Descent Into Bad Spelling

In this post the other day, I translated the Spanish noun ‘descendiente’ as ‘descendent’. A reader pointed out to me that the translation ought to have read descendant, because descendent is the adjective, whereas descendant is the noun.

I duly made the correction, because I realised that I would normally spell the word descendant, and that I must have translated the Spanish word into its direct cognate, like one would translate ‘comandante’ to ‘commandant’. Indeed, I began to think that my ability to spell had deteriorated a bit.

However, after checking on internet dictionary sites, (not before checking how these guys spelt their name) it turns out that the two words are interchangeable in common usage.

English is full of such idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, and it is for this reason that you have spelling bees and programmes such as Hard Spell. To do well at the Hard Spell programme, presented by Eamonn-with-two-n’s Holmes, the young cleve- clogs contestants need to have prior recognition of the word that gets pronounced by the woman behind the scenes. This is because pronunciation in English is often based on tradition rather than the way the word appears written down.

Hard Spell in a lot of other languages wouldn’t be very hard at all. In the case of Spanish, for instance, you spell words as you hear them. The only real doubts are when to use a ‘v’ or a ‘b’, or if a word beginning with an ‘a’ vowel sound starts with a silent ‘h’ or not.

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January 2006
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