For example:

  • GH in enough is pronounced "F"
  • O in women is pronounced short "I"
  • TI in nation is pronounced "SH"

Why aren't the words spelled enouf, wimen, nashon, or why not spell fish "ghoti"? It seems like there are a lot of odd spellings in English, why is that? Over time I would have expected the odd spellings to have been replaced with more phonetically spelled versions, but that's not the case, why?

  • Are you sure that odd spellings aren't being replaced with more phonetically straightforward alternatives? I could imagine that it actually is happening, but just not so quickly that we can clearly recognise it (as a trend) in a single person's lifetime.
    – user14604
    Nov 7, 2011 at 20:24
  • 2
    There's too wide a scope here imo. Do you think you could limit it to one set of "odd" spellings, e.g. words ending in -ough?
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Nov 7, 2011 at 20:25
  • If my be possible that it is happening over generations, I would expect it to take generations, but I would imagine that there would be proof of that somewhere in the history of the language.
    – Justin808
    Nov 7, 2011 at 20:28
  • 1
    I agree. It's too big a subject to be covered here. Nov 7, 2011 at 20:29
  • 1
    @z7sg: It is true that some of these odd spellings have already been considered. See Why does the ending -ough have six pronunciations? and Why is “women” pronounced the way it is?. I suppose -tion is considered regular (but still idiosyncratic :)
    – Daniel
    Nov 7, 2011 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


This is an interesting excerpt from Wikipedia:

After the invention of the printing press in the 1440s, English spelling began to become fixed. This took place gradually through printing houses, whereby the master printer would choose the spellings "that most pleased his fancy". These spellings then became the "house style". Many of the earliest printing houses that printed English were staffed by Hollanders, who changed many spellings to match their Dutch orthography. Examples include the silent "h" in "ghost" (to match Dutch "gheest", which later became "geest"), "aghast", "ghastly" and "gherkin". The silent "h" in other words — such as "ghospel", "ghossip" and "ghizzard" — was later removed.

It reminded me of an article I came across years ago, which explained the disparity between the pronunciation and the spelling of the English language, something not happening in other European languages I know, at least not to this extent. In essence, it claimed it is difficult for written forms of the language to change and follow the spoken changes, especially in English. I don't remember the reasons why, but this explanation was enough for me to understand why there are practically no rules for pronunciation.

As to why these odd spellings haven't been replaced yet, I know there are suggestions for it (not only about English, mind you, a big debate has been going on in France about the simplification of French spelling), but no decisions have been made so far.

  • Unlike French, exactly who is empowered to make the decision you allude to?
    – Fraser Orr
    Nov 8, 2011 at 0:15
  • @FraserOrr - Not that it would ever happen, but I would assume the government of any English speaking country to could enforce such a change in their respective school systems. I know growing up I a spelled enough as enouf in elementary school. Had I not been taught and made to memorize the "odd" spelling of enough I would still spell it enouf today. It would be a matter of changing how its taught to you people, not changing the minds of the old.
    – Justin808
    Nov 8, 2011 at 0:37

Speling korekshun or simplifikashun has bin propozed manee times. It has never cot on.

The Danes ask, "What do you call someone who cannot spell Danish? They then answer, "A Norwegian." (Danish spelling is irregular, but Norwegian, derived directly from Danish, is not.)

The Norwegians however, contend that there is only one Scandinavian language. Unfortunately, they say, the Danes cannot spell it, and the Swedes cannot pronounce it.

The heritage of English and its tremendous body of extant literature make it difficult to contemplate "simplifikashun" of the orthography. Indeed, some people consider the complications of English to be beautiful. This approach is similar to the Japanese view of the difficulties inherent in Japanese, which also is a language of several origins.

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