Working for planned change in English spelling
for the benefit of learners and users everywhere
5 June 1999Dear SSS Member
I'm now circulating to all SSS members papers concerning the Langscape Questionnaire 6, on consonant-doubling. Enclosed are two documents:
1. A 2-sided copy of an item from English Today. One side explains the Langscape project, and the other presents the questionnaire.
2. An 8-page response from the SSS, based on a consensus derived from consultation with the Society's emailing members. This is enclosed for your guidance and information. Copies of this document will be submitted to Langscape on behalf of the Society and to the editor of English Today.
The questionnaire offers the Society, through its members, an opportunity to influence an important authority for the English language. The questionnaire, of course, covers only a fraction of the irregularities of written English, but our response puts forward what we hope may be the seeds of more rational criteria for determining spelling choices in the future.
We hope you agree with the recommendations in the Response and will complete the questionnaire accordingly. But if you disagree on any point, please feel free to give different answers, explaining your reasons on a separate sheet. Please write SIMPLIFIED SPELLING SOCIETY at the top of your questionnaire.
If your address is in Europe, please send your questionnaire to the Cambridge address. If it is not in Europe, please reply to Australia.
Best wishes - and have fun with the questionnaire.
Editor-in-Chief, Simplified Spelling Society
Professor Donald G Scragg
Dr Edward Rondthaler
Lord Simon of Glaisdale
Professor John C Wells
Dr Valerie Yule
Sir James Pitman
Surveying contemporary English usage.
LANGSCAPE is a Cambridge University Press project associated with both 'English Today' and a new international usage guide for the year 2000 by Pam Peters, author of the 'Cambridge Australian English Style Guide' (1995). Like the Australian publication, the international work will be distinctive in its use of empirical evidence from computer corpora as well as data elicited from surveys of users of English round the world. Because English is a world language, any account of usage that is limited to one person's views and resources is inadequate. The first topic and questionnaire ('The ubiquitous letter e') appeared in ET53 (Jan 98), the second ('To capitalize or not to capitalize') in ET54 (Apr 98), the third ('Differing on agreement) in ET55 (Jul 98), the fourth (Permanent loans: plurals for Latin borrowings) in ETS6 (Oct 98), and the fifth ('Jots and tittles') in ET57 (Jan 99). See below for further information on the Survey.
Gemini.Double consonants are toil and trouble for many users of English, in the stems of words like "accommodation" and "millennium", and at the junction with suffixes, as in "medal(l)ist" and "travel(l)er". In some cases there are alternatives; in others, only one spelling is acceptable wherever/whoever you are.
The rules and conventions governing the deployment of double consonants in English are many and varied. Sometimes they are fixed by etymology, especially in words derived from classical Latin such as "accommodation". This is also the reason for the anomalous spellings of "millenary" (from Late Latin) and "millennium", which is an Early Modern English compound of "mille" and the stem "-ennium". However research on the latter shows that it is now quite commonly spelled as "millenium", on the analogy of "millenary", and has appeared thus even in dictionaries. A further complication is the fact that Latin derivatives may be variously spelled in the descendant languages of modern Europe: hence, in English, both "guerrilla", from Spanish and "guerilla" which comes via French.
Double consonants are hardly ever sounded as geminates in modern English, i.e., so as to repeat the consonant sound (as in Italian). There is no clue in the pronunciation of "pallet" and "palate" of the different spellings in the middle, helpful though it would be for those who are uncertain about whether one or two ls are called for. Gemination (making the double-consonant sound) only occurs in such formations such as "woodenness" and "transsexual" - yet pronunciation of the latter also tends towards a single consonant, and the corresponding "transexual" is registered in the Oxford English Dictionary. Old English did make regular use of geminate pronunciations in distinguishing such things as the forms of verbs, e.g. "ridden" (past participle) and "riden" (an earlier subjunctive plural of the verb to "ride"). However geminate pronunciations disappeared in the transition from Old to Middle English, and only their spelling counterparts now survive.
Once geminated consonants were no longer pronounced as such, double letters could be invested with other linguistic value, and by the thirteenth century twinned consonants in English had clearly begun to signify the fact that a preceding vowel was short. The most remarkable evidence of this is in the Ormulum, a manuscript written by an East Anglian monk named Orm around AD 1200. In his way he was a pioneer spelling reformer, striving to systematically mark all short vowels with double consonants, hence examples such as "takenn", "unnder" and even "Ennglissh". His experimental spelling doesn't seem to have been emulated elsewhere, but it shows that double consonants were then available as an orthographic device for marking adjacent sounds in English, as they had been in Old French.
The doubling of consonants after a short vowel is now very familiar in the spelling of suffixed forms of words like "logged", "matting", "tubby" etc., and rarely seems to create anomalies... though one thinks twice about turning "pal" into the adjective "pally" or the verb "palled up with". Most English consonants, except "h", "j", 'q" and "x" can be double by sheer repetition of themselves, while "c" is double with "k" as in "picnicking". The practice occurs with many two-syllabled verbs ending in a single consonant e.g. "formatted", "programmer" as well as compound verbs such as "eavesdropper", "leapfrogged", "zigzagged". The presence of a separate or apparently separable second unit may reinforce the use of the double consonant, as in kidnap(p)er", "worship(p)ed, and "bias(s)ed", "focus(s)ing", though the alternative single-consonant spellings are also well used.
The alternatives here raise yet another issue with double consonants, that of their use to mark a preceding syllable as stressed. It can be seen as in the contrast between "deferred"/"differed", 'regretted"/ "marketed", among others. This application of double consonants helps to explain why substantial numbers of English-speakers use spellings like "libeled" and "dueling", rather than "libelled" and "dueller", and would prefer "worshiper", "focused" etc. In all these the double consonants seem redundant in terms of phonetic value, and heavy in appearance. Meanwhile those accustomed to the doubled consonant are inclined to feel that something is missing.
The elimination of second and redundant consonants was openly discussed by language commentators of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and practiced increasingly by printers who helped to forge the modern standard. Successive editions of dictionaries help to show the reduction of extra final consonants in words such as "logic(k)"/ "music(k)", and "festival(l)"/ "sentinel(l)", and the impetus was carried further into words such as "distil(l)", "enrol(l)", "fulfil(l)", among others which remain variable today. Johnson's dictionary of 1755 serves to show that this was a somewhat ad hoc process, of which he became less convinced in progressing through the alphabet: compare his spelling of "downhil" with "uphill". and "distil" with "instill". The removal of the second "l" has the unfortunate effect of hacking into the etymologically meaningful base "roll", "fill", "hill", and "still" of such words, and the reduced spellings were never equally established on both sides of the Atlantic.
With all these factors underlying the use of double consonants in English orthography, it is hardly surprising that there are anomalies and uncertainties in the cases of particular words. Langscape 6 presents a set of words with variable spelling in the twentieth century, to explore the currency of the alternatives.
Kjelimer, G. 1986. 'On the spelling of English millinnium.' In Studia Neophilologica 58.
Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. 1989. Oxford University Press.
Scragg, D.A. 1974. A History of English Spelling. Manchester: University Press.
Tucker, T. 1961. English Examined. Cambridge: University Press.
PAM PETERS is an associate professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, and coordinator of the University's graduate program in Editing and Publishing. She convenes the Style Council, and edits its papers and proceedings for publication. She is the founding editor of 'Australian Style, and author of the recently published 'Cambridge Australian English Style Guide' (1995).
The LANGSCAPE Survey: administrative details
- Each questionnaire focuses on a particular area of spelling, word form,
punctuation or grammar. The questionnaires are designed for you and your colleagues,
friends and students to discuss and return to us as soon as convenient.
- Anyone can enter the survey at any point. It is not necessary to complete every
questionnaire, but it would of course be helpful to the project.
- Each quarter, we have been reporting the results to date, so that readers can
see how their responses match up with those from elsewhere in the world, and whether
there are differential trends according to age, gender, schooling, home region,
- Contributing institutions including university departments, colleges and
schools, are eligible for inclusion in the Langscape Roll of Hono(u)r, to register
their participation in this research.
- All responses are being handled collectively, without identifying any particular
respondent in the summary of results. Please return the questionnaire to any of the
- Pam Peters, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University NSW 2109,
- Kevin Taylor, Cambridge University Press, Shaftesbury
Road, CAMBRIDGE CB2 2RU, UK
© Cambridge University Press. April 1999.
English Today 58, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 1999). Printed in the United Kingdom © 1999 Cambridge University Press
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