Tangiora — In our last session with the Spelling Queen she said she’d tell us about marking short and long vowels. I think we are talking here about the difference between HOP and HOPE. Good Morning Paquita. What do you mean by marking?
Paquita — Good morning Tangiora. Some languages use actual marks above vowel letters to show if they are short or long. English had a few but the early printers in London found them too fiddly and got rid of them. I’ve seen these marks above vowels in French menus, in Vietnamese information sheets in Carnarvon and Swedish labels in IKEA, but none in English, except a few French words like CAFÉ.
Tangiora — Then how do we know if it’s a short vowel or a long one, just looking at A, E, I, O, or U on paper?
Paquita — We use other letters. Letters are both spellers and tellers. When they are tellers they are telling other letters what to spell. Fairy E is perhaps the best known teller letter.
Tangiora — No doubt you are talking about the silent E at the end of HOPE that turns HOP into HOPE. How did that all come about?
Paquita — When the Norman French invaded England they brought their own priests which worked OK in church because Mass was in Latin in every country back then but when time came for the sermon the priests had no English, they could not preach to the English. It was no good using French because no one knew it in 1066. It took time for the English to switch to French and the poor people never did. So one smart Norman, called Orm, noticed that in English short vowels were always followed by double consonants. ‘Hen’ was HENN and ‘cat’ was CATT. Long vowels were followed by a single consonant which is why ‘coat’ was just KOT. The single T meant it had a long vowel. ‘Goat’, which sounded like ‘gart’ back then, was just GAT. So Orm used this simple spelling method to write sermons in English for the Norman priests to read out in English even though they could not understand much of it.
Tangiora— Paquita, when are we going to hear about Fairy E at the end of HOPE.?
Paquita — Back then ‘hop’ was HOPPIAN with a double P in the middle. ‘Hope’ was HOPIAN with just one P in the middle, but English ended up in the pig pen because after 1066 only the lowly serfs used it, and they dropped endings off words. So HOPPIAN became just H-O-P-P. And HOPIAN became just H-O-P. At the same time the scribes became fed up with doubling letters at the end of words like HENN and CATT and the newly shortened words like HOPP. They decided to stop doubling at the end. But that made ‘hop’ and ‘hope’, each with a single P, look the same so they added a silent E to HOPE to show it was once a longer word with a single P in the middle.
Tangiora — So if those old scribes had been in less of a hurry, we could be writing Cat, Hen and Hop with two P’s to shorten their vowels?
Paquita — Exactly, and we still have to use two P’s if we want to write HOPPING and not HOPING. I expect a little cursive E is pretty quick to write to show long vowels instead of doubling the ends of words with short vowels. I hope this explains why [hat] turns into [hayt] when we add an E.
Tamgiora — And is this the E, which turns a short vowel into a long one, called Fairy E?
Paquita — Yes. Teachers say that Fairy E sprinkles magic dust over her shoulders onto the vowel behind and it magically becomes a long vowel. Fairy E is a teller, not a speller, because it tells other letters what to spell. By the way Tangiora, if people ring in and say that we don’t double letters after short [e] in LEMON and ELEPHANT please tell them they are quite right and very sharp and there is a reason for that which I can talk about another time.
Tangiora — OK. What is your word for the day, Paquita?
Paquita — I have chosen DEFENESTRATE because it ends in Fairy E which tells A to spell its long vowel sound. We should never defenestrate while driving. It means to throw some thing or someone out the window! ‘Fenestra’ is ‘window’ in Latin.