1. English spelling is 'deep'
2. English is a mixing bowl
3. English remembers its roots
4. There are many Englishes
5. Blame the printers
1. English is ‘deep’
English is sometimes described as orthographically ‘deep’ – that means it is often not written as it sounds. Other languages are much easier to spell because the words are spelled the same way as they are pronounced – these are called ‘shallow’ languages – such as Finnish, Italian, Arabic. Then other languages are not based on sound at all, such as most of Chinese and some related languages – these languages are ‘logographic’.
2. English is a mixing bowl
A lot of people in the world speak English now, but remember the language started on a small island which was invaded several times by different groups of people. Each group influenced the language spoken in England. Imagine England as a big bowl. Elements of each language were added and it was all stirred up together. No wonder it’s not very regular!
3. Original spellings
All modern languages ‘borrow’ words from other languages. Sometimes the spelling of those words are changed so they are more similar to other words in the receiving language. For example, the English word ‘scanner’ has been changed into ‘éscaner’ in Spanish to reflect Spanish pronunciation and spelling patterns. In English, however, spelling is rarely changed when we take a word from another language. So ‘chef’ (from French) is not changed to ‘shef’, although this would be a better phonetic spelling for this word in English.
4. Many Englishes
Not only has English been influenced by other languages, but it has also spread around the world in all directions. English is the first, primary or official language in many countries on 6 continents: Europe (e.g. UK), North America (eg USA), South America (e.g. much of the Caribbean), Africa (many ex-British colonial countries such as Kenya), Asia (e.g. India) and Australia. The English spoken in many of these places show great variation so the spelling cannot reflect the pronunciation – or the spelling would also be different in each country!
5. Blame the early printers
Before and during Shakespeare’s time English spelling was very… um… flexible. There were lots of ways to spell each word and nobody really minded which one you used. Then when the printing press arrived in England in the 16th century, the early printers felt it was their job to standardise English spelling and they made some strange decisions. It has been suggested that ‘women’ is spelled like that because the printers thought that all the up and down strokes in ‘wimin’ would be too difficult to read (Frank Smith). Now it’s just difficult to spell!
I’ll look at each of these aspects of English spelling one-by-one in future postings on this blog. And also some ways that this knowledge can help with spelling English words.
If you can’t wait that long, go to http://www.elgweb.net/spelling_article.html
Smith, F. 2004 Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.