English Spelling is Atrochüss

And you can blame that on the history of the language, writes Words columnist Howard Richler

SOME WRITERS have shown a hyperbolic penchant, if not outright chauvinism, in their advocacy for the English language. Typical of these comments is the following encomium by British novelist Michael Arlen: “English is the great Wurlitzer of language, the most perfect all-purpose instrument.” On this side of the Atlantic, language writer Richard Lederer wrote in The Miracle of Language that “English is easy to learn because it has a familiar look to speakers of other languages” due to its myriad borrowings from other languages.

English may be relatively easy to learn, but its spelling is irrational and a bane to people learning it as a second language. In his 1982 book The REAL Reason Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, Stanley L. Sharp related “there are at least 50 million adults in the United States who do not spell well.”

Why is English spelling such tuff stough?

Many factors account for our largely non-phonetic orthography. Between the 7th and 11th centuries, England was invaded repeatedly by sea-faring marauders who brought with them diverse spelling practices. To complicate matters, when English spelling was evolving in the 7th century, there were four distinct dialects in England and they often developed different spelling for the same word. For example, “heaven” could be rendered as heofon, heofen or heofne.

Because the ruling class of England was dominated for centuries by the monolingual Norman French, there was even a tendency to Frenchify some words. Hence the word cwén (the Old English form of “queen”) was spelled in the Middle English period quene and hús turned into “house.” By the beginning of the 15th century, English spelling was a mixture of two systems, Old English and French.

Until writers such as Shakespeare proved that English could be as lyrical as any language, many an Englishman believed his mother tongue to be second rate. When Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, he wrote not in English, but in Latin. This tendency to regard Latin as superior extended into the realm of spelling as many felt that Latin’s fixed spelling was an improvement over the instability of English orthography. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary shows 23 spelling variations for the word “never” in Middle English.

Many an idiosyncratic English spelling bears a Latin imprimatur. The word “debt” was originally spelled phonetically (dett or dette) until the 16th century, when it was replaced by the spelling “debt” because it was influenced by the Latin spelling debere, meaning to owe. Also, receite was replaced by “receipt” influenced by the Latin recepta, the feminine past participle of the verb recipere. At least in these instances, we retain the original phonetic pronunciation; in other cases, we have acquired a new pronunciation, such as the word “cors” which decayed into “corpse.”

The disparagement of English led to other false etymologies. In his book, Spelling Dearest, Niall McLeod Waldman informs us that word “island” was originally spelled phonetically as iland or yland. In the 16th century, however, scholars incorrectly interpreted it as deriving from the Latin word insula and therefore inserted an “s,” making “island” the standard form by 1700. Similarly, the Middle English delit was rendered as delight in the mistaken belief that the word was connected to “light.”

Another factor that affected spelling was the Great Vowel Shift. When it commenced in the 15th century, English speakers started to alter the way vowels were pronounced and this sound change was heightened by inconsistencies. Although they have the same oo- spelling, “flood” and “blood” are not pronounced in a similar fashion to “food,” which itself is pronounced differently than “good.” Waldman relates that during the Great Vowel Shift, “our spelling not only moved away from the sounds of words, as often was the case in the past, but the sounds of words also moved away from our spelling.”

Around the time of the Great Vowel Shift, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Before printing, spelling tended to be phonetic, was meant to be read aloud and was not standardized. Everyone spelled words in the manner they deemed they should be pronounced. Caxton and fellow printers, seeking some regular manner of spelling words, decided on a fairly standardized way of spelling which corresponded to the sound system of Middle English, not Modern English.

By contrast, spelling in most other European languages tends to be more phonetic, and there were not large sound changes between the medieval and modern versions, possibly because language academies monitored this process. The English language, on the other hand, has never had any such monitoring body. And although some languages, such as German and Russian, reformed their spelling in the 20th century, this is unlikely to happen for English. Those who have mastered traditional spelling may be unwilling to learn a new system; and there is no agreement among spelling reform advocates for an optimal system.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.