As at this stage there was not a generally accepted spelling system, confusion increased as the pronunciation of words slowly changed. In some cases there was a clear discrepancy between the written and the spoken word, as certain letters inserted in it were not pronounced, as in ‘debt’ /det/ – in this case it is due to its Latin etymology, debitum, dubitare -or ‘gh’ in ‘light’. Many scholars thought that English spelling was arbitrary, as its written form even varied from one writer to another. Sir John Cheke, for instance, doubled long vowels; ‘taak, haat, maad, mijn, thijn’ = ‘take, hate, made, mine, thine’. Richard Stanyhurst wrote ‘thee’ for ‘the’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘mee’, ‘neere’, etc. Also it is not clear to which extent is the writing indebted to the writer or to the printer, since most printers took advantage of the variability of English spelling to ‘justify’ a line.

Even in excerpts written by just one author we can come across different spellings for the same word, as in the case of the pamphlets written by Greene, where we find ‘coney’, ‘cony’, ‘conny’, ‘conye’, ‘conie’, ‘connie’, ‘coni’, ‘cuny’, ‘cunny’ and cunnie’.

As a result, there were several attempts to draw up rules;

  • in 1568, Thomas Smith increases the alphabet to 34 letters and marked the long vowels in his work “Dialogue concerning the correct and emended writing of the English language”.

  • In 1569 and 1570, John Hart in his works “An Orthographie” and “A method or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English”, he makes special characters for -dh, -sh and -th.


  • In 1580 there is an attempt at establishing a phonetic reform devised by William Bullokar in his “Booke at large for the amendment of orthographie for English speech”, in which he profits by mistakes made by Smith and Hart in the aforementioned works and invents few special characters but introduces the use of accents, apostrophes and hooks above and below the letters.

  • Later, in 1634, Charles Butler substitutes an inverted apostrophe for final e’s and a special character for -th, with scarce success in his work “The English grammar, or the institution of letters, syllables and woords in the English tung”.

  • Mulcaster clearly perceives all of the previous attempts as a waste in his work “Elemmentarie”, the most important treatise on English spelling in the 16th century and his virtue is moderation, being willing to compromise between the ideal and the practical. If the differences between one sound and another were too subtle, it was inevitable to use one letter for different sounds, which for him was not worse than using the same word in different senses. Also, since pronunciation changes constantly, he could not adhere to the proposals by the phonetic reformers. For him, popular approval was the final authority. Thus, he would get rid of superfluous letters (putt, grubb, ledd), would not omit necessary ones (fetch, catch), allowed double consonants only when they belong to separate syllables (wit.ting) and ended words in -ss as -sse (glasse), otherwise final -e indicating long preceding vowels (made-mad, stripe-strip) among other suggestions. He wrote “General Table”, a book with the recommended spelling for 7,000 words.

  • Ben Jonson drew from Mulcaster -as he acknowledged in the preface of his “Dictionary” in 1755, and finally established a solid basis for modern English spelling by 1650.

Word formation in English

Morphology is the branch that deals with the internal structure of words, whose structure are mainly modified by means of two phenomena: INFLECTION and DERIVATION.

  • Inflection: interacts with syntax. In English there are just a few examples left such as the genitive ‘s, but it’s almost inexistent in Present day English. In Old English inflection was quite rich.

  • Derivation: the introduction of new elements in the vocabulary leads to the creation of new words. It’s the most dynamic mechanism in word formation.

UM_pc012_A79-041_008_0007_005_0001 - Example of Elizabeth trance automatic writing

L.R. Trask pointed out the importance of other mechanisms involved in word-formation:

  • COMPOUNDING: the combination of two terms create a new term. One of the members usually qualifies (qualifier) the other (head). For example football, blackbird, greenhouse.

  • CONVERSION or ZERO DERIVATION: moving one word from a lexical category to another with no affixation or modificaion. Drink>verb>>noun

  • CLIPPING: reducing a word to a shorter form: telephone, brassiere, gymnasium > phone, bra, gym. It shouldn’t be mixed up with abbreviation. We don’t call it clipping until it has become a regular conventional word.

  • BLENDING: combination of compounding and clipping. Abbreviated forms of two terms combined into a single word: motel, heliport, Eurovision, brunch.

  • BACK-FORMATION: need of speakers to maximize existing strategies in an economic and convenient way. The suffix -er is added to verbs to denote the agent that performs the action (lover, singer). At different points English borrowed from Latin: sculptor, actor, editor. From Norman French: lecher, burglar. All these end up in what seems to be a phonetic variant of -er and are reinterpreted as one of their compounds: verb + agent indicator, and after accepting the noun, they start using the 1st morpheme as a verb.

  • REANALYSIS: using similar mechanisms to those of back-formation but more complex. Notion is similar to analogy. It’s necessary step previous to analogical development. Trask uses the following example to illustrate reanalysis: bikini = piece of clothing in two parts. Originally, Bikini was related to an atoll where the earliest nuclear bomb tests took place; thus, the meaning it confers to the piece of clothing is that it is supposed to have huge impact compared to bathing suits; as in English the prefix bi- = two, when a new bathing suit involving only the bottom part of the bikini was launched, it was called monokini, as bi in bikini was re-analysed as bi = two.

  • FOLK ETYMOLOGY: speakers give a transparent meaning to a word with a dark structure. For instance: bridegroom = in ancient times [guma = man + bryd = bride] = brydguma = brideman. When guma disappeared, the origin of bridegroom became obscure. Then, speakers associated it with groom = servant. Today groom = somebody who works with horses.

  • INITIALISM: reduction of a phrase or name to a few letters (usually the first one) of the principal words. When the letters are spoken one by one. As in FBI, BBC.

  • ACRONYMS: reduction of a phrase or name to its initial letters, but pronouncing it as a new word: RADAR, NATO.

(From Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable).

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgins started their major development in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a consequence of European imperialism.

Pidginization is the process of simplification and hybridization of two or more languages that have come into contact. Should there be only two, there would exist a relation of dominance of one over the other, based mainly on power.

Usually, pidgin serves a limited and specific purpose such as trade. The mechanism of its creation is a progressive hybridization of words from a language ordered according to the syntax of the oher. Grammar gets simplified so as to facilitate communication and acquisition of pidgin by its users, who keep using their native language.

pidgin colored bumper sticker

Although not every pidgin becomes a creole, some pidgins are used for centuries and eventually evolve through means of a process known as creolization: the language which was previously used for purposeful communication is acquired now as a mother tongue by the new generation and have to meet the demand for all kinds of communicative needs and purposes, expanding and becoming more complex in its grammatical structure and its phonology. It may even become an official language as it happened in Papua New Guinea. Some pidgins, after undergoing the process of creolization have gained a status of language in their own right. Kishwahili, Hawaiian Creole English, or Haitian Creole -with five million speakers- are some of them.

What kind of a bilingual speaker are you?

In the net and the translation market places, we can find lots of people who claim to be native, bilingual or multilingual. But what exactly does this imply? Are they using the terms properly? When can an individual be considered as bilingual? And, which kind of bilingual?

A bilingual individual has some knowledge of two or more languages but, does this person need to be equally proficient in both languages in writing and speaking skills? Let’s see some theories about the phenomenon.


According to Weinreich (1953) there are three subtypes of bilingualism:

*Coordinate Bilingualism: languages are learned in different conditions and separate contexts (home, school) and meanings from both languages are stored separately in the mind.

*Compound Bilingualism: both languages are learned in the same context and meanings from both languages are intertwined in the mind (child learning both languages at home).

*Sub-coordinate Bilingualism: implies learning (at home) one of the languages first and the other later, one of them being dominant.

Macnamara (1967) classified bilingual individuals in two subtypes:

*Balanced bilinguals: who have equivalent competence in both (bilingual family and society where both languages have an equal status). It entails a high competence, although the speaker’s command may depending on the domains. The speaker would rarely be equally fluent about all topics in all contexts.

*Dominant bilinguals: their competence in one of the languages surpasses competence in the other, at least in some domains (a child learning one language from each parent, one of the languages being also used at school).


Lambert (1955) establishes that balance or dominance depends on the age of acquisition:

*Childhood Bilingualism: during the child’s cognitive development.

*Adolescent Bilingualism &*Adult Bilingualism: cognitive representation of the world is already completed.“Re-labeling”.

Childhood Bilingualism can be:

* Simultaneous Infant Bilingualism (L2 learned early in infancy, after some development of the acquisition of L1)

*Consecutive linguistic ability: basic linguistic ability in L1 and L2 acquired one right after the other.

Also, according to cultural identification (Hamers and Blanc, 1989), a speaker can be:

*Bi-cultural: identifies him/herself with both cultures. High proficiency does not imply bi-culturalism.

*Mono-cultural: the individual feels culturally identified with just one group.

*Acculturated: migration, implying that the target country will favour L2, can persuade someone to deny the culture related to his/her mother tongue and foster that of the target country. The speaker wish to blend into the new society and culture.

What kind of bilingual are you?

Observer’s Paradox

Yesterday I was sitting in front of my terrapins, watching them. I have a male one and a female one, and they’ve been devoting some of their time to courtship lately. Mainly the male one, as the female specimen looks quite unresponsive to the male’s advances and his display of attentions. They belong to the family Trachemys and, when they reach their sexual maturity, they perform a nuptial dance. Well, the male one does, mostly, although she performs it sometimes, when she’s in the mood, as if she was encouraging him not to lose heart.

As I sat there watching them, my male terrapin, Mafaldo, started dancing as he always does: palms of his little hands facing upwards, and fingers flickering lightly and swiftly producing delicate caresses on the female’s face. In the meantime, the female one, Chupachusa, sat right there, just like me, but without my curiosity or any remarkable prospect at acknowledging the male’s presence: eyes closed, just in case his extremely long fingernails land accidentally in them, legs retracted partially inside her shell. Contrary to her, I thought it was a very interesting event, and I proceeded to record it with my phone: there it goes! the ultra-potent beam of light from the camera instantly thwarted the romantic atmosphere of the moment! Mafaldo lost all concentration and command of his limbs, unwillingly slapping Chupachusa in the face. What a mess! Then, they were both looked at me, accusingly, like saying: “What the hell are you staring at, you voyeur?”

Ashamed, I retreated and turned the camera off, apologetically…

And it all reminded me of Labov’s concept of the Observer’s Paradox when he was studying the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) to position himself against the “legend” which said AAVE was a symptom of verbal deprivation (white centric bigots…). He did this by means of using narrative analysis, that is, studying the interviewee’s verbal behaviour during their narratives of their own personal experience, given that people tend to use vernacular in that case. Apart from reaching the conclusion that AAVE is equally rich and effective as “normative” American English, he came across different responses from the interviewees, which led him to acnowledge the fact that the observed person may change their discourse to a more formal one if the observer seems distant, aloof, belongs to a different social extraction, has a different gender, race, age or speaks a different kind of vernacular. Thus, he had to investigate in order to minimize his impact as an observer.

So, next time I’ll were a shell-like helmet.