The Yle of Wihtwara
Sitting like a sharp pebble under the butt of England, the Isle of Wight is, for the most part, a lump of white chalk roamed by cows and home to England’s largest population of ghosts, ghouls and other paranormal wights.
Incidentally it’s Wight, which must not be confused with White. The word Wight is thought to be derived from Wicht, which is Dutch for ‘little creature’ and German for ‘little child’. To my mind, this amounts to one and the same thing. Somewhere along the line, though, English in its contrary way, changed the ‘c’ to a ‘g’, This addition of a single stroke quietly unleashed all sorts of havoc amongst the peoples who arm themselves with pens.
One might contend that we English deliberately set out to make our orthography bafflingly incomprehensible to children and foreigners alike. One may also claim it is nothing but a conspiracy whose stealthy purpose was to industrialise the English language into family fighting games such as Scrabble, Wordle and Pictionary. A permit for parents and teachers to publicly torture their children by entering them into competitive Spelling Bees and other such testing terrors. Pendants alike can unleash their phone cameras to record and share the best of misspelt words for eternal mockery. Best of all, however, is that English spelling provides a sure-fire device for winning any argument on the world-wide web: spot a typo and the hapless eristic's point is magically obliterated.
Despite the similarity between ‘wicht’ and ‘wight’, some assert it is a derivation from the Celtic language for Working Fort. Fat lot of good that did because the Isle of Wight was frequently invaded: first by the Romans, then the Vikings, followed by the Danes and later the Normans, who used it as a springboard for their assaults on the mainland.
The Romans brought with them the Latin Alphabet, which was fine for Rome, but they avoided words beginning with ‘th’ sounds. As in the Romans. To bridge the gap, we nabbed a few characters from our original runic script. this culminated in our alphabet having thirty-three letters to play with, and was known collectively as Futhark. Not that I have any idea how one pronounces that…but please avoid the spoonerism.
The Normans, on the other hand, were all about minimal living. Subsequently, they declared that one letter could resemble many sounds and deftly swiped away seventeen symbols. Thus, the early history of the Isle of Wight is more a tale of liberating superfluous letters: the Isle of Wight going as it did from Wihtwara to Wihtland to Wiht to Wit.
Then came the turning of the tide. Or tyde if one wants to be all archaic about it. Once upon a tima, of course, we would have pronounced the ‘e’. This continued until the day we simply stopped saying ‘eeee’ in a life-affirming way. Across the lands, all the “eeee”s fell as silent as muted ghosts, the final ‘e’ could only be resurrected on parchment. Oh, and also, during this period the letter ‘y’ was agreed to have an ‘oooo’ sound, rhyming with the ghoulish “boo!”
Scholars of the era found all this befuddling but thankfully your common or gardener Englander could revel in their illiteracy. Eventually, the erudite class came to the agreement that by adding an ‘e’, and changing the ‘y’ to ‘i’, we could all get ‘eyed’. Hence, pie-eyed could now be rhymed with ride. Although nude was still rude.
And so began the beginning of the end of the age of simplicity.
And if things were already not complex enough, the Islanders below, just as much as the Mainlanders above, were dragged through The Great Vowel Shift. An epoch that sounds as if we’d been terribly constipated about matters up until this point.
The Great Vowel Shift occurred between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, although the cause of which remains the source of fierce scholarly debate. Even now there’s little to no firm consensus as to why we changed how we spoke, nor indeed why.
Some claim it was the result of the rapid migration of peoples from the north of England to the south, diluting previously distinct dialects. Others decry that Londoners switched out their vowel sounds to distinguish them from their Birmingham rivals. More still blame the French - which seems to be a typically English thing to do whenever in doubt. Perhaps, though it was the middle-classes who simply desired themselves to be more Anglais than Ing-lish without actually having to fork out for the ferry.
Cometh the hour, cometh the arrival of the Dutch. Into this melee, they threw in their printing presses. The advent of mechanised writing demanded additional ink left, right and centre as reading became a new and fascinating means of communication. The need for convention became paramount.
So what the language really didn’t need, then, was for the printing men to add silent ‘h’s to words that had previously been deciphered perfectly well without. It was also they who burdened our ghosts and ghouls with the deathly quiet ‘h’ . And that is how Wiht which had previously been simplified to Wit, morphed into Whit.
But where consistency was key, labour rates varied, as did literacy levels. Printers, being not of the mother-tongue (whatever that now was), were paid per line. So why not chuck in a few silent ‘g’s to help string things along? And this is perhaps how Whit became Wight.
Knowledge is power, but knowledge is also connected to acquire. This “Is it from the Latin or French?” conundrum precisely demonstrates why the philologists of Latin fell afoul of French linguists, both of whom battled against Germanic lexicographers in order to determine whose spelling was the one true ruler of symbols.
‘Island’ with its soundless ‘s’ was said to have derived from the Latin ‘insular’. Elsewhere, someone pointed out that surely it was related to the French ‘Isle’. Presumably this caused war break out somewhere, and so we adopted not only the French spelling, but also the French pronunciation. Given the French like to forget their ‘esses’, we copied suit. Turns out it was from the original English ‘yle’ but of course Celtic had become, for the most part anyway, the language of the ghosts.
On occasion, when a word couldn’t be claimed as either Germanic, Latin, French or Celtic in origin, it was assumed to be Greek. This assumption had our Lords and masters of the written word adopt the letters ‘p’ and ‘d’ as a nod to their heritage. Rather than make such words unpronounceable, these letters were also declared unspoken, giving us debt, doubt and receipt.
And that is how England became the ultimate chef of word salads, and thus the most difficult language to read and write.
The Dutch’s invention, leading to the mass production of language, made it imperative we uniform our spelling systems. In attempting to simply matters further, rows were had, punches were thrown, even if only of the academic kind, and contretemps was inked into the early editions of dictionaries.
Subsequently, egos were bruised, bad feelings ran rampant, pride was quashed, and someone somewhere made the first inappropriate joke about speech impediments.
The advent of a universally acceptable dictionary should have brought some finality to the occasion. Alas, no. It simply created further havoc. America decided to reform their own language system and exited stage right. Canada decided against and Australian's simply altered their inflections. And that’s why the American's "can't spell" words like centre, colour, cheque, catalogue, travelling and modernise "correctly". Because God forbid anyone simplifies this mess!
And here we are now on the Isle of Wight, which has absolutely nothing to do with its whiteness. That was just fog, smothering almost all the views as I toured across this micro isle. Despite the adverts claiming it is the sunniest place in England, outshining many Spanish holiday destinations, it was most definitely Isle of White. Although, I'd like to nominate it be spelt wite because at least it would conform to some spelling rule somewhere.
Nonetheless, this Isle of Ghoulish Children is most famous for Garlic, which surprised me enormously. Amazingly, the allium fails to repel nearly two-million visitors a year, all of whom are obliged to pay the equivalent of 750 garlic bulbs per return ferry in peak season. It is a journey that lasts exactly one hour.
It is sensible, then, to come to these isles in winter, where one can spend the equivalent of 250 bulbs, or, if one prefers, twenty-five hundred cloves. Unless one comes across in a van, then it seems to be summer all year round. Still, it gave me the enormous privilege of being able to sail on the truck ferry. Aside from segregating truckers from the hoi polloi, this speciality voyage offers the unusual perk of free tea and coffee during the crossing: making it probably the most expensive cafe in England. I had two just to cheapen the price per cup.
The island below the island boasts that its biggest summer show is The Garlic Festival, attracting nearly twenty-five thousand vampire-slaying aficionados to Fighting Cocks Cross annually.
Just don’t tell Cowes, which attracts nearly 100,000 visitors a year to its week-long sailing regatta. The organisers of Cowes Regatta recently changed one of the days of the week, Tuesday, from Ladies’ Day to Women’s Day. An act which The Daily Mail derided as ‘woke’.
“It would be terribly sad if ladies were no longer welcome,” the tabloid quoted a member of the Royal Enclosure. Somehow, like the so-called educated elite of yonder year, he too fathomed the beauty of the English language in quite a fascinating way. For him, 2021 was the year that England dematerialised the female of the species
Incidentally, Cowes is named after two sandbanks that are said to be bovine-shaped on either side of the Medina Estuary. Whatever happens, please never tell the members of the Royal Enclosure that in some places, like in modern English, cow-es are more contemporarily known as cows, and many women object to being called that too.
Incidentally, if one ever does encounter one of the legendary ghosts of the Isle of Wight, chances are one wouldn’t comprehend a word of what was being communicated. Go figure!