in defence (with a ‘c’) of ranting

In responce to cajoling from my peers, I’m starting up a blog as a public location where I can hopefully kickstart some productive discussion and thinking about language, its use, and the teaching and learning thereof.  If nothing else, this blog would serve some purpoce by allowing me a cathartic outlet to my often irrational, often disproportionate reactions to the various happenstanses, positive and negative, I experiense.  I can’t promice any cogent thematic elements or a regular schedule of posting–such is not really the spirit of ranting, and vicariously such is not the intended spirit of this blog.  Ranting by definition entails the semi-spontaneous, often emotionally charged, admittedly often even egocentric expression of in-the-moment thoughts. When exactly those moments occur, and whether they will inspire me to seek solase through this blog, I couldn’t say.  But if past behaviour is even a remotely useful predictor, I might post rather often.

By now, hopefully you’ve notised the pattern of the italicised words.  I had originally planned a different entry altogether, but then when I started writing the title, I got caught up in the longstanding litigious business of “Defence v. Defense.”  Let’s clarify a few things on this one, sinse, as with all too many things concerning language, there is a great deal of misinformation out there, and a great many laymen who, despite knowing very little, argue very passionately for one side or the other.

The word’s etymology follows an extremely common pattern for English words.  It traces back to the Latin “defensum,” which meant “something forbidden, defended against.”  From there it entered French, where that connotation is still very strong (i.e. “défense de fumer” for “No smoking”), and eventually made its way into English.  In French it’s still spelled with an ‘s’ at the end, and in both English and French it has historically had quite a large variety of spellings: deffans, deffenz, desfens are all attested amongst the various langues d’oïl, whereas the Brits have used diffens, diffense, diffence, and difence.  That raises the question, though, of why Anglophones seemingly uniquely decided to spell the word with a ‘c’ instead of the ‘s’ that all the other Romanse languages were using.

As with pretty much everything else in English orthography, there’s a rather simple underlying logic that ended up causing a highly complicated and idiosyncratic pattern.  We use -s in English as an affix to mark both plural nouns and third person singular subject-verb agreement (as in one pen, two pens; I pen a novel, he/she pens a novel).  When we add -s to words that end in a nasal like ‘n,’ it typically is pronounced [z].  That’s unlike French or Latin, where the additional -s either isn’t pronounced at all, or when it is, it’s pronounced with the hard [s] sound.  In English, though, defense/diffens/diffense and its ilk doesn’t end with [nz].  At some point, English writers noticed that the overwhelming majority of words that ended in -ce were unambiguously pronounced with the [s] sound, and so for many of the potentially troublesome pairs, we came up with the idea to use -ce or -s in contrast to mark the word’s intended rendering.  See, for example, the following pairs:

pens / pence — ones / once — hens / hence — fens / fence

We also have singular nouns that end in [nz] like “lens,” and singular nouns like “dance” that end with the sound [ns].  There are additionally pairs like lands / lance, and that last one is particularly relevant.

In addition to the noun “defence,” English has the verb “to defend,” which becomes “he/she/it defends,” and now we have our pair: defends/defence.  (That “d” is almost imperceptible, and often we insert a [d] or [t] sound in between an [n] and [s]/[z] naturally as the result of the tongue’s movement between the two positions. When English people listen to the two words, we pay much more attention to the voicing ([s] v. [z]) than we do to the “presense” or “absense” of the ‘d’.)

So, problem solved! Right?  Now we have two clear spellings for two different sounds.  Not quite though.  We continued borrowing words from French and Latin, which almost exclusively used the ‘s’ version, like “tense,” “sense,” and “suspense,” and those don’t use the -ce innovation.  We add additional morphology to words, creating things like “defensive,” which not even the OED spells “defencive.”  So the distinction gets really blurred.  We end up making decisions on an almost word-by-word, morpheme-by-morpheme basis, which change over time.  Very famously, the American spelling of the word in question was influenced by Webster’s dictionary, where he came down on the side of -se.

And so it remains today, where Americans usually spell the noun “defense,” and the rest of the English-speaking world sticks with “defence,” excepting instances where both groups are, understandably, confused.  As a proud Canuck, I’m going to stick with the “Canadian” spelling of the word, defence, in so much as there even is such a thing as a unified Canadian spelling system.  (The careful reader, or at least the overly nationalistic reader, probably already noticed spellings like “behaviour” and “italicised”)

If someone starts going on about how their particular choice of “defence” or “defense” is in any way “better,” “more systematic,” or especially, as I was once told, “more academic” than the other, at least now you can know that it’s a bunch of self-righteous hot air.  Neither spelling rule really works out in the end, and it becomes, as with so much else in language, a matter of choice to conform to group norms, whether the group or the norm actually exists or only exists in the mind of the language user.  In my mind, that’s justification enough.  Excuse me for being defencive about it.