The origins of languages are buried deep in time and teasing out why they have the features they do is not easy and hence often speculative. For those of us whose language is English, one mystery is the way things are spelled, which is a source of humor for comedians like Eddie Izzard.
Arika Okrent says that English is unusual in the level of weirdness of its spelling
Part of the problem is that English spelling looks deceptively similar to other languages that use the same alphabet but in a much more consistent way. You can spend an afternoon familiarising yourself with the pronunciation rules of Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish and many others, and credibly read out a text in that language, even if you don’t understand it. Your pronunciation might be terrible, and the pace, stress and rhythm would be completely off, and no one would mistake you for a native speaker – but you could do it. Even French, notorious for the spelling challenges it presents learners, is consistent enough to meet the bar. There are lots of silent letters, but they’re in predictable places. French has plenty of rules, and exceptions to those rules, but they can all be listed on a reasonable number of pages.
She argues that the reason is, like so many things that have evolved over time, because of contingent factors, in this case the state of technology.
The answer to the weirdness of English has to do with the timing of technology. The rise of printing caught English at a moment when the norms linking spoken and written language were up for grabs, and so could be hijacked by diverse forces and imperatives that didn’t coordinate with each other, or cohere, or even have any distinct goals at all. If the printing press has arrived earlier in the life of English, or later, after some of the upheaval had settled, things might have ended up differently.
If English had been later to the technology of printing, further behind in the expansion of literacy, it might have been able to approach the development of its spelling system with a cleaner slate and a more stable idea of what was to be represented. But when a tool comes along, you don’t wait to figure out the optimal way to use it or worry about what the effects of using it might eventually be. Instead, you just start.
When we first got the technology of writing, the people who used it represented a tiny fraction of the speaking population, in most cases for hundreds of years. Throughout the history of writing, most people have been illiterate. It was the technology of printing that made it possible to put writing into widespread use. The written word got cheaper and more plentiful. People had the access and exposure necessary to learn, practise and become literate. That access and exposure was created, in stages, by the competing and conflicting demands of history. That history and its lumps, bumps, silent letters and all, was pressed in with metal and ink.
One thing that I was not aware of was that beginning with the Norman invasion of 1066, for the next 300 years, written English almost completely disappeared in England.
French was the language of the conquerors, and became the language of the state and all its official activities. Latin remained the language of the Church and education. English was the spoken language of daily life for most people, but the social class that had previously maintained and developed the written standard for English – landholders, religious leaders, government officials – had all been replaced.
English began its return as a written language in the 14th century. Over generations, it had crept back in among the nobility, as well as the clergy, although French and Latin were still the languages of educated and official pursuits. By then, English had changed. A few centuries of language evolution had led to different pronunciations. And Old English writing habits had been lost. As English started to make its written comeback, these people found themselves not only trying to figure out how to spell English words but also reaching for English ways to say educated, official things.
Movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450 and led to printing and different presses adopted different spellings for words as written Eglish started making a comeback
The printing profession played a key role in these emergent norms. Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with had; thankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn’t to faithfully represent the author’s spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of ‘correct’ English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy.
Some spellings got entrenched this way, by being printed over and over again in widely distributed texts, very early on.
The evolution of language can be a subject of endless fascination.