Archeology - Why Is There an Alternative Way to Spell Archaeology?

Even the Way Archaeology is Spelled Has to Do with the Past

The Talbot (Taberd) Inn on Borough High Street, Southwark, London, 1827. Artist: John Chessell Buckler
The Talbot (Taberd) Inn on Borough High Street, Southwark, London, 1827, where Chaucer's Canterbury Tales took place. Artist: John Chessell Buckler. If archaeology was studied in Chaucer's day, we'd have met here to argue about it. Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Archeology is an alternate spelling for the more-frequently used version of the word archaeology. Both spellings are accepted by most scholars today (and by most dictionaries these days), and both are pronounced in American English something like "ark-ee-AH-luh-gee". British speakers pronounce them both with a little less "r" and a little more "ah" in the first syllable than Americans do.

The print version of the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary spelled the word as 'archæology', with the letters ae in what linguists call a ligature: the ligature was part of the original spelling.

That character is not readily available to most digital writers today, or even to most typewriters before the dawn of computers, so the ligature in rarely found print or online--indeed modern print versions of the OED have stopped using the ligature entirely.

The origins of the word archeology are found in Old English, and that word was derived from the Greek 'arkhaios' meaning "ancient" or arkhaiologia, "ancient history". The OED reference includes the information that the first occurrence of the word 'archæology' was in 1607, in Holy Observations, a book written by the English bishop and satirist Joseph Hall. When he used the word, Hall was referring to "ancient history" rather than archaeology's current meaning of "a scientific study of the ancient past". His book Holy Observations also includes the famous quote used by Puritans "God loveth adverbs; and careth not how good, but how well".

The Great Vowel Shift

During Hall's time, vowel pronunciation in England was undergoing a systematic change, called the Great Vowel Shift, which profoundly affected the way people spoke and wrote the English language. The way 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer would have pronounced the vowel sound in the middle of archæology would have sounded like a short a, as in the way we pronounce "flat".

Although the period of time in which the Great Vowel Shift (or GVS) took place is debated by linguists today, there is no doubt that it changed the way all vowels were pronounced by English speakers: the standard pronunciation for æ shifted from flat "a" to an "ee" sound.

The American Twist

It is unknown just when the first spelling of archeology without the a occurred, but certainly after the Great Vowel Shift and perhaps after it gained its new meaning of "the study of prehistoric past" as opposed to "ancient history": archaeology became a scientific study beginning in the 1800s. The spelling of "archeology" appears occasionally in the early 19th-century scientific literature, but it was always relatively rare compared to "archaeology". An attempt was made in the mid-20th century to modernize the spelling to 'archeology', particularly among American archeologists, but many or perhaps most archaeologists still use the old spelling.

According to American archaeologist and writer A.H. Walle (2000), in the 1960s, his mentor Raymond Thompson asserted that students who used the archeology spelling tended to be the 'new archeologists'; and as far as he was concerned he would respect his ancestors and keep to the ae spelling.

According to American archaeologist Quetzil Castenada (1996), he believes the spelling archaeology should be used to refer to the concept as used by French social theorist Michel Foucault in his 1969 text "Archaeology of Knowledge" or "L'archéologie du savoir" in the original French, while archeology might be reserved for the scientific discipline. When Foucault used the word, he was interested in excavating the underlying rules that form human languages, making archaeology an apt metaphor for linguistic studies. 

Modern dictionaries, including the new online version of the OED, call the word archeology an acceptable, albeit American, form of archaeology.

What Does Archeology Mean?

In the modern and general use of the term, archeology, just like archaeology, is the scientific study of the human past, including everything from yesterday's garbage in the landfill to the impressions of footprints in the mud at Laetoli by our ancestor Australopithecus.

Whether studied in a classics department as part of ancient history, or in an anthropology department as part of human cultures, then, archeology is always about people and our immediate ancestors, and never about dinosaurs, "intelligent design", or space aliens. See the Defining Archaeology collection for more than 30 definitions of the science.

Because the word was originally English, the ae spelling is still found in other languages who borrowed it. Archeology is spelled: archéologie (French), 考古学 (simplified Chinese), Archäologie (German), археология (Russian), arqueología (Spanish), archeologia (Italian), 고고학 (Korean), and αρχαιολογία (Greek).

Sources

Castenada QE. 1996. In the Museum of Maya Cultures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oxford English Dictionary (second edition). 1989. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Oxford English Dictionary (online edition). 2016. Accessed 13 August 2016.

Walle AH. 2000. The Cowboy Hero and its Audience: Popular Culture as Market Derived Art. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.