Trump’s word of honer: in defense of Donald’s sloppy spelling | David Shariatmadari
Im no friend of the Republican frontrunner. But when it comes to orthography, maybe we should cut him a break
Its hard to take Donald Trump seriously. Thats bad, because hes terrifyingly close to winning the Republican nomination, which is a very serious state of affairs. The problem is, things keep getting in the way.
Mainly things on his Twitter feed. The presidential candidate has a reputation for speaking his mind, which, in social media terms, often means tweeting bizarre, unfiltered gubbins. Hes backed the idea that Too much #Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the minds of Iowans who prefer Ben Carson (or was that an intern who did a retweet?). He may have confused France with Germany. Hes insulted at least 199 people places and things in language that would fail to impress a grade-school teacher. All this despite the fact that his IQ is one of the highest and you all know it!. Baffling.
The latest Trumpism seems to have confirmed in many peoples minds that this man is a clown. He cant even spell! (Im putting to one side the possibility that Trump was in fact using the verb to hone in an unexpected and rather eloquent way).
But heres the thing. English orthography makes no sense. Theres already an unbridegable gulf between its two largest native-speaker populations over the way you spell this word. Brits like me use honour. For Americans, its honor. In this context, honer looks like a reasonable alternative. Maybe New Zealanders could adopt it?
While were on the topic, why do we need an h at all? Its not pronounced in any dialect, as far as Im aware. It would be perfectly reasonable to go one further than Trump and use oner. Speluz ov thuh werld, u hav nuthing tuh looz but yor tshanes.
Speakers of other languages often complain that written English doesnt match what you actually say. My French colleague, Jessica Reed, frequently finds herself outraged by the eccentricities of English. This morning she exploded at me over the word plaid (pronounced plad). It should be played! I am so livid about this! Jessicas strong feelings can be traced to the fact that there are very few surprises in written French the way the orthography corresponds to the sounds that come out of your mouth is regular and predictable (although exceptions do exist, and have to be learned like the hache aspir).
So why is English such a basketcase (another choice insult deployed by Trump in the debate on Thursday night)?
Well, its complicated. But mainly its because weve used writing for a very long time so long that changes in pronunciation have rippled through the spoken language, while spelling has remained rather conservative. Take words that end in ght might, light, fought, taught. At one time, these would have been said with a rough, guttural sound at the end a fricative meaningfully represented by the gh letter combination. This sound gradually lenited to nothing, but the scribes and printers stuck with what they knew.
And then there were various attempts at reform some of which made spelling more complicated. During the Renaissance, scholars sought to emphasize the links between English and the great classical languages, Greek and Latin, by making the spelling of Latin or Greek-derived words more closely reflect their origins. So, f became ph in words like sapphire and while Middle English had endite or indite, by the 17th century indict was being used, by analogy with the Latin indictre.
What about honour/honor/honer, then? British English retains the -our spelling used in Old French, as in other words like arbour, armour and endeavour (though there was lots of variation until dictionaries helped standardize spellings from the 17th century onwards). Americans dropped the u in these words under the influence of lexicographer Noah Webster, who argued that to purify our orthography from corruptions and restore to words their genuine spelling, we ought to reject u from honor, favor, candor, error, and others of this class. His reforms were widely adopted in the US from the beginning of the 19th century.
Since I started writing this piece, Trump has capitulated to the Twitter mob and swapped the e for an o. Honer is no more. But maybe he shouldve stood his ground. Have we just lost a latter-day Webster in the making? True, it was obviously a mistake, not an attempt at reform. But error has always been the wellspring of language change. Trumps alternative spelling was as valid as any of the others. But fine, I wont laber the point.