Spelling: Why can’t we officially remove silent letters from English words and otherwise make English more consistent?

It’s not just that the words came from languages where the silent letters used to be pronounced. It’s also that silent letters were reintroduced by pedants, to remind people of the languages they came from, though they had long since passed out of pronunciation.

Latin debitum went to French and Middle English dette (via *debte). French to this day has no problem spelling it dette. But when in the Renaissance English scribes worked out that dette came from debitum, they put a silent –b– in as a reminder—even though the –b– hadn’t been pronounced for hundreds of years.

Yes, phlegm is spelled like that because it comes from Greek phlegma. But the thing is, both Middle English, and Middle French that the word came via, were more phonetically spelled. And in fact the story of phlegm is much like the story of debt:

phlegm – Wiktionary

From Old French fleume, Middle French flemme (French flegme), and their source, Latin phlegma, from Ancient Greek φλέγμα ‎(phlégma, “flame; inflammation; clammy humor in the body”), from φλέγειν ‎(phlégein, “to burn”).

So the word starts out in Latin as phlegma (complete with p pronounced as /pʰ/.) Along the way, it changes pronunciation to:

  • flegma (Imperial Latin)
  • flegme (Proto-French)
  • fleume (Old French)
  • flemme (Middle French)
  • fleme (Middle English)
  • flem (Late Middle English)

Each phonetic change on its own makes sense as a simplification, and Middle English had no problem spelling the word consistent with those simplifications. (Although silent e‘s and double letters aren’t quite phonetic spelling, they are still useful for differentiating long and short vowels; so flemme or flemm would be a consistent way of spelling it.)

Then in the Renaissance some pedant realised that flemme came from phlegma. As a result, French put back in a silent –g-, and English also put in the Greek ph-.

The change of phlegma to flemme is not random, and the respelling of flemme as phlegm is not random either. But to boast that the randomness is proof of how organic English is, and how it doesn’t have an Académie, is misguided. Respelling flemme as phlegm is exactly the kind of shit an Académie would pull…

Note that the –gm– to –mm– happens in French, and is accompanied by the dropping of final –e. Other Greek words ending in –gma were borrowed later, and directly from Latin or Greek; they have no problem keeping the –gma. Stigma, dogma, magma.

(Vernacular Greek, on the other hand, did simplify –gma. The formal pronunciation of phlegm in Modern Greek is fleɣma; but my grandmother always said flema—by the same process that came up with Modern English and French /flem/.)

Is Hawaii a common honeymoon destination for newly married Australian couples?

My wife has been consistently advocating for Hawaii to anyone she knows, and we did in fact get engaged there. But we’re not typical of Australians: we’ve both lived in the States, and we’re not drawn to Indonesia. (Which is why she needs to do advocacy.)

That said, Hawaii was full of Australians when we went—which put us off, as we didn’t go halfway across the Pacific just to hear Australian accents all over Waikiki. I  didn’t check how many were honeymooners.

The shopping was a drawcard; even with the weakened Australian dollar, most goods are much cheaper in the US than here.

What is the right way to pronounce the word ‘Detail’?

There is a very very slow process in English of differentiating nouns and verbs fitting a particular pattern (Latin prefix + single syllable) by shifting the accent. a rebel vs. to rebel, for example. Initial-stress-derived noun 

I can’t find online the guess of how many verbs are changing accent per year, but I think it’s one or two. In any case, if they’re saying deTAIL as the verb, they are indeed following that trend.

What was the characteristics of the Greek dialects that were once spoken in western Anatolia?

I assume OP is asking about the West Anatolian dialects of Modern Greek, not Ancient Greek.

1. Not studied enough.

2. Not old. Pontic and Cappadocian are relic dialects, cut off from the rest of Greek for a millenium, and they are both archaic in phonology and morphology, and influenced by Turkish to a great extent. (Syntax in Pontic, which also picked up animacy from Caucasian languages; much more influence in Cappadocian, ranging even to vowel harmony.)

Western Anatolian dialects OTOH look a lot like mainstream Greek, and we know that Western Anatolian was islamised quickly; we assume they were resettled from Greece from the 16th century on.

3. Bithynian (NW Anatolia), from memory, is like Thracian (which I’m not counting as West Anatolian), though we know some Bithynian villages were settled from Epirus.

4. There were two villages on the Sea of Marmara settled from Tsakonia, though their Tsakonian was influenced by Thracian/Bithynian. Where are the Tsakonian villages in Turkey?

5. The dialect of Halicarnassus/Bordum (SW Anatolia) is pretty close to the Dodecanese.

6. The dialect of Smyrna/Izmir and its hinterland is not well studied at all, but seems to have been close to the Cyclades.

7. The only West Anatolian dialect that seems to have been old, and a relic from earlier times, was that of Livisi (Kayakoy village near Fethiye). It’s like Dodecanesian and Cypriot, but odd.

8. If Konya counts as Western Anatolia, then you can count the dialect of Silli as an old dialect as well; it’s a bit like Cappadocian.

What is the etymology of the name suffix “maus” seen in the name “Oenomaus”/Oenamaus” where the prefix “oeno” stands for “wine”?

The book reviewed here: Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.58  proposes μέμαα, μέμονα “lust for”, “be eager”, “rage”. (The verb is related to mēnis, the rage of Achilles.) So, “striving for wine”. The book is about poetic etymologies, so it’s not clear to me this would be a linguistically correct derivation; but looks like it’s right, because you can always trust German scholarship:

In Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher (Hrsg.): Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie. Band 3,1, Leipzig 1902 http://www.archive.org/stream/au… , “striving for wine” is given, but rejected. From what my poor German tells me, everyone accepts that –maos is from μέμαα , but they reject that oino– is about wine, suggesting that it was insteaed ϝινο- “strong”, οἰν-οψ “dark”, or οἰωνός “bird of prey”.

The derivation from μέμαα threw me, but it’s an old enough verb for it to make sense. I can’t find any other words ending in –maos.

How is Lexa Michaelides’ surname pronounced?

Yes, Gabrielle Wilkinson Adams, it is hilarious that Lexa’s own answer was downvoted. Not incomprehensible, but hilarious.

In Greek, /mixailiðis/. In English, /majkəlˠiːdiːz/ (or something), as indicated in Lexa Michaelides’ answer to How is Lexa Michaelides’ surname pronounced?

As Philip Newton points out, one of the giveaways that Lexa would pronounce it the English way is that she doesn’t use the feminine version of the surname, Michaelidou /mixailiðu/, which would happen within Greece/Cyprus, or by a first generation immigrant not eager to assimilate.

(Says the guy with the translated patronymic that replaced Hadjimarcou…)

Evolutionary changes often hold improvements out of natural selection. Does the memetic evolution of languages hold any improvements, and if so, in what sense?

Very, very good question, and I don’t know if I will answer it satisfactorily.

Yes, language evolves, and yes, particular features of language are “naturally selected” because they count as an improvement.

The catch is that humans have conflicting criteria for what is desirable in human language. These seem to result in an equilibrium: languages do not evolve too far in one direction, because to do that would fulfil one criterion but break another.

For example, easiness is a criterion; and lots of phonological change is aimed to make language easier to pronounce. But if that trend went unchecked, it would continue until all human language consisted of “uh”, and it does not: there are several countervailing criteria, including communicativeness, vividness, distinctiveness, and iconicity.

And that’s because language is not used for just one purpose (to communicate), or with one goal (to be easy—and easy phonology is not the same as easy morphology).

English has had a slow, lumbering evolutionary process to make vowel length predictable, which April McMahon goes through in her textbook on language change: Understanding Language Change . Since vowel length is entirely predictable in Scots, you could argue that Scots is the evolutionary endpoint of English.

Yet even within English, there has been backsliding in this process. British privacy with a short /ɪ/ follows the long-term evolutionary trend, to make vowel length easier to learn. But in this instance, the trend runs afoul of iconicity, which says that if privacy comes from private, the two words should sound the same. Hence American and Australian privacy use the same long /aj/ as private.

What does the Portuguese language sound like to foreigners?…

In my considered opinion, Portuguese sounds like a drowsy headcold.

I randomly surveyed a representative sample of objective language critics (my wife), and have the additional answer “tongue-twisted”.

We all know Peter Falk had a fake eye. But did Columbo also have a fake eye, or did Falk’s fake eye play the part of a real one?

Courtesy Wikipedia: Columbo

Columbo’s unsettling, uneven-eyed stare was due to Falk’s glass eye in the right eye socket. It remained a mystery for 25 years whether the character had one as well, until 1997’s “Columbo: A Trace of Murder”, whereupon asking another character to revisit the crime scene with him he jokes: “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Is it true that native English speakers can’t pronounce geminate consonants?

As other respondents have said, we do in word boundaries. I don’t do morpheme boundaries myself (I pronounce wholly and holy the same).

We *used* to have geminates, of course, which is why we have them still in spelling. That’s why -d- between two vowels only survives in native English words if it was a geminate, like ladder. If it was a single -d-, it turned into -th- : father, weather < Old English fæder, weder.

Answered 2015-12-18 · Upvoted by

Logan R. Kearsley, MA in Linguistics from BYU, 8 years working in research for language pedagogy.