Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How to spell aisle?

A minute ago I was correcting an article on Bits of News about the recent defection of Quentin Davies MP from the Tories to Labour- its a political event which has some fleeting importance. But anyway in writing this, at one point too insignificant to mention I used as a verbal flourish the word aisle- but in my folly spelt it isle instead of aisle. Its a brief incident but as I corrected it I began to think- why had I got it wrong and why hadn't I noticed it when I wrote the original article last night.

The thing is that isle and aisle actually sound exactly the same- the thing about my writing and I don't know whether this is true for others is that as I'm putting these words down on the screen I am sounding them in my head. You are basically receiving an internal monologue- with full stops. So my mind guides me to write phonetically what I should write. That's not quite true though- take the word phonetically- I actually should write that fonetically were I writing phonetically- so its a little more complicated than just that my mind is transposing the sounds I hear in my head direct to the page.

What its actually doing is a feat of translation- there isn't a one to one correspondence between a letter and a sound- the letter e for instance can sound as it does in does, between or even isle where its silent. Rather my mind works with groups of letters, for some reason I have recorded in my brain that the letters g r o u p sound out something that phonetically might be spelled groop- its like a piece of coding that my brain automatically uses to refer to the sound I am making internally in order for your brain to make the same sound internally as you read what I've written. (I don't know about you but as I read I speak the words inside my head that I am reading.) Despite the fact that my fingers are tapping particular keys what I'm actually doing is writing whole words- groups of letters which signify various sounds in my head.

One of the interesting things about this though is that that's not quite how it works- if it were so I wouldn't know how to pronounce a new word that I'd just come across- all of you would know roughly for instance how to pronounce the word pasot though it doesn't exist in English and that's because what our minds are doing is stepping between two sets of signifiers- one is the set of letters, a b c etc, the other is the set of words that we remember where each letter changes slightly its basic meaning. The problem is that definitely in my mind I infer a logical relationship between the letters and the words- I infer that if there is a word I can't spell then I should by logically combining letters be able to spell it.

I think that's the reason I struggled with aisle this morning- because what afterall is that a doing there- doesn't add anything to the sound that isle doesn't already give you. Its silent. The odd thing about it is that at the same time I didn't wonder about the s or the e at the end of the word which also are behaving in peculiar ways- but you see my mind had remembered that the chunk of letters isle were sounded in a particular way- it hadn't remembered the a. I often have this- the word what for instance quite often causes me confusion- because again my mind loses its database of words and tries to combine the letters to get to what- and realises that the logical combination of letters isn't the combination that English actually uses.

The way that letters and words relate strikes me as a fascinating insight into the way that systems can almost but not entirely map onto each other- in a sense if I can be even bolder today its a useful analogy because as words relate to letters, to concepts relate possibly to the data that we receive. Again the data that is contained within a concept ought logically to add to the concept but one of the key lessons of life is that that isn't true- that concepts map indirectly and inaccurately onto the world- that the ideological equivalent of that a in aisle exists.

Ultimately we use words to sort the world, and indeed to sort letters into groups- but those groupings whilst not arbitrary don't neccessarily relate to the logical combinations of the definitions of the letters- the sounds are not neccessarily reflected- its interesting to consider language because I think it reveals wider epistemelogical problems- afterall why is there an a is aisle- there is no a-ness about it- nor is there a p-ness about what that p is doing in phonetically- they are both historical accidents not neccessary conclusions of the arrangement of the language.

And to prove my point I'm sure I've made tons of spelling mistakes in the above!


  1. Well this is an interesting post. My question more likely would be why is there an s? The word seems to derive from the French word for wing, aile, which comes from ala, the Latin word for wing. But where does the s come from? I wish I knew more about linguistics, well something actually.

  2. English is an irrational language. It breaks all of its "rules" over and over again. I suppose that's why it's so hard for non-English speakers to master all its intricacies.

    I can see where it's confusing, too... "Read" and "read" are two different words in two different tenses, but spelled identically. Plurals are often confusing. I often wonder why the plural of "moose" isn't "meese," given that the plural of "goose" is "geese." And why the plural of "deer" and "fish" don't have an S at the end.

    I suppose I wonder a lot about woodland creatures...

  3. How to spell aisle?

    The thing is that isle and aisle actually sound exactly the same - the thing about my writing and I don't know whether this is true for others is that as I'm putting these words down on the screen I am sounding them in my head.

    I think you learnt the phonic way, Tiberius, whereas I learnt the look and say way.

    And to prove my point I'm sure I've made tons of spelling mistakes in the above!

    No more than the average, Tiberius. :)

  4. Very interesting post, Gracchi, both linguistically and about the process of typing. I always tell my poor students who are mystified by the spelling of English words that the problem is that our language is derived from so many others and this explains why you can have two words which sound the same but are spelt entirely differently - it's all in the etymology.


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