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Given that English is derived mostly from German, when Anglo-Saxons (German tribes) migrated to Britain, how do you explain that

  • although German has a strict correspondence between written language and spoken language (the sounds largely follow 1-1 what is written)...
  • English has sooo intricate pronunciation rules, sometimes directly at odds with what is written? (Too bored to give examples, but it should be obvious).

My pet, tongue-in-cheek theory is that those tribes weren't too literate, didn't have a sound knowledge of the written form of words, so it was easy the pronunciation to follow its own independent path.

Anyone with a more informed explanation?

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To nitpick: The sound <-> letter mapping in german is not as 1:1 as one might think. Given e.g. the sound [t], there are various ways to write it: t, tt, d, dt. Conversely, the letter <d> can be [t], [d] or part of <dt>, which is [t]. That aside, English has far more irregularities than German does. –  Arne Aug 17 '10 at 6:15
    
It's true that old Anglo-Saxon orthography wasn't extremely regular, but it certainly did a better job of reflecting pronunciation than today's English orthography does. –  Jonathan Sterling Apr 23 '11 at 17:08
    
@Arne Yeah. It's sort of a one-to-many relationship in German, as opposed to a many-to-many relationship like we have in English. –  Jonathan Sterling Apr 23 '11 at 17:08
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2 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There's two things that account for most of the trouble:

The Great Vowel Shift.

The Great Vowel Shift caused the pronunciation of English long vowels to change, and many of them to become diphthongs. This is discussed in great detail in the Wikipedia article, including some nice charts. As a result, many English written vowels are not pronounced as you might expect--although the pronunciation of vowels affected by the shift is actually very regular, so long as you don't judge them by the standards of other European orthographies.

The Norman invasion

The Normans occupied England for several centuries and introduced thousands of French words into English vocabulary. The problem is that these words tended to be spelled according to French spelling conventions, which were very different from Germanic spelling conventions. This created two different, inconsistent spelling systems within the same language.

To these two big factors, we add two more which afflict the language to this day:

Extreme conservativism

English standards tend to maintain old spellings that represent the original pronunciation of a word, even if the pronunciation has changed. This is why we have a gh in cough, through, bought, etc. Even worse, sometimes English words are spelled in a way that's supposed to reflect etymology, even if the etymology is wrong. This is why we have a b in debt.

Foreign spellings

Words borrowed from other languages into English tend to keep their spelling from the source language, even if the pronunciation goes against English rules. This is why we have rendezvous pronounced, roughly, "ronday-voo", which is from French and follows the French spelling.

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i don't understand what you're saying about debt. doesn't it come from debitum ? –  asymmetric Jan 27 '11 at 0:16
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@asymmetric, debt is from Old French dette, which does ultimately come from debitum. The spelling with a b is unetymological in the sense that the word has never had any b sound in English or French, nor was it spelled with a b at the time the word was borrowed--the b was added later. This is different from other cases in English where the silent letters reflect things that used to be pronounced. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 27 '11 at 22:22
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does the fact that it's never had any b sound justify your defining it unetymological? if etymology is "the history of a word or word element, including its origins and derivation" (EB), then the fact that the b isn't spelled doesn't really make any difference. but coming to your second argument, that's really interesting. Wiktionary says "The unpronounced "b" in the modern English spelling, is a Latinisation from the Latin etymon dēbitum.". Do you have any more info on that? –  asymmetric Jan 27 '11 at 23:10
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@asymmetric, I suppose one could argue that the b really is etymological since it is there because of the Latin debitum. I don't really want to belabor that point. The only thing I can add to the Wiktionary entry is what I said above: the earliest English spelling of the word is dette, and the word has never been pronounced with any [b]. The spelling was changed to debt under the influence of Latin sometime later--in the 17th or 18th c., though I don't have a source that gives the exact date. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 28 '11 at 0:01
    
For a clearer example of stray letters arriving by means of mistaken etymology, see the s in island. –  TRiG May 30 '12 at 17:56
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The problem is actually closer to the opposite of your pet theory.

Until the advent of the printing press, English spelling was quite free, with many different spellings being used for words; sometimes multiple spellings were used for the same word in a single sentence!

However, at the same time that the spread of the printing press and published dictionaries was fixing the spellings of English words, English was undergoing a dramatic change in the way it was pronounced: the Great Vowel Shift. This, combined with the fact that English spelling has never been beholden to the kind of authoritative control that other European languages have been subject to, such as Spanish, French, and German, resulted in English spellings being somewhat fixed by the spellings used in the 16th century, regardless of the pronunciation changes that ensued. There are a number of other things that resulted in idiosyncrasies of English spelling, such as the influence of Norman spelling restrictions due the confusability of letters written with minims. The Wikipedia article on English spelling has a more complete discussion under the “History” heading.

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