What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match.

In one corner, introducing… the alphabet. Developed in Egypt, refined in the Levant and Greece, and modified to suit the language of Latium, the area around Rome. One letter, one sound, for the most part:

A B C D E F G H (later on they stopped pronouncing that one) I L M N O P Q (OK, that’s a teeny bit excrescent) R S T V X (yeah, two sounds)

…and they wanted letters to work with loan words from Greek, so they tossed in

K Y Z

A small bit of ductape, but not so bad.

And, in the other corner, introducing… the English language, as it was spoken towards the end of the first millennium AD. It had the following basic sounds:

p b t d k g tS m n f T s S h r j w l i y u e o æ A [note: for the sake of reliability, phonetic transcriptions are done using the text conventions you'll find on worldwidewords.org]

You put a spell on me! You put a spelling on me! …Does leave us feeling bewitched, bothered and bewildered, dunnit?

But, you know, most people at the time didn’t actually read or write. Who did? Clergy, monks, people like that. People whose literacy had a good Latin foundation. So of course to write things down in English, they used the Latin alphabet.

But English wasn’t at first in such a fight with the Latin alphabet. Other languages have adapted the Latin alphabet to suit their own phonemics, after all. Accents, dots, hooks, slashes… Icelandic has two nice letters for the first sounds in the words “this thing”: edh and thorn. So did we for a fair little while, though we tended to use them interchangeably. We also for a time used a different letter for the [w] sound: it was called wynn, but in the end it couldn’t. It looked too much like a p, and a doubled u did the trick well enough. Wynn and thorn were borrowed from runes; edh was adapted from the Latin alphabet. So was ash (æ), which was an actual Latin letter that has been largely lost in the romance languages. And we used two-letter combinations for some of the other sounds. And with all that, we managed to write the language with a fair degree of consistency.

So it’s not fair to blame Latin for all our spelling woes. We really ought to pile it onto French more than just a little bit. Blame Fra-a-ance! Blame Fra-a-ance! What happened? Well, for one thing,1066 and all that. The Normans took over England and brought in French, and it became the language of the ruling class. And English, which had had a developing standard, became the speech of the lower classes, the working classes. It went to ground. Official documents were in French. Now, imagine what would happen to Canadian English if it stopped being taught in schools and was spoken just by the lower socioeconomic classes. A lot of the niceties we defend with flaming pen would be gone altogether… and local dialects would diverge more, too. So would sounds that had originally been the same – that’s how we end up with sets like head, earth, and heart. Welcome to the Middle English period.

Now, sure, things were shifting before the Middle English period. Well, the spelling wasn’t, much; there was an established standard, the West Saxon standard, a set scholarly way of writing, and it was pretty consistent, even as the way people spoke – in real life, outside scholarly contexts and all that – was changing. The truth is, if the whole Middle English kind of chaos hadn’t happened, English spelling still wouldn’t have matched the pronunciation, because the pronunciation had moved on some already and the spelling hadn’t. In fact, Middle English freed the spelling to match the pronunciation more closely.

But, ah, match more closely in whose eyes? Not everyone was literate. To say the least. Oh, it’s not that English wasn’t written at all. There certainly are texts from this period. And many of them were copied by monks and other scribes that the Normans brought over with them. Yeeesss… French scribes. Transcribing English. In ways that made sense to them. Blame Fra-a-ance!

Ash, eth, and to a slightly lesser degree thorn were tossed in the discard bin, while letters theretofore largely unused were brought over from the continent like the latest clothing fashions: k, q, x, and z. Good old English cwen became queen, for instance, and Old English cyning had changed pronunciation and then spelling to become king. The sound “ch,” which once needed only c if near an e or i, became ch. “Sh” was no longer sc but sh and sch. We used to write “j” as cg; now it was dg or gg, or just g before e or i. And hw was reversed to wh. Words formerly spelled with s, such as sinder and ís, got c’s to match French practice: cinder and ice. Now, sometimes it didn’t stick. That’s why mouse and louse have s in the singular, but the plurals, mice and lice, have c. There were other respellings to match French style, too. For instance, feond, which had come to be pronounced [fe:nd], was changed to fiend.

So when the French influence waned and the Hundred Years’ War started in the 14th century, English spelling was somewhat changed. The French influence pervaded its written form. (And the upper classes still used a lot of French words. This is why farmers grow cows and pigs but we eat beef and pork.) The scribes were still trained in the French mode. And English grammar, and some words, had changed as a result of contact with French and also with Danish, which was an important presence in northern England. As often happens in language contact situations, the forms simplified. We used to have three genders and four cases in nouns, and a much more thorough set of verbal conjugations. We lost a lot of that, and the last thing remaining of many of those inflections was a little unstressed e at the ends of words. By the way, e wasn’t always the letter used for this reduced and ultimately silent vowel. For a time there was a vogue for writing it y. And i was also tried. But in the end e stuck.

The reascendancy of English did bring some standardization with it. A particular dialect came to be preferred. The Signet Office, which handled the King’s personal correspondence, tended to use a certain set of usages, and the Chancery, which handled legal matters, adopted them. The basis of our standard modern English is in fact the Chancery standard – you want to talk about the laws of spelling and grammar! People spoke – and still speak – a variety of different dialects, but with the Chancery standard there was at least a point of reference. Judgements were made and set. And spellings weren’t always chosen on the basis of the way people normally said the word, either!

But, while the Chancery spelling came to look much more like what we’re used to now, spelling overall was not yet rigidly fixed, and not everyone who copied texts was with the Chancery, either. And, now, imagine you’re a scribe in the late medieval era. You spend all your day copying texts. It can get a bit boring. And you get paid by the inch. And there’s no dictionary, no standard reference for how words are to be spelled; the idea is that you have this alphabet and you know what letter generally stands for what, or what other people have used it for in this or that case, and you know how you, in your dialect, say this and that word. So you develop some standards so you don’t have to figure everything out anew all the time – a style sheet, as it were – and you have certain favourite ways of handling certain things, and you like to keep your life from getting too boring. And did I mention you get paid by the inch? So anyway, even if you’re copying from another copy of the same text, you might be inclined to modify spellings to what you think they should be or to what suits you a bit better. And with the effects of the changes to English during the medieval period, it’s a bit of a free-for-all, so what the heck? Add an e or an i here or there…

But at least, up to around the 15th century, we had a rational vowel system. Long [a] was [a:]. Long [i] was [i:]. And then, over a stretch of time, and progressing varyingly in various parts of the country, the most cataclysmic change in English pronunciation occurred. The long vowels shifted upward in the mouth, and the ones at the top became diphthongs starting lower down. So [a:] became [e:], ultimately [eI]; [e:] became [i:]; [i:] became [@I], ultimately [aI]; [o:] became [u:] or [oU]; [u:] became [aU] and in some cases [ju]. And all this while the short versions stayed basically the same as they were. Welcome to… the Great Vowel Shift! So now we have a language where hundreds millions of people accept without a second though the absurd idea that long [a] is not [a:] but [eI], and long [E] is not [E:] but [i:], and long [I] is not [I:] but [aI]! It’s like 2+2=orange!

Ah, beh, ceh, easy as… A B C!

Why did it happen? How could this happen? Well, shifts happen. It wasn’t the only one ever to happen. The northeastern cities of the US are undergoing something that linguists have identified as the Northern Cities Shift, for instance; [a] is moving to [æ], [æ] is moving to [e] and even [i@], and so on. So in Buffalo if someone is telling you that Ann has gone to the office, they’ll say “Ian has gan ta thee affice.” Meanwhile, in Canadian youth – girls more than boys – there’s a discernible tendency to lower some vowels. “Oh, my gad, that was a hard tast.” These things happen. They happen in other languages, too. But, boy, did it ever happen in English right before and around the Renaissance.

And of course the Great Vowel Shift had a huge effect on the relation between spelling and pronunciation. You see, we had all these documents, and this Chancery standard, and nobody was going to go back and change all that!

But we should remember that only a comparatively small core of words come down to us from Old English. Of the 10,000 most common English words, about a third come from Old English. Of the one thousand most common, mind you, more than 800 come from Old English. But a big chunk of what we say is made up of words we’ve simply taken from other languages at various points in our history. During Middle English we had about 100,000 words; by 1700 we had more than twice that. Which point in history we’ve taken words at has shaped the relation of their spelling to their pronunciation, as different attitudes have prevailed at different times. And a whole lot of the words we’ve borrowed have come to us by way of – yep, it’s them again – French. We also, as a result of increasing international contact during the Renaissance, borrowed words from an assortment of other languages. Sometimes we kept the spelling; sometimes we changed it a bit to look more familiar. Sometimes we tried to pronounce it like in the source language; sometimes we pronounced it the way it looked to us like we should say it.

The Renaissance had several important effects on English. It brought the rediscovery of classics in Greek and Latin, and from that influence came a great influx of Greek and Latin terminology. Of course, Latin had been around before the Renaissance; the Church had had a huge influence for centuries. And pronunciation of Latin shifted with pronunciation of English in the Great Vowel Shift. Nil nisi bonum became “nil nice eye bone ’em.” Ratio became “ray show.” While pronunciation of Latin qua Latin now goes with the vulgate style in popular use – veni, vidi, vici [veni vidi vitSi] – and to the Classical standard in formal studies of Latin – [weni widi wiki] – pronunciation of Latin loans to English still by and large matches the English style, though some words are sometimes moving towards a sort of “international” pronunciation style, for instance [vi@] rather than [vaj@].

Idolization of Latin and Greek also led to spellings of words being changed to reflect their Latin and Greek roots. It was thought that words that had come, in often much changed form, by way of French from Latin – and sometimes from Greek via Latin – should really reflect their glorious Classical origins. So etymological respellings became the fashion, even when the etymology was false, and even though they seldom respelled the words completely: finding that det came from Latin debitum, these historical fetishists merely added a b before the t. Well, we still don’t pronounce the b, but if you’re adding silent letters, might as well add a silent i and um too, eh? Fortunately, they didn’t go that far. But they added the o to peple (to make people) because it came from Latin populum. They added an s to ile and iland because they traced back to Latin insulum. We have repronounced some words as a result of these respellings, though. Falcon is one: the l was added silently to match the Latin source, and then it became pronounced.

The Renaissance also brought us the printing press. Just 76 years after the death of Chaucer, Caxton started up the first press in England in 1476. And that is such a significant turning point for the language that it is usually used as the boundary between Middle English and Early Modern English.

The printing press allowed wide dissemination of texts. And existing texts, especially in abundance, can have something of a conservative effect on spelling: you can see over and over again how it’s done elsewhere, even if the instances you’re seeing are rather old.

Printing also brought with it certain exigencies. Justified right margins look rather neat, so printers tended to try to get the text flush to the right. And they didn’t have computer compositors to do it for them, and sometimes it just really helped to shorten or lengthen words a little to make the lines fit neatly. So e’s – or y’s – and doubled consonants would be added or, at times, subtracted to make the text line up neatly. I gotta tell you, even now with computer compositing, there have been times I would really have liked to add or subtract a letter here or there to make text fit just right!

Printing also brought with it a greater influence of the dialect chosen for print. Caxton recognized that his dialect, from southeast England – Kent – was considered rustic, but he still used it. Thanks in no small part to him, out first person singular pronoun is not ich but I, and we live not at hame but at home (Scotsmen excluded, as they must be from so much of this).

And printing brought with it Europeans. The printing press was a European invention, and type sets were brought over with typesetters. Caxton had some Dutchmen working for him who introduced some of their own ways of spelling things (sound familiar?) – for instance, they tossed in the h in ghost. And the screwy English spelling would have left them with the impression that placement of e’s, for instance, was ornamental and random, and they would have acted accordingly.

So anyway, by the middle of the 16th century, although there was a general trend and there was the Chancery, English spelling was an almighty mess. In 1551, a fellow named John Hart published a book called The Opening of the Unreasonable Writing of our Inglish Toung. He thought our relation of spelling to sound was irrational. He disliked the many ways we had of spelling the same sound, and he abominated silent letters. He thought that with a perfect spelling system, a five-year-old child could become literate in six weeks. So he proposed a revised, consistent spelling system. And it caught on.

No it didn’t. But two recommendations he made did ultimately stick. We had two vowels that had come also to represent consonant sounds that we had acquired as phonemes since the Old English period. The sound [v], once just a version of [f] said in certain places, had become an independent sound and was spelled with the letter u. And we had this sound [dZ] that we had also added to our repertoire, and it had come to be spelled with the letter i. Now, it just happened that these two vowels each had come to have two shapes used in free variation. Angular u (V) had, with cursive script, developed a rounded form (U), which was used interchangeably with it. And I had an extended ornamental version (J) that was similarly used in alternation. Anyway, Hart had suggested that we should use the curved u for the vowel and the angular one for the consonant, and the short i for the vowel and the one with a tail for the consonant. And, over time, that stuck. Samuel Johnson used the differentiated forms in his dictionary in 1755, but he alphabetized u and v together and i and j together – so, for instance, after vat came ubiquity. But by the late 19th century the separate forms were treated as separate letters. The double u, for its part, had been admitted to the list of letters by the 18th century, partly under the influence of its use in German. And, as we know, the doubled u’s in it are the old, angular u’s – usually.

But why weren’t the rest of Hart’s desires fulfilled? Just think: we could have had a spelling system that accurately reflected English pronunciation – as it was in 1551 in Hart’s part of England! Well, and dialectal variation is one reason. The fact that he wasn’t the only one with a proposed system of reform is certainly another reason. Perhaps if they had all more or less agreed, or if the king or queen of the time – Henry VIII, Elizabeth, James, et cetera – had decided to enforce one of them, it might have stuck. But the reformers differed considerably on the best way to reform spelling. As have proposed reforms ever since. Some have proposed whole new letter systems, some have proposed adding new letters, some have proposed just changing the way we use existing letters.

Now, let’s say we use a whole new alphabet. George Bernard Shaw proposed one such. A lovely thing, with sexy, sinuous letter forms. Really a joy to behold and to use, and completely illegible to anyone who hasn’t taken the time to learn it. Shaw also tried to have the apostrophe mostly abolished. We see how that went. And if he couldn’t manage to get such a simple, rational, and doable – one would even think welcome – proposal as near-total abolition of the apostrophe to stick, he sure wasn’t going to get a whole new alphabet to stick. He wasn’t the only one who tried, either. There have been several attempts in the US to bring in new alphabets. Yeah, right. That’s the country that still uses imperial measurements and dollar bills. We would be more likely to enforce such a change successfully in Canada, but that would just put us out of step with the rest of the world.

So toss the whole new alphabet idea. Why not add in new letters? Ben Franklin proposed doing that, and he wasn’t the only one. But say we do. You tell me how you’ll type them on your computer. Now, yes, yes, other languages have other letters and they type them using different keyboard layouts. But even in the 16th century adding new letter forms would have required quite the investment in new type. As it was, our available letters for spelling were constrained by the type faces brought over from the continent; they dealt the death blow to the letter thorn. Moveable type can be quite the procrustean bed. And now, with millions and millions of keyboards out there, and all those fonts… You think the web is flexible? It doesn’t even have a stacked fraction character for one-third, just the quarters and half. We’re actually closer to being able to bring back thorn and eth, for what that’s worth; we’d just need new keyboards, mostly not new fonts, since Icelandic still uses them. But how much would that help anyway? We’re more consistent with th and th than we are with most things in spelling!

But let’s say we want to reform spelling using just the letters we have. OK, given that the existing letter set isn’t in fact adequate for a perfectly phonetic system, it would be necessary to decide which workarounds to use, or which new standards to add, and then there’s the issue of how similar to or different from current spelling to make it. If we keep the long-short vowel pairs we currently have, then it remains inconsistent. If we change those, then it’s changed so much that people who have learned the current way would be highly resistant to using it, and if it stuck, unbelievable amounts of current written material would be as obsolete as a 5¼” floppy disk, or at least hardly more accessible than Chaucer.

And anyway, which version of English would be the standard? It’s not the case that accents are the only differences in pronunciation from place to place. V-A-S-E: [vaz] or [veIs]? How about court, caught and cot? In Canada we say the latter two the same way; in England they say the first two the same way. No matter how we handle that, it’ll seem odd and capricious to someone! And if we standardize the spelling differently from country to country, we’re on our way to different languages. We may be anyway – some usages are so different already. In India, a “military hotel” is a restaurant that serves meat. And spellings differ from country to country, too, as we know – as we get paid to know!

“But James,” you’re saying, “orthographic reforms have been successfully implemented in other countries, such as the Netherlands and Norway!” Well, yes, and they’ve even brought in a whole new orthographic system in Somalia – Viet Nam, too. And other countries have likewise made a decent job of it. Other countries. How many countries have Dutch as their national language? How about Norwegian? Somali? Vietnamese? And how many people speak each of these languages? There are further differences: there are actually multiple versions of Norwegian to choose from, even within educated written forms, and of course dialects vary too. Literacy rates may not be as high in some countries that have implemented reforms. And they really have effectively made their older extant literature no more accessible than Chaucer.

Or look at Chinese. Chinese has dialects so different that they’re really separate languages, but they’re united by a writing system that makes one dialect pretty much comprehensible to another. But! The Chinese government decided that literacy would be aided if some of their characters weren’t so frickin’ hard to write. So they implemented simplified characters. But! Taiwan didn’t implement them, and the Chinese speakers in other countries all over the world mostly don’t use them. So now you have Taiwanese Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin, mutually comprehensible when spoken, but with significant barriers in the written form. And those who have learned one system have to make the effort to learn the other to read anything written in it. Oh, many of the characters are unchanged. But the ones that have changed have sometimes changed quite beyond intelligibility and some of them are very common characters. This could happen with English spelling, too. Oh, English spelling will change. It always has. But it will do so gradually… and not necessarily consistently.

But, now, back to John Hart. One other thing he advocated did, to some extent, come to be. We have considerably fewer unnecessary letters now than we did in his time. You won’t see set spelled sette anymore: double final consonants and silent e’s that didn’t signify length of a preceding vowel mostly got the boot, but it did take time – about another century and a half.

But a bloke called Richard Mulcaster, who published a book called The Elementarie in 1582, was more pragmatic: never mind making it all phonetically consistent. Just standardize it. Set down spellings so everyone agrees and does it the same way. The Elementarie wasn’t a dictionary – it didn’t have definitions; it was more like the CP Caps and Spelling. Now, it wasn’t that everyone suddenly followed Mulcaster. Nor did they all follow Robert Cawdrey’s more prominent 1604 Table Alphabeticall. As we know, spelling was still quite variable in Shakespeare’s time. But the inclination towards standardization was growing.

Jonathan Swift, in 1712, wrote a “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Language.” He felt that if one could fix the language in place, one could also fix society in place. All that needed to be done first was to undo some of the recent damage, such as “the maiming of our Language” caused by “a foolish Opinion, advanced of late Years, that we ought to spell exactly as we speak; which beside the obvious Inconvenience of utterly destroying our Etymology, would be a Thing we should never see an End of.” Once we had everything set according to the proper values and practices handed down from the ages, we could set it in stone. Including, I suppose, capitalization of all nouns, a practice in which Swift was consistent even though it was a fairly new one at the time – and didn’t stick. Except, evidently, in business writing, where it has spread wantonly.

But by the mid-1700s, spelling had gotten to be pretty consistent, and Samuel Johnson certainly helped that along. In the 18th century, people were coming to value proper spelling. And to add to all that, there was a growing push from the other side: to pronounce words as they were written! The most notable place where this got traction was in the suffix [In], as in doin’, thinkin’, and so on. Though the spellin’ hadn’t changed, the pronunciation had long since moved forward in the mouth from the old [IN]. Well, thousands of schoolteachers got it to move back. And, overall, spelling seemed to be stabilizing.

Well, and then this dude called Noah Webster came along. He was born in 1758. He was an American. And he felt that “nothing can be more ridiculous than a servile imitation of the manners, the language, and the vices of foreigners.” An independent United States of America should have an independent language. He didn’t make a wholesale revision. But in his 1806 Compendious Dictionary he did follow two principles to make American English more American: the omission of unnecessary letters – the same thing Hart wanted – and the use of a letter with a more determinate sound in place of one with a less determinate sound.

Not all his changes stuck. Americans still spell feather with an a after the e and definite with an e after the t. But we know quite well, don’t we, about the ones that did stick. Color. Center. Analyze. Traveling. Check. Anemia. And the dropping of the k on magick and musick, which they were also doing in England, though it shows up as an affected archaism these days. It’s not that Webster invented all these changes – many of them were common, but inconsistent, practice already, and all of them could be found somewhere in printed material. And some of the more simplified spellings he preferred in early editions he ran up the white flag on later – such as definit, bild, tung, and iland. But he chose spellings according to his own preferences, and he added a weight of standardizing authority and made the spellings a point of national identity.

Speaking of national identity and all, we might note that many other languages have official bodies to decide and enforce matters of usage. The French famously have the Académie Française; and in fact most other European languages, and a great many others around the world, have official bodies for their languages. And yet English doesn’t, not in England, not in the US, not anywhere. England with its common-law legal tradition is probably, uh, not constitutionally predisposed to one, as it were; the United States saw several attempts throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century to found one, either with congressional approval – which was never forthcoming – or just as a self-declared body. But perhaps because of the cultural mistrust of authority in the US, or who knows why, the net effect of all these attempts and institutions has been, as one historian of language [Richard L. Venezky, in the Cambridge History of the English Language] put it, imperceptible. The government has its own spelling standards for official documents, of course, but everyone else is free to ignore those. At least place names have been standardized. But that’s about it!

And yet, for all that, correct spelling is a matter of key importance. The merest spelling gaffe can get your résumé a spot in the circular file. People who are all at sea with points of syntax can still manage to spot spelling errors – or what they think are spelling errors. It has become an index of a person’s quality. Only the lowest sorts of people go spelling things just the way they sound to them, darlings! Oh, dears, how illiterate! (It seems the race does go to the swift… Jonathan Swift.) Yes, just like many of the other more capricious points of English, it has become a social key, a shibboleth. If we had a simple, phonetic spelling, failure to use it properly would truly be a sign of a poor education or a mental disability or dysfunction of some sort. Instead, we have a system that makes the merest mental maladaptation substantially more salient. Dyslexia is diagnosed somewhat less often among Italians than among anglophones, it has been found. It’s not that our spelling system causes dyslexia. It’s just that it’s screwy enough to make it somewhat more manifest, because the simple act of reading requires more mental effort.

And even as we simplify some spellings, we keep dragging more and more words into English with a variety of spellings and pronunciations. And so many of the words we borrow are from languages that not only don’t use our alphabet but have sound systems that differ in very important ways from ours. So there are all these different transliterations and different pronunciations. You get a lot of this in food, I’ve noticed.

And sometimes we just plain old make stuff up. English is not constitutional, it is common law, and we just go by precedent, sort of, and by feel. If I give you some new words, how will you spell them? What if you want to have some fun or be distinctive – say, for branding? Let’s see… [kridZ@n]. How would you spell that? [fæNkl]. [s@rSu].

We just draw on precedent, taste, tone… and sometimes our sense of fun. Or of propriety. We ain’t doin’ nothin’ to make it more consistent most of the time. I’m not sure we even want to. Cast your spelling on me, baby…

So there are really quite a few ways that a word can come to have a significant difference between spelling and pronunciation. See your handouts for these:

When the spelling was set, it matched the pronunciation reasonably, but the pronunciation moved on and the spelling didn’t. This accounts for quite a bit, including our “long” vowels and some of our silent letters.

The spelling was set using a non-phonetic convention that had arisen because of pronunciation shift – for example, “silent e” to indicate a long vowel, even in new words.

The spelling was altered to match standards of another language held in higher esteem at the time. (French.)

The spelling was altered for reasons related to its printed form: legibility in the Gothic script (some u’s became o’s for this reason, as in son), ornamentation, distinction from other words spelled the same way, availability of specific letter forms in type faces (including misconstrual of substituted characters – which is how, for instance, [mINgIs] got to be Menzies).

The spelling was altered to match its etymology, or what was thought to be its etymology (e.g., debt), and the pronunciation didn’t change.

The spelling was altered by mistake or ignorance, as for instance when set by typesetters whose first language wasn’t English (e.g., ghost).

The spelling was altered to match etymology, or just by mistake, and the pronunciation changed to match it (e.g., falcon – though words spelled this way often are reasonably phonetic).

The word was borrowed from another language and not respelled, and the pronunciation was adapted to English pronunciation. This also accounts for a big chunk of our words. And we’re still doing this.

The word was borrowed from another language and partially modified or respelled, and is pronounced under the influence of English phonotactics. A lot of our words from Latin are like this: Anglicized endings on Latin roots, for instance.

The word was borrowed from another language and not respelled, and the pronunciation was kept as in the source language, or as close as possible to it. (Other languages are more prone to respelling. We write chauffeur; in Norwegian it’s sjofør.)

The word was borrowed from another language and respelled or transliterated to match the standards and/or pronunciation of the time it was borrowed, and then the standards and/or pronunciation changed.

The word was borrowed from another language and transliterated by conventions taken from a third language that matched a pronunciation of the source language at one time but didn’t match by the time the word was borrowed and don’t now either. A lot of Greek words are like this: that’s where all those ph [f]’s come from.

The word was borrowed from another language and transliterated suitably, but is usually mispronounced by analogy with the pronunciation of words taken from other languages. For instance, ph from South Asian languages, ei from Japanese, j from Chinese…

The word was borrowed from another language and the spelling retained, but the pronunciation has commonly been changed to match standards from a third language. Bruschetta is a good example of this. Of course some of us still insist on saying it rather more like the Italian way.

The word – whether Anglo-Saxon or loan – is written in a way such that it could be pronounced as it originally was, but the pronunciation has changed, perhaps by analogy with other words that aren’t pronounced just as they’re spelled. The word vacuum could be pronounced [vak u Um] to match vulgate Latin; the spelling would match that. But nope. To our perverted eyes it looks like [væk jum].

Nobody’s completely sure exactly what the heck happened. Sometimes language change is capricious.

And maybe we don’t really want it to be easy. We’ve attached aesthetic and status values to our orthographic weirdnesses. It adds a level of intrigue and involvement to the game. It helps keep us in business. And… It cast a spell on us! It cast a spelling on us!

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13 responses to “What’s up with English spelling?

  1. Very good short introduction to the problems with English spelling and how some words came to be written as they are.

    What kind of reception did the presentation receive at the Editors Conference?

    What questions were raised there?

    I have given similar public speeches and while there have been critics of spelling change from some linguists and English teachers in the audience, the review of the problems was generally well received.

  2. Thanks. It was well received at the conference. The questions that were raised by those in attendance (there were six simultaneous sessions, so not everyone was at my session) focused mainly on specific words. I would have looked at specific reform proposals in more depth, but I had a time constraint.

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