Episode 153: Zombie Letters

In early Modern English, writers and printers began to revise the spelling of many English words to reflect their etymological origins. Old letters were revived from the dead to reflect sounds that had disappeared over time in those words. This fad reached its height in the mid-1500s, and it wreaked havoc on Modern English spelling and pronunciation. In this episode, we explore that phenomenon and see how it impacted Modern English.


12 thoughts on “Episode 153: Zombie Letters

  1. My first listening of your podcast was on Saturday with Zombie letters.
    I’m so excited to listen to the rest of the podcasts.

  2. Some sources say “security” and “fragile” came into English via a Middle French borrowing from Latin, rather than directly from Latin. For example, the latter is attested in the 1606 “Thresor de la langue francoyse” and both are still used.
    French “signe” and “signale” have always had a “g” and still do. Ditto the “mp” in “compte” (count).
    “Delight” was from Latin “delictum” which may have influenced the addition of the “gh” … (my own thought).
    Regarding the ‘L’ in “assault”, it was present in French in the 1600s, and you can see it toponyms like the Canadian city Sault Sainte Marie (sault meaning rapids or falls).

    • Kevin is right about compte—it was spelled conte in Old French. The mp was added by latinizing French writers toward the end of the 13th century. But as you note, the letter l was not a new addition in such groupings as -au/ault, -ou/oult, etc. It was vestigial. It’s not clear to me that it’s an instance of an attempt to latinize English.

  3. Pingback: Silent letters in English

  4. It’s already episode 153 and it never stops being fascinating and engaging. Every time a new episode is released, I stop whatever I’m doing to listen to it.

  5. Thank you for continuing the story of the English language in a very interesting way. It is still a crazy language but at least you explain how it it came about. I recommend your show whenever the subject of podcasts comes up.

  6. I’ve been listening to this podcast for about 5 years and finally caught up with this episode, which happens to be the episode that discusses my own last name (Thames). I’m not kidding – it could have been any episode that brought me current, but it happened to be this one. The world is strange.
    Anyway, I’m an American with a long heritage, and my “Thames” line traces back to the early 1700’s with an English immigrant named Amos Tims. According to a genealogy book I have, “one wonders what the first true spelling and pronunciation was, for as the families spread over the eastern and southern areas the name was Thombs, Thimbs, Tim, Timms, Thomes, Theames, Themes, Toms, Thams, Thame, and Thames.”
    My family has always pronounced it the way it’s spelled rather than the way they pronounce it in the UK. While occasionally people know how the British pronounce it, most people don’t, so it saves a lot of headaches. After college, before I learned that the current spelling was a result of the development described in the episode, I spent some time working at a pub in a small English town north of London. In most situations I would pronounce my name as they do, but some people knew that back home in the US I pronounce it differently and, I would argue, much more sensibly. I would write the word “Thanks” and ask them to pronounce it, then write “James” and do the same, and say, “so combine Thanks and James, and what do you get? Temz???” They had no answer other than to stamp their foot and say “that’s just how we say it”. If only they knew their linguistic history.

    • Well, in your favor, here in Connecticut we also have a Thames River, but we pronounce it “THAYMES” just like it’s spelled.

  7. Not only is there the famous River Thames, but there are also a few Rivers Tame in England. It seems that the addition of the H was far from universal.

  8. The th-sounds (θ and ð) don’t only exist in English, Icelandic and “some dialects” as you say, but also in Modern Greek, Albanian, Spanish, Catalan, Welsh… I wouldn’t call those languages “dialects”.

    • Kevin’s podcast is impressive, but I agree this episode had quite a few inaccuracies. The θ did not have a [θ] sound when the Latins transcribed it (it was probably still a [th] sound). It could have been an opportunity to discuss the fascinating convergence of sounds in Modern Greek and English, but I realize it’s a bit outside the scope of this podcast 😅 Also, I wouldn’t say English lacks aspirated sounds. Maybe French or Italian, but English?

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