Why is English spelling so hard?

Why is English spelling so hard? The next development in the English language came with the spread of Christianity, when monks from Rome set up monasteries throughout Britain. These became centres of learning with libraries of books produced by the monks, using the Latin language and Roman alphabet.

As more Britons became Christians, there was a need for the Bible to be written in English. Sometimes the translator could not find an English word and therefore many Latin words crept into the English language.

In the year 789 the Viking invasion began. They settled in the east of England and their language, Old Norse, became intermingled with Old English. Why is English spelling so hard?

These words came from Old Norse:

knifr > knife leggr > leg hitta > hit

Read these old Norse words and guess which modern word we get from each:

Old Norse Old meaning
1.  ras running
2.  happ luck
3.  steik roast on a spit
4.  slatr butcher meat
5.  vindauga vind = wind,  auga = eye

Click here for the answers

The next major influence on English was the Norman invasion of 1066. The French ruled England for 200 years and changed much of the English language. French became the official language and was the one most used for any writing. French scribes tried to record the English sounds they heard by using their own spelling system. Why is English spelling so hard?

Many of our strange spellings can be traced back to this era, for example:

hw in Old English became wh - because it matched the th and ch patterns: when, what

cw became qu as in quick, queen

o was used to spell the sound /u/ in words like money, love, son

Around the 15th century many people became interested in the ancient cultures of Rome and Greece. During this period (the 'Renaissance', meaning 'rebirth'), the language used by scholars and writers was Latin, which contained many words derived from Greek. The writers liked to show off their knowledge by spelling words the Latin way, rather than the earlier English versions. This accounts for many of the silent letters we have today:

Old English Latin Modern spelling
det debitum debt
ile insula isle, island
receit recepta receipt
doute dubitare doubt

Other silent letters are there because they were once pronounced.
For example:

write wrinkle wrist wrong
knee knife know knock

As the two consonants together are hard to say, the first letter was gradually dropped from speech - but it still remains in writing.

Before the introduction of the printing press in 1476, there were no spelling rules and people just took the sounds of words as a rough guide. As there were many different dialects, this led to many different spellings for the same word. As William Caxton set up his first printing press in London, he chose the dialect of that area and this became 'Standard English' as we know it today. Why is English spelling so hard?

The growth of the printed word led to some standardisation in spelling but also caused some problems. Many of the printers were foreign, especially Dutch, and they decided how words should be spelled, often using rules from their own languages. This is how the gh pattern came into English words:

ghost ghastly night enough

Sometimes printers would add odd letters, usually e, to the end of a word, just to make each line of print the same length. Sometimes they doubled a letter for the same reason. The same word could have several different spellings, even on the same page. It was often just luck which spelling 'stuck' to become the norm.

To make things even more complicated, the pronunciation of English was also undergoing great changes, especially in how long vowels were pronounced. This left many differences between how words were spoken and how they were spelled.

For many more years there were still no set rules for spelling - even Shakespeare is said to have spelled his own name in at least six different ways! Gradually people saw the need for some standard system but it was not until the 18th century that the first really complete dictionaries were written:
Nathaniel Bailey 1721
Samuel Johnson 1755
Why is English spelling so hard?

Most modern dictionaries give the origin of words. Studying word roots can be fascinating and often helps us to remember odd spellings. The origin of a word is usually given at the end of each entry, in square brackets. For example:

dictionary /dikshnri/ n. a book that lists and explains the words of a language or gives equivalent words in another language. [L. dictio - say.]

Some examples of abbreviations used to show the original language of a word:

OE Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
ME Middle English
Gk Greek
L Latin
F French
ON Old Norse (Viking)

Sometimes a word has passed through several languages on its way to English. This is shown by 'f.' for 'from'.

Some more examples follow. The letters between // show you how to pronounce the word. Each dictionary will have its own key for its pronunciation guide.

Notice, in elephant, how f changed to ph as the Renaissance scholars wanted to use more Latin or Greek words:

elephant /elfnt/ n. largest living land animal, with a trunk and long curved ivory tusks [ME olifaunt f. OF olifant f. L elephantus f. Gk elephas ivory]

Notice how Old English had many different spellings for one word: scep, scaep, sceap :

sheep /shEp/ n. ruminant mammal of the genus Ovis , kept for its wool or meat [OE scep, scaep, sceap]

Note: AF = Anglo-French, from the time of French rule:

lion /lIn/ n. large flesh-eating cat with a tawny coat
[ME f. AF leun f. L leonis f. Gk leontos]

This last example shows how travel around the world brought many new words to the English language:

orang-utan /orangUtan/ n. large red long-haired tree-living ape
[Malay orang utan - wild man]

next part of the spelling course Go to the next page:
Recent additions to the English Language

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Unit 35: Why is English spelling so hard?

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