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The following is a passage from Noah Webster's Preface to his Compendious Dictionary published in 1806. Could anyone help me understand the part of 'the consonant s, which no more belongs to the word, than any other letter in the alphabet'? Could you be kind enough to paraphrase or explain the part?

Johnson gives for the etymology of island, the Latin insula, the Italian isola, and ealand, which he calls Erse. Now the two first have nothing to do with the word, and the latter, tho it may be Erse, is also a Saxon word which the English dictionaries do not explain. The Saxons wrote the word igland, ealond, and ieland, which, with a strong guttural aspirate, are not very different in sound. It is a compound of ea water, still preserved in the French eau, and land,—ealand, water land, land in water, a very significant word. The etymology however was lost, and the word corrupted by the French, into island, which the English servilely adopted, with the consonant s, which no more belongs to the word, than any other letter in the alphabet. Our pronunciation preserves the Saxon ieland, with a trifling difference of sound; and it was formerly written by good authors, iland.

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    The claim is that "island" was formed using letters which did not logically include the "hissy" "S" character/sound. The "S" doesn't really belong there.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 10 at 0:25
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    It's archaic language, written by someone ignorant of phonetics or linguistics, who used his own terminology to attempt to describe it. His take on pronunciation is not used today. Jun 10 at 0:30
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    "The consonant 's' doesn't belong to the word, any more than any other letter does" - he presumably means 'any other than the letters in iland'! Jun 10 at 7:41
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    He's talking about spelling not pronunciation. Island is spelt with an S that has never corresponded to any sound in the spoken word. You might as well put a Q or Z in there for all the sense it makes. The etymology Webster gives is still broadly accepted, in contrast to Johnson's theory, which he ridicules.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 10 at 7:51
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    @StuartF Sounds like an answer to me. Jun 10 at 18:11

1 Answer 1

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Webster is making the rather exaggerated assertion that the spelling island has no more legitimate etymological basis than icland, ifland, imland, or ipland would.

The argument that the s in island is of dubious provenance seems defensible. At any rate, that's the impression I get from the entry for island in Walter Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1901):

Island. (E.) The s is inserted by confusion with F. isle. M.E. iland. A.S. īgland. A.S. īg, an island ; land, land ; perhaps by confusion of A.S. īg, island, with A.S. ēa-land, island, lit. 'water-land.' The A.S. īg is also īeg, O. Merc. ēg (cf. Angles-ey) ; cognate with Icel. ey, Dan. Swed. ö, island ; G. aue, meadow near water. The orig. Teut. form was *agwiā, fem. of *agwioz, belonging to water, an adj. formed from *ahwa, water, represented by A.S. ēa, O.H.G. aha, Goth. ahwa, a stream, cognate with L. aqua, water.

In short, there was no s in the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English antecedents of island, which Webster uses as a launching pad for claiming (perhaps somewhat facetiously) that the spelling island is no more correct than ibland or idland would be. But, of course, acknowledging that the spelling of a word may be influenced by the spelling of another, similar word that arose from a somewhat different path (as in the case of the effect of the French isle, from the Latin insula, on the spelling of the English word island) is a far cry from arguing that the interloping letter(s) might just as well have been picked at random out of a hat.

Webster's notions of correct spelling are idiosyncratic, but he couches them as historical and logical imperatives. The novelty of the spellings he introduced that subsequently passed into standard U.S. (and in some cases, British) orthography is invisible to their users today, whereas many of those that did not (such as hainous, highth, medicin, opake, and tung) seem almost comically arbitrary. Yet in each case, Webster marshals what he takes to be overwhelmingly persuasive reasons to justify the spelling reform he prescribes.

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    +1, even though only the first sentence actually answers the question :) The rest of this answer answers a few of the rest of the questions that beg to be asked in OP.
    – Conrado
    Jun 11 at 21:46
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    @Conrado ...and answering the unasked questions is the best kind of answer.
    – Mitch
    Jun 11 at 22:01

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