LINGUIST List 11.1623

Wed Jul 26 2000

Disc: Writing and Speech

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Nitti45, Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech
  2. A.F. GUPTA, Re: 11.1620, Disc: Writing and Speech

Message 1: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Wed, 26 Jul 2000 02:09:50 EDT
From: Nitti45 <>
Subject: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

Dear Linguist:

In a message dated 7/25/00 7:52:30 AM, Michael Lewis writes:

>Surely the genesis of spelling anomalies in English arises, above all,
>its "rich and varied" parenthood.

 "Above all"? I think that just might be stretching things a bit. While 
there is no room whatever for any dispute about the "'rich and varied' 
parenthood" of English, it seems a bit much to assert that this is the 
primary reason for the abundance of spelling anomalies in this language. 
There are several reasons why I take this position.
 First of all, let us briefly view some 'families' of English spelling 
anomalies. One of the most vexing of these for the learner is the "-ough" 
group: Say, "bough," "rough," "through," "cough," "dough," and observe that 
not one of these words sounds like any of the others. The funny thing is, 
these are all native Anglo-Saxon words, not products of "rich and varied" 
foreign borrowings.
 While we're at it, how about looking at some differently pronounced 
homograph pairs, e.g., "wind," "wound," "tear," "sow," "row," "lead," to name 
a few. Again, these are all native Anglo-Saxon words; there is not a single 
exotic transplant among them.
 I have never thought to take a count, and of course it is far beyond the 
scope of this discussion to essay that here, but I am inclined to think that 
at least a plurality, and possibly even the majority, of English spelling 
anomalies occur in native Anglo-Saxon words. Maybe someone out there has 
this information at hand. If so, I should like very much to see it added to 
this discussion. This is not to say that foreign borrowings (chiefly Norman 
French, Latin, and Greek) did not make a significant contribution to the 
'anomaly pool,' if you will, but merely to suggest that our own native stock 
of words is being underestimated as a source of these anomalies. Of course, 
I am speaking here of words one might encounter in general conversation, and 
not bodies of highly esoteric jargon--the latter would throw things out of 
balance, I am sure. 
 Second, let us quote Prof. Lewis a bit further: 

 At the time printing (with its potential
>for the propagation of "standard" forms) developed, there were many
>different varieties of spoken English (as, indeed, there still are).

 This is quite plausible as an argument in favor of Prof. Lewis' position, 
until one does a bit of comparison of English to some other European 
languages and cultures. Think of the great number of dialects of High German 
that existed then, and still exist now, most of which are unintelligible to 
one who speaks only Standard High German. Yet German spelling has few 
anomalies. With respect to Italian, there is an even greater number of 
nonstandard dialects, likewise unintelligible to one who knows only 
'textbook' Italian; if anything, Italian spelling has even fewer anomalies 
than does that of High German.
 Now admittedly, neither German nor Italian boasts of the "'rich and 
varied' parenthood" of English but then, that issue has already been dealt 
with under point number one. Be that as it may, it will be dealt with again, 
under point number three.
 The reader may recall my entry in *Linguist* 11.1606 under this 
discussion, to which Prof. Lewis directed his response in #11.1614. For the 
sake of this third point, I shall repeat a portion of that entry here:

 "Now here is something about which I should like to hear from anyone with
 a background in Celtic linguistics in general, and Irish Gaelic
 in particular. I have heard it said that the only language that
 rivals English for sheer numbers of spelling anomalies is Irish
 Gaelic. I do not know firsthand if this is true or not. From
 what little I have observed of the language, I find the assertion
 at least plausible. If indeed it is true, then it certainly can't be
 because of its having been "thrust into the media" as a world
 language. Would any experts in this field be so good as to join this
 discussion? Specifically, would they answer these two questions: 1)
 Is the abovementioned assertion true? If so, then 2) What, in your
 judgment, would account for this fact?"

 Since I posed this pair of questions I have received, by direct response 
to my email address, a confirmation that the answer to the first question I 
posed in that issue is definitely in the affirmative, at least for what 
concerns European languages. I have yet to see, either in this discussion or 
via private correspondence, any answer to the second question. While I 
honestly do not know just what that answer might be, I daresay that I do know 
what it is *not.* As limited as my knowledge of Celtic linguistics is, I 
know for a fact that, like German and Italian, Irish Gaelic has not the 
"'rich and varied' parenthood" that English has. It *does,* however, have a 
comparable number of spelling inconsistencies.
 In conclusion, let me emphasize here that I am not trying to say that 
Prof. Lewis' position has no merit; that were a manifestly untrue statement. 
What I am saying is that it is in my judgment an error to ascribe the 
anomalies of English spelling "above all" to the hybrid nature of English 
vocabulary. It is undeniably a significant factor; I simply do not think 
that it is hands down the most important one. 
 Cordially yours,

 Richard S. 
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Message 2: Re: 11.1620, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Wed, 26 Jul 2000 13:11:48 GMT
Subject: Re: 11.1620, Disc: Writing and Speech

Hi Benji -- I don't really want to return to languages existing 
or not. 

 But, rather unphilosophically, what really strikes me about 
this discussion is how it has concentrated on orthography. It seems 
to me that there are many other (perhaps more interesting?) ways in 
which writing and speech differ, partly due to the demands of 
the medium, and partly due to less intrinsic traditions. Some of 
these things areconveniently discussed in Rebecca Hughes's (1995) * 
English in Speech and Writing*. ( London / New York: Routledge.)

Let's look at where writing began (someone said this earlier), in 

sheepskin 23
winejar 52
oliveoil (1st) 326 
oliv oil (2nd) 129

This does not correspond to any *spoken* text at all -- it is pure 

The danger is that we highly literate types start thinking that this 
gulf doesn't matter and, as a result, as varous people have said, all 
our grammars (yes, and our concept of 'a language') are centred on 
the concept of written language.

But why did we move so much to orthography? That's the puzzle...

PS:? Benji said " it seems that
> formulating "existence" in such a way that languages don't "exist"
> because they go beyond individual nervous systems (if that's what
> Anthea really had in mind)....."

it wasn't -- I'm a sociolinguist and not much into individual 
nervous systems. I mean (in a post modernist or Le Page or Dixon 
sort of way) that languages are social constructs defined as such by 
their speakers in a socio-politico-linguistic setting, rather than 
being clearly definable linguistic entities.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Anthea Fraser GUPTA :
School of English
University of Leeds
 * * * * * * * * * * * *
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