January 6, 2013

Why are English words so hard to spell

Financial Times - Why is English spelling such a tangle? It all started when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century without enough letters in their alphabet. They had 23. (They didn’t have “j”, “u” or “w”.) Yet the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes, or distinctive sounds. The Romans didn’t have a letter, for example, for the Anglo-Saxon sound we spell “th”. The problem continues. Most English-speakers today have, depending on their accents, 40 phonemes, which we have to render using 26 letters. So, we use stratagems such as doubling vowels to elongate them, as in “feet” and “fool”.

With the Norman invasion in 1066, spelling became more complicated still; French and Latin words rushed into the language. As the centuries went by, scribes found ways of reflecting the sounds people used with the letters that they had. They lengthened vowels by adding a final “e”, so that we could tell “hope” from “hop”.

From the late 1300s, scribes used the letter combination “gh” in words such as “night”, to represent the back-of-the-mouth noise people then used. Why did it remain even after the sound died out? Because by the end of the 15th century, William Caxton had introduced printing to England, and the printers decided to keep it.

1 comment:

Strelnikov said...

....and let us not forget about the situation outside of the UK/America, English in Asia, Africa, and other former colonial states - they roughly follow British spelling rules...sometimes. I've noticed British spellings for older words and American for newer in some of these countries; others try to spell everything to London standard. These people would be completely thrown if UK/America began using Germanized, write-it-like-it-sounds, spelling rules.

Just something to think about.