The other night, Kelsey, in an attempt to get me to go to sleep, said something interesting. She pointed out how many words in the English language have an ‘-ail’ ‘-ale’ correspondence. Here are some examples:
B- Bail / Bale
S- Sail / Sale
T- Tail / Tale
M- Mail / Male
Now, I don’t know what about this was supposed to make me go to sleep. I’ve been thinking about this on and off for four days and I still have no reasonable explanation of why this is a thing.
Why on Earth are there so many words like this? The list above only has a few examples, but you can find examples of this by using almost every consonant in English. What’s the deal with -ail / -ale, and why is it such a prevalent phenomenon in the English language?
The first thing I thought about was the actual vowel sound that ‘-ale’ and ‘-ail’ make, which is [ei]. Both of these are diphthongs. A diphthong is basically two phonemes smushed together to make one sound. To put it another way, a diphthong is a sound in a language where your actually change the placement of your tongue mid-vocalization in order to create one fluid sound. (Sorry if this is an off way of describing diphthongs, linguists. It’s been a while since I took a course on IPA and I’m doing the best I can.)
One of my favorites is [ai]. It’s the sound that’s in words like ‘light’ and ‘lied’. It’s also the English way of saying the Latin diphthong [ae], but we had a great vowel shift, so no more of that. Another good one is [oi], or the vowel sound in ‘boy’ or ‘boing’. Super fun to say.
What does this have to do with anything? It might have a lot to do with something. See, diphthongs are a pretty easy way to make a sound. They’re kind of fluid. Instead of stopping in the middle of a phoneme to start making a brand new sound, you just move straight into the next sound. When looking at ‘-ale’ and ‘-ail’, you just move straight from the [e] to the [i] without even thinking about it.
Kelsey, as a linguist and anthropologist, thinks that this is just the easiest way to make a word, and I agree. It’s a simple sound to make, and over time, all these words made their way into English with a similar sound that eventually got turned into [ei]. Let’s just differentiate the spelling to make it easier in written language and call it a day.
But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. As the more historical one of us two, I’m thinking it might have something to do with the words’ origins.
My first thought was that, like I said, it was something to do with the language of origin. Maybe the ‘-ale’ words are Germanic/Old English in origin, where the ‘-ail’ words are more Latinate. So I popped open a dictionary and had a look.
First I checked out ‘sale’/’sail’. ‘Sail’ is actually Germanic in origin, coming from Old English ‘seglian’, Dutch ‘zeil’, and German ‘segel’. The ‘g’ in the Old English and German words obviously became the second phoneme of the diphthong at some point in time, but one of these languages (or all of them) probably used the ‘g’ in the form of a yode (a yode looks like a backwards cursive z and makes a ‘yuh’ sound). The yode eventually took over the hard ‘g’ that we would put in today. One of my colleagues looked this up in his etymological dictionary where the author claimed that this might, in fact, come from the latin ‘seco, secare’ meaning ‘to cut’. This makes sense (a bit), but it’s kind of a stretch in my mind.
How about ‘sale’? It also came from Old German. The world ‘sala’ made its way into Old English as ‘sala’, and eventually became ‘sale’ during Middle English.
How about some other words? Any correlation there?
‘Mail’ and ‘male’ are both Latinate in origin, either coming to us from Latin in the form of French, or from Middle French. So… There goes that theory.
Maybe this has something to do with the definition of the words themselves? Maybe words that have more of a ‘higher’ definition come to us from Latin or French, and the ‘lower’ words are Germanic. What do I mean by higher and lower? Words that would have been used more by the upper class, like words pertaining to medicine, law, and government, I consider ‘higher’ words, at least in this sense. ‘Lower’ words are those used by the common folk, like farming words or place names. Usually, at least in English, these ‘higher’ words are almost always Latinate, French, or Greek, while the ‘lower’ words are Germanic. So? What happened with this theory?
It kind of worked out in my favor. A little more so than my other etymology theory. ‘Bale’ does in fact come to us from Old German relating to the word ‘ball’. ‘Bail,’ on the other hand, comes from the Latin ‘baiulare’ meaning to carry or to bear.
Right, so there’s one thing that works out okay. How about ‘rale’ and ‘rail’? ‘Rale’ is a medical term pertaining to the sound that’s heard when examining lungs with a stethoscope, while a ‘rail’ is just a bar or support. One of those is definitely ‘higher’ than the other, so it has to be Latinate. C’mon. Show me the money.
‘Rale’ comes to English from the French ‘râle’ meaning rattle, where ‘rail’ comes from the Latin ‘regula’ meaning a straight edge, support, or rail.
The same goes for most of the other words, too. ‘Whale,’ ‘wail,’ and ‘wale’ are all Germanic. ‘Mail’ and ‘male’ are both Latinate… I was so close. So close to having a sensible answer. Well, there’s only one place to go from here.
Grasping for Straws
My final attempt at understanding this phenomenon was a long shot; I was going all the way to Proto Indo-European. I whipped out my PIE root dictionary and started flipping through, hoping that somewhere, anywhere in the book, there would be a glimmering shining light at the end of my linguistic tunnel.
Sadly, there was nothing. ‘Sale,’ as I said earlier, comes from the Old Norse ‘sala’. The PIE root of this word is *sel-, but nothing in the way of ‘sail’. ‘Mail,’ at least in the sense of the word I’m using, finds its way to English by way of the root *molko-, meaning pouch or bag.
I kept going and going, looking for anything at all, but finally I gave up.
I think this really might be an Occam’s razor situation; the simplest answer is probably the right one.
A lot of weird things in language can just be boiled down into one simple explanation: people are lazy. We like to talk fast. We like to get our point across as quickly and conveniently as possible. I think that’s what happened with these words. This [ei] sound is just that – a simple sound. Whenever we were met with a word that had an extra sound in between or after the end of the diphthong, we just got rid of it and made something that sounded good and was easy to say.
And, in all honesty, I think that’s it. It was easy to say, easy to get around, and all we had to do was change the spelling to make it less confusing in its written form.
All that work for nothing…
Isn’t language great?
Edit: KELSEY WAS RIGHT.