Honour, colour, and 1066

Posted on October 17, 2009


Not long ago, JohnnyB, an American, dared to complain (on this very blog) about my use of Canadian/British spelling — specifically, of the letter “u” in various words such as “colour” and “honour” (comment section of Getting rid of a mould infestation in four steps).

Granted, the English language is not one of the world’s more logical languages.

We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

To add to the complications, when speaking metaphorically we often use the “wrong” form of the plural. For instance, we would say, “Those two dancers are bumbling around like a couple of oxes,” not “a couple of oxen.”

On the other hand, we wouldn’t say “those two are as clever as foxen,” rather than “foxes” — so it’s not like it’s a general rule or anything.

So I’ll admit that English has its spelling peculiarities and that I have a little bit of sympathy for those who want to simplify it.

After all, English speakers are just about the only people who having spelling bees because if you asked the speaker of some other language how to spell a word, they’d look at you and say, “You spell it the way it sounds, you moron.” Except, of course, they’d say it in that other language.

But before you get all indignant and blameful and stuff about English, remember this: it’s not our fault.

It isn’t. English is actually as logical as any other language. The problem is, the language we speak — that is, the language we know as “English” — has almost no English in it. In fact, depending upon which authority you ask, English makes up only 1.5% to 2% of our language.

Are you getting that? Almost 98% of what we speak is not English.

Ironically — while most of the words we use aren’t English, English has the largest vocabulary in the world.

It all started when Rome invaded in the first century, bringing with them roads, baths, and the Latin vocabulary (since the Romans hadn’t yet devolved to speaking Italian.) When they left a few centuries later, the Danes invaded, bringing with them horned hats, delicious pastries and the Danish vocabulary. When the Danes were finally beaten back, England started to pull itself together linguistically. And then we were invaded by the French, who were cleverly calling themselves “Normans” so people woudn’t hate them. (It didn’t work.) With the French came rude service, butter sauces, and the French vocabulary.

Although English had struggled some during the previous invasions, Norman rule almost wiped it out. French was the language of the courts and all official business, and Englishmen with any standing at all made sure that they learned the language. Basically, the only people still speaking English were the serfs. Even this wouldn’t have been so bad, perhaps, but along with their language, Normans also brought feudalism: a repressive cultural institution in which peasants were restricted to one plot of land. This meant that travel became exceedingly rare. As a result, while the English language changed (as all languages do), there were no longer lines of communication linking these changes together. As a result, it changed in random directions all over the country, and a serf from one village may not be able to understand a serf from another village 25 miles away.

Fortunately, the English language (which by now consisted of Latin, Danish, and French) was saved by its greatest ally: The Black Death.

When the plague killed of more than a third of the workforce in the 14th century, the serfs and peasants suddenly had a bargaining advantage. They got to travel, and those in power actually started to learn some English in order to speak to them.

Over the next century, the English beat back the Normans (who gave up on trying to get people to like them and started admitting that they were French). The next step was putting the English language into some kind of order, but that wasn’t an easy task what with so many different dialects.

So for a “standard” we turned to London which had been around since early Roman times (not to be confused with early Times Roman), and through the centuries had developed a kind of street language combining elements from a large number of dialects.

From this point on, English started to develop into the language we know today.

The spelling, however, was all over the map.

Samuel Johnson reacts unfavouably upon discovering that hed misspelled honour and colour.

Samuel Johnson reacts unfavouably upon discovering that he'd misspelled "honour" and "colour."

Of course, few people noticed this until the printing press came along and people like Samuel Johnson started publishing dictionaries. To bring some semblance of order to the spelling, words were spelled more or less according to their language of origin.

For instance, our spelling of “honour” and “colour” reflects the fact that these words are from the French, a language that often spells words with “ou.”

Not, however, “honour’ and “colour,” which they spelled honore and colore. But many other words in French are spelled with “ou” and so we stuck it in these words as well.

Oh sure, if you want to be technical, it’s what you might call a “mistake” or an “error.” Picky people might point out that it’s an “inaccuracy,” a “miscue,” a “goof-up.”

But so what? It’s a long-standing tradition, and it allows us to make subtle distinctions between two meanings of the same word.

Take “mould” for example. In British/Canadian spelling we have two words: “mould” and “mold.” This allows us to make a distinction between the stuff that grows on your walls when the hot-water tap won’t shut off (mould), and something that can be used as a form to make something (mold).

And then there’s “check” and “cheque.” When Canadians want to make sure something is right, we “check” it. But when we have to pay money to someone, we run away, change our names, and move all our assets to an offshore account.

Failing that, we write a “cheque.”

And then there’s — uh.

Well, there’s… .

Okay, so there aren’t any more. But that’s not the point.

The point is, we spell various words with an extra “u” because it’s a mistake we made a long time ago. But we have the proud blood of the English and don’t knuckle under to pressure merely because something that we’ve been doing for hundreds of years isn’t right. We have principles. We have integrity.

We’ve laboured on our mistakes, and we have the honour to stand by them, damn it.

And that makes us colourful.

So lay off my “u”!