Monthly Archives: July 2013

Language change in action

File:Rhubarb in Borough Market.jpg

The internet is changing traditional spelling patterns of words with silent letters.  Simpler versions of commonly misspelt words are becoming acceptable because they appear online so frequently. David Crystal has been exploring these changes looking at the spelling of words like ‘rhubarb’ and he concludes that within the next 50 years the new simpler forms will probably be standard. If you’d like to read more, follow the link:

I decided to carry out some research of my own …

You write yogurt and I write yoghurt

 yogurt-mdThe ‘h’ in yoghurt is also in the process of disappearing. Typing yoghurt into a search engine gives 28,700,000 hits, but typing yogurt produces 154,000,000 hits. This reflects the kind of findings Crystal has reported for ‘rhubarb’.

This may be an indication of a USA-centric online search engine, but a trip to the local supermarket suggests that change is most certainly afoot. A quick scan of the chilled shelves reveals an array of yogurt products. Tesco, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Yeo Valley, Onken, Ski, Rachel’s Dairy, Danone, Alpro, Weightwatchers, Müller. All the products marketed by these companies have no ‘h’ – the only pot with the traditional spelling was the brand Chobani. This American company uses the simplified American version, but adopts the ‘h’ for their UK products.

The straightforward relationship between the phonetic and the orthographic probably appeals to marketing departments, but the fact that yogurt is the standard spelling in American English will no doubt play its part in the choices made by global companies.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that the Tesco aisle marker, the hanging sign which can be seen from a distance, still uses the traditional yoghurt. This is concrete evidence of language change in action. Producers regularly redesign packaging which means it’s easy to reflect linguistic changes as they happen. The signage of a store is a fixture, however, staying the same over a long period, replaced only when it’s time for a re-fit. In this case, the store appears to be heroically flying a flag for a spelling which is no longer considered standard by its suppliers. 

So who does still go the extra mile to add the silent ‘h’?

Looking at a sample of the search engine hits, it would seem that the traditional spelling is adopted by traditional institutions, distinctively British companies, or international retail outlets responding specifically to their British markets:  

  • UK newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The
  • Thorntons (“Yoghurt Coated Strawberry Pieces”)
  • Brown Cow Organics
  • Starbucks UK (“Creamy Natural Yoghurt”)

And then there are those who seem to be mid-change … The BBC ‘Good Food Guide’ uses both forms, as does the UKTV ‘Good Food Channel’.

If we track the orthographic history of yoghurt, we can see that there have always been spellings without the ‘h’. What is new is the fact that until recently these forms have always been in the minority.

yogurt-md (1)1600s    yoghurd, yogourt 

1800s    yahourt, yaghourt, yogurd, yoghourt, youghort, yughard, yughurt, yohourth

1900s    yoghurt, yoghourt

If David Crystal is right, within 50 years, yoghurt will be a thing of the past … We will all still know exactly what we are eating, but the word will have lost its orthographic link with the word borrowed from the Turkish yōghurt in 1625!

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