I am not a terribly good speller. I’m better than I used to be, you can only spell check “original” so many times before it starts to sink in, but I still have issues. Thanks to my friends and the internet, I now know I am not alone. There are a millions of crappy spellers out there, blithely ignoring that squiggly red line and posting bizarre new words for the world to see. It makes me feel a little better.
But the question remains, why are so many English words spelled with no regard for how they sound? Why do we have so many silent letters? (I’m looking at you “-ght.”) The answer to these questions is a little surprising. It’s all Gutenberg’s fault.
In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg finished his first printing press. Historians and sociologists argue over which inventions have had the most impact on humanity. The radio, the lightbulb and penicillin are always top contenders, but I side with those who believe the printing press comes second only to the wheel. I could go on, but we’re talking about spelling.
Before the printing press, there was no such thing as standardized spelling. It’s a hard concept for us to imagine in this day and age; we all have sweat-soaked memories of elementary school spelling tests, but back in the day people spelled words the way they said them. Spelling changed from region to region according to how accents changed. Print changed this. For the first time, a book could be reproduced a hundred times and every single copy would be the same. When everything was hand written there would be changes from copy to copy, depending on who copied the text and how they were feeling at the time. Dialects and pronunciation continued to change, but the printed word remained the same.
You know what this means, don’t you? The silent “e” didn’t used to be silent. That’s right; there was a time when come, some, made and wade all had two syllables. The final “e” was called a schwa and pronounced as a soft “eh” sound. Nowadays we only use the schwa in the phonetic alphabet. It’s the little upside down “e” that indicates a generic soft vowel sound.
There is another implication in all this. It is possible that the insulting frenchmen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail calling Arthur and his men “silly English k-ni-ghets” is the only truly historically accurate thing in that movie.
Now, while I’ve been blaming Gutenberg for spelling weirdness, it’s not entirely his fault. The printers were the ones who actually pushed for standardized spelling. It makes sense, knowing they could spell “wheat” the same way every time made their jobs easier.
It didn’t happen overnight, even a literature from a hundred years ago has minor spelling differences from today, but with the proliferation of the printed word changes in spelling became a conscious choice instead of a natural result of changes in spoken language. If we take this concept a bit further, I’d be willing to bet that in a few hundred years linguists will be talking about how the invention of radio and television halted changes in pronunciation.