Does English need colour and glamour?

Color Abstract

For that matter, does English need favour, honour, flavour, savour and so many more -our words? Before our Australian, British and Canadian fellow English speakers panic – relax. This is just a point of discussion. From the standpoint of communication, it does seem that color, glamor, favor, flavor, honor and savor are satisfactory. Yes, these are the American spellings, but please note, US English generally prefers glamour. Thus the US -our/-or spellings are also not clearly defined.

Moreover, outside the US, the spellings are honourable but honorary (not honourary) so English in the UK is equally inconsistent. I must confess that I am a bit OCD and this type of untidiness is somewhat unnerving. While it is not going to end world hunger or solve world peace, I can’t help but ask whether we can come to some agreement on the lack of consistency and find some common ground. To add to this situation, some derivations of these words have already begun to lose the extra “u“ in the UK spelling. Note that the derivations of glamour and humour in the UK are glamorous and humorous, respectively. The combination of –our plus –ous appears to be a bit too much for all English speakers.

Noah Webster is basically responsible for many of the reforms in English spellings such as color ~ colour, center ~ centre and defense ~ defence. There has not been a real reform since then, in the early 1800’s, so it may be time to rethink some of these inconsistencies and redundancies. One argument for a reform is economic: producing text in all varieties of English can be very expensive.

Clearly there is a good argument for retaining the cultural flavo(u)r and historical development. English is richer for these details. Therefore I would like to ask you, do we really need “u” in our “our” words, or will “or” suffice for communicating on a worldwide basis?

Our native language is a very personal and emotional subject; language is identity. We all want to keep our individual identity and cultural perspectives. To quote a great observer of human nature on tradition and innovation:

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven’t been done before. Mark Twain

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One word, one spelling?

Spelling rulesThe question of spelling reform is an important one. Should there be one form – that is, one spelling, one grammar, one common meaning — of English words and terms? There are currently two to six or even more ways to spell certain words.

For example, the spellings organization and organisation are different depending on the region of the world. In the US and Canada, organization is preferred; in the UK and Australia, organisation is preferred. Exception: in the UK, Oxford Dictionary and British academics prefer organization (and I bet you knew that an exception was coming). So there can even be two spellings of a word within one country.

Then there are multiple syllables that can vary within a single word like: sulfurization, sulphurisation, sulphurization. Next add a prefix, with or without a hyphen: desulfurization, de-sulfurization, desulphurisation, de-sulphurisation, desulphurization and de-sulphurization. And the list goes on, in fact there are tens of thousands of these two types of spelling variations in English.

Does it matter which form we use? In all cases we understand the word. But in writing well the credibility of the author is questioned. Does this person think clearly and consistently? If their spelling lacks consistency, is their thinking just as inconsistent and unclear?

Consistency, clarity. Let’s leave no doubt and use one spelling, at least in the same document.

NOTE: By the way, and just for fun, see what a differences punctuation makes. Spelling rules: ~ Spelling rules. ~ Spelling rules! With a colon it is a noun phrase where you can expect a list to follow; second, a complete sentence, where spelling is the noun/subject and rules is the verb, “to dominate or govern”; third, spelling is the noun/subject and rules is an informal verb meaning “is the best”. So what’s the message here.


Of photi, wimen, and gheese

Photi 2pngOr on the weirdness of English spellings, and how some got that way…

Everyone of us who has struggled learning how to spell in English has at some point thrown up our hands (and pens, pencils and keyboards) in pure frustration. English spellings defy rules. Yes, there are some rules, and just when you think you understand, in come the exceptions. But let’s not despair; the exceptions have some fascinating and interesting stories.

First, photi is not a word (at least not yet, not to my knowledge). It may appear to look like a technical word related to cameras or other devices for recording images … photograph, photographer, photos. You might think that it could be an archaic Latin spelling of photos, you know, like cactus and cacti. But no, it isn’t and doesn’t really fit the pattern of Latin plurals. In fact the “photo-” combining form is actually a Greek thing.

Many students of linguistics encounter photi for the first time when some professor attempts a joke to illustrate the vagaries, or quirks, of English pronunciation. So how do you pronounce photi? Before I explain, there is a hint at the bottom of this blog; see the blue images.

Now, as the story goes, English letters can have numerous pronunciations. Here photi draws on the fact the ph can be pronounced as f (but note, not in uphill, uphold, upholster, peephole, and ironically, loophole.) Next is the letter o as pronounced i in the word women. Finally there is the ti pronounced as sh as in action, position, friction, faction. For that matter, we could have spelled our word fish as phosi as in mansion, permission or vision or phoci as in vicious, deficient or efficient, (which I dare say it is not). So we are left with ph=f, o=i and ti=sh, which then are pronounced as “fish”.

There has been an ongoing movement to simplify English spellings, in fact, there is a group dedicated to reforming English spelling. The Simplified Spelling Society (SSS, no personal comment here) is about 100 years old and included Theodore Roosevelt as a member. The society cites the enormous costs involved in problems associated with poor spelling because of the lack of consistency in English, and they may well have some very good arguments. A reform in English is long overdue. One suggestion is that spelling should follow pronunciation; but whose pronunciation? Aren’t we again opening another classic can of nematodes (that is, worms, but I do so try to avoid too many clichés.) If we were to follow the pronunciation of the majority of English speakers, we would then spell women as wimen. Or why not we(e)man. Ouch, a potential political hot spud. The Old English spelling was wifmon, which was the word for wife.

And what then of ghost where English kept the gh- spelling introduced by the Flemish typesetters that William Caxton had engaged in the 15th century with the first printing press in England. But this spelling was not kept in ghoose and gheese where we dropped the gh- preferring the simpler goose and geese.

There is much to be said for the literal and figurative economy of reform. But there is also much to be considered of the history, politics and art of the English language and how it has evolved over the last thousand years.

By the way, is the plural fish or fishes … another topic to be returned to soon.

Blue FishBlue FishBlue Fish