Monthly Archives: April 2018

When to follow up with a literary agent

30 April 2018

From former literary agent Nathan Bransford:

Contrary to popular belief among some fearful authors, literary agents will not be scared off and disappear into an angry puff of smoke the moment you send them a follow-up email.

An agent’s inbox looks like the electronic equivalent of Niagara Falls, and at any given time they will have literally thousands of pages in their to-be-read pile.

As a result, most agents will appreciate a timely and extremely polite nudge. (And if they would get annoyed by one, would you really want to work with them anyway?)

But when do you follow up with an agent and how often? In this post I’ll give you some guidelines on when and when not to follow up with an agent based on different stages in the publishing process.

Bear in mind that the below are just rules of thumb and different agents are always going to feel differently. And an individual agent’s stated preferences always wins for that agent.

. . . .

Unless otherwise specified by the agent, it’s not customary to follow up on query letters. Many agents have “no reply means no” policies and they will get annoyed pretty fast if you start chasing after a query that they didn’t reply to.

Yes, I know, it’s really scary to think your query got lost in the ether and was never seen by your dream agent, but that’s the way the e-cookie crumbles.

The only exception to this is if the agent specifically requested a query letter from you, as in a referral situation or where there’s some sort of a personal connection. In that case, I’d wait a few weeks and check again.

. . . .

If an agent requests a partial or full manuscript from you, they will expect you to follow up at some point if they haven’t gotten back to you in a timely fashion.

So how long do you wait? I’ve seen everything from a month to two and a half months recommended, but I personally would split the difference and follow-up once after six weeks and thereafter once a month until you get tired of following up.

. . . .

If you receive an offer of representation, it’s customary to then follow up with all of the agents who are currently considering your manuscript, whether a partial or a full. Give them a reasonable timeframe (7-14 days) to get back to you so you don’t leave the agent who offered you representation hanging.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG has seen prior posts from Nathan (who is now an author) and he seems like an intelligent and pleasant individual.

While PG has no doubt that the recommendations in the OP accurately reflect the world of agents and their expectations, while he was reading them, he was reminded of the rules of court (not the legal types of courts, although they can also be a bit strange, but the rules of royal courts).

As illustrations, here are some Rules of Etiquette as followed at Versailles:

Those wanting to speak to the king were not to knock on his door. Instead, using the left little finger, they had to gently scratch on the door until they were granted the permission to enter the room. Many courtiers grew that fingernail longer than the others for that purpose.

Continuing the rules of court.

. . . .

During the 17th century, in France, manners became a political issue. King Louis XIV and his predecessors, in collecting together the nobility of France to live with the sovereign at Versailles, instituted a sort of school of manners. At the palace, the courtiers lived under the despotic surveillance of the king, and upon their good behavior, their deference, and their observance of etiquette their whole careers depended. If you displeased a Louis, he would simply “not see you” the following day; his gaze would pass over you as he surveyed the people before him. And not being “seen” by the king was tantamount to ceasing to count, at Versailles.

A whole timetable of ceremonies was followed, much of it revolving around the King’s own person. Intimacy with Louis meant power, and power was symbolically expressed in attending to certain of the king’s most private and physical needs: handing him his stockings to put on in the morning, being present as he used to chaise percée, rushing when the signal sounded to be present as he got ready for bed. It mattered desperately what closeness the king allowed you – whether he spoke to you, in front of whom, and for how long.

The point about Versailles was that there was no escape: the courtiers had to “make it” where they were. The stage was Louis’s, and the roles that could be played were designed by him. It was up to each courtier to fit him- or herself into one of the slots provided. The leaders of all the other towns and villages of France were made, largely through the use of etiquette, and more specifically through rudeness and judicious slighting by the tax-collecting intendants, to feel their subordination, the distance from the court.

. . . .

The French court imposed elaborate codes of etiquette on the aristocracy, among them the way to use a napkin, when to use it, and how far to unfold it in the lap. A French treatise dating from 1729 stated that “It is ungentlemanly to use a napkin for wiping the face or scraping the teeth, and a most vulgar error to wipe one’s nose with it.” And a rule of decorum from the same year laid out the protocol:

“The person of highest rank in the company should unfold his napkin first, all others waiting till he has done so before they unfold theirs. When all of those present are social equals, all unfold together, with no ceremony.”
Fashionable men of the time wore stiffly starched ruffled collars, a style protected while dining with a napkin tied around the neck. Hence the expression “to make ends meet.” When shirts with lace fronts came into vogue, napkins were tucked into the neck or buttonhole or were attached with a pin. In 1774, a French treatise declared, “the napkin covered the front of the body down to the knees, starting from below the collar and not tucked into said collar.”

Link to the rest at Etiquipedia

PG (sort of) remembers a saying to the effect that officials with the least power require the most punctilious respect for their position.

What is the position of a literary agent in 2018? Will that position change by 2028?

Traditionally, agents provided a valuable service for publishers. They strained away the worst of manuscripts thereby saving the employees of publishers untold hours of work wading through large stacks of paper to find the occasional pearl.

And, even better, agents were paid for their services by authors, not publishers.

An agent’s life is easier if all manuscripts must pass through his/her hands.

Let’s assume, for discussion purposes, that one in one thousand random manuscripts that a literary agency receives will interest a publisher. Expanding the pool of manuscripts should be good news for the agent. 5,000 manuscripts equals 5 published books, 10,000 manuscripts equals 10 published books, etc.

Yes, there’s more work involved if more manuscripts come into an agency, but a skilled agent (or a less-skilled intern) can usually discern within a few paragraphs that the author has not submitted a commercially viable manuscript. Dealing with a large number of incoming manuscripts is generally more efficient if the losers are rapidly culled. If an agent finds one reason to reject a manuscript she/he should probably not continue reading to discover whether there may be other reasons to reject the manuscript. Better to start on a fresh manuscript that may not include a reason to reject.

However, if a disturbance in the Force reduces the number of manuscripts coming in the door, that’s bad news for the agent. If one in one thousand manuscripts is going to be published and the monthly flow drops from 1,000 to 500, the agent’s income is cut in half.

Since not all manuscripts are created equal, even worse news arrives if the creators of publishable manuscripts begin to do something else with their manuscripts instead of submitting them to agents. If the ratio of publishable to received manuscripts changes from one in 1,000 to one in 2,000, the agent’s income is again cut in half.

PG is over-simplifying the situation, but the bottom line for agents is that every successful indie author represents a loss of potential income for agents as a group and one agency in particular. And it’s likely not just a loss of a single book. While some successful indie authors do go into traditional publishing exclusively or on a hybrid basis, most don’t, so an indie author with the talent to support a successful career takes many books out of an agent’s pile of money-makers.

PG suspects that documents like the OP will seem very strange to authors in future years.

It’s not an experiment

30 April 2018
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James Cameron Is Worried About Our Relationship With Reality

30 April 2018

From Fast Company:

Imagine, if you will, being tasked with categorizing and connecting 200 years of science fiction literature, art, television, and films–and condensing it into six hour-long episodes.

Such was the Dantesque labor of love James Cameron tackled for his new AMC series.

. . . .

The series–the second installment of the cable network’s franchise of artist-curated histories of their respective genres–explores science fiction’s roots, how they’ve informed subsequent generations of storytellers and scientists, and ultimately spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. To anchor each episode, Cameron interviews Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

. . . .

They’re supplemented by observations from another 100 actors, scientists, astronauts, academics, and artists.

. . . .

Cameron’s narrative connects thematic dots from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells, 1930s pulp era, the Golden Age of sci-fi literature in the ’40s and ’50s, spawning authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, the ’60s and ’70s new wave, cyberpunk in the ’80s, to the present day. It also offers historical context for these periods: the fear of communism intimated in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the threat of nuclear war prompting post-apocalyptic stories like Planet of the Apes and Mad Max, hopeful equality and coexistence in Star Trek, concerns about runaway artificial intelligence in  2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner, The Matrix, and Ex Machina, and humanity-decimating epidemics in I Am Legend and The Walking Dead.

. . . .

“What was important to me on this series was to trace back to the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron adds. “So if you have a time travel story, who first thought of that? Who did the first space story and how did that enter popular culture? And how did science fiction struggle as a genre to popularize these complex ideas?”

. . . .

“A lot of the AI scientists remind me of the atomic scientists of the late ’30s, who saw nothing but upsides to nuclear fission,” he adds. “They looked at it as the power supply of the future and, of course, the very first thing we did with it was build an atomic bomb. Historically, it’s easier to see how the dystopian or dark interpretation of the future could win out. But this is the conversation that humans have to have with ourselves, and science fiction is a great way to do it. I actually think it’s more relevant now than it ever was.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company

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Alzheimer’s Association and Alzheimer’s Foundation in keyword battle

30 April 2018
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From Rebecca Tushnet’s 43(B)log:

Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders Association, Inc. v. Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Inc. 2018 WL 1918618, No. 10-CV-3314 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 20, 2018)

The Association (counterclaim plaintiff) sued the Foundation (counterclaim defendant), alleging that the Foundation’s purchase of Asssociation trademarks as search engine keywords and use of the two-word name “Alzheimer’s Foundation” constituted trademark infringement and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act. The court found that confusion was unlikely.

The parties first litigated confusion in 2007, starting with fighting over checks made out to one entity but sent to the other.   The Association was formed in 1980 and is the world’s largest private non-profit funder of Alzheimer’s research. It has more than 80 local chapters across the nation providing services within each community. In fiscal year 2016, the Association raised more than $160 million in contributions and spent $133.6 million on program activities, including more than $44 million on public awareness and education. The Association had nearly 9 billion “media impressions” and more than 41 million website visits in that FY.

. . . .

The Association has a standard character mark registration for ALZHEIMER’S ASSOCIATION, registered since June 8, 2004, but in use since 1988. The Association also has other registrations using “Alzheimer’s Association” along with other words or with graphical elements, as well as standard character marks for WALK TO END ALZHEIMER’S and MEMORY WALK. In 2016, nearly 500,000 participants took part in Association walks in 630 communities, raising more than $78.6 million. The Association websitet displays “alz.org” and “Alzheimer’s Association” at the top of its landing page. Its principal color is purple.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America was founded in 2002 and has more than 2,600 member organizations throughout the country that collaborate on education, resources, best practices and advocacy. AFA has awarded millions of dollars in grant funding to its member organizations for services such as respite care. In 2010, AFA’s “revenues, gains and other support” from “contributions and special events including telethons” was approximately $6.6 million. Its website is at www.alzfdn.org, and principally uses the colors teal and white. Its first registered mark, from 2006, is for “AFA Alzheimer’s Foundation of America” with the organization’s “heart in hands” logo.

. . . .

The Association also used keyword advertising, including buying “Alzheimer’s Foundation” as a keyword until 2010.

A Google search of “alzheimer’s association” from June 2014 showed the Foundation’s ad as the top result, with the main header as “Alzheimer’s Foundation – alzfdn.org” with the tagline “An Association of Care and Support. Reach Out to Us for Help….” The second and only other ad was from the Association. Their header reads “alz.org – Alzheimer’s Association,” and the tagline “Honor a Loved One with a Tribute Donation – Support Research & Care.”

. . . .

“Alzheimer’s Association” sometimes led to more clicks on the Foundation’s sponsored ad than those received from its own brand. Indeed, campaigns targeting Foundation’s competitors performed the best and comprised roughly 40% of AFA’s keyword marketing budget.   During some of the relevant period, the Foundation may have been using Association-related metatags, though the court found this immaterial “as [site metatags] have likely not been used by search engines since before 2009, and so have little effect on the ordinary prudent consumer.”

On the Foundation’s donation page, there are many references to “AFA” or “Alzheimer’s Foundation of America,” and no references to the Association or use of any the Association’s marks. “At no point while on the AFA website during the donation process would a consumer see any of the Association Marks.” So too in reverse for the Association.

The Foundation was the first to complain of confusion, in 2004, when its then CEO wrote “a routine web search under ‘alzheimers foundation’ led me to [the Association’s] site. ‘Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’ is a registered service mark of our organization. It distresses me that supporters of our respective organizations may be confused when searching the internet.” This might not have related to sponsored ads, though. In 2014, a Foundation employee wrote that a survey showed many people saying they donated before or were “introduced to AFA through a fund raising event,” and speculated that “several respondents may have us confused with the Association or with ‘the cause.’ ”

Between 2007 and 2012, the Association received more than 5,700 checks made payable to “Alzheimer’s Foundation” or a variant totaling over $1.5 million. The Foundation received more than 5,000 checks between 2006 and June 2016 made payable to “Alzheimer’s Association” or near variants. A large percentage of the Foundation’s online donors are first-time donors, and that the average online donation, as well as check donation, is under $100.  The Foundation argued that the number of Foundation-labeled checks received by the Association was only 0.1% of the total number of checks received, and 0.252% of the total value of checks received.

. . . .

There was also two studies from the Association and an expert critique by the Foundation.  Study 1 found 34% net confusion between the standard character marks “Alzheimer’s Association” and “Alzheimer’s Foundation.”  The court found that this was somewhat artificial but still probative to actual confusion. However, the court found that the control—“Alzheimer’s Trust”—artificially inflated the net confusion numbers.  They “pre-tested” two controls, “Alzheimer’s Charity” and “National Alzheimer’s Foundation,” which, by generating more confusion, would have yielded net confusion rates for Alzheimer’s Foundation of 12% and 11% respectively.

Link to the rest at Rebecca Tushnet’s 43(B)log

PG found this litigation interesting because, in a (distant) past life, he developed a startup tech company’s Google keyword and Google Adwords programs.

One of his first Adwords buys was ads that were keyed to the names of the main competitors of the startup. In his recollection, this later became a standard Adwords strategy for a lot of different products, tech and non-tech.

As far as general Google search results are concerned, they’re governed by Google’s proprietary algorithms and the order in which the search results appear is entirely controlled by Google (although search engine optimization techniques can help improve search rankings).

Google results are far from being finally dispositive on the issue of whether the Foundation’s mark infringes the Association’s mark, but it’s interesting that those results apparently played a large role in the court’s consideration of the matter.

Retail’s Other Problem: Too Few Clerks in the Store

30 April 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Many of America’s biggest retailers, under assault from Amazon.com Inc., have been slashing staff even faster than they have been closing stores, a dynamic that has left fewer clerks and longer checkout lines at remaining locations.

Despite operating roughly the same number of stores as it did a decade ago, Macy’s Inc. has shed 52,000 workers since 2008. At J.C. Penney Co., workers have disappeared twice as fast as department stores. That’s led to an average of 112 total Penney employees for every store today, down from 145 a decade ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Similar per-store staff declines occurred over the Past decade at Kohl’s Corp., Nordstrom, Inc., Target Corp. and Wallmart Inc.,  regardless of whether the retailer opened or closed stores, according to the Journal’s analysis. The employment figures are for all full- and part-time staff and don’t distinguish between store, warehouse or headquarters workers. Industry executives say store employees make up the vast majority of retailers’ workforce.

“Retailers are shooting themselves in the foot trying to save pennies by lowering labor costs, and that’s costing them dollars on the top line,” said Rogelio Oliva, a business school professor at Texas A&M University. He recently analyzed the relationship between sales and labor at a women’s clothing retailer and found that many of the stores were understaffed by as much as 15%, leading to potentially lower sales.

. . . .

Now, some retailers are discovering they may have gone too far and are beginning to replenish staff—just as the booming U.S. economy is creating historic labor shortages and forcing companies to pay higher wages and offer perks such as better training and benefits.

. . . .

Now, some retailers are discovering they may have gone too far and are beginning to replenish staff—just as the booming U.S. economy is creating historic labor shortages and forcing companies to pay higher wages and offer perks such as better training and benefits.

. . . .

Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. wants to increase store labor by about 10%, said Chief Executive Edward Stack, reversing a decadelong trend. Over the holidays, Dick’s added more cashiers, “because if there’s one thing that drives me nuts, it’s waiting at the register,” Mr. Stack said in an interview.

. . . .

Gilbert McGarvey has worked at the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York City for 24 years, most recently in the shoe department. “It used to be what we sold was service,” he said, “Now, they’ve cut that to the quick.”

Saks last year closed the service desk at its flagship store and reduced support staff, which has meant that sales associates now have to process returns and spend more time restocking shelves and fulfilling online orders, tasks that take them away from selling, Mr. McGarvey said.

. . . .

“If brick-and-mortar retailers can’t compete on price in an online environment, the only thing that allows them to survive is to provide a positive in-store experience,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president.

Jessica Tokarski recently stopped by a Target store in Orchard Park, N.Y., to buy a phone case. But the 23-year-old couldn’t find anyone to unlock it from the rack, so she left the store without making a purchase.

“I’ve turned to online shopping, because customer service in stores has gotten really bad,” Ms. Tokarski said.

. . . .

Over the past 12 months, 86% of U.S. consumers say they have left a store due to long lines, according to a survey conducted by Adyen, a credit-card processor and payment system. That has resulted in $37.7 billion in lost sales for retailers, Adyen estimates.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Regular visitors to TPV will recall that Barnes & Noble implemented major staff cuts in its stores a few months ago.

PG suggests that if you want people to come to your store to shop for books or anything else, you should make the visit an enjoyable experience when they arrive. Unlike a competing retail establishment that may be located at the other end of the mall, Amazon is seldom farther away than the consumer’s purse or pocket.

Traditional Publishing Ebook Sales Dropped 10% In 2017

30 April 2018

From Forbes:

Traditional publishers sold 10% fewer ebook units in 2017 compared with the previous year, according to data released by PubTrack Digital. Total sales were 162 million in 2017 rather than the 180 million units sold the year before.

The news won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed traditional ebook sales trends over the past few years: Nielsen’s reports put 2016 ebook unit sales from the top 30 traditional publishers down a full 16% from their 2015 numbers. But this isn’t a comeback story for print, and shouldn’t be considered evidence of a waning public interest in ebooks. The fact that traditionally published ebook sales fell 10% last year isn’t the full picture. As traditional publishers saw sales drop, audiences moved to indie publishers, largely on Amazon. The reason, according to Jonathan Stolper, who was the SVP and global managing director for Nielsen Book in 2016, comes down to pricing. Nielsen’s Books and Consumers survey, according to a Publishers Weekly paraphrase of Stolper, found “that price is the top priority for e-book buyers when considering which book to purchase.” In 2015, the Big Five publishing houses raised ebook prices to around $8 a book, far higher than the $3-a-book price point independent publishers settled on.

The result: Traditional publishers priced themselves out of the market, and their 10% drop in 2017 is just the latest evidence that the value a traditional publisher adds — whether editing, gatekeeping, or marketing — isn’t as highly valued by ebook buyers as a low pricetag.

. . . .

Amazon has propelled at least a thousand authors in its Kindle Direct Publishing program to success in 2017: That’s the number that CEO Jeff Bezos noted were earning at least $100,000 in royalties in a recent shareholder letter. Nielsen’s numbers across 2012-2015 revealed that as the Big Five publishers’ ebook market share fell 12%, small publishers and self-published authors’ market share rose 23%.

Link to the rest at Forbes

Wattpad Novel

29 April 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

With more than 905,000 reads at Wattpad to date, the first installment of author Kara Barbieri’s ‘Permafrost’ trilogy has a January release date, potentially the next platform-born YA bestseller.

. . . .

In the latest platform-to-Big-Five cover reveal for a title that began life on Wattpad, Macmillan’s Wednesday Books has announced January 8 as the publication date for Kara Barbieri’s White Stag.

. . . .

The YA series then was described as having been “pitched as Twilight Meets Game of Thrones, featuring a 17-year-old girl who was captured from her village to live in the brutally beautiful Permafrost, where she finds herself becoming more monster than human and must uncover secrets to find the truth about who she is and the world that has become her home.”

In a prepared statement provided to Publishing Perspectives, Gardner is quoted, saying, “Kara’s story exploded among readers shortly after she started writing, finding a home in the Wattpad community.

“It’s a story we knew would connect with audiences of Wattpad. People couldn’t put this story down, enthralled by its mix of fantasy and action combined with themes of female empowerment.

“White Stag is a perfect example of how Wattpad creates opportunities for authors. We can’t wait to see this story take the world by storm as a book next year.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG had to double-check the dates in the OP.

In an article dated April 27, 2018, Macmillan is publicizing a novel that it acquired in 2016 that will be released in January 2019.

Does it really take three years for a major publisher to release a book that (by virtue of nearly a million reads on Wattpad, seems to be attractive to readers) is already quite good?

The best customer service

29 April 2018

The best customer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you. It just works.

Jeff Bezos

Two Straight Lines

29 April 2018
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From The New York Times:

Ludwig Bemelmans grew up hearing stories about a young girl who attended a boarding school where the students “slept in little beds that stood in two rows” and “went walking in two straight lines.”

That young girl was his mother, Franciska. Today we might recognize her in Madeline, the smallest of the French schoolgirls in colorful little dresses and bows.

Since the publication of Mr. Bemelmans’s first book, in 1939, the Madeline series has become a cosmopolitan cultural touchstone, the first step on the path to bona fide Francophilia for those who have never visited France. The series resonated with decades of American families, including the Kennedys: Jacqueline and Mr. Bemelmans were discussing the possibility of collaborating on a book shortly before he died in 1962.

. . . .

Mr. Bemelmans arrived in America on Christmas Eve 1914 expecting to be reunited with his father, according to “Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator,” a book by his grandson John Bemelmans Marciano.

But Lampert “forgot to pick him up,” Mr. Marciano wrote, “and he was forced to spend his first Christmas in America on Ellis Island.”

. . . .

He found his way into the hotel industry and, while working at the Ritz-Carlton, began to write and draw extensively. By the early 1930s, he had begun to place illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post. And in 1934, newly married to his wife Freund, known as Mimi, he published his first children’s book, “Hansi” (with the help of May Massee, a children’s book editor at the Viking Press.) Several more children’s books followed, along with stories published in The New Yorker and Vogue.

Mr. Bemelmans wrote many books, for children and for adults, that did not feature his famous heroine. They include “The Golden Basket,” “Quito Express,” “Fifi,” “Welcome Home,” “Small Beer,” “The Blue Danube,” “The Woman of My Life” and dozens of others.

“He was so prolific,” said Regina Hayes, editor-at-large at Viking, which publishes Mr. Bemelmans’s books. “He was an essayist, a novelist, wrote books about food, wrote and illustrated for The New Yorker and Holiday Magazine,” a travel journal.

It took the birth of his first and only child, Barbara, and a fortuitous trip to France, for the book that made him famous to materialize. In 1938, the young family traveled to the southern part of the country. In the midst of the trip, Mr. Bemelmans was sent to the hospital because of a bike crash, where in an adjoining room was a girl who was recovering from an appendectomy.

. . . .

Madeline, who has a bout of appendicitis in the first book, came together soon after. “He would later say that his creation was a combination of his mother, wife and daughter,” Mr. Marciano writes. “But certainly it was also part Bemelmans himself — the smallest in class, the one always in trouble.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times where you’ll also find some of Bemelmans’ Madeline drawings.

How the English Language Became Such a Mess

29 April 2018

From the BBC:

You may have seen a poem by Gerard Nolst Trinité called The Chaos. It starts like this:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

In its fullest version, the poem runs through about 800 of the most vexing spelling inconsistencies in English. Eight hundred.

Attempting to spell in English is like playing one of those computer games where, no matter what, you will lose eventually. If some evil mage has performed vile magic on our tongue, he should be bunged into gaol for his nefarious goal (and if you still need convincing of how inconsistent English pronunciation is, just read that last sentence out loud). But no, our spelling came to be a capricious mess for entirely human reasons.

The problem begins with the alphabet itself. Building a spelling system for English using letters that come from Latin – despite the two languages not sharing exactly the same set of sounds – is like building a playroom using an IKEA office set. But from Tlingit to Czech, many other languages that sound nothing like Latin do well enough with versions of the Latin alphabet.

So what happened with English? It’s a story of invasions, thefts, sloth, caprice, mistakes, pride and the inexorable juggernaut of change. In its broadest strokes, these problems come down to people – including you and me, dear readers – being greedy, lazy and snobbish.

. . . .

Once the English tossed out the French (but not their words) a few centuries later, they started to acquire territories around the world – America, Australia, Africa, India. With each new colony, Britain acquired words: hickory, budgerigar, zebra, bungalow. The British also did business with everyone else and took words as they went – something we call “borrowing,” even though the words were kept. Our language is a museum of conquests.

What does this have to do with spelling? When we “borrow” words, they often come from other Latin-alphabet spelling systems, but have sounds different from the sounds we make in English. Many other languages, therefore, fully adapt words they borrow: Norwegian turned chauffeur into sjåfør and Finnish turned strand into ranta. In English, though, we wear our battle scars proudly. For some words, we have adopted the pronunciation but modified the spelling: galosh (from French galoche), strange (from French estrange).

. . . .

Adding to the greed is the laziness – or, as linguists call it, “economy of effort”. Sounds tend to change to save effort for either the speaker (dropping sounds out) or the listener (making sounds more distinct). Under Scandinavian and French influence, we tossed out troublesome bits of the complex Old English inflections, so a word like hopian got whittled down to hope, and over time, the e on the end stopped being said.

Link to the rest at the BBC

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