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.


18 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.

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  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?

  9. Another wonderful episode but I’m distraught to see I’ve nearly caught up. No more binge listening while cooking the Sunday dinner! I would like to correct one thing you said Kevin, about th being pronounced t in Ireland. Pretty much the only word pronounced this way is ting (thing). Th is commonly pronounced as d, especially in the country and by those less educated. There’s a fair bit of prejudice surrounding this and it would be difficult to make it in public life in Ireland if you do this. There’s are exceptions but they are rare and you run the risk of being seen as a ‘gombeen’. We even have a phrase: “Dis, dat, dese, dose, and de udder tings”. Interestingly, th in Irish is pronounced h at the beginning of a word and not at all at the end so I’m not sure where th as d comes from.

  10. Both my wife from NYC and I from Philly pronounce “comptroller” the same as “controller”. And my dictionary (New World, copyright 1988) offers no other way of saying it.

    There is a river Thames, pronounced “Thaymes”, through London, Ontario.

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  12. I just now got around to listen to this episode and was surprised to see a glaring error. As someone else has mentioned, Kevin correctly mentions that the letters phi ⟨φ⟩ and chi ⟨χ⟩ represented the aspirated voiceless stops [pʰ] and [kʰ] in Ancient Greek, which the Romans transliterated as PH and KH and which in medieval Greek became fricatives [f] and [x], but when it comes to the letter theta ⟨θ⟩ for some reason he says it represented the fricative sound [θ] though actually it was the also voiceless aspirated stop sound [tʰ], which only became fricative [θ] in medieval Greek. By the way, educated Romans often spoke Greek and they probably pronounced the aspirated sounds correctly when they spoke the Greek loans in Latin, which is why the added the H to the standard letters P T and K, though most Romans surely didn’t. Another mistake was to say that English PTK are unaspirated. Although it is not a phonemic distinction in English, English PTK are aspirated when they start a stressed syllable.

    • Hi Jon. Thanks for the feedback. My statement that the ancient Greek sound represented by theta was akin to the sound used in English was based on a description in Davis Sacks’s book called ‘Letter Perfect.’ Admittedly, his comment on the subject is a bit vague, but I understood him to say that the two sounds were essentially the same. That was my mistake since I don’t have detailed sources on the pronunciation of ancient Greek.

      With respect to the suggestion that English P, T and K are not aspirated, I think you misinterpreted my comment in that regard. In the episode, I mentioned the specific aspirated consonants that were used in ancient Greek, and I noted that neither Latin nor English has those specific sounds. My understanding is that the Greek sounds represented by PH, RH, and KH were distinct from the P, R and K sounds used in Modern English due to the significant aspiration used in the Greek versions. That’s why I said that English does not have those sounds. I was referring to the specific sounds used in ancient Greek, not aspirated consonants in general.

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