SPELLING - Irregularly spelt short u

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SPELLING - Irregularly spelt short u

Post  Vincent Law on Sun Sep 09, 2012 10:01 am

In 48 common English words the short u-sound of ‘fun, sun, summer’, is spelt o. This happened mainly because before the arrival of printing in England in 1476, copiers of handwritten books disliked having too many short downward strokes next to each other, as would result from a sensible spelling of ‘munth’. When an u-sound occurred next to the letters m, n, v and w, they often spelt it with o instead. The practice has become known as ‘minim stroke avoidance’ and was mostly abolished after the invention of printing (much, mud, summer), but continues to survive in 48 words.

The minim stroke avoidance probably started with v and w, because the v-sound and short u-sound were both spelt with the letter u until almost 1700, as can still be seen in many inscriptions in old churches. This is also why w is called ‘double u’.

‘Luue’ and ‘duue’ would have been a little hard to read before the introduction of v, but there is no good reason why the u-sound next to v should continue be spelt o. Nor is there any need to continue decorating a final v with –e, irrespective of need (e.g. drove - glove, stove - love). At one time printers were fond decorating nearly all words with an extra –e (olde, worlde, worde). Most have since been dropped, except after v.

* Many of the 48 words with an irregular o have missing doubled consonants too (e.g. onion):
Above, among, come, comfort, company, compass,
*cover, *covet, *covenant, done, dove, front,
glove, *govern, *honey, love,
Monday, *money, monger, mongrel, monk, monkey, month, mother, none, nothing, once, *onion, *oven, pommel, shove, *shovel, slovenly, some, smother, son, sponge, stomach*, ton, tongue,
won, wonder, worry,
brother, other,
*colour, *dozen.

Why ‘one’ has ended up without its w is a mystery.
‘Brother’ and ‘other’ probably acquired their o by analogy with 'mother'.
‘Colour’ and ‘dozen’ derive from the French words ‘couleur’ and ‘douzaine’, but have been shorn of the wrong letter.

Most imports from French have been respelt according to English rules, to show their changed English pronunciation, (e.g. bouger – budge, bouton - button, souple – supple), but 7 words with a short u-sound still conform mostly to French rather than English rules:
*Couple, *courage, *cousin, *double,
*nourish, touch, *trouble.
In the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s plays ‘cousin’ is often spelt ‘cuzzen’.

Another 12 words have ended up with irregular spellings for the short u-sound (sometimes with other irregularities too, e.g. enough) for assorted, often no longer fathomable reasons:
blood, flood, country, does, enough,
hiccough, rough, slough, southern, tough, *thorough, young.

It is frequently claimed that many English spelling irregularities are valuable because they show how English connects with other languages. The spellings of ‘blood, flood, brother’ and ‘mother’ show that this is often also not the case.

‘Blood, flood, brother’ and ‘mother’ are clearly related to the German words ‘Blut, Flut, Bruder’ and 'Mutter’. Their irregular English spellings obscure their Germanic roots, as well as making learning to read and write more difficult.

All the 67 tricky words with irregular spellings for the short u-sound could easily comply with the English spelling patterns of 'fun run' and 'sumptuous summer'. 'Summer' somehow managed to end up spelt regularly, despite its relation to the German ‘Sommer’ and having an u next to an m, just as 'sum' and 'pump' have, despite their connection with French 'somme' and 'pompe'.

If spelt as shown, the words below would all be much easier to learn to read and write:
Abuv, amung, blud, bruther, cumpas, culler, cum, cumfort, cumpany, cuntry, cupple, currage, cuvvenant, cuvver, cuvvet, cuzzen, dubble, dun, dus, duv, duzzen, inuf, flud, frunt, gluv, guvvern, hickup, hunny, luv, Munday, munger, mungrel, munk, munky, munny, munth, muther, nun, nurrish, nuthing, pummel, ruf, shuv, shuvl, sluf, sluvnly, smuther, spunge, stummac, sum, sun, suthern, thurru, trubble, tuch, tuf, tun, tung, unnion, uther, uvn, wun, wunce, wunder, wurry, yung.

The simplest spelling for 'couple, double, pommel' and 'trouble' would really be 'cupl, dubl, puml' and 'trubl'. The patterns exemplified by 'bubble', 'rubble' and 'pummel' are hangovers from the time when unnecessary letter doublings and extra e's were common (hadde olde shoppe). They have many exceptions as well (triple, model) and are ripe for simplification.

Vincent Law
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