Just a short post tonight as it’s late, I’ve had three pints of delicious local Buried at Sea chocolate stout, and I’m quite tired after watching Ireland dramatically beat Italy in the European Championships to qualify for the next round.
I think those last two might be related actually…
Also, well done to Wales, Northern Ireland and England for also qualifying. And well done to Italy and my Italian friends who might be reading this: you still finished top of the group, though I’m not sure playing Spain is a fair reward for that!
Anyway, less football, more English. These last few days, there’s been quite a nice yacht in Galway docks and out sailing in the bay. Apparently it’s a superyacht, according to Google. Well. it’s certainly very nice. Seeing its mast over the rooftops of the Claddagh as I’ve walked to work in the mornings has made think again about how strange the word yacht is.
Look at it there, with a silent ch and not caring who knows about it! It’s the only modern English word with a silent ch.
Pronouncing ch as the old Greek /k/ as in charisma, character and psyche? No problem.
Or with a soft, swishy French /ʃ/ as in machine, chef or machete? Oui, bien sûr!
But a silent ch!? It takes a really special word to get away with that. A word like yacht.
When I thought about the word, I said to myself: Oh I bet it’s German, it looks German!
And after a little perfunctory research it is, in a roundabout way. The word comes either from the Norwegian or early Dutch jaght, from the Middle-Low German jachtschip, meaning fast pirate ship (more words should mean that).
It’s far from an unusual origin for an English word, and English pronunciation is quite irregular, but still, a silent ch!? It’s so far from the conventions of pronunciation, and spelling. We’d normally anglicise the spelling of a word like that. We’d turn it into yaught or yott or somesuch.
Why do we still spell it like that? I think it’s because of the sound. That long round vowel sound in the middle just sounds so posh, so extravagant! Say it: yacht. You feel richer before you’ve got to the t! Yacht. It just rolls so elegantly off the tongue. Yacht.
I think it’s that attraction that’s kept it in the English language. Who wouldn’t want to get to tell everyone they owned a yacht? To see people’s faces as you casually unrolled the word? And the spelling? I think the upper classes who owned yachts wanted to keep the spelling simply because it was different from all other words, with its silent couple in the middle. It makes it unique, raises it above the common lot of everyday English words with their conventional spelling. Only the wealthy get to enjoy a silent ch!
It just goes to show what seems truer and truer to me: that how words sound is the most important factor determining pronunciation and which words are attractive and more likely to be used in English. And that something that seems more elite, posher, will always appeal to certain people. So I propose we create a new word with a silent ch that everyone can use. A word for the people. I think we should borrow the German word Hähnchen, meaning chicken, and not pronounce the ch. Everyone likes chicken, sorry, Hähnchen, don’t they?
And yes, this didn’t really turn out to be short in the end, but when you’ve had a few beers and start getting into Middle-Low German, how can you stop!?