English language/Talk

< English language

HomePage | Recent changes | View source | Discuss this page | Page history | Log in |

Printable version | Disclaimers | Privacy policy

I'd like to point out that the explanation given for why English has such a tenuous connection between spelling and pronunciation is insufficient. Many other languages faced the same situation with the advent of the printing press and also borrow words without changing their spelling. German is a good example. The reason that German and other languages are easier to spell is that they have had spelling reforms. Why there haven't been any spelling reforms in the UK and the US is hard to tell. German is also spoken in more than one country so that's not a valid argument.


People often try to explain different writing systems by pointing out certain properties of a given language, but in fact, this is often based on misunderstandings and so on. Chinese has homophones, but does it really have more than say English? (Most people often think of words with different tones as homophones, but that seems like rather unlinguistic to do so.) Writing systems are used due to tradition and other ideologies, and not or certainl not only due to the features of a language. Of course, there is often - or at least it seems that there is - a connexion between writing system and language, but we have to be careful about that. A certain amount of essentialism is probably what human beings need - especially if they're gonna write an encyclopedia - but still, be careful. Oh yeah, and all languages are complex - there aren't languages who are more complex than others. Wathiik


It's a stretch to say that there have been no spelling reforms in English. Or, perhaps I misunderstand what is meant by spelling reforms--the differences in American English and British English, for instance, are in part due to the simplified spellings used in the former (colour vs color, etc.). Perhaps "formalized spelling reforms" are meant--but in that case, I don't know who would undertake them, as English has no equivalent to the Academie Français (does German?).

In any case, I'm wondering how to constitute a page to use as a reference when questions of alternate spellings or word use arise. I just created the page for gasoline and made petrol a redirect to it. I'd like to be able to insert a little reference like this 1 to indicate that at least some of us are *already* aware that the American words and spellings aren't the only words and spellings, and that the reason something like gasoline/petrol has been entered the way it is is because an American English speaker got to it first, and that's the way he approached it, which should be no surprise to anyone and no cause for consternation or offense, or at least, no offense was intended, and every reasonable effort was made to accomodate such differences, etc. etc. etc.

--dja


The two forms of English are more correctly known as American English and International English.

See http://www.ielts.org for more details.

You seem to be reading "International English Language Testing System" as "(International English) Language Testing System", while I would read it as "International (English Language Testing System)". Do you have any source for it being classified by linguists (and theirs is the classification that counts) that way? -- Simon J Kissane

Unfortunately the absence of International English as page (while the search engine was down) caused me to create pages for International English and American English. Oops. These pages probably should be deleted and the pre-existing "British English" page renamed.


When was banque used in British English? (Quebec is not in Britain.) When was arguement used in British English? Information should be removed if it's just plain wrong. --Zundark


  • "...correctly called International English" By Who??? Americans? (This is said with a <grin> :), btw). Does anyone outside of America group non-US English forms in this way? I've certainly never encountered it. Isn't your usage of the term 'international' effectively the same as 'non-American' here, and hence subject to charges of bias?
Also, the English spoken in Canada is substantially different to the English spoken/used in Australia, yet you are grouping them together. BTW - I'm writing some revisions off-line and will upload them later. But if you can provide me with a resource that supports your grouping approach, I would be (quite genuinely) glad to read it. Warm regards, Manning
It is not a grouping for all non-American English but instead for the English used by the British Commonwealth. See Google for discussions of International English and you'll find that people repeatedly prove it's existance there. International English reflects the fact that *formal* English as used in the British Commonwealth is no longer owned exculsively by the British and reflects a wider language group. Contemporary English usage is much more divergent and this is what I feel the individual Australian English and Canadian English pages should be for.

I don't have any sources at my fingertips, but I believe that it is generally believed to be the case that the Norman conquest left little impact on the vocabulary of the English language, which continued to be spoken by most people outside the court. My understanding is that the vast majority of French loan words entered the English language in the Middle Ages, long after the Norman conquest.


A recent paper showed that native speakers of English are more prone to be noticeably dyslexic than native speakers of Italian, probably because Italian is more forgiving. Brain scans show similar levels of difficulty processing written English and written Italian, but fewer Italians have enough trouble that they, their families, or their teachers notice it. (Not sure how to put this into the main page.) Vicki Rosenzweig


Moving debate from the Scientific Method/Talk page to this one:


A petty distinction - The grammatically correct expression is "A hypothesis" and not "An hypothesis". We are speaking English, not French. The affectation of applying French modifiers to fully-absorbed latinate words is a pretentious British habit. You only use the "an" when the "h" is silent, as in "hour" and "honour". You use "a" when the sound is consonant (eg. house, hotel, history, european, uniform). Unless you are pronouncing it as "eye-pothesis" (which I hope you are not) then use the correct indefinite article. See - http://www.edufind.com/english/grammar/Determiners3.cfm

Except for the fact that since the term has been used, it has traditionally (more formally) used "an". "Pretention" doesn't come into it, particularly if you consider what the word means http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=%20pretentious


Who cares? This is like the "data is/data are" arguments. For the record, "data is" works just fine in contemporary usage, and I am not alone in my opinion. Manning, have you a bias 'ere? :)

Definitely - NPOV applies to affectations employed solely to humiliate the less-well educated.

This is a topic of my research - English language evolution. The affectation of using an instead of 'a' emerged during the mid-19th century as the result of a cultural cringe in England - it was very fashionable to use French inflection and vocabulary. Hence the British use the words 'courgette' and aubergine' instead of the 'zucchini' and 'egglant' used by everyone else. There is absolutely no grammatical justification for it, it was purely a trait usd by the upper classes to distinguish themslves from the "masses". Meanwhile in the majority of the english-speaking world the "pure" grammar was maintained. A lot of the British criticism about "American" abuse of the language is completely unfair - all evidence indicates that the american useage of english is a lot more "authentic" than that spoken by the British upper classes. (I'm australian by the way, not American so I hope I will not be accused of bias)

So unless you can grammtically justify the usage (which I do not believe is possible) then I will actively campaign against it. An affectation used by a tiny minority of the population (so far you have only cited philosophers and academics) should not be permitted in the Wikipedia. - MB

PS - "data is" - "data are" is less definite, as english grammar permits both to exist. It depends on whether or not data is a plural form (like boxes, cattle) or as a singular form (like "information"). The ambiguous meaning permits ambiguous grammar.

Well! Finally we can have a perfectly meaningless a/an squabble, for a change ;)
MB, your explanation of "an hypothesis" seems very fishy to me, because the OED includes a citation of "an hypothesis" dating to 1678.
It seems that there's a better, and more logical, explanation, based on the fact that in British English the word may be pronounced both as hai-pothesis and hi-pothesis. The second form will naturally take "an" in more traditional written English, as witness numerous examples of "an history" in various centuries, not just the 19th. In pronunciation of such words, "an" is phonetically justified by the fact that the consonant h is rapidly pronounced or even glossed over, when the article is joined to the word.
I think that "an hypothesis" is justified, but so is "a hypothesis" and I like it better ;)
--AV

Nicely put - especially the OED reference. In any case, this argument is truly meaningless. I was originally more miffed at MB's use of the word 'pretentious' for an individual who used/uses the "an". John Lynch

John - to prove that I'm not just talking from opinion, here are some research notes which explain where the misuse came from in the first place.

(assembled from various sources)

The "a" vs. "an" dispute.

All textbooks of English grammar present the rules for the choice of the indefinite article as follows:

1- Nouns or adjective beginning with a consonant sound - use "a"

Examples: A house, A car, A dog, A happy event, A high place, a frantic pace.

This includes words beginning with vowels that have the hard "Y" sound: A union, A european, A utopian existence.

2- Nouns or adjective beginning with a vowel sound - use "an"

Examples: An apple, an entrance, an ignorant person, an opening, an unkind word.

This includes words beginning with consonants but that have a vowel sound, such as the mute "h" An hour ('our), an honour ('onour).

(my note) OK - those are the rules. Please refer to any text of grammar if there are any uncertainties. (end note)

Now it is known that some people pronounce the "hard h" using the vowel indefinite. Exactly where did the habit of saying "an historic event", "an hypothesis" actually come from?

The etymology and history of these words needs to be traced. Words that derive from Germanic or Middle English such as "house", "high" and "huge" have all safely preserved their "hard status". It is only with words that entered the language from French since 1500 that this inflection is used. We shall focus on "historic" and "hypothesis" as two prime examples. (NB - I added hypothsis as an example, it was not in the original)

Dictionary references for "historic" and "hypothesis" data back to 1607 and 1678 respectively, and in each case they are expressly presented using the "an" article. The justification for this is that at that time the words were relatively new to the language, and were most likely still being pronounced with the "soft h" sound of the original French. However, as the language fully absorbed the words the written "h" was implemented with most of these words ("hour" and "honour" being the 2 exceptions, the "h" remaining silent.) The written usage of the word with the hard article "a" began to appear in early 1700, indicating that the pronunciation had changed. By the mid-1700s the usage of the hard modifier was consistent.

In the mid-1800s a reversal began to emerge in upper class and academic circles, probably linked to a 'continentalism', and a French pronunciation was adopted for several (otherwise fully anglicised) words, notably "hotel" (became 'otel), "restaurant" (became "restorohng" with the French nasality). It is likely that "historic" became "ee-stor-eek" at this time, in accordance with the French "historique". With this pronunciation, the vowel indefinite "an" is warranted.

However the pronunciation reverted (again!) to the English form in England by the turn of the century (in the colonies there is no evidence it ever changed). However, among the academic classes, the habit of associating these words with the vowel-indefinite persisted, probably as the result of reading academic works that were written by authors who used an alternate pronunciation. This persists to the present day, but only within the "educated" classes. This is grammatically incorrect, you do not use the vowel article with the consonant sound. Properly one should either adopt the vowel pronunciation ('istoric') or use the hard article (a).

There is one other case where the vowel modifier is used - there are a number of vernacular modes of the language where the 'h' is "dropped" to produce an 'ouse, an 'orrible person. This vernacular usage is grammatically incorrect in every way, but is unlikely to change.


Nice notes, MB!

However, I still disagree with this picture. Here're some arguments to back me up.

First, if what you say about the hard h in "historic" having been universal by the mid-1700s, we shouldn't expect to find "an historic" from middle 1700s to middle 1800s. However, the OED lists "an historic" in 1762-1771, and "an historical romance" in a Jane Austen novel; yet another "an historical" is dated to 1834. "An hypothesis" is found several times in the late 18th century and once in 1827.

I do not dispute your explanation of the fashionable Frenchified pronunciation which dropped the aitches in words like "historic" and "hypothesis". But you say it yourself: this started after the 1850-s. Since there seem to be plenty of an-s before that, we have three options to explain them:

1. These were learned spellings imitating genuine "an"-s from the 17th and the 18th centuries. This explanation is rather unlikely. 2. Some people continued to drop their aitches completely in "historic" and "hypothesis" throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, and they wrote "an-". Well, while whole dialects definitely dropped aitches completely, it's doubtful that many educated people did, and they were probably especially careful not to do that in writing, since preserving aitches has been the shibboleth of good taste in English society throughout the 19th century and for some time before that. 3. People pronounced aitches in these words, but dropped them in combinations with "an", in rapid pronuncitation; thus "historic" but "anistoric moment", and similarly with "hypothesis". This is the explanation I believe to be correct, and it provides the justification for "an hypothesis" and "an historic" in spelling -- as the traditional form. Note also my previous remark on this page on the pronunciation of "hypothesis" with initial [i] which allows for h-dropping.

As some additional evidence for my point of view, consider this quote from Jespersen's A Modern Englsh Grammar..., the phonetics volume. The quote comes from the description of the transitional period between the 18th and the 19th centuries:

Initial h before a weakly stressed vowel, as in historical, hibernal, Hibernia, Hungarian, etc. is often made silent in common words when they are not immediately preceded by a pause: some historical paintings /svm istorikl peintingz/; but Historical plays /historikl pleiz/ (Thus Grandgent for American pronunciation). This accounts for the widely spread use of an (instead of a) in such cases, which is recommended by many authors whom one could not suspect of dropping their h's in other cases. (emphasis mine).

--AV

yes AV - there is nothing quite so fun as a raging dispute about something so trivial as to be laughable! (Actually in light of the real events in the world at the moment, I can't think of anything I'd rather do... it's considerably less depressing than arguing about anthrax or terrorism). Actually I can't think of any arguments to dispute what you've presented, except for the compelling argument that ANYTHING EVEN REMOTELY FRENCH SHOULD BE AVOIDED!!! (bloody frogs). It is a well known fact that the French are 'orrible little gits - in fact that should be a Wikipedia article... I can't understand how it's been avoided so far. For reference see: [1] - there - incontrovertible proof :)

you're right, what can I say? - it is a winning argument ;) Down with the froggies and down with 'an hypothesis'!
(and thanks for the great link that had me in stitches) --AV
AV - hahaha - thanks for the link in Self-reference!

As the original perpetrator of "an hypothesis" in the article in question, let me say that my own use is based simply on what sounds better to my ear and is easier to pronounce. CMS rules allow the option here: words beginning with a pronounced "h" in an unstressed syllable can take either "a" or "an". "A historic..." is hard to pronounce without secondary stress on the first syllable, or an awkward glottal stop, or losing the distinctive "i" sound. "An historic" alleviates these problems, at the cost of sounding a bit snobby. "A hypothesis" isn't as bad, but if I choose to use "an historic" I should be consistent, so I choose to use "an" for all these cases. I generally prefer American and Anglo-Saxon usage on most things, but when the latinate usage makes sense for other reasons, I see no reason to avoid it; wanting to sound middle class is no less shallow than wanting to sound upper class. --LDC


It is my understanding that the Chicago Manual of style specifically addresses the question of "an historic" and it rejects it. I don't know if any American style guide that considers it acceptable or not, but I would actually be surprised if any did. I don't know what is considered acceptable in British English or some other variant of English.


The reference to Ebonics seemed to be singling out one specific American subdialect, so I changed it to refer to other sub-varieties as well. Also the term "Ebonics" was not originally derisive in origin (its proponents coined the term, if I am not mistaken).


At the risk of ressurecting an old debate, I want to address the grouping issue. I've been quietly researching this for weeks now and I think we are going about the taxonomy of English all wrong.

First of all, there is no such thing as "Standard English" - I think everyone agrees on that. What we need to do is distinguish between "orthographical systems" and "spoken variants". Now OED, Fowler's Usage, American Heritage all identify two orthographical systems: "American" and "British". (One reference identified "American" and "Traditional" but if I were American that would annoy me). I propose that we use those terms in accordance with the respected authorities.

Then we have the spoken variants, and they are what they are - I fail to see why they need to be grouped at all. The current system refers to "US, Australian, South African, Canadian, etc" English.

Are people happy with the ideas of an article (or two) on orthography that clearly distinguishes the two variants (wntitled Written American English and Written British English), and all the other pages deal with the spoken variant subject (noting which orthographical variant is in common use).?

The current pages on Commonwealth English and International English can be cut back and cross-referenced to the orthographical pages, as they are really only terms used in the computer industry to describe the orthographical variants (and they are inaccurate, as Canada is part of the commonwealth) - MMGB


I essentially agree with you, but I do think that the spoken languages can be grouped if we wanted to. The spoken variants of Canadian English and American English, for example, are similar enough that they could get grouped into the same category. Somewhere in one of the Talk sections of the myriad English language articles, I posted a quote from the book "The World's Major Languages" that grouped the spoken language into two broad cateogires. However, I don't have any great attachment to creating articles on these broad spoken categories of the language, which are probably somewhat vague. --Egern.