Ninety-one Ways to Spell a Word
By Albert F. Buffington
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania) 12 April 1952, page 10.
According to the system used by Dr. Barba in the ECK and also by Buffington and Barba in their new Pennsylvania German Grammar (now in press and being published by Schlechter’s of Allentown) the radio name of the Pennsylvania German broadcaster who presents a broadcast every Sunday over WKOK, Sunbury, should be spelled N-i-x-n-u-t-z. A recent survey of the Nixnutz’s fan mail, however, has revealed that there are ninety other ways to spell this Pennsylvania German word.
“Nixnutz” is a word which these Pennsylvania German people had used and heard many times. If they were born and brought up in a Pennsylvania German family, they had probably at some time or other been called “du gleener(ri) Nixnutz.” But apparently, most of them had never seen the word in print; nor had they ever attempted to spell it.
Obviously one of the first problems confronting many of the ninety-one people who wrote these “fan” letters was whether “Nixnutz” should be written as one or two words. Thus we find some making two words out of “Nixnutz” and others writing it as one word, e.g. Nix Noots and Nixnoots, Nix Nutz and Nixnuts, Nicks Nooks and Nicksnooks, Nicks Noots and Nicksnoots, Nicks-Nuts and Nicks-nuts, Nicks Nutz and Nicksnutz, Nits Noots and Nits-noots, Nicks Nucks and Nixnucks, Nix-Nuds and Nix-nuds, Nix Nuts and Nixnuts, Nix Snoots and Nix-snoots, Nix Snuts and Nixsnuts, Nix Noods and Nixnoods, Nix Nooks and Nixnooks, etc.
Apparently another problem which many had to ponder was how to spell the first half of the word. The majority spelled it “nix,” but many wrote “Nicks,” e.h. Nicksnutz, Nicksnoots, Nicks-Nuts, Nicks Nouts, Nicksnooks, etc. To some, probably to this ewho were not too familiar with the dialect, this initial syllable sounded like “Mix,” and thus, on some of the letters “Nixnutz” was written Mix mud, Mix Nus, Mix mutz, Mixnoots, Mixnuts, Mix nutz, Mixnux, and Mix Nux. Others thought this first syllable ought to be spelled “Snicks,” e.g. “Snicks Snoks, Snicks Snooks, Snicks Snuks,” etc. Other spellings of the initial syllable occurring less frequently were Snick, Nicht, Nights, Nick, Knix, Nex, Nits, Nitz, Niz, and Nux.
In the spelling of the second half of “Nixnutz” there were even greater variation, as the following list will reveal:
These ninety-one different spellings of the same word illustrate what happens when a bilingual person who knows how to write in one language attempts to use that alphabet for his other language. It also illustrates the defects of our English system of orthography
Presumably, all of the ninety-one people who addressed these “fan” letters to the Nixnutz were bilingual, speaking both English and Pennsylvania German. A few of them may also have been familiar with standard German. These people had learned to write English in school but had never been taught how to write Pennsylvania German.
Thus, in attempting to write “der Nixnutz” most of the above “fans” tried to use the non-phonetic English alphabet in transcribing the sounds of the dialect. In so doing, they retained the defects of our English system of orthography.
In conclusion, I should like to emphasize once again, as I have done in previous articles, that Pennsylvania German is a German dialect and that, therefore, the spelling of Pennsylvania German should be based upon German rather than on English orthography. We see in the above spellings of “Nixnutz” what happens when one tries to represent the Pennsylvania German sounds by using English equivalents.