Fun Etymology Tuesday – Bear

Hail and well met!

It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for our usual appointment with etymologies and fun!

Today’s word is one of the most interesting words in all European languages: “bear”.
I bet you’ve never thought about “bear” as a particularly interesting word, but I assure you that by the end of this post you’ll think differently.

In Europe, the original Indo-European root for “bear”, *rtko, survived in the Romance and Greek languages (as the descendants of Latin “ursus” and Greek “arktos”, respectively) as well as some of the Celtic branch, but was completely lost in the Germanic and Slavic branches. Why? Because the bear was a sacred animal to the Germanic and Slavic people, and uttering its true name was considered an affront to the gods, so workarounds were devised to refer to the bear without offending the powers.
The solution the Germanic people came up with was calling the bear “the Brown One”, and that’s where the modern word “bear” comes from: the Indo-European root *bher-, from which also comes the word “brown”.
Russians call the bear “the Honey Thief”, “medved'”.

As for the original name of the bear? It came back into English through Greek as the word “Arctic”, the place where bears are, and Antarctic, the place away from where the bears are.
That’s right: which of the two poles of Earth you are in is defined by whether or not there are bears in it.

Pretty interesting, is it not?

Is English a Romance language? On language families and relationships

Today, I’m going to talk about language families! When I say this, I believe that most of you will have, on some level, an intuitive hunch about what I mean. If we were to compare a couple of common words found in, for example, Spanish and Italian, we would find that they are often very similar or, in some cases, even identical. Take a look:

Spanish Italian English translation
vivir vivere live
boca bocca mouth
tu you

Similarly, if we were to look at Swedish, Danish and Norwegian:

Swedish Danish Norwegian English translation
leva leve leve live
mun mund munn mouth
du du du you

You see the similarities? Now, why is that, you might wonder. Well, because they are related!

In the linguistic world, related languages are languages that have so much in common that we cannot claim that it is merely due to extensive contact and/or borrowing. These languages, we say, are so similar that there can be no other reasonable explanation than that they descend from a common source: a mother language, as it were. In the case of Spanish and Italian, the mother is Latin, while in the case of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, the language is Old Norse.

Now, it would be convenient if it stopped there, wouldn’t it? But, of course, it doesn’t. Like any family, the mother also has a mother and other relatives, like siblings and cousins. Old Norse, for example, has its own sisters: Old High German, Old Frisian, Old English, etc., which all share the same mother: Proto-Germanic. This is the Germanic language family.

Spanish and Italian also have sisters: French, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., and their common mother is Latin. This is the Romance language family, deriving from Vulgar Latin. But, of course, Latin has its own sisters, for example Umbrian and Oscan, and together with its sisters, Latin forms the Italic language family.

Does it feel a bit confusing? Well, that’s understandable and I’m going to kick it up a notch by adding that the Italic language family, with languages like Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic language family, with languages like Swedish and Danish, actually have the same mother: Proto-Indo-European (or just Indo-European).

The mother in this case is veeeery old, and we actually don’t have any kind of evidence of how it looked! Indo-European is a reconstructed language, more commonly known as a proto-language (as you may have noticed, we call the mother of the Germanic family Proto-Germanic, meaning that it is also a reconstructed language). It has never been heard, never been recorded and no one speaks it. Then how the heck do we know anything about it, right? Well, that has to do with something called the comparative method, which we’ll explain in another post.  

Like human families, language families can be represented in the form of a family tree:*

Clear? Well, hate to tell you this, but this is an extremely simplified version using only examples from these two subfamilies. The “real” Indo-European language family tree looks somewhat more like this:1

You’re kinda hating me right now, aren’t you?

As you can see by the tree above, some languages that you might never expect are actually related. Let’s take as an example Standardised Hindi and German. Here are some common words in both languages:

German Hindi English translation
Mädchen लड़की (ladakee) girl
Hallo नमस्ते (namaste) hello
Hunger भूख (bhookh) hunger

Looking at these words, it is unlikely that you would draw the conclusion that the two languages are related. Looking at the language tree, however, you can see that linguists have concluded they are. Now, you’re probably staring at your screen going “whaaaat?” but, indeed, they are both descendants of Indo-European and are therefore related.

While Indo-European is clearly a large group of languages, it is not the only one (or even the largest). Looking a bit closer at the Indo-European language family, you will notice that languages such as Mandarin and Finnish are not included. These belong to other families, in this case the Sino-Tibetan and Finno-Ugric (or Uralic, depending on your definition) language families respectively.

All in all, there are approximately 130 language families in the world today. Some are related, some are not, just like we are. The largest family is the Niger-Congo language family, having (as recorded in 2009) 1,532 languages belonging to it. (Indo-European comes in a poor 4th place with approximately 439 languages.)2

So, looking at languages is kinda like looking at your own family tree: every mother will have a mother (or father, if you want, but traditionally, linguists call them mothers and daughters). Some branches will have siblings, cousins, second cousins and so on. Some will look nothing like their relatives (or, well, little anyway) and some will be strikingly similar. That’s just the way families work, right?

So, now, we’ve reached a point where I can answer the question in the title: Is English a Romance language?

While this is a much-debated question (do a google search and see for yourself), the simple answer is: no, it’s not. At least, not to a linguist. Now, you might be sitting at home, getting more and more confused because a lot of English vocabulary can be traced back to Latin (the word ‘vocabulary’ being one of those words, actually).

But when linguists say that a language is a Romance language, we are referring to the relationship illustrated in the tree structure, i.e. the language has Latin as its mother. English, then, despite having borrowed a substantial part of its vocabulary from Latin (and later from the Latin language French), it is not in itself a daughter of Latin. English is a daughter of Proto-Germanic, thus, it is a Germanic language.

However, Latin and Proto-Germanic are both daughters of Indo-European. Latin and English are therefore clearly related, but the relationship is more like that of a beloved aunt rather than a mother (if, you know, the beloved aunt refused to recognise you as a person unless you imitated her).

At the end of the day, languages are like any other family: some relationships are strong, some are weak, some are close, some are not.

Tune in next week when Riccardo will delve into another branch of language families: constructed languages.

Notes and sources

*The structure employed here, showing languages as families in family trees, has long been criticized for simply not showing a lot of information like contact-situations, dialect continuums and when the languages were spoken. It has, however, been used to show the beginning student that some languages are related to each other and how they are related in a way that is easy and comprehensible. The Historical Linguist Channel does, however, recognise this criticism and would be happy to discuss it in a separate post or through personal communication.  

1Provided by Ancient History Encyclopedia (Published on 19th of January, 2013).

2Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: (Family index is reached through

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Money & admonish

Guten Tag, mein gutes Volk!

It’s Tuesday and, as usual, it’s time for your weekly dose of Fun Etymology goodness.

If you’ve been following us on our journey so far, you know that words sometimes have the weirdest connections with other words. Today, we bring you another of those bizarre links: the one between “money” and “admonish”.

The word “money” is yet another word coming from the heap of vocabulary dumped on unsuspecting English by the French invaders in the Middle Ages and is directly cognate with modern French “monnaie”. The origin of both words can be found in the original Latin word “moneta” (which survived unchanged in Italian), and it’s the ultimate etymology of this word which is the most interesting part of our story today.

See, in ancient Rome, the official imperial mint was located right across the street from (or perhaps even inside) the city temple to the goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter.
Now, those of you who know your Greco-Roman mythology will know that Jupiter (or Zeus) wasn’t exactly the most faithful husband a woman could wish for.
Perhaps because of her husband’s constant misbehaviour, Juno was known to be a pretty stern and severe goddess, and one of her nicknames in Archaic Latin was “Moneta”, “The Admonisher”, from “monere” “to admonish”. Sound familiar?
In ancient Rome, money was what came out of the Moneta temple, and was therefore called “moneta”, from which came Old French “monoie”, which then gave English the word “money”.

The same verb “monere” (plus the strengthening prefix “ad-“) gave English the word “admonish”, again through French.

Isn’t it amazing how the ancient religion of the Romans still influences the words we use today?

Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

We briefly explained phonology and phonetics when we gave a general rundown of some of the major disciplines of linguistics. Phonology has been a big part of linguistics from the beginning, and some of the stories we’re most excited to share with you are all about phonology. Even for some of the other topics we’re going to cover, a basic understand of phonology will be pretty useful. To that end, over the next couple months, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Phonology 101. We will cover some of the basics of how we produce speech, the concept of phonemes and how we distinguish individual sounds, and how consonants and vowels work. For those who aren’t all that excited by this prospect, don’t worry. This series will be interspersed with other topics from my co-conspirators.

You ready? Let’s get started!

A quick recap: When we talk about phonology and phonetics, we’re talking about the sounds of speech. Phonology studies the way our fantastic brain-machines store and organize those sounds and the rules used for spitting them out. Phonetics studies the physical production of sound, including things like acoustics and the way sounds inevitably influence each other when produced in sequence (like when you’re saying a word or phrase). A shorthand way to think about this is that phonology deals in the abstract and phonetics in the concrete.

Whichever side you’re studying, it’s good to know the basics of the vocal tract and all the moving parts in our throats and mouths that work together to produce speech. Even in the abstract, the three main features linguists use to define individual sounds are the place of articulation (i.e. the relevant part of the vocal tract most engaged in producing the sound), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way air is moving through the vocal tract), and voicing.1

We’ll talk more about manner of articulation down the road when we get to consonants. Today, let’s focus on place of articulation and voicing. Let me just apologize in advance for the amount of terminology I’ll be throwing at you today. Just think of it as us inducting you into our secret linguists club.

To talk about place of articulation, we’re going to have to start with a little anatomy lesson:

Side view diagram of the vocal tract.
I know. I’m sorry. There is not a non-horrific way to draw this. Believe me, I’ve tried. Drawing this diagram is a rite of passage all young linguists must undergo.

This is a side view of the oral and nasal cavities. The lips, the teeth, and the tongue are, I hope, familiar features of the mouth. If you run your tongue across the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, the bumpy, raised part is the alveolar ridge. Moving towards the throat, the hard part of the roof of your mouth behind the alveolar ridge is the palate, and the soft part behind the palate is the velum. The uvula is the little piece you can see dangling down in the back of the mouth when cartoon characters scream hysterically.

Generally, though not always, the place of articulation is where the flow of air through the mouth is most restricted. We use the Latin terms for the anatomy of the mouth to define place of articulation, so sounds involving the lips are called labial and sounds involving the teeth are called dental.

  • When the both lips come together, like when pronouncing ‘b’, a sound is called bilabial.
  • When the top teeth are against the bottom lip, like when pronouncing ‘v’, a sound is called labiodental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the teeth, like when pronouncing ‘th’, a sound is called dental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, like when pronouncing ‘d’, a sound is called alveolar.
  • When the front of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge and the front of the palate, like when pronouncing ‘sh’, a sound is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.

There are also palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal (referring to the pharynx, the back of the throat), and glottal sounds. You get the idea. Play around with it. Say some random consonants or say words slowly and see if you can’t get a feel for where the sound is “coming from.” (That’s always been one of my favorite parts of phonology: talking to myself and calling it studying.)

So, those are the basic places of articulation. The other feature we’re going to talk about today, voicing, has to do with the position of the vocal folds (colloquially, the vocal cords) and the glottis. This isn’t so much two things as a package deal. The glottis is the empty space between the vocal folds. (I didn’t draw a picture of this because vocal folds are ugly.)

When the vocal folds are drawn together and the glottis is narrowed but not completely closed, the air moving through the vocal tract has less space to pass through. Some sciencey stuff happens and the vocal folds begin to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate in turn, and the result is a voiced sound. When the vocal folds are held apart and the glottis is open, the air passes through the throat largely unhindered, and the result is a voiceless sound. You can try this out, too. Touch the front of your throat in the vicinity of the Adam’s apple and make some sounds. Can you feel the difference? (Hint: try producing ‘b’ and ‘p’. Be careful not to accidentally tack a vowel on the end!)

This may all sound a little complicated, and the terminology can feel like a lot to wade through when you’re first starting out, but don’t you fret. I promise this will all start making a whole lot more sense when we focus in on the consonants and vowels.

Phonology 101 will pick back up in February. Before we get to specific sounds, we’re going to talk about phonemes and how linguists (and our very own brains—yes, yours, too) separate sounds. Next week, Sabina will introduce us to the intricacies of language families (and you thought holidays with your relatives were complicated).


1This is all still basically true for vowels, but they get a little trickier. We’ll get to that.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Guinea pig

¡Hola, pueblo de Facebook!

Happy new year!

Time moves inexorably forwards for all of us, and though it might seem that seven days be a long time, they’re but one flap of a beetle’s wings in the vast incomprehensible hugeness of time.
And so, here we are again with another Tuesday and yet another Fun Etymology!
This week’s word (or better, compound) is “guinea pig”!

Guinea pigs are medium-sized rodents native of the Andes in South America. They’re unique amongst rodents in being herbivores (whereas most other rodents are omnivores), and in having in common with humans the inability to create their own vitamin C. They’re also some of the cuddliest and cutest critters out there.
Reading this description, a couple of things probably occurred to you: guinea pigs are not pigs, and they don’t come from Guinea. Why the deuce (to borrow a very Victorian expression) are they called guinea pigs then?

The answer is: nobody knows for sure! Many hypotheses have been proposed, but none is entirely satisfactory. Some think they’re called that because they arrived in England on ships which came from South America via Guinea, so-called Guinea-men; others think it’s because they resemble the young of the breed of pig known as Guinea hog (they don’t); others still think it’s because of English people mishearing “Guyana” as “Guinea” (problem is they don’t come from Guyana either, though it’s a better approximation than Guinea, that’s for sure).
As for “pig”, it’s probably because of the squealing noises they make and the fact that they tend to become very fat.

Their original name in Quechua, the language once spoken in the Inca empire, is “quwi” (often spelled “cuy”). Perhaps we should just start calling them that.

To conclude this post, we’ll leave you with a photo of admin Riccardo’s own two little furry monsters.

See you around!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Mice, muscles and mussels

Ave, popule Libri Vultuum.

How were your Winter Holidays? We hope you had fun with your family and friends and that you ate to your heart’s content, because we sure did.

We at the HLC don’t like slacking off, though, so Boxing Day will certainly not stop us from bringing the usual dose of Fun Etymology goodness to you.

What do mice, muscles and mussels have in common?
Believe it or not, their names all come from the same root word, the Proto-Indo-European *mus-, meaning “mouse”.

The word “mouse”, as you can imagine, comes to English in an unbroken line from PIE through Germanic, and has changed very little in the millennia (the only significant change happened around the 14th to 17th centuries, during the Great Vowel Shift, when all the vowels of English were jumbled around. We’ll talk about this in a future blog post).

How do muscles connect in any way to mice, though?
The answer can be found in ancient Rome.
The Latin word for “mouse” was also “mus”, and the Romans were known to be keen observers of Nature in all its aspect.
If you’ve ever ogled a ripped bodybuilder showcasing their muscular prowess, you will have noticed that muscles stretching and relaxing under the skin seem to wriggle, as if those beefy arms were really bags full of live mice.
The Romans noticed this too, and that’s why they called whatever was wriggling under their skin “musculi”, or “little mice”, from which the modern English word “muscle” ultimately derives.

What about mussels then?
Well, if you’ve ever seen a live mussel, you’ll have noticed that the function of what we call its meat is opening and closing its shell. It is, in fact, a kind of muscle.
That’s where the name of this tasty bivalve comes from, but, being a rather more humble word than “muscle”, which had to appear in many academical anatomy books, no effort was made to keep its spelling similar to Latin, and that’s how we ended up with the modern spelling “mussel”.

And that’s how you go from mice to mussels.

Festive Etymology Tuesday – Yule

It’s that time of the week again, friends! Time for our weekly appointment with the history of words.

Christmas is coming! Do you hear that chiming sound? Do you feel that warm fuzzy feeling inside?
We certainly feel it: that’s why today we’ll be having a Festive Etymology.

Even though Christmas is a predominantly Christian festivity today, most of its traditions (the tree, gift giving, the stopping of all conflicts and many others) are actually much more ancient.
The tree, in particular, was an important symbol in the religion of the Germanic people, and the winter festival in which that tradition originated had a name which we can still hear from time to time: “Yule”.

The origins of the word “Yule” are shrouded in mystery. We know this word existed in Old English as “geól” (pronounced “yohl”), and in Old Norse as “jól”, and that it indicated both the festival and the month the festival was held in (modern-day December).

The word was eventually superseded by “Christmas” in English (from “Cristes Mæsse”, “Christ’s Mass”), but it remained in the Scandinavian languages, as well as Finnish, which borrowed it as “joulu” (whence their name for Santa, “Joulupukki”, literally “Old man Christmas”).

The word might have disappeared, but the spirit is still all there. So, on behalf of all of us at the HLC, Merry Yule and a Happy New Year!

Happy Holidays from the HLC

We here at the Historical Linguist Channel would like to wish you happy holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or nothing at all this time of year, whether your New Year comes with 1 January or the first new moon, we hope the rest of December treats you right.

We’re going to pause the semi-serious linguistics for a few weeks to spend time with our loved ones. We’ll be back 4 January with Phonology 101 and more, and in the meantime, Fun Etymology Tuesdays will continue uninterrupted over on our Facebook page.

As our gift to you, here’s a topical story from the history of English:

Once upon a time (let’s call it 1536), a poor guy named William Tyndale was executed for heresy after a merry chase across Europe that abruptly came to an end when he was betrayed in Belgium. His crime? Translating the Bible into English.

The charge of heresy was completely silly and unfair for several reasons:

  1. The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
  2. Two years later, King Henry VIII, the very same who had so adamantly insisted that Tyndale be apprehended, authorized an official English translation of the Bible; it drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, as did the famous translation later commissioned by King James I.
  3. The Bible had been translated into English before, some of it probably translated by King Alfred himself. (That would be Alfred the Great. And he was. Great. At least, I think so (Hi, this is Rebekah).) Of course, this was before-before—before William and his Norman-French clerics and his Norman-French nobles and their beardless Norman culture.1 (I don’t actually have any beef with William the Conqueror. The dude was a beast, and honestly? England was kind of a mess when he showed up. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the Anglo-Saxons were having a grand old time running around translating the Bible and handing it out to everybody long before Henry VIII got all snippy and execution-y just because William Tyndale called him out on the fact that annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly copacetic vis-a-vis scripture.)

Old English glosses and translations of the Bible were mostly based on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Many of the translations were incomplete, but one translated passage tells a little story you may have heard before:


Soþlice2 on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto
Truly3 in those days happened a command from that Caesar Augustus

þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod.
that all the circle of the world was to be described.

Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino
This census first happened by that governor of Syria Cirinus

and ealle hig eoden and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre.
and they all went and separately traveled into their city.

Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth
Then traveled Joseph from Galilee out of that city Nazareth 

on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Bethleem
into the Judean city of David which is named Bethlehem

forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede.
because he was of David’s house and family.

He ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs and wæs geeacnod.
He traveled with Mary who was married to him and was pregnant.


It’s Luke 2, the account of Christ’s birth, in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. A translation of a translation, from Ancient Greek to Latin to Old English. The language tells as much of a story as the words do. For example, they call the world a circle because that’s what they thought it was: a flat disk. In some ways, it’s impossible to separate our language from our culture, or our culture from our language. Our languages convey things that, like music or art, are sometimes a little bit untranslatable (which is how your friendly neighborhood linguists got into a discussion the other day about whether certain Disney songs are better in English or Swedish).

Do you have any Christmas or Hanukkah or Saturnalia (or whatever) stories you’d like to share with us? Any stories or songs that just don’t sound right if you try to translate them? We’d love to hear from you! Comment or send us an email or message in the language of your choice (even if you suspect we don’t speak it).

See you in January!


1There’s a fantastic lecture series available on audiobook called 1066: The Year That Changed Everything if you’re interested in learning more about the Norman Conquest.

2Modern transcriptions of Old English texts usually include diacritics to indicate vowel length and certain consonant pronunciations. I’m going to ask you to cut me a break on leaving these out here because a. It’s Christmas, b. This isn’t a formal publication, and c. The diacritics are, generally, a modern convention not found in the original manuscripts anyway.

3This is my own translation into ModE. Some of the phrasing may sound a little funny because I’ve gone for something between a gloss and a full translation to give you a sense of the original.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Nice

Hello boys, girls and everyone else!
It’s the moment you were all waiting for: Fun Etymology time!

Have you ever had a schoolmate you remember as being kind of a jerk, who you then meet at a school get-together years later and he’s become this really nice person?
Some words are just like that, and the process they undergo is called “semantic amelioration” (fancy Latin-speak for “meaning improvement”).

Speaking of nice people, today’s word is the poster child for this process: “nice”.

The roots of “nice” lie in the Latin word “nescius”, a word meaning “ignorant” (from “ne-scire”, literally “not-know”), this word was then filtered through 12th century French and then arrived in English, where it originally meant “stupid, ignorant or annoying”. In the 13th century, the meaning shifted to “fastidious” or “fussy” (probably as an extension of “annoying”). From there, it became associated with attention to detail, then with finesse, until by the end of the 14th century, it had come to mean “delicate” or “fragile”. In the 18th century it was already commonly used to mean “lovely, agreeable”. Finally, in the 19th century, it got its modern meaning of “kind” or “enjoyable”.
In the 19th century, the use of this word had become kind of a fad, so much so that some old curmudgeons started complaining that everything was constantly being described as “nice”, to the point that the word seemed to have lost all kind of meaning. Of course, the word survived very well, thank you very much, and is still going strong today, with as much meaning as it had before, albeit a very different one.

And that’s how in just eight centuries “That guy is really nice” went to being an insult to being a compliment.
The roads words take never cease to amaze us.

Written “language”?

Hi everyone, Sabina here! As the resident nerd of orthography and writing systems, I am here today to talk to you about language. Shocking, I know!

When I say “language”, you might be thinking of spoken language but also, perhaps, of written language. But is “written language” actually language?

Well, yes and no. Written “language”, while sharing a lot with spoken language, is a medium through which we might use language to express ideas, thoughts and emotions, but it is not the language.

The distinction between spoken language and the written medium may sound simple enough, but the two are easily confused simply because they are very closely related. Haven’t you ever heard someone saying, with a frustrated tone, that the English language is soooo weird on the basis of spelling? Well, that’s the orthography, i.e. the rules that govern spelling, punctuation and such things, not the language.

Or perhaps that Chinese is an ideographic1 language? Well, that describes the writing system of the language, not the language (also, Chinese is logographic, but it’s a common misconception according to our resident Chinese expert, Riccardo).

Now, a writing system is a form of communication represented in a visual way. This may be through a system like the Latin alphabet (like I’m using) or the Cyrillic alphabet (like that used in Russia, e.g. алфавит ‘alphabet’) where the symbols represent sounds, or through a logographic system (like that used in Chinese, in which a written character represents a word or a phrase, e.g. 这是一个示例 ‘this is an example’). Basically, it is any way we use letters, shapes, accents and so on to convey meaning on… well, any material really, as long as it is graphically represented.

You with me so far? Great, let’s move into the tricky stuff.

Now, the writing system and the orthography of a language are derivative mediums of spoken language, usually reflecting the spoken language fairly well. However, writing may also go entirely its own way (or at least, it might seem like it).

Consider the English spelling of the word “tough”. Pronounced (in British English) as as [tʌf], it is nevertheless spelt with -gh, not f. (I’ll leave the vowels for now. We’ll offer more insight on vowels later.). So, if a written language is merely a way to express the spoken language: what’s up with that??

Well, this is the Historical Linguist Channel, after all (thought you could sneak by the history, did ya?). Such discrepancies (of which English has plenty) are often possible to explain by studying the history of the language. You see, orthography (especially spelling) is slow to change (like, really slow) and the standardisation of English was done during late Middle English/Early Modern English. English has, of course, changed quite a bit since then, but the written form of English actually still corresponds quite well (we think, at least) to the pronunciation of earlier stages of the spoken language.

While it would be convenient to have an orthography that reproduces the spoken language as exactly as possible, it would be quite difficult to create such a system. For instance, most letters pull a double (or triple or quadruple and so on) act and their pronunciation in a particular word is very dependent on the reader.

Let’s use another Swedish example here: In Swedish, the word for shrimp is ‘räka’. Now, in Gothenburg, where I’m from, this is pronounced something like ‘rää-ka’ with an open vowel ([æ:]), a vowel that, in Swedish, is traditionally associated with the letter <ä> .

However, my husband, who is from Stockholm, would pronounce the same word as ‘ree-ka’ with a much more closed vowel, perhaps something like [e:]. Yet, using the letter <e> to denote the vowel [æ:] may become an issue because the pronunciation “ree-ka” might actually be nonsensical to a lot of Swedish speakers (there’s actually a really old joke about it, talking about  a person wanting shrimp and the other person doesn’t understand what the first is asking for).

Add to that that there already is a word spelt ‘reka’ in Swedish, a clipped form of ‘rekognosera’ meaning “to explore or investigate”, and you’ll see how spelling shrimp as ‘reka’ might be an issue (especially since the pronunciation is highly dialectal and does not correspond to the pronunciation of other dialects).

There are, of course, a bunch of words that could (and perhaps should) be updated to a more ‘modern’ spelling, but the point of all this is that, while spoken and written language are closely related, we cannot expect the written form to be an exact replica of the spoken language. That being said, it would be naive of us to claim that spoken and written language are completely separate. Of course they’re not. But, at the same time, when we talk about “written language”, we must be aware that that “language” is not actually a language at all, merely a really slow-to-change expression of the spoken language. This does not mean that the study of writing systems and/or orthography is not worthwhile. Quite the opposite, especially for historical linguists whose only resource is written texts.

We cannot, and should not, expect writing to be a trustworthy representative of spoken language, and that’s okay.


1Ideographs are symbols that manage to convey their meaning independent of any particular language, like a big red circle with a line through it to mean “no”.