Clues of History Buried in “Friend”

Fri + day –> Friday

Fri + end –> friend

Fri (e) nd –> friend

Friend is one the most frequently misspelled words: misspelled by both children and adults alike. Why is that? Why do children have difficulty learning the correct spelling of a word they know so well and use so often both in speech and writing? The problem, as we all know, lies with the spelling of the vowel letters. I have seen such spellings as *<freind>, *<frend> and even *<frind>. I suspect that friend is one of the words that gave rise to the ridiculous “I before E except after C” spelling rule.

The question is “Why can’t children seem to remember the spelling of a word they know so well?” You see, how children spell or misspell words reveal more about what they know about words and how they are processing those words than we might think. We might teach them about a rule such as “I before E except after C” but when they write, they spell words based on how they are processing those words at the time. So, in a certain sense, spelling or misspellings provide a window into the minds of children: they provide visible clues which allow us to see how they process words. Thus, the misspelling *<frend> just shows that they are ‘sounding out’ the word and producing a phonetic spelling of it [ frend ]. The phonological representation of the word is / frɛnd /. On the other hand, the *<freind> misspellings shows that they have memorized the spelling of the word, remember all the six letters, but cannot figure out the correct order of the vowel letters.

Let us try to embark on our own learning about the word “friend“. Why is it spelled the way it is? Why is there an <i> in it if is not pronounced? A look at any etymology dictionary reveals that the <i> has not always been a part of the word’s spelling. It is a relatively recent addition. Middle English had the word spelled as <frend> which corresponded closely to how it was pronounced. Old English had it spelled as <freond>: again spelling and pronunciation closely corresponding to each other at the time. Therefore, the question is: “Why the sudden appearance of <i> in its spelling, if this has nothing to do with pronunciation?”

The answer lies in the principles of English spelling. English operates on a hierarchy of three concepts: etymology, morphology, and phonology. These three concepts do not operate in isolation but are interrelated and influence each other. Etymology deals with the history of words: that is, the source (origin) of a word, when it was borrowed, what language it was borrowed from, how the word was used when it was borrowed, and changes in usage over time. For example, the spelling of <rhyme>, <rhythm>, and <rheumatism> with <rh> for /r/ are due to etymological reasons. They show that the words have their origins in Greek. In the same way, writing <write>, <wrong>, and <wrestle> with <wr> for /r/ indicate Germanic origins. English spelling abounds with such etymological clues which the spoken version of the language does not reveal.

Morphology deals with the meaningful elements of words – bases, prefixes, suffixes, and connecting vowel letters. These elements tend to be stable and remain the same even if pronunciations change. Morphemes – the basic elements of morphology – are considered to be the building blocks of the English language. Phonology, to state it simply, deals with pronunciation.

Etymology Online Dictionary has the following entry:

friend (n.)

Old English freond “one attached to another by feelings of personal regard and preference,” from Proto-Germanic *frijōjands “lover, friend” (source also of Old Norse frændi, Old Danish frynt, Old Frisian friund, Dutch vriend, Middle High German friunt, German Freund, Gothic frijonds “friend”), from PIE *priy-ont-, “loving,” present-participle form of root *pri- “to love.”

Do you notice the <i> in the source *frijojands and in most of the cognates? Germanic mythology had two related gods: Freya (the goddess of sexual love) and Frigg ( the goddess of married love and friendship) which were often confused with each other. Friend was initially thought to derive from Freya and so was spelled with *<fre> right up into Middle English. However, when it was later thought to derive from Frigg and not Freya, the <i> was inserted in it to link it to its source. Interestingly, Frigg is also the source of Friday which was frigedag (Frigga’s day) in Old English.

In view of this history, how should we handle the spelling of <friend>? The <i> is clearly an etymological marker linking the spelling of the word to its source Frigg and thus linking it also to Friday. We now see that both Friday and friend have the sequence <fri>. This confirms the axiom that in English spelling, words that share a meaning tend to also share spelling. A helpful suggestion is to link the teaching (of the spelling) of friend to that of Friday and use the first element <Fri-> in Friday to reinforce the spelling of <friend> so that children can get the <fri> sequence right. We might have something like:

Fri + day –> Friday

Fri + end –> friend

Fri (e) nd –> friend

Also, it is important that they announce (call out) the sequence out loud while they write. The writing, speaking, and seeing help to bind the spelling to the word and ensure easier (or quicker) recall in the future.

SO, the spelling of <friend> is a clear case of etymology at work. It is also a demonstration that there is a reason for the presence of all the letters in a word’s spelling even though not all of them are part of the word’s pronunciation. Can we teach etymology to children? Absolutely. However, we as adults have to learn it for ourselves first and then we can use precise language to guide children as they operate like detectives working to unravel the clues embedded in the spellings of words. They can become hooked as they learn that there are reasons why words are spelled the way they are and they can actually uncover those reasons.

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