Portents of Mother’s Gate

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Forward: A Note on the Uncommon Spelling of ‘Prophesy’

Throughout the Tales of the Known World saga, the word ‘prophesy’ is spelled with an /s/ in all cases. This is in contrast to the standard American spelling, which uses the /s/ form for the verb ‘to prophesy’ and commonly uses the /c/ form for the noun ‘a prophecy’.

The reasoning for this spelling decision is threefold. Firstly, in many American-English dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, the entry for the noun ‘prophecy’ lists the spelling ‘prophesy’ as an acceptable variant. It is therefore uncommon – but not incorrect – to use the /s/ form ‘prophesy’ as a noun.

Moreover, Merriam-Webster lists two acceptable plurals for the noun ‘prophecy’, one as ‘prophecies’ and the other as ‘prophesies’, further solidifying this /s/ form as being unusual but not ungrammatical.

Many languages around the world have different spellings for correlated verbs and nouns, as in the case of the American spelling of ‘to prophesy’ and ‘a prophecy’. In the Known World, the language of the prophetic merfolk, commonly called Meri, is one such language.

In Meri, most verb/noun correlations, such as ‘to swim’ and ‘a swim’, or ‘to laugh’ and ‘a laugh’, are created with special adjustments that convert a root verb into its correlated noun. To illustrate this in English, consider how ‘to speak’ becomes ‘a speech’, or how ‘to meet’ becomes ‘a meeting’.

Meri is a very regular language, and exceptions to its rules and guidelines are rare. By all logic, the merfolk language should have a spelling differentiation between ‘to prophesy’ and ‘a prophecy’. However, this word is one of Meri’s rare exceptions.

As opposed to a regular Meri pairing like speak/speech or meet/meeting, a highly irregular pairing uses the exact same word for both the verb and the noun form of ‘prophesy’. This brings us to the second reason for using the /s/ form of the English word ‘prophesy’ in all cases – it is as unusual in English as it is in Meri, and it captures the marked homogeneity of the merfolk word in a subtle yet pervasive way.

The third and final reason for this spelling decision lies in the nature of language itself. Over time, languages evolve, usages shift, and spellings mutate to reflect the pronunciation of the day. As generations progress, languages tend to evolve towards more regular and less complicated spellings and conjugations, a linguistic process known as regularization.

In our modern era of text messages and social media posts, acronyms and abridged spellings such as ‘lol’ and ‘thru’ have become commonplace and entirely intelligible. While educators still consider these spellings ungrammatical, the majority of the English-speaking populace can encounter these words and understand them without difficulty.

The more common an English word is, the more resistant that word’s pronunciation, conjugation, and spelling are to the process of regularization. Consider two irregular verbs, the uncommon verb ‘to wed’ and the common verb ‘to eat’:

Today I wed. / Today I eat.
Yesterday I wed. / Yesterday I ate.

Modern English has regularized ‘wed’ and now provides ‘wedded’ as an interchangeable past tense variant. But due to the high frequency of the verb ‘ate’, the regularization ‘eated’ sounds ludicrous to modern speakers. Thanks to online abbreviations, however, even common words like ‘through’ are experiencing regularization at an unprecedented rate.

Since the word ‘prophesy’ is fairly uncommon in English usage, the spelling difference between ‘to prophesy’ and ‘a prophecy’ is likely to disappear in the coming decades. In direct contrast, the word for ‘prophesy’ in the merfolk language is very common as both a noun and verb, resulting in the stable irregularity of ‘prophesy/prophesy’ in a language where ‘meet/meeting’ is the regular framework.

This strange unity of verb/noun root words reflects the cultural heritage of the merfolk, which is heavily focused on predicting the future. Their word for ‘prophesy’ is as unlikely to change as our word for ‘eat’, and this final notion clinched the spelling decision, as it seemed silly to undermine the symbolism of the transliterated /s/ form in order to uphold a spelling convention that is dying out in modern English.

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