Three reasons why English spelling is confusing.

In post we take a look at the common problems associated with spelling in English, and reveal that these problems may run much deeper than you might expect. Why does this happen?

  1. 1.                  The mismatch of written and spoken forms

Spoken English has between 42 and 45 individual sounds, while the written form uses a 26-letter alphabet. Simply put, there are not enough letters to represent all the sounds of speech. In English, a single letter can often be pronounced in a number of different ways.

Ideographic languages such as Chinese and Japanese represent the ‘meanings’ rather than ‘sounds’, so they have no confusing spelling. The Latin alphabet, on the other hand, is a phonetic based writing script, meaning that the letter indicates pronunciation. It is a useful and flexible system, but in practice it is full of irregularities.

  1. 2.                  Invention of new characters

In order to solve the problem stated in section one, many languages innovated new characters and new combinations of letters. For example, many European languages have developed additional symbols – such as the cedilla ( ¸ ), the circumflex (^), the umlaut (¨) and the grave and acute accents (´ and `) to augment the alphabet. In English we adapted combinations such as sc-, sh, th. But differences still remain in European languages.

  1. 3.                  History

The English spelling system is the result of a process of development that has been going on for over 100 years. The complications we are left with today are the result of the major linguistic and social events which have taken place during this time.’
(Crystal, 2002, The English language – a guide tour of the language, p.78)

The quote above suggests that our current spelling systems have been shaped by past events. A good example of this is the Norman Conquest, in which the French scribes brought their own ideas about spelling to bear on the language. Several old English spellings were replaced.

Similarly, Germanic studies show that many sounds of Anglo-Saxon and Old English origin which were once pronounced have now disappeared e.g. KH, once pronounced in words like daughter and night.

There is a lot more to learning a language than many of us realise. The next time you feel frustrated about learning a language consider this: you are learning about much, much more than just vocabulary and grammar – you are becoming an expert in the cultural and historical aspects of the language too. And those aspects are often a lot of fun to learn about.


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