How monks and typesetters caused weird spellings

In her new book, “Highly Irregular," linguist Arika Okrent dives into English's hard questions – like why "tough," "through" and "dough" don't rhyme.

The English language bristles with words whose spelling and pronunciation are at odds. Words that look as though they should rhyme do not: tough, through, dough. Words that are spelled differently sound exactly the same: so, sow, sew. Some have pronunciations that seem almost unrelated to their written forms – could anyone confronted for the first time with colonel figure out that it’s “kernel”?  

In her wonderful new book, “Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme – and Other Oddities of the English Language,” linguist Arika Okrent dives into these questions. She jokingly spreads “blame” for the weirdness of English across five areas: the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse, aka “the Barbarians”; the Norman Conquest; the development of the printing press; the rise of prescriptive grammarians, i.e., “the snobs”; and finally all of us speaking and writing today. We’re the ones who are devaluing awesome, which once evoked the sacred and sublime but now can apply to trifles (“awesome hat!”), and making literally mean figuratively

Let’s take the examples in Okrent’s subtitle. She calls these spellings “linguistic fossils” because they represent the way the words were pronounced in Old English. When Roman missionaries arrived in England in the sixth century, she explains, they used their own Latin alphabet when writing in the local language. The monks struggled to fit Latin orthography onto some Anglo-Saxon sounds. They needed a way to spell what Okrent calls the “blechhhh” sound, which was common at the time, though it has dropped out of use in contemporary English except in imports such as the Yiddish chutzpah. The monks settled on -gh for this sound, and produced tough and its ilk.

Further complicating things with -gh, Old English had several dialects. In some areas tough and dough were “tuchhhh” and “duchhhh,” while in others they were “tuff” and “duff.” As English changed over the centuries, it kept the “-f” sound at the end of tough and rough, while the phlegmy “-echhhh” sound disappeared, leaving just a vowel, as in dough. As for through, with its “oo” – blame the French. 

“Highly Irregular” gets into a range of English-language strangeness. Take the spelling of ghost, which came about because William Caxton hired Flemish typesetters when he brought the first printing press to England in 1476. The Flemish word was gheest, and so the typesetters added “h” because it looked right to them. They also added “h’s” to gherle (girl), ghoos (goose), and ghest (guest), but only ghost stuck. How could English speakers and spellers ever predict that? Logical, no. Fascinating, yes.

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