On weird spelling.

On weird spelling.

mugA friend recently served me tea in a mug with spelling advice, the sort that reads “i before e except after c, or when …” then rattles off words like “foreign,” “neighbor,” and “weird.”  The resident eight-year-old dramatically read the mug. She also read my tea leaves when I’d finished drinking.  The leaves seemed to form a w, which prompted me to write her a letter about why “weird” is spelled so weirdly.

I’ve long struggled with spelling.  Elementary school spelling bees made me feel faint – luckily I’d be asked to sit after one or two words – and I still feel slightly dizzy when spelling aloud, even though I only do it for my three-year-old or the men in jail.  Nobody’s out to disparage my intellect, but spelling makes me anxious.

IMG_6482My friends teased me for weeks in eighth grade because I’d written a report about squirrels for science class, and apparently I spelled the word “squirrel” twelve different wrong ways in just four pages.  I can’t even think of twelve reasonable mistakes, but my friends claimed to have counted.  Then again, eighth graders are prone to exaggeration, especially in the service of malicious humor – I certainly was.

Conventional English spelling really is abominable, though.

stonehengeI don’t think much is known about English before 1,000 A.D.  Plenty of people spoke the language earlier, but they weren’t writing it down.  Which is a shame, really.  At Pages to Prisoners, we get a lot of requests for information about ancient religions, but there’s not always much to send.  Nobody knows what the ceremonies at Stonehenge were like because that religion was displaced by Christianity around 700 A.D., before the English were writing.  Visiting Romans had written about early Anglo-Saxon beliefs, but their writings were propaganda, all condemning the “dangerous, wild druids.”

But there are books in English from the past thousand years, and these show the way spelling changed over time.  Since parenting doesn’t leave me much time to trawl through libraries for their oldest, rarest manuscripts, my linguistic spelunking is confined to the OED.  I have the two-volume edition (and sufficiently sharp eyes that I can still read it without the magnifying glass).

The sentences using “weird” include spellings ranging from “wyrde” to “wierd” – I’ve tried my best to guess what each might have meant, but I’m decidedly unpracticed at early English.  Rather than research or expertise, all I can offer are my attempts to sound out each word and guess what a writer might’ve wanted to convey.  But these writers’ beliefs were very different from my own.

1000: What wyrde has hyder my iuel vayned. (author unknown)

I assume this means, “What power has heard my vain cry,” or “Why does fate not take mercy on me?”

426px-King_William_I_('The_Conqueror')_from_NPGSoon after this was written, William the Conqueror earned his title – England came under the rule of Normandy.  French became the courtly language of England, and English was considered the uncouth province of serfs and servants.  Even now, French-derived words are generally considered more polite than the Anglo-Saxon, and we use French words to describe animals that have been killed and cooked for wealthy people to eat.

1385: The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyteous sad. (Chaucer)

“The forces that we call destiny have shaped her that she might need be piteously sad.”

In the early 1400s, English became courtly language of England again.  But official use didn’t make spelling any less eccentric.  Books were being produced one at a time, hand-copied by monks who sometimes altered words to suit their fancy.

EscribanoWhen the monks were deciding how to spell words, they often included etymologically-relevant silent letters.  Written language, they felt, should reveal its history.  For instance, the French word ile – land surrounded by water – became the English ile.  Then an “s” was added to make clear that the word derives from the Latin “insula.”  Fine.  But then the monks assumed that the similar word yland must have the same history, so they changed its spelling to “island.”  They were wrong, though.  The word yland comes from proto-Indo-European “akwa land,” a “water land.”  It should have no “s.”

There were no English dictionaries.  When laypeople wanted to know how to spell a word, they’d check a Bible.  But each Bible had been copied by hand by a different monk.  Words were often spelled differently from one Bible to the next.

512px-GutenbergIn the mid 1400s, Johannes Gutenberg introduced a “movable type printing press” to Europe.  (I was taught that he invented it, since elementary school history teachers in Indiana didn’t much care for celebrating Chinese discoveries.  We’d talk about China only on the Lunar New Year – instead of their cultural and scientific achievements, we learned about paper dragons and superstitions.)

With the printing press, there was more incentive to lengthen words.  Book producers had always been paid by the line, whether they were copying by hand or setting type, but typesetting is faster.  There was more risk of running out of work.  So the printers boosted profits by changing “frend” to “friend,” and the like.  Why would they worry about befuddling elementary students born centuries in the future?

And yet, the OED’s post-Guttenberg citation for “weird” has a particularly lithe spelling.

1470: As werd will wyrke, thi fortoun mon thou take. (Henry)

“As the powers that be will work, your fortune may you take,” perhaps faintly presaging “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

In the middle of the 1500s, England began to import English-language Bibles.  These were typically typeset abroad by people who used the spelling conventions of their own languages – we owe our “h” in “ghost” to the Dutch word “gheest.”  We almost wound up with silent “h”s in “ghospel” and “ghossip,” too, but thankfully those “h”s disappeared before they had a chance to confound me in spelling bees.

With more printed Bibles to consult, spelling conventions began to ossify.

1585: Vhom suld I warie bot my wicked weard, Vha span my thrifties thauard fatall threed? (Montgomerie)

I assume this means “Whom should I fear but my wicked fate, who has spun my thread toward calamity.”  This seems like a particularly sad sentiment, to me.  Something goes wrong, a friend offers sympathy, and you say, “Nah, don’t worry about it, it’s just that God has cursed me.  Nothing to be done.”

Cheer up already, Eeyore!

In the 1600s, King James authorized a new translation of the Bible.  This is when English first looks like the language I speak.

320px-First_FolioAnd there was Shakespeare.  I think I’ll blame him for weird’s weird spelling.  In Macbeth, he wanted for weird to be pronounced with two syllables – in several of his plays he toyed with characters matching the pronunciation of words to their strange spellings.

(I still get confused when kids are playing Clue and somebody asks about the wanton rampages of kernal Mustard.  It’s not pronounced colonel?)

Instead of saying “wyrd” like we do, or “wurd” like English speakers had for centuries, he wanted the actor on stage to say “wee – yurd,” the way you might drawl it out if you saw a really gross slug or something.  Presumably that gave the people writing down his play an added incentive to spell it “weird,” to make clear that it needed two vowel sounds.

After all, words spelled with “ie” were well-known to have a single sound, just the typesetters’ way of making a quick buck.

1835: Puir auld wives … Were seized in Superstition’s clutches, An’ brunt to death for wierds an’ witches. (Alexander Smart)

“Virtuous women took up superstition and were burnt to death for being strange, or witches.”  Aren’t we humans grand?

1895: Weird wends as she willeth. (William Morris)

A beautiful sentence, to my mind.  It’s recent enough to need no translating, but you could render it as “Fate does whatever fate wants,” or even “God works in mysterious ways.”

Where will weird wend my life’s weft next?

On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.


p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

On crashing waves of violence and Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake.’

Our world was stolen.  Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.

I’m no communist, mind you.  It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number.  People’s effort to create more should be rewarded.  The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.

For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves.  But petroleum, for ages, had little value.  It was noxious black muck.  Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.

And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated.  They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth.  Those inventors did nothing wrong.

The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.

This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings.  Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land.  Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).

A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away.  The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans.  There were zero survivors.

Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors.  Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this.  You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia.  Extinction of Australian megafauna.”  “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America.  Extinction of American megafauna.”).

And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land.  Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed.  It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.

At other times, the newcomers were more numerous, or brought more advanced weaponry, or were accompanied by crippling diseases spawned by their cohabitation with swine.  In those instances, the newcomers often expunged the previous inhabitants.  This happened over and over again.  I don’t know much about the history of England, but I know a bit about Stonehenge, and how the people who built Stonehenge suffered a devastating apocalypse when newcomers arrived bearing bronze weaponry  … and then those newcomers, firmly established years later, were in turn conquered during the Norman Invasion.


Which always seems unfair.  After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end.  Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.

I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.”  A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.”  And quite telling.  It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.

For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece.  He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.

No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.

So, the world formed.  Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own.  Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land.  Taking it from others.  In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it.  This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:

anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right

Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago.  The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves.  Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.

But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means.  Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it.  And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another.  From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.

We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species.  Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent.  But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from.  That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers.  Their tragedies birthed our prosperity.  True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.

Edwards'_DodoIt’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge.  Did they know that their culture was being obliterated?  Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals?  The last Homo habilis?  The last Homo floresiensis?  Did they know that their kind were going extinct?  Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?

In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion.  The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically.  The man’s family is killed by the French.  He is driven away from his land.  And his way of life is coming to an end.  In Kingsnorth’s words,

The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history.  It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.

As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree.  The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation.  Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats.  The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people.  The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food.  Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.

Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.

9781555977177three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows

a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me

But then he loses his land.  All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king.  Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population.  Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no.  There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.

Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps.  But, inequality has been with us forever.  From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive.  Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared.  With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases.  It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk.  And easier still to horde gold.  Grain rots.  Gold does not.

Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself.  This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking.  At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe.  That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated.  Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory.  The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch?  So compensation decreased.  Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine.  Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all.  Only the owner of the machine makes money.

It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually.  But in this world, in England, it happened then.

CaptureI do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English.  As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t.  The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read.  Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents.  Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.

The early English created the nation we now live in.  They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from.  Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis.  Language seemed the best way to convey this.

Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings.  I speak only English and read many books in translation.  I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work.  I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit.  I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.

(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms.  I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ”  And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)

Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice.  The book’s language compels a reader to slow down.  Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words.  Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention.  And good literature rewards attentive reading.  In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.

All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world.  It gave me a lot to think about.  And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals.  It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss.  Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans.  People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.

And now?