In every word, a microhistory

Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee

14-year-old Anamika Veeramani won 83rd National Spelling Bee on June 4 by correctly spelling the word stromuhr. It’s one of many English words in the contest that sounded decidedly unEnglish. Other words from this year’s contest: barukhzy (from a Pashto word that went through Russian before becoming English) , tanha (from a Sanskrit-derived Pali word), izar (originally Arabic, then went through Hindi before becoming English) and uitlander (from Afrikaans, which formed it from two Dutch words, plus a Latin-derived combining form).

These are all English words…yes, English words, even if they’re spelled according the rules and pronunciation of other languages. There are many reasons for this mongrelization of English spelling, and that’s where David Wolman comes in.

His book  Righting the Mother Tongue traces the anarchic evolution of English spelling. Unlike some languages, English is barely policed: foreign words — often with their foreign spelling intact — migrate unhindered into English. From time to time, people try to impose order, to simplify or regulate the spelling. Even President Theodore Roosevelt tried (and humiliated himself in failing).

The reason for contact between English and all those languages in the first place is colonialism, first British, then American. American colonialism has been as much cultural as political, which has only encouraged the English language to colonize smaller languages.  But the great openness of English is key too:  foreign words, with all those loopy spellings, will thrive in English’s  marketplace of linguistic ideas, if they are descriptive and original enough. Wolman told me he thinks of English spelling as jazzy: rootsy yet improvised, rule-bending, dangerous and inventive. Most kids don’t like jazz any more than they do spelling.

Finally, we remember John Shepherd-Barron, the man who invented the ATM. He died recently, which gave The World’s Alex Gallafent an excuse to point out that you shouldn’t really say ATM machine or PIN number.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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4 responses to “In every word, a microhistory

  1. Aminhotep Presents

    Speaking of spelling bees, here are some links for initiatives protesting the over-complication of the English language:

    They advocate spelling simplification by shedding archaic forms acquired through adoption over the ages and maintaining the logical systems of phonetic representation that can be found in most languages. Compelling stuff.

  2. Pingback: Language adoption and the future of spelling « the world in words

  3. Pingback: Language adoption, and the future of spelling | PRI's The World

  4. Kevin Lash

    As I’ve thought about English spelling representing the history of the word more than the actual pronunciation(s), it occurred to me that we are heading in a very small way towards Chinese, in which we recognize a set of characters (in our case, letters) that represent and idea or word that just has to be memorized. The comment in the podcast that regularizing spelling would be difficult because the different Englishes may not share a common-enough pronunciation to do that brings the Chinese parallel even closer, since written Chinese “unites” the various Chinese languages. I remember a story (I think from TWIW, but not sure) about the Bible being translated into Jamaican English; the spelling was un-recognizable, but reading it out loud made it become (somewhat) clear. I had the same experience with reading the Scots in Precious and the Puggies (picked it up for my friend who’s second generation Scottish American). Final thought on spelling– my Spanish-speaking friends, even the very well educated ones, don’t really have much of a concept of spelling. In Spanish, for the most part, spelling is just a way to represent the sounds of words, and in the few cases where there is more than one way to do that, people don’t get to0 stressed about alternate spellings, even for common words like “go”.

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