I pretty much think about words all the time, and encounter interesting language questions every day. Sometimes I just hold onto the questions for later, but sometimes I dive in to investigate. Even when the questions pertain to things I’ve investigated before, I learn more by revisiting them. There are a couple of big things I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but need more time to process and explain them — the writing that takes shape in my head doesn’t always take the same shape on the page.
This past week, a teacher I work with asked me about the <l> in <half>. She already knew that a ‘silent’ <l> can carry significant etymological weight in words like talk (tale~tell~told) or yolk (yellow) or would (will). But the <l> if <half> was puzzling.
I had a foggy memory of having thought or been asked about <half> before, because I was able to rearticulate what I think I’d said before: the <l> in <half> helps us to differentiate between its plural <halves> and its related verb <halve>, and those words’ homophones, <haves> (as in the haves and have-nots) and <have>. Other possible spellings for /hæf/ would not work with the /hævz/ plural: neither *<haff> nor *<haugh> nor *<haph> could take a plural or a verbal form with a <ve>. The same is true for <calf> — we wondered aloud whether it was related to <veal> (it’s not) — just as with <half>, another other spelling for <calf> would not work with its plural, /kævz/, or its related verb, <calve>. Compare laughs or staffs and you’ll see what I mean. A written form needs to work for every member of its paradigm.
But why an <l>? I knew the answer would be in the etymology, and I finally took the time to take a look at both half and calf. Here’s what I found:
Starting with meaning, I’d define half in a couple of ways : as a noun, it’s one of two equal portions. As a quantifier, it means about fifty percent; and as an adverb, it means ‘partly, to the extent of half.’ It can be quite precise, as in the recipe calls for a half cup, or approximate, as in that vegetarian is half crazy. In terms of the structure of <half>, it’s just a base element, no affixes. Since it can make a word all by itself, we know it’s a free base element.
Next we look for relatives. Morphological relatives, like <halved> or <halfway> are pretty vanilla, but <behalf> invites a closer look at its orthographic denotation of ‘by the part of’ or ‘by the side of.’ For etymological relatives, we can start with the diachronic ones — when we look back through time to varieties of Old English, we see that the historical roots of <half> had an <l> in them, presumably pronounced: half, halb, healf, healfa, and halfe were all attested forms. By Middle English, it sometimes lost its <h>; sometimes it doubled the <f> and sometimes wrote it as a <v> or even a <u>, but the <l> is remarkably consistent, even steadfast.
Okay, so there’s an <l> in <half> because there always has been, and it’s been pronounced in some ages and in some voices. If we go further back diachronically to Proto-Germanic and even Proto-Indo-European (PIE) reconstructions, we find an <l> there too, in *khalbas ‘something divided’ and *(s)kel- ‘to cut, divide, halve’, respectively.
But what about synchronically? What present-day cognates of <half> can be found in English? Well, besides the plural and verbal forms with a <v>, we can also find several other descendents of *(s)kel- too, all with denotational echoes of their shared ancestor. Some relatives have more to do with cutting, like scalpel, sculpt, sliver, slit, and cutlass. Others have a sense of something being divided or partitioned: shelf~shelve, school (as in school of fish; elementary school is a homograph), shield, and skill — that which separates you from the pack.
Some of my favorites cognates to <half> (oh, who am I kidding? They’re all fabulous) require a deeper dig to see the connection, but they carry the halfiest meanings of the lot: shell and scale. In order to understand the connection, it helps to know that the Old English sciell meant both ‘shell’ and ‘mussel’ — it referred not just to any hard covering, but to a specific kind of shell: the kind that folds in half, like mussel or a scallop (yes, that’s related too). The word scale has two main meanings: the scale of a fish is a kind of shell, and a scale that balances or weighs has two halves, each with a cup or shell to hold whatever’s being weighed.
Phonologically speaking, the fact that half begins with /h/ and its cognates begin with /sk/, /k/, or /ʃ/ is not unusual; in fact, it’s explained by regular phonological relationships, processes, and changes in Indo-European languages. English has many cognates that show these same relationships: ship~skiff, shirt~skirt, shape~scape, horn~corn, heart~cordial~cardiac, head~capital, scald~cauldron — but that’s a story for another time.
Finally, we can consider the pronunciation, which varies, of course. The vowel certainly differs between RP English and Standard American English, not to mention regional differences. Some speakers may even pronounce — or claim to pronounce — the <l>. The spelling works for all possible pronunciations in English.
Stretching Your Calves
After seeing what an investigation into <half> revealed, I decided to have a look at the <l> in <calf>. The same can be said about the needs for the spelling to work with the plural noun and the verbal forms with <ve>. While /kævz/ does not have homophones, the spelling <caves> would be problematic for other reasons. Let’s have a look at the four questions.
1. Meaning: The spelling <calf> has two meanings ~ a baby cow, and the muscle of the lower leg. Let’s stick with the bovine one for now.
2. Structure: Plain old free base element.
3a. Morphological Relatives: It’s not an extensive set of words that share the base elements <calf> or <calve>. There’s calving and calved and calves, but only one other word built on the base <calf>: the crazily provocative mooncalf (or moon-calf). It now means ‘a foolish person’, but historically meant ‘deformed creature, monster,’ and earlier yet, ‘shapeless, fleshy mass’ — like a pregnancy miscarried under the lunatic influence of the moon! I can’t promise that this word won’t show up in my personal lexicon henceforth.
3b. Etymological Relatives: As with <half>, here’s where we hit paydirt. A diachronic investigation reveals that both the bovine <calf> and the anatomical <calf> are attributed to the same PIE family, represented by the reconstructed *gel- ‘to swell, to form into a ball, round.’ Now, that makes sense for the calf of the leg — the gastrocnemius muscle (literally, the ‘belly of the leg’); it is a swelling, a ball, the round part of the lower leg. But what about a baby cow? What does that have to do with swelling? And is the <l> a clue?
See what I did there? Pregnant pause? A pregnancy is a swelling, a rounding into a ball shape, that occurs before the production of a young animal, like a calf, but also a colt and a child. Yep, those three words – calf, colt, and child — all share a common ancestor, and the telltale letter <l>. It kind of helps to think about an iceberg calving, too. We can see the synchronic relationship between these three words and the similarities in their spellings. One of my teaching friends and inspirations like to tell her students, “buy one word and get a lot more words free!” I would’ve been delighted to have just encountered mooncalf, or to more deeply consider what it means to do something on someone else’s behalf. But this investigation had so many more riches to offer. Even when we zero in on just one letter in one word, we see its powerful connections to other words, and its faint echos of its past. I should be used to this by now — the stunning revelations that even the simplest question can generate.
My early training in language education taught me that about half of English words can be spelled exactly the way they “sound”; this has been a common refrain in language education ever since a 1966 article by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf made the claim based on a sampling of English words. There may not be anything really wrong with the claim, but really, what a tired and boring way to think about words.
It’s really not even half the story.