Historical Fudgery: Spelling Edition

I’m starting off this post with a confession. My main character in The Golden City‘s name is misspelled. Or not, depending on how you look at it…

His name is Duilio Ferreira, but it should be spelled Duílio Ferreira. See the difference?

So what am I on about here? Well, I’ve been considering this since Wednesday, when I was listening to Zorba Paster On Your Health. A fan had e-mailed in a question about why we pronounce ‘licorice’ the way we do. Evidently this irritated him enough to get him to write in to a show that isn’t about pronunciation or language at all. (Dr. Zorba handled it with remarkable aplomb.)

In the word licorice we have two difference pronunciations of the letter C. The hard C that falls before the O is pretty normal. It’s that ‘sh’ sound at the end that’s abnormal. Usually a C followed by an E is soft, like an S: rice, mice, dice, lice, and so on. But how is a foreigner supposed to know that this is an irregular pronunciation?

Well, this takes me back to poor unaccented Duilio. You see, Portuguese pretty much has one way of spelling words. There’s a right way to spell a name. However, in reading older books, I’ve found a lot of names or words that are spelled more than one way. Eça de Queiroz? That last bit also appears as Queiros at times. Rossio sometimes shows up as Rocio. I’ll stop there, but clearly, in the past, spelling wasn’t as straightforward as it is now.

In fact, Portugal and Brazil and all the gazillion colonies had a high illiteracy rate, probably 85% or higher in 1902. It wasn’t until 1911 that the new republic decided that, in an effort to improve literacy, they should normalize the spelling of their language. Then, in a sweeping series of conferences with philologists of Portugal and her Portuguese-speaking colonies, they hammered out the rules of how their language is to be spelled.

Interestingly enough, they are still at it, a reform in 2009 showing up on that list. Portugal even has an official list of permissible names for babies, and how to spell them (Norway has one as well, so they’re not alone).

On that name list, my character’s name is clearly spelled Duílio.

But back in 1902 when my books are set? Well, it’s entirely possible that my Duilio would have gone about unaccented, leaving strangers to read his name and be uncertain whether the accent fell on the first or second I.

None of this helps a non-English speaker to know how to pronounce licorice, but it does raise the question of why this never happened with English, why the English-speaking world never got together and regulated the spelling of our insane language…

And for that I have no answer!

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