English spelling is atrochüss
Some writers have shown a hyperbolic penchant, if not ourtright chauvinism, in their advocacy of 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 REALReason 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 seventh and eleventh 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 seventh 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 OED shows for the word “never” in the Middle English twenty-three spelling variations; even the name Shakespeare was rendered in at least twenty different manners. And still today, logic doesn’t always prevail in spelling. For example, the sh sound has nineteen spellings, including the ce in ocean, ch in chute, sc in crescendo, ss in issue and a single t in negotiate.
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 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 same time as the Great Vowel Shift, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England. Before printing, spelling tended to be more 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. In these languages, there were not large sound changes between the medieval and modern versions, possibly because language academies were established that were able to monitor this process. The English language, on the other hand, has never had any such monitoring body. And although some language, such as German and Russian, reformed their spelling in the 20th century, and there are many people who’d like to see English spellling reformed, this is unlikely to happen. Those who have mastered traditional spelling would be unwilling to learn a new system. Also, there is no agreement among advocates of spelling reform about any optimun system.
Richler’s latest book is Wordplay : Arranged and Deranged Wit.