E-MAGAZINE 645: SATURDAY 27 JUNE 2009
1. Articles: I before E except after C
There was a mini-fuss about spelling in the British media last week because of a guide, Support For Spelling, that was distributed by the British government to 13,000 primary schools as part of its national strategy for schools. Out of 124 pages of useful suggestions, just one raised hackles. It suggested that the rule, “I before E except after C”, should be dropped because it “is not worth teaching”.
This famous rule has been taught to generations of schoolchildren. It appears in that form in James Stuart Laurie’s Manual of English Spelling of 1866 but must surely be older. It is as firmly fixed in the minds of English speakers as any maxim can be.
Support For Spelling’s objections aren’t new. The argument against the rule is that there are too many exceptions, such as their, seize, weird, height, eight, sufficient, neighbour, weigh and protein as well as the plurals of words that end in -cy (such as fallacies, frequencies and vacancies) and some words of foreign origin. The length of this list led an unknown wit to coin the much-quoted alternative: “I before E, except when it isn’t.”
The authors pointed out that one problem with it is that it’s only half a rule. Many readers will be as surprised as I am to learn that there’s a longer version: “I before E except after C when the sound is EE”. Henry Fowler gave this addition in the first edition of Modern English Usage in 1926. He said the rule is useful, especially for words that derive from Latin capio, including receive, deceit and inconceivable. However, it’s useless, he noted, for personal names, to the chagrin of people named Keith and Sheila.
The addition gets rid of most of the exceptions, such as their, veil and sufficient, none of which have the ee sound that phoneticians write as /i:/. It fails on seize and on weird if you say it with a pure vowel sound and not the standard British English diphthong. It might also fail on neither and either, since conformity depends on whether you say the first vowel as /i:/ or /aI/ (the first form is mainly American, the second mainly British; in American spelling guides, the words are labelled as exceptions to the rule).
You might instead add a different qualification, as seems to have been common in American schools at one time, “or when the sound is A, as in neighbour and weigh” (eight and beige are among a dozen others that could be cited). Some writers have tried to add “or when the C is said like sh”, though most of the cases caught by it are also trapped by the ee rule (ancient, deficient).
In a note on page 106, the Support for Spelling guide suggests a way out: “There are so few words where the ei spelling for the /ee/ sound follows the letter c that it is easier to learn the specific words: receive, conceive, deceive (+ the related words receipt, conceit, deceit), perceive and ceiling.”
A large part of the controversy seems to have arisen because many people seem to regard it as immutable and universal. It’s not, of course. At best it’s no more than a rule of thumb to help learners over a minor bump on the road to mastery of English spelling.
The controversy was rendered irrelevant later in the week when a leaked report revealed that the Government is about to scrap its flagship national strategy for schools, including its guidance on literacy and numeracy.
2. My new book: Why is Q Always Followed by U?
[Michael Quinion, Why is Q Always Followed by U? Word-perfect Answers to the Most-asked Questions about Language, to be published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books, on 2 July 2009; hardback, 352pp; publisher’s UK list price £12.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-846-14184-3; ISBN-10: 1846141842.]
You may not recognise it, but it’s an old word for a familiar meal: bacon and eggs or ham and eggs. The first recorded example is so old its English needs translation:
I haue no salt Bacon, Ne no Cokeneyes, bi Crist Colopus to maken.
Piers Plowman, by William Langland, c1350. A cokeneye or cokeney is literally a cock’s egg, a dismissive term for a small or misshapen egg; in another old sense, of a pampered child, it’s the source of Cockney. In modern English, Langland’s sentence would read “I have no salt bacon or small eggs, by Christ, to make collops.”
Later, collop came to refer to the bacon by itself, without the egg; later still to mean any flat, boneless piece of meat, whether raw, fried or roasted. At one time, the Monday before Ash Wednesday was called Collop Monday, because slices of bacon were the usual dinner dish.
It may remind you of escalope, which has led at least a couple of cookery writers to assert that collop is in fact from that French word. Not so. Collop is an old Norse word of which a close modern relative is the Swedish kalops, a meat stew. It may be that the first part of the word is from coal; that origin is supported by this example of its use:
The Scottish Celt is more shifty. In the old days when he had flesh and little else to eat, he could broil it on the coals; and a Scotch collop is perhaps equal to a Turkish kebob. We wonder if in Australia the long-forgotten Scotch collop has been revived? It requires no cooking-vessels. It may be held to the fire on a twig, or laid on the coals and turned by a similar twig — bent into a collop-tongs — or even by the fingers.
Chambers Edinburgh Journal, 14 Feb. 1852. Shifty here doesn’t mean that the Scottish Celt is deceitful or evasive but that he’s able to shift for himself, manage without help, from shift in the sense of an expedient.
4. Reviews: In the Land of Invented Languages
”Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?” If you’re able to say “jes” in reply, you’re a member of a smallish group who knows that it means “do you speak Esperanto?”, the language that was created by Dr Ludwig Zamenhof in Poland in the 1880s. I learned a little as a teenager, to the extent that — to my own mild surprise — I could still today write that sentence without having to look it up.
Arika Okrent’s experience began with the very different Klingon. It was invented so that the aliens in Star Trek could speak in a macho warrior tongue that sounded sufficiently unEarthly. If you know that “tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh’a’?” means “do you speak Klingon?”, you are also a member of a minority group, one irretrievably and rather sadly tarred with the brush of ultra-geekdom. I must confess to at least semi-geekdom, since I have a copy of The Klingon Dictionary on my shelf, written by Marc Okrand; he built on a few words invented by James Doohan (Scotty) for Star Trek: The Motion Picture to make a detailed language for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Early created tongues arose out of the scientific rationalism of the seventeenth century. Natural languages were criticised, fairly enough in one way, for their design flaws: they’re irregular, full of idioms that make no sense to a learner and contain words with more than one meaning while sometimes lacking words for concepts we need. How much better it would be, philosophers felt, if one could be designed from scratch on logical principles. Many have tried, as Arika Okrent explains. Her main example is that of John Wilkins, a member of the Royal Society, who published his detailed attempt, A Philosophical Language, in 1668. All such languages were rooted in attempts to classify the whole of human knowledge, which their inventors only gradually came to realise was an impossible endeavour. A similar idea, but based on modern mathematical logic, surfaced in the 1960s as Loglan (and its successor Lojban), a language designed to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that the structure of a natural language influences the way its speakers think about the world.
Another type appeared as a result of a more pragmatic attitude in the nineteenth century. This focused on creating languages that were easy to learn and would help people to communicate. Esperanto is the classic example but there are dozens of others. A third class of invention grew up in the twentieth century - languages based on pictorial symbols, such as Blisssymbolics or aUI, which sought to avoid what their authors saw as the tyranny of words. Yet a fourth kind was the result of a personal artistic and linguistic impulse — to create a tongue that was satisfyingly complex and complete. The most famous examples here are J R R Tolkien’s elven tongues Quenya and Sindarin in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Interest in making artificial languages is currently high through Internet discussion groups that specialise in conlangs (constructed languages) and artlangs (artistic languages invented to give aesthetic pleasure).
Arika Okrent wittily tells the stories of many of these invented languages, as well as of one natural language — Hebrew — that in effect was recreated in the twentieth century some two millennia after it vanished as a native spoken language. She focuses as much on the men who created the languages and the cultures in which their creations were born (and almost invariably soon died) as on the languages themselves, though she discusses a number in enough detail for readers to get a good feel for them. Her personal and entertaining book wears her research lightly. It will be a good read for anyone with even a general interest in this aspect of linguistics.
[Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages; published under the Spiegel & Grau imprint by Random House, New York, May 2009; hardback, 341pp, including index; publisher’s list price $26.00; ISBN13: 978-0-385-52788-0; ISBN10: 0385527888.]
• Department of Ambulatory Architecture. From the BBC site: “Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad is the country’s most prestigious university. Walking through its green and leafy campus, are four mosques.” Thanks to David Lay for spotting that.
• In common with many journals, the Daily Galaxy Web site reported the unveiling of a computerised sign in New York that displays the tonnage of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. One of its comments, on the other hand, was entirely its own, and startled Carl Bowers: “Designed by scientists at MIT hanging outside Madison Square Garden ...”
• Mark Jones encountered an intriguing item on the menu in a Dutch restaurant. “One of the two starters was duck’s udders. After checking the Dutch original, rather than the tourist version of the menu, I discovered it was eendenborst or duck breast. I chose the salmon nevertheless.”
• Gavan O’Connor was reading a review of an exhibition on Pompeii at the Melbourne Museum in the July 2009 edition of Royal Auto, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, when he came across this sentence: “Pompeii is also an acronym for sentient death in its most tormented form.”