Tangiora: We’re going to learn some history this morning that is centred around the alphabet which arrived in Britain many years ago, when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and decided to stay. We shall ask our Spelling Queen to shed some light on this subject .
Paquita: The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and stayed on. They took their alphabet with them. It only had 21 letters then but that was enough letters to spell their words, Latin words, and the local Celtic words too. The Celts were the Aborigines of Britain. Later on the Romans needed Z to spell some Greek words they adopted. Zed was the sixth letter in the Greek alphabet but the Romans did not want it in theirs. It was the sign of the dagger – originally called Zag which means ‘dagger’. Zed looks like a zig-zag dagger wound – pretty scary. Eventually the Romans let it into their alphabet but only at the very end of the alphabet, and only to spell Greek words. After 400 years of colonial rule the Romans left Britain but their alphabet remained, and the fear of Zed remained too.
Tangiora: In your book The Inside Story on English Spelling you devoted a whole chapter to the letter Zed. You called that chapter the Curse of the Dagger. Would you like to see Zed used more?
Paquita: I don’t want to change spelling, just explain it. Zed is still the least used of all the letters. The English found ways to avoid using it. They used an S instead of Zed in words like HIS and HAS and IS and AS and to spell the ‘sss’ sound they used two S’s, in words like HISS and ASS, and KISS and BOSS, MESS and FUSS. Still do. French spelling comes under the curse too – they use S for Z and then CE in place of S in words like France and CI in words like city. Italians must be braver than their Roman ancestors because they are quite happy to use Z and from them we get the words zebra and zero.
Tangiora: Paquita, before the first invasion, by Romans, did Britain’s Aboriginal Celts read and write?
Paquita: Before the arrival of the Romans the Celts were already reading and writing but it was an art kept secret amongst the elders. They used it amongst other things to record their spells and we still say we are spelling when we spell words onto paper or spell them out loud.
Tangiora: Why was it a secret?
Paquita: Well the elders were respected and looked after so they could pass on all the tribal stories and songs and poems before they died. It took about twenty years for the next generation to learn them by heart. However, if all this history was written down the elders would not be needed anymore and so the elders did not teach everyone to read and write, just a select few. And anyway, while the elders were alive the people did not need to read and write.
Tangiora: We’ll look forward to uncovering more of the mysteries of spelling another time. That was Paquita Boston, our Spelling Queen.