August 29, 2017

Words of the Month - The Fault in Our Salmon

        In the sixteenth century as the Renaissance crashed over England it seems to have hit grammarians especially hard.  In particular, they decided that what the English language really needed was to be more like Latin, the “perfect” language.  To that end they went about tinkering with all sorts of elements of the language, including spellings, which were just beginning to become somewhat standardized with the explosion of thousands of printed texts in English.  The scholars’ primary motivation in adjusting spellings was, again, to make them more like Latin.  Certainly lots of English words have Latin roots, and certainly those Latin roots are more easily discerned in the words the sixteenth century scholars “fixed,” but in pinning the words back to their Latin roots, the spellings were hacked loose from pronunciation.  The Latinization movement is one of the larger causes of English’s crazy spelling.  Consider some of the victims of re-Latinization:

debt, doubt, and subtle got b added in defiance of pronunciation, giving us an infamous “silent b”

receipt was saddled with a silent p

indict got served with an unnecessary c

salmon and solder received their Latin l

February got its silent r

fault had an l stuck in willy-nilly… But now in many dialects the l, which ought to be silent, can be heard after all, as pronunciation has obediently shifted to match the spelling.  Why has fault’s l gained a voice while receipt’s p continues to be silent?  I really don’t know.  It’s not that fault is a rarer word to say than indict, or that the l in fault is intrinsically easier to pronounce than the l in salmon.  It’s just a mystery.

island was given a wholly gratuitous s.  The funny thing about this one is that island is not a Latinate word; it comes right down from Old English.  But some of those same over-zealous sixteenth century scholars got it confused with isle, which is derived from Latin insulaIsle had been ile, until the -s- was “restored” first in French, then in English.  Island was just an innocent bystander caught in the pedantic Latinate crossfire.

[Picture: Salmon, woodcut by Tim Stampton (Image from TimStampton.com).]

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