Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 6 July 2009

July 2009

Wisteria Lame
As the Global Economic Meltdown drags on, we the taxpayers of once-prosperous nations have been called upon to "bail out" many failing institutions, but if the recent and still on-going Expense-Claim controversy is any indication, there is a limit to how many bills we care to foot. One questionable expense claim in particular, though, has sparked a spin-off tempest in a tea-cup: the Right Honourable David Cameron's wisteria. While a certain broadsheet beginning with T still "owns" this story, the orthographic controversy rages on in a certain, somewhat more venerable paper, whose name also begins with T. This paper is known, among other things, for a style guide which is adhered to rather more strictly than the Bible. It seems that the chief writer and editor of this Style Guide and the chief editor the paper itself cannot agree how this climbing plant's name should be spelled.

Without giving away too many details (which are, after all, available to anyone with an internet search engine), I can relate that Dr Style Guide favours the spelling wistaria because the plant was named for Caspar Wistar, its discoverer, who did not spell his name with an e. However, as Dr Style Guide himself points out, the man who actually named the plant, Thomas Nuttall, called it wistaria, and so it has been known ever since, the absence of an e in its discoverer's name notwithstanding.

This fact is championed by the opposition (the wistaria-supporters) – if Nuttall chose to use an e, then that is de facto proof that we, too, should spell it with an e. They also point out that, if we use the a, we have to say wi-STAHR-ia or wi-STAIR-ia, whereas actual pronunciation of this word is something more like wi-STEER-ia.

Of course, the counterpoint to this argument is that we only say it that way because we write it that way; if we would just change the spelling to reflect Mr Wistar's actual name, we could start pronouncing it "correctly" as well. We must also admit that, if the discoverer of the plant spelled his name wistaria, then the Thomas Nuttall seems to have misspelled it.

So where does Collins stand? Well, the Collins English Dictionary does not acknowledge the wistaria, even as a variant spelling. So are we siding with Mr Newspaper-Editor against Dr Style Guide? So it would seem, but not simply because our House Style differs from his. In the first place, wistaria is the most commonly used form, outnumbering wistaria by 605 citations to 80 in the corpus, and 185 to 8 in the monitor corpus. Just as important is the fact that wistaria was the form chosen by Nuttall, and officially recognized by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

Dr Style Guide is particularly unconvinced by Nuttall's excuse for deliberately misspelling Wistar's name: that wistaria is more euphonious. There is actually some value in this argument, however. English is, and probably has always been, a language which likes to harmonize it's vowels; that is, it likes vowel sounds near each other in a word to be near each other in the mouth as well, if for no other reason than it makes things easier to say. In the case of wistaria, we are trying to harmonize the vowel which precedes the r (either a or e) with the vowel that follows it (undisputedly i). Of the two possible ways to pronounce the a in wistaria, /a/ (like AH) is pronounced much further back in the mouth than i, while /eɪ/ is a diphthong: two vowels run together, and therefore taking longer to pronounce than a single vowel (wiste/aria is already a four syllable word; it doesn't need to get any longer). In modern English, the typical way to pronounce e is /i/ (like EE), which is as near to the i in wistaria as you are likely to get. In actual pronunciation, the e gets shortened a bit to /ɪ/, but this still harmonizes better than either of the possible a-pronunciations. You can try this yourself: say wistaria and wistaria and notice which one makes your mouth move more. This is a specific type of height harmony called umlaut or i-mutation. It is the reason the plural form feet evolved from earlier fotiz (pronounced "foat-eez"). An i-sound tends to pull other vowels up, and the controversial vowel in wisteria has an i on either side of it.

The thing about vowel harmony is that it's not simply a linguistic process, it's a physiological process. The human mouth isn't easily able to leap from vowels in the back of the mouth to vowels in the front of the mouth in the space of one or two syllables. If the word wistaria had entered English before the introduction of writing, it is very likely that the vowel would have been raised to e by now anyway, simply through the physical demands of pronouncing it regularly. Perhaps, in choosing e for the plant name, Nuttall was intuitively imitating this important and wide-ranging phonological process.

Robert Groves - Editor