You say governor, I say gubernator…let’s call the whole thing off!

I was asked the other day if I could explain why ‘govern’ and related words were all spelled and pronounced with a /v/ but ‘gubernatorial’ had a /b/. I didn’t have a firm answer, but I mentioned the idea of loan words occasionally maintaining some of the morphology of the original language rather than being totally anglicized. It seemed reasonable but of course I wouldn’t be satisfied until I did some research.

So off I went. I broke out my OED, my Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, I googled information on consonant shifts in High German in the 9th and 10th centuries, I pulled out old textbooks on historical linguistics, and I even checked out books of the history of English from the library. I was hot on the trail and working hard on figuring out the answer. Then I found this and it more or less took the wind out of my sails. My consolation was that I had pretty much come up with the same solution, although it was shaping up to be a much wordier one. At least allow me to at least add a few additional details.

The first instances of the word ‘govern’ and related forms were in the mid-13th century. That had, indeed, come to English via French, presumably during the period of Norman dominance. During this time, between the 11th and 13th centuries, around 10,000 French words had been added to the vocabulary of English, which contributed to the transition from Old to Middle English.

Not only was English treated to new words, but its grammar was changing as well. Once a highly inflected language, with word endings signifying subject, object, direct object, possession, etc, Middle English was seeing these word endings drop and developing a much stronger reliance on word order and prepositions to maintain grammatical relationships. As ‘govern’ was taking fewer and fewer suffixes, perhaps ‘gubernatorial’ would fulfill the need for an adjective form of the word that ‘govern’ didn’t seem to have. This need apparently didn’t manifest itself – at least in writing – until 1734 in American English.

Interestingly, in the 15th century, there were also written records of ‘gubern’ and ‘gubernator’ etc. showing that the two spellings were being used side by side, although the /b/ spelling was much rarer. It’s unclear why the /b/ spelling was being used at all, since the /v/ spelling had already been around so long. One possible explanation is simply that spelling for English was far from being standardized. English did not become widely written until the advent of printing 1476. At this time, spelling was so variable that even a word like ‘might’ could have had up to 7 possible spellings maht, mihte, micht, mist, michte, mithe, myhte (Svartvik and Leech, p.43). It’s easy to imagine that some printers just spelled ‘govern’ wrong, or according to their local pronunciation, or even that they were taking matters into their own hands, as it were, as they tried to become the first Grammar Nazis, prescribing usage and favoring the original Latin forms over the corrupted French loan words. (No split infinitives, anyone?)

Languages change constantly unless, of course, they are dead languages. As 17th century poet Edmund Waller so eloquently phrased his complaint :

Poets that lasting Marble seek,
Must carve in Latin or Greek;
We must write in sand…

2 thoughts on “You say governor, I say gubernator…let’s call the whole thing off!

  1. Great post. I have trouble accepting the Waller quote at the end though. Why do we allow our language to be changed so drastically from generation to generation? I believe the most beautiful use of words in English was probably in the Victorian era.

    Of course, I’m still not sure if I’m a prescriptivist or a descriptivist.

    • I definitely mourn the loss of certain words or cringe at some of the newer forms that I hear from my students, but ultimately, what makes me a descriptivist is that I still love watching the process, regardless of how I feel about the product of that process. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. But it’s always fun to figure out the why and the how of the changes.

      Don’t know if that helps in your quest to find your level of prescriptivity. (Perhaps your reaction to my made-up word will also help! ;)

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