Guest witticism by Anthony K: The purity of Engliſh ſpellyng

Originally a comment on Humanity’s never-ending search for a synonym.

….to the point where they butcher their spelling of any word that has the letters “man,” or “men,”…

Goodneſs me! Wé ſhall not brook þeſe linguiſtic inſults! The purity of Engliſh ſpellyng ſhall not be ſullied!


Mumble….godesdamned kyds þeſe dæġs with þeir ſpellyng…mumble…Chaucer…mumble



  1. Gordon Willis says

    Ah, the long S! I once, long ago — in fact, in 1972 — participated in a play-reading of “The Tempest”. I was given a genuine 18th-century edition to read from. It was in mint condition, and not always easy to turn the pages. One memorable passage with which I was confronted was:

    Where the bee fucks, there fuck I.

    It repenteth me much, but even yet I confess myself truly bewildered and confounded, that my most earnest and solemn rendering was the occasion of some considerable hilarity and mirth.

    ’Tis the very footh, I kid you not. More recently (2009) I conducted a Victorian setting of “You fpotted fnakes” from (it hath been protefted) “A Midfummer Night’s Dream”. Personally, I think that this is even better.

    But, truth to tell, I think that, by and large, and taking one thing with another, fome features of our native orthography have desinitely improved.

  2. Ysanne says

    Or Hungarians: No he/she/it, just ő (person) or nothing at all (and using “this/that” for emphasis). Quite simple really, and leaves you a lot of free brain capacity for weird accented letters and exotic grammar.

  3. says

    just ő

    Is that pronounced “Uh”?
    I’m tempted to switch – I’ve noticed for the last couple of years that I have almost managed to remove gendering from my language. Having something I could point at and say “I’m using the Hungarian…” hmmm… that could work!

  4. Alex says

    If it was written after Beowulf it doesn’t count.

    True! Anything i n use after that is an undignified french-german
    bastard dialect with too many words and too little grammar.

  5. jesse says

    I think whenever we talk about gender in language we have to remember that the term “grammatical gender” often has almost nothing to do with the gender-as-social-construction we usually mean.

    Take French. “le crayon” — masculine, “la plume” – feminine There is no logical reason for this whatsoever. (What could the possible difference between pencils and pens be?) Trying to connect this to “traditionally male” or “traditionally female” roles/nouns and such makes no sense. There is simply no correlation with, well, anything, which is why for second-language learners French or Spanish or Italian requires straight-up memorization for which nouns are masculine or feminine.

    Russian has a neutral gender. But if you pick a random noun you have basically a 1/3 chance of getting it right, and no, there’s no correlation there either. (“ship” — корабль – masculine, “liverwurst” — ливерная колбаса — feminine, and anything that ends in certain consonants is neuter).

    The term “gender” — gad I don’t know who came up with it but it’s just referring to grammar– you could call them “type 1” and “type 2” for all it matters.

    Yes, there are times when the grammatical gender matches up with the sociological one, but in the ones I can think of that only happens in direct reference to people.

    What’s interesting is that some modern romance languages have a neutral gender too–after all, Latin did (though I think the only major one that preserves it completely is Romanian(?)). If you want to say the equivalent of “one drives to the store” in Spanish, you say “se conduce a la tienda.” There’s no masculine or feminine noun here. (It’s reflexive). Hungarian doesn’t have grammatical gender at all.

    English used to have a bigger variety of pronouns, though I am not certain if they were “gender neutral” in the modern sense. (You’d have to ask Beowulf).

    In fact a lot of English pronouns were pared off in the last five hundred or so years. That is, a phrase “How art thou?” was the informal, 2nd person. Quakers used to use thee and thou because they were less formal, familiar words. “You” was considered uptight. This distinction is still made in a lot of other languages — Hungarian included 🙂 (“maga” and “te.”) But English seems to have lost it by about ~1700, at least in ordinary conversation.

    AFAIK English kind-of-sort-of has grammatical gender, but it doesn’t really show except in certain words (like referring to ships as “she” — but that might not be a grammatical issue, I haven’t looked up how old that is and whether “ship” was a feminine noun in Old English). Or in words like “actor/ actress.” For the most part though we’ve lost it. Guess that’s what happens when you have the horrible train wreck between Norman French and Germanic that makes English what it is. (Fun fact: English kings did not speak English at home until Richard III, and even after that it wasn’t uncommon to have English kings who were non-native English speakers. I’m looking at you, George).

    Basically, in English we got rid of most grammatical cases (the choices seem to be pretty random, which is one reason why English seems so illogical half the time). The only remnants we retain are things like tacking on an apostrophe s to indicate possession. (I’m not sure if even that counts, though). We’ve replaced the dative with “to the” and genitive with “of the…” and some words like “Kindred” and “children” — plurals which not coincidentally tend to be Germanic origin.

    Anyhow, the presence of grammatical gender doesn’t seem to have any bearing on how “sexist” a given society is. I’ll lend some credence to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it’s a lot more subtle than that, it seems to me (and judging by the work with speakers of even non-“exotic” languages). I mean, Chinese doesn’t have grammatical gender at all, nor does Japanese. That doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the way they see women.

    @Marcus Ranum — there are two umlauts in Hungarian. The one that looks like German (ö) is like German and the one with the two little accents is akin to the German sound but further “front” in the mouth — I am not sure how to describe it. (The letter u with the two little things on it is like the french “u” when it’s alone, if that gives you any idea). They are both pure vowels.

  6. Anthony K says

    Wow! I made a comment that drew out the linguists! It’s a good day.

    But I must make a slight edit to jesse’s comment:

    The only remnants we retain are things like tacking on an apostrophe s to indicate possession whatever we feel like these day’s.

    But grammatical greengrocer’s are in no way comparable to feminist butcher’s, I suppose.

  7. says

    That witticism is all over the place when it comes to its spelling! consistent spelling is definitely the hobgoblin of little minds: just look at poor old Orrm! Of Nice Orrmin

    Of course we should avoid the etymological fallacy, but I have to point out that ‘man’ meant ‘human in the earliest English. I posted (somewhere) a few days ago about ‘wifman ond waepnedman’ where the man bit means human (not as someone wrote here a few days ago some thing like “wife of man” which is nonsense).

  8. jesse says

    @richardelguru — yeah, you got me looking for my old copy of Beowulf to count up the number of masculine, feminine and neuter pronouns.

    By the way, back in the medieval period many words that currently have “man” or “men” in them were sometimes spelled with a y. But that had little to do with gender then, either.

    The whole issue with “womyn” comes from folk etymology anyway. The Bible is the source for the derivation that it is “wo-man” and you’d think that people who often describe themselves as skeptics would grok that the writers were not linguists. The etymology simply doesn’t apply to English (it might in ancient Hebrew or Greek, but I don’t know either).

    One of the things I learned studying older forms of English: just about every “common sense” origin we hear of for words is utterly, completely wrong. And some of the “cognates” are not, really. It makes reading Chaucer — and heck, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — really interesting in that way.

  9. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    I recall reading an old example of the use of “man” as a species name: “There were two men of London, a woman and her son.”

    For a sensible discussion of the issues, try The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift.

  10. Ysanne says

    yep, with slightly puckered lips. It’s supposed to be a relatively long sound (like the length of the “a” in “car” as compared to the “a” in “cat”). In fact, the official name of this o with the two stripes on is “long “.
    There’s this evil trick though that in many Hungarian sentences you don’t need a pronoun at all; the verb ending usually takes care of such details.


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