Why is English spelling so hard?

Like all 'living languages', English is still changing. The spread of the British Empire, the growth of trading with other countries and greater international communication have all brought in new words from many other languages.

Today these words are accepted as part of English but their spelling may not always follow English spelling rules. Some examples:

  Original language Spelling differences
shampoo Hindi English uses ew or ue to spell /oo/ on the end
(US pajamas)
Urdu In English, the /ar/ sound is usually ar
pizza Italian The sound /eet/ is spelled iz in pizza
macaroni Italian No English word ends in i
ski Norwegian No English word ends in i
cappucino Italian English uses ch to spell /ch/
koala Aborigine English uses c before o
karate Japanese English uses c before a
yacht Dutch English would be yot.
bouquet French English would be bookay.
gateau French English would be gattow.
antique French English would be anteak.

You probably know how to spell pizza -
because you have seen it so often.
Why is English spelling so hard?
Learning Tip for English spelling Use the same skill to learn other words that break English spelling rules: use your eyes, not the sound of the word. Remember them by using the 'Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check' method.

When new words are needed for new inventions or discoveries, the ancient Greek and Latin spelling rules are often used. For example:

Thermos (flask) Gk. thermo=heat
chemotherapy L. chimicus=chemical, therapia=healing
stereoscopic Gk. stereos=solid, skopeo=look at
phillumenist Gk. phil=liking, L. lumen=light
(collector of matchbox labels!)
megabyte Gk. megas= great, L. bi=2 + digitus=finger

Some new words 'just happen'. Do you remember this from Unit 4?

word lists
For many years the author of this course used to stress the qu spelling to all her classes by promising a big reward to any student who could find an English word containing q without u. She was confident she would never have to pay up but, in 1993, Andrew (age 12) found the word 'qwerty' in his dictionary. This word describes a computer keyboard and is made from the first six letters on the keyboard. It has become part of the language and is the only English word to break the qu rule.
word lists
word lists word lists

Some words come from names of people or places - and as names are often spelled oddly, this can lead to some rule-breakers. For example, you may remember these words from Unit 4. They break the ic / ick rules, which are:

  • Use ick at the end of a one-syllable word.
  • Use ic at the end of a longer word - unless it is a compound word.
limerick 5 line humorous rhyme - from the place 'Limerick', named in one of the first poems of this type
derrick Framework over a platform such as an oil-well - from the name of a 1600 London hangman
maverick A person who follows his own rules - from the name of a Texas rancher who did not brand his cattle

Some more words derived from proper nouns:

sandwich Named after an Earl of Sandwich, who wanted his meat between two slices of bread, so he could continue to gamble while eating.
diesel Named after its inventor, a German engineer.
Also note: derv - a diesel oil, from diesel engined road vehicle. This breaks the rule that no English word ends in v .
balaclava Woollen hat first worn by soldiers at Balaclava in the
Crimean War.
biro Ball point pen, named after its Hungarian inventor.

Proper nouns (names of people, places, brand names) all need extra care. For hints on these:

next part of the spelling course Go to the next page: Spelling proper nouns

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Unit 35: Why is English spelling so hard?

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