4

Alphabetic writing systems use graphemes to represent phonemes. But in their “Psychology of Reading” chapter of 2003’s Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, researchers Simon Garrod and Meredyth Daneman observe that English has one of the most complicated grapheme-to-phoneme correspondences among languages that use alphabetic (or even syllabic) writing systems, rather than logographic writing systems like Chinese.

This property makes it difficult—at times even impossible—to guess the correct way to say an unknown English word you have only ever read, or the correct way to write an unknown English word you have only ever heard said.

And because English dictionaries order entries alphabetically, when you do not know the correct way to write a word, you also cannot reliably look it up in a dictionary.

The many problems all this creates affect both L1- and L2-learners of English alike.

  • How did English come to use a writing system which makes spelling it so hard? What specific contributing causes gave rise to this painful complexity in English that is so much worse than in almost any other language that uses an alphabet to spell its words with?
12
  • 5
    Basically because the spelling system doesn't work; it's designed for Middle English and didn't change when Modern English came along. Since it doesn't represent the pronunciation, you have to learn to spell each word individually, with a few "rules" that are full of holes and often don't work. The real villain, though, is the supposition that every word always hasta be spelled the same way. Whose idea was that? Nothing would happen if everybody speld thingz the way they liked. Nov 19 '21 at 16:51
  • 5
    Compared to some other languages, English has had a lot of disparate influences—Latin, Germanic, French, Anglo-Saxon—and has elements of the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling from all of them. Nov 19 '21 at 17:24
  • 3
    I don't see that this question is "opinion-based." There are clearly reasons why English spelling should be less consistent than that of, for instance, Spanish.
    – Casey
    Nov 20 '21 at 3:55
  • 2
  • 2
    @JohnLawler Ten things I quickly thought of: § Speech changes faster than print, and not respelling words when pronunciations change. § Using a foreign alphabet unsuited to our phonemes. § Mischievous meddlers adding phantom letters we never said like in debt/receipt/island. § No 1:1 mapping between sequences of graphemes and phonemes, it’s many-to-many w/lotsa conflicting multigraphs yet still has bugs/gaps like the/thin/rathouse or phonemic stress. § Triggered phonologic/phonetic effects unaccounted for in spelling. ...
    – tchrist
    Nov 28 '21 at 4:38
2

Adding to the comment by John Lawler:

According to An Introduction to Language, 5th Edition (Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993):

"The spelling of most of the words in English today is based on the Late Middle English pronunciation (that used by Chaucer) and on the early forms of Modern English (used by Shakespeare).... When the printing press was introduced in the fifteenth century, not only were archaic pronunciations "frozen," but the spelling did not always represent even those pronunciations."

In short, spellings started to become standardized with the invention of the printing press, while pronunciation continued to change. The best example I remember from my Linguistic course was the word "night." The letters "gh" are silent now, but at the time standardized spellings were being established, they were pronounced. At that time, the word was actually pronounced closer to a throaty, German "Nacht."

17
  • 3
    The most famous illustration of this problem is the phonetic spelling of the word 'fish' as "G-H-O-T-I": GH (as in 'enouGH' for the F); O (as in 'wOmen'); TI (as in 'staTIon'). Your problem is about the so-called Great Vowel Shift, which took place over a long period somewhere between 1400 and 1700. The possible reasons for it are still disputed and are well set out in the Wikipedia entry for GFS. Have you considered that regional accents are stronger in the UK than in most other countries? So 'grass' is pronounced 'grarce' in standard 'BBC' English but as ... 'grass' in Yorkshire!
    – Tuffy
    Nov 24 '21 at 20:21
  • 2
    Can you elaborate on how this is specific to English? That is, all languages have changes over the centuries...why were other languages better able to maintain spelling to pronunciation correspondence?
    – Mitch
    Nov 25 '21 at 2:42
  • 2
    @Mitch This is a dark topic because the further back in time we go, the more limited the proportion of any population has its pronunciation or spelling (if it was literate) preserved. The only example I know is ancient Greek, in which three or four 'dialects' were preserved in writings. Because the dialects (as reflected in the use of vowels) are preserved in the writings of the people. Sappho and Alkaios of Lesbos were famous, widely respected poets, Sappho as the best poet ever. The 'Attic' dialectes of Athens came (with some modifications) to dominate writing after Alexander's conquest.
    – Tuffy
    Nov 25 '21 at 8:19
  • 2
    @Mitch Another factor is the longer history of our alphabet. The writing systems of most European languages are based on the Roman alphabet. This was already inadequate for Latin: it failed to distinguish long vowels from short. It has likewise proved inadequate for English which has had a complicated vowel system with long & short ones, both before and after the Great Vowel Shift. It isn't so bad for languages that use accented or umlauted letters. Unfortunately, English has made little use of such marks, except in unassimilated loans & fudges like blessèd.
    – Rosie F
    Nov 25 '21 at 8:32
  • 2
    French is similar, with an orthography that was introduced in the 15th century, with reforms proposed since the 16th, and which was outdated by the 17th century - its spelling system is also awful, with lots of silent letters, not always consistent (e.g. T and C at the end of words), a variety of ways of spelling vowels (especially nasalised vowels), and diacritics illustrating historical spellings rather than pronunciation (notably the caret). It also had a lot of foreign influence and changed pronunciations. See Wikipedia
    – Stuart F
    Nov 25 '21 at 15:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.