(From 2019, but I apparently put it aside as the epilepsy stirred up. Writing does that. A couple days ago I found it in the drafts folder and, the epilepsy calmed down again, I finished it, a mere four years later.)
Supposably and supposedly are not the same word. Both go back centuries. Originally supposably had a somewhat different meaning than supposedly, apparently a subtle distinction, but what that difference was or why it was important disappeared. By now it’s hard to imagine what that distinction could possibly could have been, but English used to be much more grammatically complex than it is now. Loads more rules, subtleties of what linguists call perspective, your English teacher called cases, and that you never called anything because you had learned the language as a child when our brains learn how to use a language without having anyone label all the different parts and codifying them into rules. But English used to have lots more of those cases and rules. We have vastly more vocabulary now, but lots less rules. Languages lose all kinds of distinctions as they simplify. Languages gain speakers who speak other languages already and the grammatical complexities drop away. Too complicated. The more the language has expanded geographically and increased in new speakers, the more the grammatical subtleties drop away. Few notice. And everyone can communicate perfectly well without all those old cases. So they’re forgotten. Even grammar obsessives forget them eventually. Today’s annoying grammar guy would get yelled at by yesterday’s, or would be if yesterday’s wasn’t dead and buried and forgotten. Language change has no respect for the dead, and in a few centuries the living speakers can’t understand much of what the dead said long ago anyway. Thus Shakespeare is difficult to understand, Chaucer a hundred years earlier is next to impossible, and Beowulf, from eleven or twelve centuries ago, is impossible. Same language, though, you can look at a schematic that lays out just why It’s the same language, but it’s been tweaked and changed all to hell by forty generations of speakers. And English is a written language. Languages that are strictly oral–which is the vast majority of languages, even now–change much, much faster. English could have gone from Beowulf to what I’m expressing now in just a couple hundred years. Even something a half century old, the lyrics of Beatles songs, for example, could sound comically old fashioned. Movies from the 1930s could be difficult to understand. Written English slows down the rate of change. But it still changes, and by the time a couples centuries worth of generations have passed, like from the time of your great grandparents’ great grandparents until the English you speak, it’s changed quite a bit.
Which is how it came to be that we can no longer tell just what exactly was the distinction between supposedly and supposably. The subtle grammatical distinctions between them involved perspectives that English no longer has, nor can English speakers now recognize what those distinctions were once. We don’t know what the difference was between the two words because we literally can no longer hear the distinction. It was a difference in perspective–that is, a grammatical case–that every English speaker could once perceive instantly, and now we can’t at all. We can’t even imagine what that distinction was. An English speaking child would once have had that distinction hardwired right into their brains. They didn’t have to be taught it, anymore than we have to be taught how to make a verb a past tense by adding an “ed” suffix, or how kids know how to state where they are by saying “here” and where you are with “there”. Of course, those kids once knew when to say whither instead of where, and thither instead of there. They don’t know now. It’s very likely you don’t either. I only know because I like this stuff. But the case that once required a whither and a thither fell into disuse some time ago because, frankly, who the hell needs it. And by the same linguistic process somewhere in the last couple centuries we stopped knowing when one says supposedly and when someone says supposably. The meanings were close enough that they were fairly interchangeable if you weren’t too hung up on the finer points of grammar. You can imagine the grandparents grousing about kids these days not respecting anything. But grandparents die and no one remembered their complaining for long afterward and the distinction between supposedly and supposably disappeared. If the great grandkids don’t learn the distinction by the time they’re about twelve it’s gone. Two words meaning the exact same thing is one word too many and supposably disappeared, though why it and not supposedly was the one abandoned is a mystery.
And language that is not learned as children is a dead language. When the last of the children who did learn it die of old age, it is officially extinct. And though the distinction between supposably and supposedly was just one infinitesimal grammatical bit in the vastness of English grammar and not the end of the English language, it does give a ghostly glimpse into how languages die. Someday even English will die like that. Languages, like species, only last for so long. Sometimes, like Latin, they survive in other languages. And sometimes they just disappear forever. But we’re not there yet. And of course supposably is just one word that, like junk DNA, is hanging around in the genome and, like junk DNA, we don’t really know why. I mean we know why as a process, we know how words like supposably can wind up hanging around in the English vocabulary, we just don’t know why exactly we say supposedly now instead of supposably. No one wrote down the details for us, it just sort of happened when no one was paying much attention until now supposably hangs around in the language and we’d probably never even notice and if the sort of people who get upset at these kinds of things didn’t go on tirades about how it’s not supposably, it’s supposedly, we probably wouldn’t even notice. But then some of us obsess over the etiquette of grammar, and some of us have lives.
Now I suppose it actually is kind of ridiculous to still have a supposedly and a supposably. It’s hard to come up with a noun for supposable (supposableness? Am I missing one?) unless you just state two almost identical nouns with completely identical meanings, and if there were any verbs associated with them that helped distinguish how they differed who knows what they were, especially as there would have had to be a verb to use only with supposedly and another to use only with supposably. But they’re lost now. I mean we still have the verbs, but we have no idea which verb went with supposedly and which went with supposably. Indeed, the whole delicate lattice of grammar that they nestled in has disappeared. The specificity is lost. As is the word supposably for the most part, lost and reduced to a misspelling of supposedly, except in places like Miami where supposedly is the misspelling. Go figure. Words changing meaning over time and taking the place of other words is called semantic drift. And semantic drift is ugly. It’s not like the perfect rules they teach us in school. It’s just people talking.
It’s unnerving when you see a word that you have no idea what it was for or how it was used, but that everyone who spoke English a few hundred years ago knew as children exactly how it was used. Seven year olds knew in what context you’d use supposably, and in what context you used supposedly. They couldn’t explain the rule. They just knew it. They never even thought of them as the same word. And yet somehow in the past few centuries that bit of information that was hardwired into the very neurology an English speaker’s brain and passed along as language always is from mother (mostly) to child from when humans are still in the womb till the onset of adolescence, well, somewhere along there we lost that bit of hardwiring and never even knew it. Vanished, gone, like it was never even there. There’s nothing unusual in that, it’s a constant and continuous process. It’s how languages change, how new languages are born, it’s why humans speak over 7,000 languages now and who knows how many dialects, and why thousands of other languages are dead and gone going back somewhere between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand years to when language was invented (or created or developed or evolved or happened.) Tiny incremental bits of grammar disappear and within a couple generations are forgotten, and eventually the old words themselves–words have a much longer shelf lives than unused grammar–are purged. We’re witnessing the purging of of the word supposably now. Really angry purging. Only ignorant uneducated lowlifes pronounce supposedly as supposably, we’re told. But supposably is not merely mispronunciation of supposedly. It’s a relic of English from long ago, though we have no idea what it meant exactly. Still, though, it now makes a perfectly good synonym for supposedly, or would, if it didn’t make some people so damn mad.