5 reasons why English spelling is difficult

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.


  1. What a novel idea for a blog!

    I'm a little surprised there hasn't been an international campaign to simplify and standardise English spelling.

    I studied German at school and its spelling is much easier to learn, despite having similar historical influences to those you described for English.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael.

    There have been numerous attempts to simplify English spelling. The most successful I suppose has been by the Americans, e.g. changing 'our' to 'or' ('colour' to 'color') and 're' to 'er' ('litre' to 'liter'), etc. But even these reforms were much less sweeping than those Noah Webster had originally planned.

    The Spelling Society is an organisation dedicated to spelling reform. Reforming English spelling enough to make a real difference in ease of learning would be a massively complicated job though. I can't imagine it happening 'artificially', although it may just change through usage e.g. 'you' may become 'U'.

    Spelling reform is an interesting subject and I'll try to blog about it in more depth soon.

  3. 'How to love English spelling'??? U've got to be kidding!
    We love the language, but its spelling is atrocious. Alfabets and spelling wer desined to help us reed and rite. They do in languages such as Italian and Korean.
    Michael asks about a co-ordinated international campane to standardize English spelling. There ar actually two organizations working to this end
    The spelling society, based in London
    www.spellingsociety.org , and the American Literacy Council, New York

  4. Thanks fe ye koment, Allanstr. Akchaly I downt agree that speling riform iz the yarnsa bikoz the way u speek may bi very difrent te how I speek sow hou kan we rite fonetikly? Fe rexample u rite "Alfabets and spelling wer desined to help us reed and rite". Fe me (British) the 'r' in 'wer' is just as ridundunt as thee 'e' so wy not get rid ov that too? Orlso how wud you rite 'jumped', 'roared' and 'started'? Orl with difrent endings I spose? That meens we karnt imeedietly rekognaiz that they a parst tenses. But my mayn argyument iz that it is just too difikult te chaynge a langwidge and I like te help peepl kowp with wot we hav. Few!
    Best wishes

  5. Joanna, u'r rite! U do speek difrently from me, in New Zealand.
    Our present traditional spelling (TS) is ruffly (very ruffly) based on the two principal dialects, Received Pronunciation (Brit) and General American. We out here in the distant outposts mor or less cope with that as well as do peeple in Yorkshire, Scotland, Louisiana, Indias, Canada, etc.
    New spellings would, i think, still be based on those two major dialects, as expressed by BBC and NBC newsreeders. We all would then cope eeven better than we do at present.
    Actually, its not so much fonemicity that is needed, as regularity.
    Pay and display, but paid and displayed. End, send, and bend, but friend. Lope, rope, and cope (not kowp!), but soap, boat, float.
    And as for the long ee sound, about 13 difrent spellings!
    Its the irregularity that throws us, especially when we ar lerning at ages 6-11 (what a long time!). Italians lern is a yeer or so.
    Eeven we adults can be thrown by our spellings, as i was recently in the garden shop. Unless we hav herd a word, we cant confidently sound it from its spelling; and vice versa, we cant be sure of its spelling from its sound unless we'v seen it.
    Litracy lerning for English speekers takes up to three yeers longer than for lerners of most other European languages. This is a huge cost, in resorces (remeedial reeding), lost time for other subjects, emotional helth of the lerner, extra costs for busness traning new employees, etc.
    Its time we took a long-term vew and started fixing up this blunt, broken, and unreliable tool.

  6. A great deal can be done without switching to phonetic spelling, which as you say is inherently usable only in one dialect. TS is based on a roughly 14th-century accent, and since then English accents have diversified by two major processes, splits and mergers. In a split, two sounds originally alike are now pronounced differently: for some people, bad and lad don't rhyme. Fortunately, no splits have become universal, so in a universal spelling system they can be ignored.

    Mergers, however, come in two categories: universal and local. An example of a universal merger is that between vain and vein. All accents pronounce these words the same, and there is no reason to keep the distinction any more. Similarly, mb and m at the ends of words are now pronounced the same by everyone, and there is no reason to keep the distinction between thumb and sum.

    Other mergers, however, affect some accents but not others. The Norfolk accent, for example, does not have the mergers toe-tow, meat-meet, and lain-lane that are found in most other accents of English. It's my view that we should retain spelling distinctions that are useful to people who have them. It's only a bit more work to learn that ait, ate, and eight are three ways of writing the same sounds, and that the distinction is kept because other people require it. That way we don't get into debates about which accents are more important than others. (It's arguable how far this should be carried: writing poark would be very sensible for people from Scotland or Jamaica, for whom fork and pork don't rhyme, for instance.)

  7. John, thanks for your really interesting observations, though I am slightly confused about the comments about the Norfolk accents (being a Norfolk gul (woman) myself!!). I really can't hear any difference between a Norfolk 'meat' and 'meet'. Maybe I need to get out into the countryside more!

    Anyway my biggest problem with spelling reform is: HOW could it ever happen? WHO is going to prescribe that we spell words a particular new way? What about native speakers (admittedly in the minority nowadays among English language users)? Some don't want to change their language. If we were talking about changing the spelling in a language in one country maybe this could be gradually done within the education system, but worldwide?? I mean even in the USA, why did Noah Webster only manage to get so few spelling conventions changed when he had planned for much more sweeping changes?

  8. Hi. It isn't "éscaner" but "escáner".

  9. I think that we have to love the language as whole in order to learn it very well so,loving the English spelling is a good thing...
    and great job Johanna. Thank`s for this great information it added a lot to me like all of your other writes.

  10. I want to add another reason that English spelling is difficult as the sounds in English are slightly similar like, the sound/i:/ , /e/, and /i/.
    this similarity make the learner confused and make it harder to identify to the sound in order to spell it.

  11. in my point of view English spelling isn't it just needs more practice to be professional or speak like the native speaker but i think spelling English is sometimes confusing as "Radwa" shows an example there are another example as the sound /c/ sometimes it pronounced /c/ like the word (ice) , and sometimes it pronounced /k/ like the word (car)