Why is English spelling so inconsistent?

Updated: Dec 1, 2020




English spelling is bizarre. Any second language learner can recount the nightmare of pronouncing a word by sight or spelling it by ear.


This article explains how and why English came to be written as it is today and why there is not much we can do about it.



Is English spelling really inconsistent?

· Patterns identified in 84% of English spelling

· Irregular words the most often used


Before we look at the reasons why let’s see how irregular English spelling really is. In his book How Language Works, David Crystal (2006)reassures us that our impressions may be exaggerated. Computer analysis showed that as much as 84% of English is spelled according to a regular pattern. Crystal says this is good news because that leaves only a small proportion that is truly irregular (of which only 3% of spellings are 'so unpredictable that they would have to be learned totally by rote' [ 2006, p. 130]).


However, this reassuring analysis does not lessen the challenge of facing these irregular forms. Further along in this article, we will see that English is not based on any single set of rules, but from various intersecting systems. So, while it appears that most of the language follows patterns, Crystal does not address how many systems are involved in the formulation of these patterns, or if there is general agreement between the systems.


Assuming there is some method to the madness, let’s explore the extent of this irregularity.. Crystal continues, 'Many of the 400 or so irregular spellings are among the most frequently used words in the language' (2006, p. 130). This is true … Some of the words we use every day are among the most difficult to predict. Think of bought and horse, go and though, for example.


In fact, irregularity thrives because we use these words so frequently. Language change that polishes rough edges is much more likely among words that can be temporarily forgotten and reinvented. For this reason, it actually makes perfect sense for ancient irregularities to exist among the most commonly used words, with forms that are in such constant use that they never have a chance to be reimagined.


So, English does have irregularities, but some of the irregularities are sort of regular ... and we have kept them that way by using them so often; but how did this even happen?


English is a very mixed up language

· Originally a blend of Celtic and Germanic with Viking influence

· introduction of Norman French through the Norman conquest of 1066

· Britain divided by regional dialects of English

English has a complicated history and is formed from numerous separate linguistic systems.

English always has been, and still is today, an absorbent language. The entire history of English involves the layering of different languages making contact and coming to power across centuries.


English did not follow a linear path to the form it takes today. As the language of England, it was founded in an early blend of Celtic and Germanic languages following the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in Celtic Briton from around the year of 449 BCE. The subsequent centuries of Viking invasions and settlements also changed the linguistic landscape and brought a horde of new words from this northern stream of Germanic.


The Battle of Hastings in 1066 led to three centuries of Norman rule in Great Britain. The Norman language, a combination of French and Norse, led to dramatic transformations of the English language.


As English evolved, even during Anglo-Saxon days, it diverged into dialects based on geography and status. Looking at Great Britain today, it is truly astounding to see the vast range of differences between the dialects of English, even among regions within short distances from one another.


As a single language, English has undergone waves of heavy transformations at a rapid pace; yet the changes have not affected the language consistently or as a single entity. English has developed in splintered dialects that have evolved at different times and in divergent ways.

Spelling as a matter of opinion

· No spelling standards during Anglo-Saxon or Norman rule

· Problems adapting the alphabet to the sounds of English

· Different alphabets in every region

· French scribes added French flair

For a long time, from when English was first written until some time after the invention of the printing press, English did not have consistency in regard to spelling. This was treated as an individual decision that was influenced by regional and personal preferences.


Early on, with so many varieties of English developing across Britain, there had been issues with adapting existing writing system to match the sounds that made up the language. Crystal (2006) notes that, prior to the Norman conquest, the Anglo-Saxon alphabet contained 24 symbols but needed to capture nearly 40 sounds, or phonemes. This was the beginning of creating letter combinations, such as 'ea' and 'oa', to represent certain sounds.


In A Biography of the English Language, Millward and Hayes (2012) suggest that each regional variety of English even had its own version of this alphabet. Changes included addition and deletion of certain symbols and reassigning of letters to keep up with quickly evolving sounds in each distinct dialect. Some regions had alphabets of as many as 33 characters (2012). After the Norman appropriation of Britain, French scribes became involved and introduced their own preferred spellings (Crystal, 2006).


The printing press and new complications


· Transformation by the printing press

· Reinvention by foreign printers

· Agreement reached within the printing industry

The linguist Bill Bryson, in Mother Tongue (2008), highlights that the invention and increasingly common usage of the printing press in the 15th century changed English spelling. He writes, 'Before 1400, it was possible to tell with some precision where in Britain a letter or manuscript was written just from the spellings. By 1500, this had become all but impossible' (p. 117).

While the printing press may have removed the mark of regional dialects, it did not immediately standardise spelling. In fact, it brought some new complications. Crystal explains that the printers who worked these early presses were generally foreign, and applied their own concept of spelling to their work (2006). However, the idea of printing to a standard was established by the end of the 1600s, and the wider public soon accepted printed norms as the most correct model (Millward & Hayes, 2012).


The great vowel shift

· Continued evolution of sounds after spelling standardisation

· Loss of connection between sounds and existing spellings



A degree of standardisation did not solve the problem with spelling either. To begin with. the established model already incorporated a mixture of the many strange elements introduced by foreign influence, regional dialects, and inadequate alphabets, among other issues.


Added to this, the sounds of English continued to evolve after spelling had stabilised. For example, the words beat and beet were assigned their spellings because they used to be pronounced differently. However, continued changes to the sound system merged their pronunciation while they retained their spellings. Many similar divergences took place during an upheaval called the Great Vowel Shift, which was a general movement of vowels between the years of 1400 and 1700.


Classical roots

· Changes to spelling to recognise Greek and Latin roots

· Some changes made in miscalculation and not reflective of origins


After all this, English spelling had not yet arrived at its modern form. Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, British society turned back to its classical roots. It became fashionable to highlight the origins of English in Latin and Greek. In recognition of these roots, many words were reconceptualised with a classical flavour, such as the addition of a silent 'b' to 'dette', creating the current spelling of 'debt' (Bryson, 2008).


This practice transformed a great number of English spellings, although it sometimes led to enthusiastic overapplication of these ideals. Just one example is the English word 'island', which was formerly written as 'ilond', from a Proto-Germanic root. The word was mistaken for a Latin-root word, similar to the French 'isle', and it gained the silent letter 's' (Millward & Hayes, 2012).

Attempts to standardise

· Campaign among famous linguists and writers for simplified spelling

· America the most successful in spelling reform

· Challenge to existing system difficult and largely abandoned

· Continued evolution of English today

In more recent times, there have been numerous calls and attempts to resolve the modern-day mess that is English spelling. These endeavours have had varying degrees of any successful impact. Bryson (2008) lists Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, Mark Twain, Darwin, Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle and James A. H. Murray among the many voices for simplification over the years. Then, there was the appearance of groups such as the American Philological Association in 1869, the Spelling Reform Association in1876 and the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906 in the US. In the UK, there was the Simplified Spelling Society in 1908.


Many new spellings have been proposed favouring single sound to letter correspondence. Examples include 'liv' from 'live' and 'tuf' for 'tough'. These voices made their mark in some ways but were generally unsuccessful in achieving the wide reform they were hoping for. The greatest obstacles were that proponents could not agree on which words to reform and how to respell them. It is ultimately very difficult to transform an established tradition when so many people have already worked hard to learn its complexities and it has representation in such a great body of writing and literature (Crystal, 2006).


However, over time, certain reformed spellings have become accepted, particularly in the United States, and due to the early work of Noah Webster. This is why we now have contrasting UK and US froms, including 'colour' and 'color', 'organise' and 'organize', and 'programme' and 'program'. Now, in the age of globalisation and technology, the language is changing again in new ways.

English has been through upheaval after upheaval, yet this same journey has made it resilient and highly adaptable and brought the language to its current place of international standing. It is a language of international pop culture, innovation, and the global marketplace.


What can be done to tackle its confusing irregularities? Not a lot. We can get used to them and learn the patterns, or else wait a century for linguistic nature to take its course with English. We may love to hate its crazy written code, but the irregularities of English spelling are hard-won and here to stay … for the foreseeable future.



Sources


Bryson, B. (2008). Mother tongue. Penguin Group.


Crystal, D. (2006). How language works. Penguin Group.


Millward. C. M., & Hayes, M. (2012). A biography of the English language (3rd ed.). WADSWORTH, Cengage Learning.




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