Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Spelling' Category

Catawba or Catalpa?

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Judith Hanlon sent me an interesting question today: “Is it “catalpa or “catawba”? I’ve heard both, and seen both in print (gardening or fishing references), but “catawba” isn’t in any dictionary. Should it be?”

I responded the following:

Thank you for this question. These words have fascinated me for a long, long time.

Today these are two different words, both originating in the Carolinas in Siouan languages. One of those languages is the Catawba language spoken by the Catawba indians who once inhabited an area close to the North and South Carolinas border, along the—wouldn’t you just know it?—Catawba River.

It is also the name of a reddish-yellowish grape and the wine made from it. This name probably came from one of the sources above. I’m from central North Carolina and, as a teenager, loved to climb up grape vines to the tops of trees and eat “fox grapes”, a smaller reddish-yellowish wild grape, no doubt related to the catawba. Folks in central North Carolina also grew catawba grapes commercially.

Catalpa in the English language refers to something quite different. A catalpa tree is a broad-leafed tree with seeds that look like long beans. Down South in the spring they are attacked by caterpillars that make great freshwater fishing bait. Everyone in North Carolina mispronounced this word “catawba”.

We had one on the street where I was born and my mother loved to tell this story about me as a baby. She took me in her arms one day and visited the catalpa tree which was at that time filled with catalpa worms. She took one on to her finger to show it to me up close and, according to her, I said, “Go ‘way, Worm Beard!”

These two words may have historically been the same word, since in many dialects of English the L before a consonant is pronounced like a W. That is the case in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My sons grew up pronouncing milk [miwk], help [hewp], and belt [bewt]. Still do. Caulk everywhere is pronounce [cawk].

So, catawba and catalpa may, in fact, have originated as the same word pronounced differently in different parts of the country.

Marshaling the Skills to Spell ‘Martial’

Monday, October 28th, 2013

A long-standing friend of Dr. Goodword, David McWethy, dashed off this note to me about a week ago under the subject: “Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Martial Matt Dillon”. He was clearly over-excited, but with good reason. Let me let him explain it to you.

“I was whiling away this past weekend, musing on thoughts of my tranquil hours while a DVD of my personal favorite genre was playing in the background, when the video below whizzed past before it fully registered in both hemispheres of my brain.”

Martial Law“‘I can’t believe I saw my eyes’, as my grandmother would say. So I spent several minutes rewinding/playing, rewinding/playing until the video below—right there in front of God and everybody else—was frozen for the benefit of posterity” (see picture).

“It takes some doing to render me speechless, but this one managed in a walk. Just to make sure that it was not I who was pathetically out of step, I checked my favorite dictionary, to be rewarded with ‘The word you’re searching for is not listed’. Even the authority of great unwashed Wikipedia hadn’t a hint of marshal except to mention en passant that:”

‘This article is about a title. For other meanings, see Marshal (disambiguation). For the rank of Field Marshal, see Field Marshal. This article has multiple issues….This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.., [concluding with the dispositive] (not related to court martial).’

“I’ve come to two conclusions: The lesser of the two being that since martial has apparently not been used as a Good Word, the timing of the tie-in to the egregious use above could hardly be better. My second epiphany is the conclusion that history may judge sites such as alphaDictionary, to a great or lesser extent, as civilization’s front-line defense to the—like, ya know, OMG!—onslaught of the illiterate hordes, who could not create a written or spoken sentence in the English language. (Just in case you ever have moments of doubt whether your efforts are really worth it).”

I [Dr. G] would just note two things. The unread sod who created this poster used only one L, which indicates to me he understood the difference between the name Marshall and the title of the law enforcement officer, marshal. Since martial law is a state in which the military tries to maintain law and order, and since marshals would otherwise maintain law and order, we can see how his mistake is possible. About 2 million occurrences of this mistake are on the Web today.

Do Blonds or Blondes Have More Fun?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Tom Schomer writes:

“Is there a preferred spelling for the word blond(e), and why does it have two
possible correct spellings?”

It was borrowed from French and, like fiancé versus fiancée, one originally referred to men (blond) and the other, to women (blonde). That distinction was pointless and since has been appropriately lost. Spell it blond.

The Best Ways to Build Vocabulary

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

James Van Hoof recently wrote:

“Earlier this morning, I listened to a podcast of Dr. Katherine Albrecht interviewing you recently on her radio show. I enjoyed listening to your comments and insights on the subject of words and language!”

“In the past I’ve attempted, without success, to identify a book or other resource that is effective in assisting one in expanding one’s vocabulary. I’m wondering if you have any suggestions on how to expand one’s vocabulary and or a resource that would be of value in assisting one in doing this.”

It is a fair question, one that I have been asked many times by students who want to build vocabularies and spell the words in them correctly. I offered the same reponse to Mr. Van Hoof as I offered them

I have three sure-fire ways of increasing your vocabulary:

  1. Read
  2. Read more.
  3. Read even more.

Our active vocabularies are unconscious and the only way to reach them is by reading or talking to people with large vocabularies. Memorizing lists of words simply does not work because all that work is conscious. You may pick up one or two words that way, but for massively building your vocabulary, reading is your best bet.

Read novels written by intelligent authors. Read some poetry, too. Poets like to show off their vocabularies.

Quadrigraph Sighting

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Often writing systems lack a letter for a sound and that lacuna is covered by a digraph, two letters representing one sound, like English SH and CH. German has a trigraph, SCH which stands for the same single sound that Croatian, Czech, and Slovene represent with the one letter Š.

Danish seems to take the n-graph cake in this respect wasting FOUR letters for the same consonant sound with a quadrigraph. We find it in a few surnames like Schjødt where the first four letters represent the single sound that SH represents in English and Š in those Slavic languages that use the Latin alphabet.

The interesting thing about this quadrigraph is that it contains the digraphs for the same sound in several Indo-European languages using the Latin alphabet: CH in French, SH in English, SCH in German (a trigrph), and SJ, which is used in most Danish words.

SCHJ is the only quadrigraph I know of. I know some consider combinations with the GH digraph in English to be quadrigraphs, e.g. eight and though. These are not quadrigraphs, though, for they represent two sounds. Eight represents the sound [eyt] and though, [ðow], i.e. the two sounds of diphthongs, a vowel plus a reduced consonant. This is not the case in Danish. It is true, as I say, that the Danish quadrigraph occurs only in surnames like Schjeldal, Schjelderup, Schjødt, Schjønberg, and Schjønning but they are true quadrigraphs.

Does anyone out there speak a language that has another?

Roomy, Rheumy and English Spelling

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

I seldom write about the English spelling system. When I taught linguistics, I always told my students to never feel guilty about making spelling errors, they are not the writer’s fault. English has an atrocious spelling system.

In fact, it is even worse than Gerald Nolst Trenite demonstrated in his now famous poem, The Chaos. This fact was impressed upon me when I briefly misinterpreted rheumy as roomy when I recently heard it. How can a language that spells words that are pronounced identically like these in two such radically different ways?

Why don’t we do something about it?” many have asked over the past century. The Simplified Spelling Society was established in 1908 and has had no impact over the past century. Over the same period, the orthography of Russian (1918), French (2004), German (1996), and Portuguese (2009), among other languages, have been reformed. Why not English?

Languages whose spelling systems have been updated are generally spoken in a nation with an Academy of Science with a language that oversees the “purity” of the language. Spelling reforms usually originate there, though the governments of these countries also show far more interest in language than those of most English-speaking countries.

English is spoken in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and is an official language of India. Changing the spelling would probably require  the involvement of the governments of at least a half dozen countries.

Governments have to be involved since there is always a backlash from those who prefer the status quo. In fact, most of the reforms mentioned above are today only partially accepted despite laws in some countries attempting to enforce reforms.

English, as readers of our daily Good Word well know, has borrowed most of its words from other languages, languages spoken around the world, wherever the British and Americans asserted their power. A reform that would cover all the various spellings of English sounds from its entire vocabulary—or even a siginificant part of it—would be very difficult, to say the least

All we can do is struggle with the English spelling system as it stands. We all hope our efforts here at alphaDictionary help our readers with that task.

Ploughing Through Draughts

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Or is it “Plowing Thru Drafts?” Donald Shark was curious about the spelling of a Good Word we ran last year. Here is what he wrote:

“In my submission of the word fraught [for consideration as a Good Word] I neglected to ask the burning question, “Why doesn’t fraught rhyme with draught?”

I’m tempted to leave it at: “Because they are in the English language.” In defense of such a response I refer you to “The Chaos”.

The general rule you hear in grammar classes is that GH is not pronounced at the end of words or before T. That works on many words like these:

high height
nigh night
thigh fought
though thought
plough fraught

But this rule works much better on words that end on T than on words that end on the bare digraph GH:

laugh draught
cough ?
trough ?
rough ?
enough ?

The digraph GH in English was originally a sound like the CH in Scots English and German, like a K but without completely closing the throat. Germanic languages like English inherited it from the Proto-Indo-European [k] sound. It generally became H in Middle English and dropped out at the beginning of words, except, in some dialects which retained it. Elsewhere in the word it either disappeared or converted to [f] for unknown reasons.

In many dialects it dropped out everywhere, which is why we hear H-less words in Cockney English: “‘ow ’bout ‘elpin ‘im ‘op over dat ‘ole.” the H’s equivocation has led to the “a historical” versus “an historical” squabble, too.  Historical may be pronounced with or without the initial [h], depending on your dialect, resulting in the confusion over the choice of an or a as an article.

When an aspect of a language is undergoing change, particularly if it is disappearing, speakers lose control of the rule(s) governing it and what might be called “semi-rules” arise, rule like the one we see in the tables above, rules that “sorta” work. Speakers in the US have little patience with them, which is why they lead the way in changing spelling to fit the sound: draft, plow, and even (ugh!) thru.

Unfortunately, writing systems slow down the process of language change. We store visions of printed words in a separate chamber of our brain. These visions of spelling are as real as the words themselves (always spoken beings). Our British cousins are much more tolerant of these traditional spellings than are the pioneers who parted company with them two centuries ago.

Improving Conversational Skills

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Marnie Kaur recently raised a question I’ve heard many times before. This time I will share my thoughts on it with everyone within eyeshot of this blog.

I have always been fascinated by words. Having never had the chance to study them I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on being able to converse with the best of them. Regards, Marnie.

Conversation is an art, which means it requires practice. To become an excellent conversationalist, you must converse with excellent conversationalists. The best conversationalists tend to be people who read a lot, thereby developing a large vocabulary that they can use to make subtle distinctions that other well-read people pick up.

Repetition plays some role in learning. That is why we repeat our Good Words so many times in our essaylets. We always give two or three examples, play with the words creatively, and repeat them in discussing their derivational history—even in our acknowledgment to the people who suggest them.

However, human learning is more complex than repetition. Sometimes we can hear a word a hundred times and never remember it, as kids often exhibit a problem remembering “no” no matter how many times it is repeated. Other times we hear or read a word once and never forget it: once is usually enough for a kid to remember “candy” the rest of his or her life. 

Reading is the starting point for vocabulary building. My students often asked me what they could do to improve their spelling. I always told them that there is only one way: read more. Reading builds our word recognition or comprehension but does not bear directly on conversational skills.

We have a far larger vocabulary in our memory than we can actively use. This is another way of saying that we comprehend far more words than we can use in speech. However, the passive and active levels are connected, so the larger our passive vocabulary, the large our active vocabulary becomes. Our active or spoken vocabulary trickles down from our passive or comprehensional vocabulary. (For ages I thought this was the “trickle down” theory.)

Every language has four aspects familiar to every language teacher: (1) reading, (2) writing, (3) comprehension, and (4) speaking, ordered here from easiest to most difficult. That’s right: reading any language is far easier than speaking it. Actively using grammatical skills and vocabulary on the fly is by far more difficult that slowly reading the words on a printed page, where we may reread them and mulling them over as long as we wish. In conversation we don’t have time for all that.

Still, language written by clever writers contains a larger vocabulary more sensitively deployed than even the writer can use in speaking. If we read a lot, remembering the words that stick out, examining them closely as we do in our Good Words, that passive vocabulary eventuallly meanders into our speech. It is therefore the best way to improve spelling and the best if not only starting point for improved conversational skills.

Doubling up on Consonants

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

David Myer wrote the following from somewhere, I take it, out in Australia:

“So, what is a gammy leg? Usually used in Australia (and in UK as far as I can remember) to indicate a leg affliction that causes a limp.”

This one is easy for a while. Gammy is a mispronunciation of gamy, an extention of game, as in a game leg. Hobos in the 30s mispronounced it and expanded its meaning to include anything that is bad: gammy smell, gammy ride, gammy food. Notice that doubling the M in this word led to a different, though predictable, change in the pronunciation which provides the perfect segue to your next, more complex, question:

“Also interested in your US dropping of the double consonant when adding ing or ed. ‘focused’ or ‘targeted’ (assuming you actually deign to use such a word as a noun).”

“For me, the rule is simple. You select the spelling that is easiest to read. Focussed is likely to be instantly recognised and pronounced in only one way. The single s in focused can lead the quick reader to pronounce it as a z. The emphasis would then fall on the second syllable so you might read focused as in accused. Double s is infinitely preferable in my book.”

I totally agree with you on doubling the consonants—it and the ‘silent’ E are the only consistent means of distinguishing long and short vowels in English. I’m not sure which editorial committee decided that we in the US should husband our consonants or for what reason but the single consonant in these words implies the removal of a silent E, e.g. bated vs. batted, coned vs. conned, pining vs. pinning, not to mention gamy vs. gammy, an excellent example of the mischief confusing the two can lead to. We actually aren’t even consistent in our spelling as these examples demonstrate, since the US rule applies only to multisyllabled words.

I do hope that you appreciate the fact that I use British punctuation when it comes to the placement of quotation marks. It irks many of our US readers but, again, the British system is logical and consistent: if the quotes logically belong inside the period or comma, you place them inside the period or comma. If the period or comma is a part of the quotations, they go inside the quotes.

Sometimes I marvel that we still speak to each other, two peoples, as Winston Churchill put it, “divided by a common language”.

Silent E Look Out for Silent GH!

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Maureen Koplow, responded to my comments on the word benight, with a three part question, one part philosophical, the other two linguistic. I have already expended most of my philosophical powder on the first part, here is my response to the second. (My answer to the third will follow shortly.)

The second question raised by Maureen Koplow recently was this: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from.” I think Maureen is wondering about the ‘Silent GH’ in English words. Here are my thoughts on that subject.

To understand this one, we need to know a little about phonology, the scientific study of the sounds of language. Specifically, we need to know that the letters G and K represent sounds that are identical except that we vibrate our vocal cords pronouncing [g] (the way I represent sounds rather than letters–click to hear)  but not when uttering [k] (click to hear).

There is a third member of the group found in Scots English (CH), Dutch (G), German (CH), and Russian (X) (click to hear). Let’s call this sound [kh]. It is identical to [k] except that the the back of the mouth is not fully closed in its pronunciation, allowing a bit of air to escape from the back of the throat, making a slight hissing sound. It sounds a bit like clearing your throat, so I always warned my students practicing this sound to put their hand in front of their mouths, especially anyone with a post-nasal drip.

OK. The sound represented by the silent GH in English was once a [k] in Proto-Indo-European (PIE—as mentally nutritious as it is delicious). That sound became [kh] over the course of the development of ancient Germanic languages like Old English. We still find this sound, as mentioned before, in Dutch, German, and Scots English. In most dialects of English, however, it reduced itself to [h], a sound so slight that has disappeared altogether from English everywhere except at the beginning of words. However, although the sound has disappeared, we continue spelling it.

You will find relatives of what once was GH represented as G, K or CH in other Indo-European languages. The word for “might” in German appears as mögen and möchten in German, mogu “I can” in Russian. The word for “night” in German is Nacht but in Latin nox, noctis (where C = [k]).

So words in English containing the Silent GH mark the spot where a real sound once stood. While English speakers are not at all resistent to changing their ways, we are very reluctant to change the way we spell our words, a trait that forces our children (and many adults) into years of misery trying to learn how to spell words they have no difficulty in uttering.