Corpse, Corps, Horse and Worse

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 1920, a Dutch writer named Gerard Nolst Trenité published a poem in English titled “The Chaos.” Its theme? Spelling, specifically English spelling and pronunciation, and all the chaos it has let loose upon the world. It begins, “Dearest creature in creation, studying English pronunciation. I will teach you in my verse, sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse. I will make you Suzy, busy, make your head with heat, grow dizzy, just compare heart, hear and heard, dies and diet, Lord and word.” And that’s just the opening lines. The full poem goes on for another 66 stances.

Roman Mars:
Trenité designed the poem as a pronunciation exercise, a catchy jingle to help students of English learn what he called the language’s “phonetic paradoxes.” But still, he couldn’t help but end the poem on a note of despair: “Which rhymes with enough? Though, through, plow, cough, hough, or tough? Hiccup has the sound of sup. My advice is, give it up.”

Roman Mars:
The absurdity of this poem works, because, let’s face it, when it comes to English spelling and pronunciation, there is plenty of rhyme and very little reason. But what is the reason for that? Why among all European languages is English so uniquely chaotic today? To help us answer that question, we’re talking to linguist and longtime friend of the show Arika Okrent, author of the new book “Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language.” In it, Arika explores the origins of those phonetic paradoxes. And it turns out that some of the reasons for the confusion are as counterintuitive as the words themselves.

Roman Mars:
Arika, welcome back to 99PI.

Arika Okrent:
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.

Roman Mars:
So Arika, what is going on? English is notoriously screwy, but what happened to make our language, or at least the written language, so ridiculous?

Arika Okrent:
Well, I should say, I don’t know if I mentioned this, the original working title of the book was, “What the Hell, English?” And that’s sort of the… that’s the mood of it. That’s the emotion that we’re doing here. “What the hell, English? Why are you like this? Why are you so weird?” You might say there’s two broad reasons. One reason is that there have been a lot of people over the years who have intentionally tried to improve the language, by improving its vocabulary, or improving the spelling in various ways. And then, most of those attempts kind of backfired, and just made things more confusing. But the even bigger reason written English is so inconsistent is actually something that happened more accidentally. That was the introduction of the printing press to England in the 15th century, which is ironic, because you’d think, of course, that the printing press would help make spelling more consistent. But in the case of English, it had the opposite effect.

Roman Mars:
So let’s talk about this introduction of the printing press, at the moment that it hit the English language. How did the first presses make it to England?

Arika Okrent:
Well, the first printing press brought to England was brought by William Caxton. He was a merchant, and he wasn’t of the upper-upper classes, but he was working in Belgium, in Bruges, and he found this printing technology, which was very new at the time. He grabbed onto it and printed a popular English translation that he had done, of “The Legend of Troy,” for members of the Burgundian court, in the Netherlands, that were English speakers. And it was light and popular and entertaining, and not a big literary endeavor.

Roman Mars:
(chuckles)

Arika Okrent:
It was just very popular, and he spotted that business opportunity right away — oh, if you do something fun and popular, people want it, and they’ll buy it. And that’s a merchant’s dream. So he brought the Flemish-speaking typesetters that he had been working with from Bruges and started printing English books in England.

Roman Mars:
So when Caxton arrived back in England with his press, like you said, you’d expect it to maybe help regulate the language, but kind of the opposite happened. What was it about English at this moment in the 15th century, that made it not play nice with the printing press, as opposed to other languages?

Arika Okrent:
Well, the way to think about it is that all languages, from time to time, go through big changes. Languages everywhere are always changing, in the way they’re spoken and written. But what happened with most other European languages is that their big shifts either happened before or after the printing press arrived. And if your language goes through a big change before the printing press arrives, that’s okay, because the changes have happened, they’ve been completed. And now, the writing that you establish can reflect how you speak it now. The changes are done.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmmm. (affirmative)

Arika Okrent:
If your language goes through its big change after the printing press arrives, that’s also okay, because the way it’s written will then reflect the older system. It might lose some word endings, some letters go silent, some sounds that are no longer pronounced, but even if it’s different from the spoken language, has its own kind of internal consistency, which makes it easier to learn. And there’s no big surprises, once you got that system down.

Roman Mars:
I see.

Arika Okrent:
But what’s really tricky is if your language is going through a big change at the same time that the printing press comes to town, that’s where things get really messy. That’s what happened to English, and part of that was because spoken English was undergoing some big changes in pronunciation. But the other reason is that the rules and traditions of written English had more or less just been completely scrambled. Now, Old English had very nice orderly spelling and a well-established tradition in literature, but that was all disrupted with the Norman Invasion of 1066. The French came in, they took over all the upper echelons of society, and so, writing was in French for a long time. And by the time printing was coming in, in the 15th century, English had returned, but it was still on shaky ground. And it wasn’t very consistent. There wasn’t a book you could get and say, “Okay, what rule am I following here? Or what is the proper grammar here? What is the proper spelling here?” So English was in deep flux when Caxton arrived with his press.

Roman Mars:
So Caxton brings the printing press to England. He brings his Flemish printers, who are not experts in English. There’s kind of no English to be an expert of, anyways. Can you describe the process of why printing itself introduced variations in spelling?

Arika Okrent:
Well, when you’ve got a set type, it’s very labor-intensive while you’re setting it. It buys you all kinds of time once it’s set. Then you can print off as much as you like, but while you’re setting it, it’s very difficult. And sometimes, you need to make adjustments, because you want the margin to be straight. So maybe you add a letter or take a letter away. And some of the printers that Caxton brought with him were using Flemish-style spellings. They’d see a word like “ghost,” which would, in old English, be something like G-A-S-T, gast. Well, they spell it G-H-E-E-S-T, that’s the Flemish way. So they put it in with the G-H, and that G-H stays for the spelling of ghost, which is weird. We don’t spell English words, starting with G-H, that have a guh, a hard guh sound. That’s a strange English spelling, but it perpetuated itself, that one part did, but other parts didn’t. So they used to spell girl, G-H-E-R-L-E. Or there were other words they did this to, but those didn’t catch on.

Roman Mars:
But it did catch on with the word “ghoul.”

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, but we didn’t have the word ghoul when printing came in. That was a much, much later borrowing. We borrowed it from Arabic. And when we took that word in, it’s, “Oh, it’s kind of like ‘ghost,’ and it should look like that. These two words go together, and let’s give a G-H to that one, too.” So this kind of accidental error takes on its own influence, and then spreads to some other part of the language, but not everywhere. So that’s an inconsistency that’s just going to stay there.

Roman Mars:
The double consonant also shows up with a silent W’s, like wrist, whole, who. The silent G in gnat. What’s going on with those? Are those also sourced from printing?

Arika Okrent:
Well, most of those come from Old English. We used to pronounce them, and we pronounced those pretty far into printing, so that when printing started, at that point, people were still saying the W in words like who and wrist, and the K in words like know and knit, although in some places they still do the W-H thing. If you’re in the South or some places, they say “Where?” “Why?” That’s a thing that the H is there, and it was there from Old English. By the time we had stopped saying those things, it was preserved in amber, so they stayed.

Roman Mars:
What are some other common examples of things that you still see in the written language, that we just don’t pronounce anymore? Or maybe, we used to pronounce them, and now, we’ve just kind of lost that?

Arika Okrent:
Well, a big one is the other G-H that’s in so many words, like tough and dough and through, and night and might and right, and it’s everywhere in English, but there’s no part of those words that has a “guh” or a “huh” sound in it at all. Why is that? What is that G-H doing? Why is it in there? And it got into the spelling when we still were pronouncing that sound, except it wasn’t a “guh” or a “huh” sound. It was an on the fly decision made by people who had to write English, and had no way of writing this really weird sound that English had, and Latin didn’t. There was no way to write it in the Latin alphabet.

Roman Mars:
Huh.

Arika Okrent:
That was a “huh” sound, this back of the throat “hucht”-“ucht”-“wucht”-“yucht” …. that used to be a sound in English and German, which comes from the same old, old ancestor’s English from long, long ago. It has this sound in words like nacht.

Roman Mars:
I see.

Arika Okrent:
And that’s a word we spell in English with a G-H. So, knight–nacht, eight–acht. Any time you lift one of these English, G-H spellings, you’ll find a “huh” in the equivalent German word. In some words, it turned into a “fuh” sound, so cough, laugh, those were cuff and luff. So some words became a “fuh”, and some words became nothing. Some words, it just dropped out, and became the vowel. Like we say, dough, but there is a British dessert called plum duff. And that’s the same word, but it’s dough that became the duff sound, instead of the dough sound. So the “huh” became a whole bunch of different possibilities, but none of them lasted as “huh”. We just lost that sound.

Roman Mars:
One of the biggest changes going on in English, in this period that you write about, is something called the Great Vowel Shift, which again, hits right about the moment the printing press arrives in the 15th century. Can you describe the Great Vowel Shift?

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, the Great Vowel Shift is an explanation for much of the spelling problems in English, because vowels are very vague. I can describe consonants by telling you where the obstruction happens. So a B, a buh, that’s the lips coming together to block the sound, and then release the sound.

Roman Mars:
Hmm.

Arika Okrent:
But the description of how a vowel is, oh, well, the tongue is higher in the mouth, and further back. Then your lips are kind of rounded, or not rounded. It’s very hard to pin down, here’s how you make this vowel. And so vowels shift around a lot, because they are so vague in the mouth.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Arika Okrent:
But English went through, over the course of a few hundred years, a systematic change to the vowel system. So vowels move from a lower position to a higher position in the mouth. Then the ones that they’re bumping into as they move higher, those have to move higher too. So it’s sort of a chain.

Roman Mars:
Huh.

Arika Okrent:
So you get shifts like bought to boat, but it’s displacing boat, which means boot. So the ough moves to oh, the oh moves to oo, and then that’s displacing the oo, which has nowhere to go.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Arika Okrent:
It goes into diphthong land. So what used to be “hus” becomes “house.” What used to be “moose” becomes “mouse.” But then a little later, some of them shifted around the corner to ugh, so boak becomes bouk becomes book, but only some places. In the north of England, they all stay at oo, so, louk, bouk, fout, those all stay the same. They’re not done with the vowel shift.

Roman Mars:
I mean, why did the Great Vowel Shift happen? I mean, is this just a name to put around a period of time? Or was there something happening that made it happen at that moment?

Arika Okrent:
Well, that’s a big question. Some people think it had to do with the plague, and the disruption of populations, the growth of London, and the influx of people from various parts of the country.

Arika Okrent:
But it also happened so slowly over so long a time, that whatever kicked it off, we can’t really say in any one instance why people who used to say me-yet started saying meat, because it has to shift quite a bit before someone takes note and says, “Hey, that’s a strange pronunciation. Are you from Australia, or …”

Roman Mars:
Right, right.

Arika Okrent:
But by that time, it’s usually too late. So we didn’t know the Great Vowel Shift was happening when it was happening. And it’s still going on. So, how do you say R-O-O-F? Roof or ruff?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Arika Okrent:
I kind of have both of those.

Roman Mars:
I kind of say both, yeah, actually.

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, all right. But that’s a vowel shift that even in one person, it’s not quite completed yet.

Roman Mars:
I see why this would wreak havoc. If you’re trying to set the language down in print, because how would you know how to spell which sound? It sounds like it’s this continuous game of whack-a-mole. It would just cause all this variation.

Arika Okrent:
Exactly. Because when are you going to change the spelling? When everybody’s back on that same page, or you only do it for the London speakers and not for the Scottish speakers? The answer is, sometimes you change it, and sometimes you don’t, depending on when it got pushed. It’s not, “Let’s all spell it the new way.” So you can’t coordinate it. Then we end up with the vowel mess that we have in English.

Roman Mars:
I mean, the long E sound is particularly confounding, from a list in your book. There’s me, beer, belief, leaf, seas, police, key, mosquito, people, Phoenix. All of them are long E sound. All of them are spelled different.

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, yeah. I know. That’s a long page in your mapping of sounds to spellings in English.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
When we come back, we’ll talk to Arika about the oddities in English, for which we have only ourselves to blame.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
We’re back with Arika Okrent. Arika, in your book, you say that in addition to all these accidental changes to the English language, that paralleling that was a series of much more deliberate changes to both words, and how we use them, and how they’re spelled. And that just got us into more trouble. So what was going on there? What, how did that come about?

Arika Okrent:
Well, after the Norman Invasion of 1066, anything official was in French. English was a thing you did in your daily life, but it wasn’t considered a language of philosophy and art and education and high pursuits, but that did start to change. And when it did, there was a sense that, “Uh-oh, we got to help fix this language up. We want to have English literature, we want to have English translations and English education, but the language isn’t good enough. It’s not a real language like Latin is we need to make it less embarrassing.” And that took some conscious attention.

Roman Mars:
Well, describe that. What are some of the things that they did? What did they try to do?

Arika Okrent:
Well, part of it was a massive vocabulary influx. So, in domains like law and government and cuisine, the natural thing to do was grab the nearest French word. So instead of writing a Germanic Old English word like craft, you might write art. And so, craft then becomes the lowly kind of work with the hands type situation, while art is the higher pursuit.

Roman Mars:
But they didn’t used to have different meanings. They were real synonyms when they arrived. Then they were sort of imposed on them, and that bias persisted to this day, in the case of art and craft.

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, yeah, they would, if you would have translated it this way, but then it takes on a connotation of, “Well, who’s using it, and what are they using it for?”

Roman Mars:
They also introduced a bunch of new terms, that you call inkhorn terms. And these are neologisms that are trying too hard. Can you describe some of these? Because these are really fascinating.

Arika Okrent:
Well, when people started trying to bring English up to speed by bringing in Latin, there’s a lot of Latin words that got incorporated into English, words like describe, explain, introduce. But then, people started going a little too far, because with Latin, you can put on a prefix and a suffix, and you can make new words by putting pieces together. And they started coming up with words like subpeditation, the act of supplying, or edubitation, the act of questioning oneself. There was so many of these, that people started to get annoyed with them, and they were called inkhorn terms, because scholars went around with these little horn belts that had ink in them, for doing their scholarly writing. So it was a little bit like, “Ugh, these inkhorn terms, they’re filling up the language, and they’re too noticeable, and are trying too hard.” But some of them continued in the language, and now don’t seem strange to us at all.

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow. So what are some of these Latinate words that were derived as inkhorn terms, for being too complicated, that nevertheless survive? What are some of those that we take for granted, that were initially considered ridiculous?

Arika Okrent:
Yeah, well you think of the word incorporate. There’s a lot going on there. It’s very complicated, but it doesn’t seem complicated to us anymore. We have a natural relationship to it. It doesn’t sound like edubitation, or quomodocunquizing, or things like that, that were these Frankenstein terms.

Roman Mars:
So what is quomodocunquizing?

Arika Okrent:
That was a word meaning every which weighing, basically. But that’s not one that worked out, or went on.

Roman Mars:
No, you don’t say? Other than vocabulary being introduced to formalize the language, were there other things like plurals, or anything like that, that came when the learned classes were trying to sort of civilize English?

Arika Okrent:
Yeah. Well, much later, English started to be pretty proud of itself. Now we’ve got Shakespeare, now we are a real language, but there’s still this insecurity, and people start to write advice books that are sort of etiquette books, like, “No, no, this is the real proper way.” And a lot of that came with pronouncements using Latin grammar still. So, cactus, cacti, alumnus, alumni. You see these in educated writing, you know that’s the way to form the Latin plural. So it starts to spread, and then you have a word like octopus, and how are you going to put that into the plural? Octopuses is English. That’s fine. It should be the English, but where you get that insecurity about whether we’re right or wrong, when we come to one of these words that ends in us, what do? “Uh oh, uh oh,” and you think, “Okay, octopi. Yeah, yeah, octopi. That must be it.” And then someone comes along and says, “No, no, no. The proper plural of octopus is octopedes, in the Greek.” Then they’ve one-upped you on your knowledge of classical languages. That keeps us using these crusty old rules, that don’t really have a place in English, and we’re consciously brought about, consciously put in there, to elevate the language.

Roman Mars:
And then, what I was curious about is the P-S in psychology, or M-N in mnemonic. Were those always spelled that way, or were those added later, to fancify things?

Arika Okrent:
Words like psychology and mnemonic were brought in “as is”much later, so those are people borrowing them directly from Greek translated into Latin, and putting them into English. But some of them that we spell with these classical spellings, in the beginning, were spelled normally. So phlegm and diarrhea, these were things we had and talked about in English. Phlegm was F-L-E-M-E, and diarrhea was D-I-A-R-I-A. But later, during the sprucing up phase of the language, we made the connection back to their fancier roots. We’re elevating phlegm and diarrhea, putting the G in there, and putting all these R’s in there, and making it really confusing to spell.

Roman Mars:
Is this sprucing up where the different English and American spellings of words like color and labor come from? Or is that something completely different?

Arika Okrent:
Well, it seems like it would be, but it’s more the British trying to separate themselves from the Americans. So for a long time, the O-R / O-U-R thing was back and forth with everybody. It wasn’t standardized here, it wasn’t standardized there. But then, Webster’s Dictionary came about, and he wanted to simplify spelling and make it more American, more natural. So get rid of some of these unnecessary letters. And his first idea on this did not work. His original dictionary idea had believe spelled, B-E-L-E-E-V, and soup spelled S-O-O-P,. Things we do not do. We did not take those changes. Nobody even tried. It was too hilarious, when you see the word spelled that way. But a few of those things did work, like color is going to be O-R. And in England, they were still back and forth on all these things. But once it was determined, “Oh, this is the American way,” they said, “Mmm, we’re not doing it the American way.” Once you’ve spotted the difference, it’s a choice, to make yourself distinct.

Roman Mars:
Some of my favorite examples from your book is words and phrases that behave strangely, not because they’re these huge, larger influences, like the printing press or dictionaries, but just because they went on their own kind of whimsical journey. For example, the story of the phrase, to egg someone on? It really does show that timing is kind of everything in language, I guess you might say. Could you describe what the phrase, egg someone on, is about?

Arika Okrent:
Egg someone on is a very old phrase, and we would have, in English, in Old English, it was more like edge. That would be the pronunciation. And that’s what the word means. To egg someone on is to edge them on, in the sense of you got the edge of a sword-making them go forward, “Go on, go on. I’m edging you on.” But we also were mixing, in the very early days of English, we’re talking 800s, 900s, we had Viking invasions happening in the north of England. And the Vikings had a similar language, also from a similar Germanic route. So they had this edge word, too, but they said egg. That was how they pronounced it. The Vikings had that hard “guh” sound, and a lot of the English words that have that hard “guh” sound, like give, we got from them. And we adopted their way of saying egg on for edge-on, and at the time, we said egg differently. So egg was more like “I”, and then, later, we adopted the Norse or Viking way of saying that word, too, which they had changed into egg, again, with their hard G. The very strong hard G, they have a lot of influence that way. So our edge became egg and egg on, and then our “I” became egg. And they just happened to sound exactly the same now, even though they started as different words.

Roman Mars:
With all this insanity, it’s easy enough to make the case that English is kind of the worst. But you could also make the case that English is the best. Do all these irregularities and weird rabbit holes make English the most fun, in the end?

Arika Okrent:
Well, I think English has a unique position, and it’s definitely a world language. So many people use it that aren’t native speakers, and it has low startup costs. This is how it’s been described to me by people who don’t speak it as a native language, who learn it later. They say, “English, you can get up and going pretty fast, unlike other languages where you have to learn a lot of word endings, or various conjugations.” English, you got words, and you put them together, and you could start going with it, but then it just keeps opening new challenges for you, the deeper you get into it. And there are layers and layers and layers to discover as you go. It’s very impressive how people learn it so well, and can get from layer to layer. We should be more impressed about that. That’s a wonderful thing about the language, it makes it fun, and we should respect it more. We should praise people more for learning English.

Roman Mars:
Arika, thank you so much for talking with us. This was so great.

Arika Okrent:
Thank you. Well, it’s great to be back.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Arika Okrent’s new book is called Irregular Why Tough Through and Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language with illustrations by Sean O’Neil. In our conversation, we touched on just a few of the many different wrinkles in English. There’s so much more in the book, so go definitely go check it out. It’s available wherever books are. We’ll also have a link on our website. It’s 99pi.org.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and tech production by Dara Hirsch. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and Sirius XM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

 

  1. tammy kruger

    Corpse, corps…..Definitely was one of my favourite 99PI podcasts up to date! (now I know why I – as a Canadian – write “favourite” and not “favorite” LOL)
    Loved the history and plan to retell it to my kids at dinner tonight.
    Just to add to the fun, I now live in the beautiful country of Israel and speak Hebrew. Here they have some pretty funny pronunciations of English words that have entered Hebrew – notably, they pronounce the /p/ at the start of ‘psychology’ ‘psychometrics’ “psychiatry’ etc and the /t/ at the end of “ballet”. Perhaps because they taught in universities with Hebrew lecturers using English textbooks initially, and these words were read before heard…?
    Food for thought ;)
    Thanks again for a great podcast – I love listening and learning. Keep up the great work!

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