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?

  • 6
    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, 2010 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.
    – user3217
    Apr 23, 2011 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.
    – user3217
    Apr 23, 2011 at 17:08
  • 3
    Very important note (though I realise the question is over four years old): English does not in any way derive from German. German is the name of the language spoken in Germany today, and an umbrella term for the various historical stages of that language. At the time when the Angles and the Saxons emigrated and went to Britain, there was no such language as German, only a bunch of local tribe languages. A more or less standardised language that can be called German arose much later, after writing had become relatively commonplace. Apr 7, 2015 at 8:53
  • @Arne I would argue with that. t is a short and tt is a long "t". dt is a case of consonant blending - you can't really say it as "d"+"t" without it blending together into a "t". "d" is the voiced pair of "t", which in certain cases can become unvoiced and turn into a "tt" sound. IOW, these all have good explanation on why, and defined circumstances on when do they happen. Compare this with e.g. the "a" in about, apple and age - AFAIK there's no such well-defined reason for the "a" representing three different sounds in these words.
    – Neinstein
    Sep 9, 2021 at 9:18

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 3
    i don't understand what you're saying about debt. doesn't it come from debitum ?
    – asymmetric
    Jan 27, 2011 at 0:16
  • 5
    @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. Jan 27, 2011 at 22:22
  • 1
    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, 2011 at 23:10
  • 1
    @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. Jan 28, 2011 at 0:01
  • 7
    For a clearer example of stray letters arriving by means of mistaken etymology, see the s in island.
    – TRiG
    May 30, 2012 at 17:56

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.


The other answers explain why English is spelled so badly, but why is German spelled so well?

There was a German spelling reform in 1901, so the standard spelling is only slightly over a century old, and corresponds to the language fairly well. In fact, there was also a later German spelling reform in 1996; although many of the changes it made have been widely adapted, some of them are still controversial.

And to summarize why English is spelled so badly: The spelling was relatively free before the 17th century; for example, Shakespeare spelled the same word murdrous and murtherous to indicate either a 2-syllable or a 3-syllable pronunciation (so his lines would scan). What is worse, the way the spelling became fixed was a very chaotic one involving printers and writers of dictionaries, who never sat down together and came up with a rational way to spell English words, but used as inputs both the lexicographic roots of words and the common way they were spelled in Middle English, neither of which reflect pronunciation that well. So our current spelling doesn't even correspond to 17th-century pronunciation (the 'b' in debt hasn't been pronounced since Latin, and the 's' in island was never pronounced).

So the lesson from this is that to keep the spelling close to the actual pronunciation requires regular spelling reforms, which are instituted in many languages, but are probably never going to happen in English.

  • 3
    Is it really a question of "good" or "bad" though? Changing the spellings renders older texts obscure and, while it may move the spelling closer to some dialects' pronunciation it'll move it away from others. Should "been" be left alone or changed to "ben" or "bin"? Really depends on what dialect of English you speak. It's not a pure win.
    – Casey
    Sep 29, 2017 at 19:47
  • 3
    Also, spelling has seen some "reforms," which is why we have the notion of American and British spelling.
    – Casey
    Sep 29, 2017 at 19:48
  • There are countless books from even the 20th Century that are out of print.
    – Casey
    Dec 21, 2017 at 20:40

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