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The Eccentric History Of English Spelling (And Why It's So Maddeningly Difficult)

Why is it so difficult to spell words in English? It turns out that the inconsistency of English spelling is a long, rambling history with many people to blame along the way.

Illustration by Jana Walczyk

English spelling is a tough nut to crack. The first time my English teacher wrote “through" on the blackboard, I had to memorize the word phonetically and then learn how to pronounce it properly. Soon enough I was having to deal with homophones such as seen/scene, hear/here and heteronyms such as lead/lead or present/present.

Why is English spelling so maddeningly inconsistent and odd?

Germanic roots

Maybe the language’s spelling is so confusing because its history is equally messy. A quick browse through English history indicates the recurrent colonization, occupation and visitation of the British Isles by a vast number of tribes and cultures over the centuries. During the times of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples who spoke a number of West Germanic dialects came to settle on these islands. The dialects developed into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.

Latin influence from Rome

Soon enough, Christian missionaries arrived bringing Latin with them, leading to Christianization in the late 7th century. The writing system changed accordingly and the Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the 9th century. But the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons included sounds that were not present in Latin. Hence the inclusion of runic letters such as Þ (later th) and a need to group Latin letters to represent sounds spoken by the inhabitants, such as gh. ("But we don’t usually pronounce the gh in most English words," I hear you say. More on that later…)

The Norse invasion

In the late 8th century, the isles were ready for another invasion. The Vikings arrived, ransacking Christian communities and monasteries for their wealth, leaving mayhem and a few words behind. Many words beginning with th originated in Old Norse - such as thrust, thrift, they, there and then — as well as many words beginning with sk — such as skirt, sky, skill and skin. The Vikings helped streamline the languages spoken in the territories with which they came into contact, trimming the grammar and bringing directness to the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.

The Norman conquest

But a change was about to occur again in the 11th century, as William the Conqueror arrives and switches the language of the elite to Anglo-Norman, a northern dialect of Old French. Jury, clerk, justice are only a few of the roughly ten thousand words that had seeped into the language by the 14th century. Parliament was another—after all, parler is French for "to speak" and a parliament is where politicians speak. Centre was also kept in its original French spelling—though the Americans did change it much later to center—along with colour—which they eventually changed to color.

Mutating words

Meanwhile, the Great Vowel Shift was occurring roughly between 1350 and 1700. Words such as bite, meet, out and boot changed phonetically within the space of 350 years and came out the other end sounding very differently. For instance, name in Middle English sounded something like naam (naːm), much closer to the contemporary German Name. It was actually only around 1850 that it began to audibly resemble contemporary pronunciation (neɪm).

Other sounds also vanished or mutated. If we investigate words spelled with -ough, which all possessed the same fricative sound (present in German words like Bach or Loch), we are led to acknowledge transformations that shaped different pronunciations in words such as through, rough, cough, thought and bough. The diphthong gh in the word light was also pronounced with a guttural sound. But by the 17th century, the sound had either been dropped or had mutated into an audible f. The spelling gh, however, remained.

Other letters were also audible, like the k in knight. But that sound died off, just like wrong lost its audible w.

And then the printing press really messes things up

So far we’ve been referring mostly to an oral tradition. However, with the invention of the printing press, the spelling of many words solidified while their pronunciations continued to morph. As a result, we inherited the confusing idiosyncrasies of each previous dialect and cultural change.

Not just that. William Caxton brought the printing press to England — along with foreign typesetters. Dutch workers, ignorant of English spellings, chose Dutch ones and turned gost into ghost, yott into yacht and added the occasional e at the end of words to fill up an empty space or to earn more (they were paid by the line). English was also a language they did not speak or write with any degree of fluency. Many editions of the Bible, which had been translated into English by this time, were printed on the Continent by workers who also did not speak English. Suffice to say, the next 100 years would include a flood of spelling differences.

Latin refuses to die

To add insult to injury, roughly ten to twelve thousand words entered the language during the Renaissance, many of Latin origin. The influence of Latin remained so huge, spellings of words such as debt were changed to include the silent b — reflecting its Latin origin (debitum). Receit became receipt, mirroring the Latin recepere. The same happened to island for all the wrong reasons, since it originates originally from the Old English īegland but was thought to originate from the Latin insula (through the Old French isle). So island gained an s — incorrectly!

The point at which we begin to recognize something similar to contemporary English — Early Modern English — is roughly around the time of Shakespeare. And Shakespeare not only coined several new terms, but his epitaph includes the spelling of frend in detriment of the variant friend. Such simplicity did not survive the ages.

The pursuit of science brings Greek into the mix

The 17th century welcomed the industrial age and triggered a number of technological advances along with a scientific revolution. To name many of these new creations and discoveries, Latin and ancient Greek were used and meshed with the current spoken language. Telephone (a word coined in the 19th century) is a good example. The highbrow spelling reflects its noble Greek etymology. In contrast, plain words such as fly or furious are not spelled with ph. But why not? After all, a word such as fantasy also comes from Greek — and we ended up spelling it with an f! See how inconsistent these choices are?

The ongoing (and potentially endless) debate

The approach to loanwords also changed around the 19th century. Previously, a word such as Nudel from German would slip into English as noodle. But soon after, words such as pizza or Strudel retained their original spelling. We don’t spell it stroodle, do we? The same is applicable to words such as champagne, ballet and Blitzkrieg. They bring their own spellings along.

The change continues today with the presence of technological terms, jargon and product names revolutionizing the language. Whether it’s donut or doughnut, barbecue or barbeque, English continues to madden and fascinate.

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