You deserve Poli´s treat.
Poli, please, take note.
Life´s Beautiful !
It gets even better!!!
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Old May 14, 2008, 06:19 PM
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I've got to leave here in a few minutes, but I'm leaving the browser open to this thread to read later tonight.
If you find something wrong with my Spanish, please correct it!
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Old May 15, 2008, 01:26 AM
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buen provecho!
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Old May 15, 2008, 06:01 AM
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Adventures in Orthography Interlude

Let me first say that, when I began this essay a couple of days ago, I don't suppose I'd ever fully grasped the sheer, utter, unadulterated, mind-boggling irregularity of the English orthographic system. And by system, I mean to say absolute lack thereof. And as a native speaker of the lingua franca of the day, to the world at large trying to learn my woefully confused language, may I just say sorry. From the bottom of my Yankee heart, sorry world. I apologize for the accidents of history which have led to the Anglo-American supremacy of the last couple of centuries and, as a current student of Chinese, I await the day with baited breath when--maybe fifty years, a hundred years from now--those good, industrious people are running things---a time when the people of the world will be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief with the assurance of a far, far, far easier system of writing to wrap their heads around. Now I will continue my essay shortly, but I no longer entertain the laughably naive hope of explaining but the minutest fraction of what went so desperately, desperately wrong. Until then, again, sorry.

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Old May 15, 2008, 06:49 AM
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Si, de acuerdo con lo ques dices, pero quiero saber si hay un tribunal que
dice que es correcto y que es incorrecto en el uso de inglés. España tiene la maravillosa RAE. ¿Exisite algo como RAE in en el mundo anglo en Oxford o Harvard u otro sitio nefario que protege las torcidas reglas de inglés ? Yo creo que no. Me parece que caos es la ley. ¿Gatoverde, eres un yanqui del carolina del norte? Debes sentir muy solitario. Tal vez no; oigo que hay muchos que mudaron alli ahora para escapar el frio y precios altos del norte.
Muy erudito.
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Old May 15, 2008, 07:06 AM
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Many people of the world use the word Yanquee to signify American, which is the way I was using it. But you're right, I feel a bit out of place here. My biggest problem isn't the state, however. It's the fact that I work in a luxury industry during an economic slump, and none of the better restaurants are hiring here. North Carolina's been an interesting experiment--I've worked for the most mismanaged restaurant I've ever seen, been run over by a car, and robbed--but I'll be returning to Utah on Tuesday, reassuming my bartending position at the most popular restaurant in the state, and my degree in one of the better public English departments in the country.

As far as language regulation, I am a native speaker, and I retierate that I have no love for the idea. I like my quirky language just the way it is. Afterall, I've spent years learning the little stories behind so many of our words. (See the "Beautiful Words" thread.) But I certainly sympathize with secondary speakers, now more than ever.
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