Thursday, November 10, 2005

Answer to "Just wondering why . . ."

I really did know the answer to the question I posed here about English spelling and pronunciation. I'm not the first to note this. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, did some thinking about it and also some serious research into a proposed cure. In a not-so-serious vein, he wrote in 1899 the following:
by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.
Hint: xrewawt = throughout. Aside: And how did Sam Clemens choose Mark Twain as his nom de plume? In his early years Clemens worked on Mississippi River paddle-wheeled steamboats. The Mississippi is a treacherous waterway in that the sandy bottom shifts constantly. A channel is here today and gone tomorrow. It is impossible to see below the surface of the river to detect sand bars which can shift overnight (that's why they call the river, along with the Missouri River, "The Big Muddy". It's muddy and you can't see into it. So, one of the jobs that Clemens held was to stand on the bow of the riverboat and drop a weighted line into the water to test its depth. Every fathom (6 feet or 1.83 meters) was marked by a knot tied in the line. Clemens had to drop the weighted line into the water and then shout back to the pilot in the wheelhouse the number of marks denoting the depth of the water under the boat. Since today's steamboats operated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company have a draft (the amount of water required under the boat) of 9 feet, a depth of two knots, or marks, was considered safe water for passage. Less than two marks and the pilot would have to meander across the river from side to side searching for deep enough water, or sufficient draft, to allow safe passage.

Twain is related to the number 2, as in "Never the twain shall meet". So, when the line indicated two knots, or marks, of depth, Clemens would sing out, "By the mark - twain!" Hence, he adopted Mark Twain as his nom de plume. But I digress.

Britain in the 14th century was a land where many different languages were spoken. The Angles and the Saxons had pretty much combined their respective languages into one, but there were many others spoken in differing parts of a supposedly unified land. In fact, since the Norman conquest in 1066, British royalty all spoke a form of French which hardly any of their subjects could speak or understand. Richard the Lion Heart (Richard I - 3rd Crusade, Sheriff of Nottingham, etc.) couldn't understand Robin Hood and vice versa, contrary to popular thought, TV shows and movies.

The most famous writer of the day, one Geoffrey Chaucer, employed a small army of scribes, secretaries and clerks to painstakingly copy each of his writings. These scribes were the banes of his existence. We know from Chaucer's diaries and letters that the reproductions of his works by his scribes were less than faithful to his originals. Chaucer complained bitterly because he spent more time policing his scribes than he did in producing fresh work. For example, depending on from whence a particular scribe might have matriculated, Chaucer's use of the word "draft" in a work might be copied by one scribe as "draft", faithful to the original, another scribe, however, might write "drought", another might write "draught" while yet another might write "droufft". This drove Chaucer nuts because he insisted on his words being faithfully reproduced exactly as he had written them. What this also meant was that Chaucer's work could not be widely distributed throughout the realm because most people outside London couldn't understand all of it, or, in some cases, any of it.

Less than 100 years later all of that changed, and did so in quite an astounding manner. A new star entered the stage, a fellow named William Shakespeare. Shakespeare also employed scribes, but not nearly so many. Why? A German by the name of Gutenberg had invented a method for molding movable type which made the printing press (actually invented by the Chinese) an incredibly more useful tool. The problem with the Chinese printing presses and all others in use in that day was that the type faces had to be laboriously manually carved of wood. The typefaces took forever to carve and didn't last long and it was easier for a writer with the means, as Chaucer had, to hire scribes to copy his work than it was to try to use a printing press. Gutenberg's typeface molds, using lead instead of wood, changed all that. When a particular typeface wore out, you jerked it out of the press, tossed it into the melting pot and replaced it with another. Hoowah!

There was another big difference between Chaucer and Shakespeare, as important if not more so than the printing press. Attitude. Chaucer had a bad attitude, kind of like Henry Ford's "Give them any color they want so long as it's black." He wanted his work reproduced exactly as he had written it. Shakespeare, on the other hand, wanted his work read, listened to and understood by as many people as possible. So, a scribe from London was allowed to edit Will's work so that Londoners could appreciate it while a Liverpudlian scribe was likewise allowed to edit the Liverpool-bound version for his particular audience. Now, Shakespeare could use the new and efficient printing press to widely disseminate his works. This gave Will the time to become incredibly prolific, one of the most prolific writers and playwrites in history.

What this also did was start the spread of a mongrel version of a language we now call English that began to be understood by everyone in Great Britain. Shakespeare didn't care whether a spelling or pronunciation was logical, only that people could understand what he was trying to say. Slowly but surely, Shakespeare's scribes and printers began to adapt, integrate or eliminate words, spellings and pronunciations from the language. If draft was best understood in the majority of the locales, then the other versions were dropped over time and draft became draft, so to speak, so that draught could be used to mean something else entirely. Drought was used to mean something else yet again and droufft was dropped entirely because it was understood by such a small minority. Those people just had to become comfortable with draft as draft, drought as drought and draught as draught and adios to droufft. Whew! Because so many more people now had access to Shakespeare's work - and what a lot of work that was! - people began to adopt "Shakespeare's language" as their own.

Therefore, one could with good reason claim that all of the English language's problems with illogical spelling, pronunciation and word definitions could be laid at the feet of one man, William Shakespeare. One could also accurately claim that, without Shakespeare, we could all be speaking a form of French. Horrors!!!

Note: I didn't spell-check this, but after all that you have read, how could anything be misspelled? You say potato and I say pototto.

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