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?