Yearly Archives: 2015

I Don’t Understand English Spelling!

- - Language

Have you ever noticed how confusing English can be — particularly when it comes to spelling? Coming from Indonesia, I am used to a language that is spelled the same way that it sounds. In other words, there is some consistently. But think of the word “cow” in English. It rhymes with “brow” — and the spelling is consistent. However, it rhymes with both “bow” (as long as you’re talking about bending forward at the waist and not a knot or the tool you use to play a stringed instrument) and “bough.” However, “bough” does not rhyme with “cough,” which does not rhyme with either “through” or “though” either.

So, I went online to find out some explanation as to why the spellings in the English language are so inconsistent. Here are some of my findings:

The Roman alphabet didn’t show up in the British Isles, the birthplace of English, until Augustine of Canterbury showed up as a missionary in 597 AD. His crew tried to write down the language that they heard, but their alphabet only had 23 letters at the time, while it seemed like the Anglo-Saxons had about 35 distinct sounds. The missionaries scrapped together some Runic characters to describe those sounds, but they also had to use Roman letters in ways that Latin simply had not required.

In 1066, a group of people from Normandy, who spoke an early version of French, crossed the English Channel and conquered England. However, the people who already lived in England kept using their own language, while the new ruling class spoke French. French was also the official language of the courts and universities of the day. Most of the French words that carried over from that time were altered to match English pronunciation and spelling, such as attend, enchant, farm, lesson, and proof. However, other words that came from French to English retained a lot of their original spelling, such as people, muscle and autumn. French is based in Latin, while English is based in Anglo-Saxon, a completely different linkage of sounds and letters, which is one reason why English is such a mishmash. French didn’t really fall out of usage in England until the 15th century.

In the meantime, though, the “English” that the Anglo-Saxons had been using didn’t appear in writing, at least in an official capacity, for more than 200 years, as everything official was either written in French (for government and academic purposes) or in Latin (for purposes of the church). So, the scribes were trying their best to get everything down, but they just made a lot of mistakes — and left spelling much less than standard. Spelling basically collapsed into a practice that could vary wildly from one dialect to the next.

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, there really wasn’t much uniformity in spelling from one place to another. Travelers spoke to one another more than they wrote letters, and there weren’t such things as pamphlets, newspapers or magazines to send around with the local news — that sort of information spread by word of mouth. Consider that the word “beauty” had at least seven different common spellings during that time frame, ranging from the relatively close “beaute” to “buute.” You really had to read phonetically to get a sense of what anyone was saying. Once the printing press showed up, spelling began to achieve a greater deal of standardization. Unfortunately, at the same time, there were major changes in pronunciation, as Middle English was transitioning into Modern English. Such letters as the “g” in “gnaw” and the “k” in “knee” became silent. Also, the “gh” in such words as “thought” and “night,” which had been pronounced like a guttural “ch” as they are in German, was becoming silent as well. However, the spellings for these words had already been standardized the old way by the time the new pronunciations took hold. Also, a huge shift in the way that people represent vowels was taking place, which meant that you had multiple spellings for the same vowel sound — and multiple vowel sound for the same vowel or group of vowels.

There was also a funky trend during the 16th and 17th centuries to start changing the spelling of words so that they looked more like they came from Latin or Greek than to represent the way that they sounded. For example, what had been written “Feverere” became written “February” in honor of the Latin word “Februarius.” This is how the “b” showed up in such words as “doubt” and “debt” and the “c” showed up in “indict.” These words did have a very tenuous provenance in Latin, going back through French even though they were imported into English without the extra sounds that the Latin letters justified. In other cases, the spelling just changed without a whole lot of thought for logic. Consider the Old English word “iglund,” which referred to what we call an “island” today. It was also spelled “ylonde” or “ilande” or “illond” until someone figured out that the Latin word was “insula” and decided that there weren’t enough consonants confusing things as it was.

An additional factor in the complex web of English spellings was the fact that, in many cases, many words came in from French, particularly referring to fancy things, but they were just allowed to keep their original spelling. This is why we have such difficult words as “casserole,” “silhouette” and “hors d’oeuvres” that are commonly used in the English language. The language has also brought in words from other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian, and even from Asian languages (which use a completely different system for writing, going with symbols for words rather than using a phonetic system).

Finally, there are all those differences between American and British English in terms of spelling. That’s why a gray cloud in Chicago is grey in London, and a tire in Texas is a tyre in Wales. Someone can do you a favour in Cambridge, but they’ll only be doing you a favor in Miami. Even those scientific words come into play, as what the Brits call “aluminium” we call “aluminum” in America, although that’s really because a newspaper writer misspelled the new element in an American paper, but the misspelling stuck. You’ve got to love how English works! So even knowing the reason doesn’t necessarily make me feel better about it, but at least I can get a laugh about the history of this intriguing language.