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Renaissance Spelling

Did you ever wonder why English has such a strange spelling system? There are countless reasons for this, but borrowing another language’s spelling rules is a major one.

Throughout history, it was been in fashion to borrow aspects of language and culture from other admired countries. In Renaissance times, it because modish to borrow Latin spellings for otherwise perfectly normal words. A good example of this is the word DEBT. Debt used to be spelled dette, but the <b> was added to match the Latin word debitum.

Another example is the word DOUBT. Doubt was a loan-word (borrowed) from French (douter), but was given new spelling based on the Latin dubitare.

This convention is called Etymological Spelling. It’s a system of spelling that relies on a traditional spelling rules, and not on pronunciation or changes in pronunciation. Some other words that were etymologically spelled are indict (Latin indictare), receipt (Latin recepta), subtle (Latin subtilis), and victuals (Latin victualia; still pronounced vittles).

Sometimes when the spelling was changed, the pronunciation changed as well. For example, throne used to be pronounced and spelled trone… but when Latin spelling was reintroduced, an <h> was added after the <t> and the pronunciation changed. A word that was respelled this way (<th>) but retained its pronunciation was the word thyme. Another word that this happened to is cognizance. Cognizance used to be spelled and pronounced conysance… but again, the spelling changed to match the Latin word (cognoscere = to recognize) and subsequently the pronunciation changed.

Another example of this change in spelling and pronunciation is fault. It is borrowed from French (faute) but then respelled with an <l> based on the Latin words falsus and fallere. A similar thing happened with the English words assault and vault.

Even the word bankrupt fell victim to this practice. Originally the <p> was silent, as in Italian banca rotta (“broken bank”). The word was respelled based on the Latin rupta, and the <p> became pronounced. Baptism used to be bapteme (from French), but an <s> was added to match the Latin baptismus.

We don’t know why some words retained their old pronunciation and some didn’t. It’s just another mystery of language.

Are there any words that you think have nonsensical spelling? Maybe they’re spelled that way because of this phenomenon.


6 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    So fascinating!

  2. 2

    how about floccinaucinihilipilification ??

    seems like a few extra vowels in there to me~

    farfugnugen…. yup…need that WAV file.

    it sounds like a vaccinatiaon.

    sorry…. I get hung up on fun words that confuse me!

  3. 3

    I came here searching for the phonetic spellings of English names like Charlotte = shar – let. I am a freelance translator & get many requests for name translations among other requests. Sanskrit, Hindi & Marathi use Devanagari script [The Script of City of Gods]. It is a phonetic script i.e. the names are written as they are spoken & not as their spelling. As I read this article, I continued reading other articles, too. There is a wealth of knowledge here. Not just for the student of linguistic sciences but for a enthusiastic general reader also. I congratulate you on your website & expect many more articles from you in the future.

  4. Hilary #
    4

    What about words like “gaol” and “demesne”? Were those once pronounced differently, or was the spelling changed (to “jail” and “domain”) to reflect the pronunciation – almost like the reverse of etymological spelling? Or do they still count as separate words that can be used interchangeably?

  5. Pseudo-Anonymous #
    5

    As far as I know, “gaol” and “demesne” are the original spellings which were pronounced differently. In American English, the spelling was changed to “jail” reflecting its pronunciation. However, the old spelling is still retained in British English. As for the second word, Google claims “demesne” (pronounced today as dee-mahn) is from Anglo-Norman French.

  6. Javier #
    6

    Super cool! Greetings from 2016


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