Urban Desert Farmer

{August 21, 2011}   Why is there a ”g” in gnat? Why is there a ”k” in knight? Why are words spelled so stupidly?

Q. Why is there a ”g” in gnat? Why is there a ”k” in knight? Why are words spelled so stupidly?

A. You can’t write a simple sentence without hitting one of these psychotic words. Write. Psychotic. There’s two already. (And let’s not even talk about ”two,” a word that so baffles small schoolchildren it should be jailed for child abuse.)

What we have here is a quirk of language: Pronunciation changes, but not spelling. Pronunciation is the ultimate democratic enterprise, it can’t be controlled by government fiat or by rich snobs who talk as though they have lockjaw. If enough people say the word ”harass” with the accent on the second syllable, instead of as a homonym of Harris, then that must be an acceptable pronunciation if not the standard pronunciation.

Unfortunately, spelling isn’t like that: It is absurdly conservative. The reason there’s a ”g” at the front of gnat is that the ”g” wasn’t silent back in the days of King Arthur. They said ”guh-nat.”

”It’s strange. It’s a little glimpse back into the past,” says David Jost, senior lexicographer for the American Heritage Dictionary.

When King Arthur’s knights sat ’round the Round Table, they said the word ”knight” with a ”k” sound at the start and also the ”g” and ”h” sounds in the middle. We’ve tried to figure out exactly what that would add up to -something like ”kun-ig-hut.” It’s unspeakable. No wonder pronunciations have gotten simpler over the years.

So why hasn’t spelling changed too? Because of the invention of the dictionary. Words were spelled all manner of ways in Old and Middle English, but with the spread of printing technology there was a movement toward standardization. Dictionaries also enforce pronunciation, of course, but they are organized according to the spelling of words, not the way the words sound, and so any spelling changes would create more chaos within dictionaries than changes in pronunciation.

”Language isn’t something that a group or country or a government has a prerogative over, so it has to be changed by a general movement,” says John Simpson, co-editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

And such movements don’t arise. People are insufficiently outraged over the spelling of ”pneumatic” to demand a change. (And even if they insisted on something simpler, the powerful Spelling Bee Industry would lobby against it.)

Our own idea is: Let’s keep the psycho letters, and start saying them. Why say ”write” the normal way when you can say ”Wuh-rite”? Let’s be mad dogs and say the ”p” in pneumonia! Let’s say the ”m” in mnemonic! We’ll tie those dictionary people up in knots! (Kuh-NOTS.)


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