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TWTS: Don't let your mistakes turn into silent letters

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This week we’re thinking about mistakes. Some mistakes are great, noble even. We can thank mistakes for everything from Penicillin and microwaves to Post-It Notes and chocolate chip cookies.

Other mistakes rob young readers of their innocence. Such is the case with the peculiar assemblage of letters we use to refer to a piece of land surrounded by water.

Call us dramatic, but how many of us tried to sound out “island” only to find ourselves betrayed by the very strategy upon which we were taught to depend? How many of us uttered “ihz-land,” only to be met with the incredulous guffaws of pompous, more-advanced readers?

The answer is too many. And it was all because of a mistake.

Not all tricky spellings in English came to us this way. Some are relics of earlier pronunciations. For example, “gnat” was pronounced “guh-nat” in Old and Middle English. Similarly, “knight” in Old English was pronounced “kih-nicht.”

The spelling of “island” is a different story which can be traced back to the Renaissance, when there was a renewed interest in classical Latin and Greek. Scholars were studying the etymology of English words and tracing them back to Latin, even though many had been borrowed in from French.

For example, “dette” was borrowed in from French. However, Renaissance scholars looked back to the Latin, “debitum,” and decided bring back the “b” back in order to show the etymology. They kept the pronunciation though, and thus we have “debt” with its silent “b.”

“Island” started off in Old English as a compound made up of the words īg” and “land” and was pronounced “ee-lahnd.” The first part, īg,” referred to a watery place. In Middle English, the spelling changed to “iland” with the pronunciation we know today.

At the time, English had also had the French borrowing “ile” which could be traced back to the Latin “insula.” Renaissance scholars elected to bring back the “s” to reflect the etymology, so “ile” became “isle.”

Once Renaissance scholars changed that spelling, they looked at “iland” and assumed it must be related to “ile.” It’s not. Regardless, scholars decided to “bring back” the “s” back in “island,” even though it was never there in the first place.

In turn, we’re going to assume this is what kicked off that saying about what happens to “u” and “me” when we “assume” something. Consider it a small token of vindication for all of the beginning readers who once said “ihz-land.”

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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