The joy of English spelling

#Twitter: proudly promoting ghastly grammar and silly misspelling since 2006. E.A. Bucchianeri

Spelling counts. Spelling is not merely a tedious exercise in a fourth-grade classroom. Spelling is one of the outward and visible marks of a disciplined mind. James J. Kilpatrick

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. Mark Twain


You can forget Richard Dawkins. For me the proof that God does not exist is English spelling. How could an all-knowing deity allow something so perverse? English spelling is notoriously difficult, even for native speakers. Here are some mistakes by illustrious poets and writers:

Emily Dickenson nescessity

Ezra Pound diarhoa

Dylan Thomas propoganda

Ernest Hemingway archiologist

I used to run some trivia quizzes for my fellow English teachers. One time I included a spelling round. Here are the words I had:

1.         colonel

2.         desiccate

3.         indispensable

4.         liquefy

5.         septuagenarian

6.         cemetery

7.         liaison

8.         coliseum

9.         Mississippi

10.       sacrilegious

11.       haemorrhage

12.       calendar

13.       parallel

14.       questionnaire

15.       onomatopoeia

What I remember is that the teacher who did best was one of the older ones. It was an impressive performance. What’s more he was somewhat the worse for drink. I realise that this is a small sample size, but I get the impression that this is one area where modern education could learn from the past.

Why is English spelling the way it is? This is the question that linguist David Crystal deals with in his latest tome on popular linguistics:  Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling. It has proved to be very popular, Crystal’s most successful book to date. Indeed at one time it was #4 on Amazon’s best-selling list, ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey Who could have imagined that a topic like English spelling would be able to compete with dungeons and whips?

English spelling is known for its irregularity. In fact, 80% of English spelling is more or less regular. At the beginning of the book Crystal takes that noted spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw to task:

“A famous example dates from the middle of the 19th century, and came to be associated in the 20th century with George Bernard Shaw: ghoti is said to spell fish, because f is spelled gh as in cough, i is spelled o as in women, and sh is spelled ti as in nation. This is complete naughtiness. The spelling ti is NEVER used with this sound at the end of a word in English, and the spelling gh is NEVER used with this sound at the beginning of a word. But people have been taken in by this sort of nonsense. And the feeling that English spelling is a mess has been reinforced by the clever creations based on irregular forms, such as ‘Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.’ All good fun, but hugely misleading as a summary of the English spelling system. It’s a bit like listing eight accident blackspots in a country, and saying all the roads are like that.”

Crystal’s employs a chronological approach, tracing the influence of a motley crew of Latin-speaking missionaries, Norman conquerors, Flemish typesetters, lexicographers, and 21st century bloggers on English spelling.

Old English spelling of had been largely phonetic: all letters were pronounced. They sounded the w in write, the g in gnat, and the k in know. Things started to go wrong when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century. With 23 letters in their alphabet they lacked the tools to render English into writing; the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes. For example they didn’t have j, u or w. This problem has not gone away. We have only 26 letters for around 40 phonemes.

Then in 1066 the Normans invaded bringing with them their French and Latin words. As the centuries went by the scribes had to reflect the sounds people used with the letters that they had. In English the difference between long and short vowels is extremely important. How could you show the difference between them in the spelling? One strategy was to add a final e to some words in order to lengthen vowels.  So you get hop and hope. To show that words contained a short vowel sound the following consonant would be doubled. Compare ridding to riding, or pinning to pining.

By the end of the 15th century William Caxton had introduced printing to England. He needed typesetters, but there weren’t any English ones available. He was forced to import Flemish speakers. When a word reminded them of a Flemish counterpart, they would spell it their way. A Flemish spook was called a gheest. That is why we have an h in ghost.

The influence of Latin can be seen with the word debt. English borrowed this word from French dette in the early Middle Ages. However, it ultimately comes from the Latin word debitum, so it was thought necessary to include this silent b would be a useful mnemonic when people had to write the word. It would avoid them puzzling over whether the correct spelling is det, dett, dette or deytt. But nowadays most of us do not know Latin and is no help at all. English is overrun with silent letters subtle indict sign, salmon and receipt to name but a few.

Doctor Johnson’s dictionary was another important landmark. It was undoubtedly a work of great genius, but it was idiosyncratic, reflecting the particular foibles of its compiler.  Johnson largely fixed English spelling. By the 19th century, Crystal says, every educated family had a copy. But not all of Johnson’s were taken up.  He believed that no word should end with a c. So he insisted on musick. Unlike debt this spelling didn’t catch on. Ultimately spellings are made by people. Dictionaries will, eventually, reflect popular choices. What Johnson did for British English, Noah Webster did for American English. He was the man who gave us color. Americans eventually adopted most of his recommendations though, like Johnson, not all of his proposed reforms, such as fether and tung for feather and tongue, were to prove successful.

The author provides some fascinating examples – one of my favourites is noodle. It comes from the German Nudel and arrived in the late 18th century. It was converted into noodle. The long /u:/ vowel sound became oo and  the /әl/ ending le. However, a century later, German Strudel wasn’t written as apple stroodle. Now the exotic was being captured. Foreign words have also had an impact on English spelling. Nowadays Internet and globalisation are affecting English spelling, and this influence will surely become more marked. With English as the world’s lingua franca we will most likely see simplification.

Crystal believes that we need to improve how spelling is taught. It is a skill separate from reading and writing and so it needs to be studied specifically in the classroom. It should be in linguistic context. In order to master spelling you need to know the enemy. A little Latin would definitely help; aberrant has one b and abbreviate two because of the Latin sources. Whether Young people would be up for etymology lessons is another question.

I will leave you with Crystal’s conclusion:

Nor is staying with traditional attitudes towards spelling an option. We – everyone, not just teachers – need to change the way we think about it. We have to stop viewing it in solely negative terms – as a daunting barrier, as a hostile mountain, as an apparently perpetual process of rote learning – and start thinking of it as a voyage of exploration. The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding. It is a skill whose acquisition requires serious application, of course, but that does not need to be at the expense of enjoyment. Approached in the right way, spelling can be fun.

I couldn’t agree more. Give me spelling over BDSM any day of the week.


2 Responses to The joy of English spelling

  1. Jerry says:

    Erm- Ernest Hemingway. One ‘m’…

  2. molivam42 says:

    How embarrassing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: