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Unit 35: Why is English spelling so hard?

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Unit 35: A brief history of English spellings

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Why is English spelling so hard?

Why is English spelling so hard? Next to take up the baton of changing our language was the church, with the spread of Christianity bringing with it more Latin as monks from Rome set up libraries in England, producing books using the Roman alphabet. The Roman/Latin alphabet is the one we use today.

As more Britons became Christians, a need for the Bible to be written in English emerged. Sometimes, however, the translator could not find an English alternative and hence more Latin words crept into the English language.

Beginning in the year 789, the Viking invasion began, and so too the influence of Old Norse on the English language. They settled in the east of England. Over time, Old Norse and Old English became intermingled: Why is English spelling so hard?

knifr > knife leggr > leg hitta > hit

Which modern word do you think we get from these Old Norse words?

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

Next to influence English were the Normans. When William the Conqueror famously defeated Harold at The Battle of Hastings, it began a 200-year reign of the French court in England. French became the adopted language for many in court and those aspiring to be associated with the upper classes (France was hugely powerful and French hugely fashionable). Although English remained as the mother tongue, the educated became trilingual (fluent in English, French and Latin). Latin remained dominant in the teachings of the church and most of the law and literature of the time would only have been accessible through knowledge of the French language. Much of the writing of the time was completed in French but the scribes tried to record the English sounds they heard using their own spelling system. Why is English spelling so hard?

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

hw in Old English became wh - 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'), many scholars and writers used Latin. Interestingly, Latin contained many words derived from Greek. Latin became fashionable again with writers showing 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:

write wrinkle wrist wrong
knee knife know knock

Over time, the difficulty of saying these two consonants together meant that we dropped the initial letter in speech but it remained in writing.

Spellzone could not have existed before 1476, not only because there were no computers! Until the introduction of the printing press at this time, the language did not have a standard spelling, and therefore no spelling rules! There were many different dialects across the country (unsurprisingly, given the number of different settlers and invasions) and they would often spell words differently. William Caxton set up the first printing press in London and chose the dialect of that area (with its grammar and vocabulary) and this became ‘Standard English’ as we know it today. Why is English spelling so hard?

Whilst the growth of printed texts led to some standardisation in spelling, it also caused some problems. Many printers were foreign, especially Dutch, and often they decided how words should be spelled, using the rules of their own languages to guide them! This is why we have gh in the words:

ghost ghastly night enough

And if that wasn't problematic enough, sometimes printers added letters to the ends of words, usually e, to make each line of print the same length! Sometimes, they doubled a letter for the same reason. Irritatingly, this meant that the same word could have various different spellings on the same page depending on where it was! Over time, a particular spelling would 'stick', becoming the norm, but they didn’t apply any rules to choose which one was chosen, hence our spelling became even more quirky!

As if we needed any more complicating factors, around this time, the pronunciation of English was also subject to great change in how long vowels were spoken (known as the Great Vowel Shift). This resulted in many differences between how words were spoken and spelled.

Spellzone would have been further traumatised if around at the time because for many years after the introduction of the printing press, there were still no set rules for spelling – Shakespeare is said to have spelled his own name in at least six ways. It was not until the 18th Century that the first English dictionaries were written by Nathaniel Bailey (in 1721) and Samuel Johnson (1755). Why is English spelling so hard?

Most modern dictionaries give the origin of words (their etymology). It can be fascinating to study the history of words – and can help us remember the spellings. The origin is usually provided at the end of the entry:

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

Further examples of abbreviations used:

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

If a word has passed through several languages, an 'f' (for 'from') will be used. Notice too in the example below how the letter f is replaced by ph because the Renaissance scholars wanted to use more Latin and Greek words:

elephant /elƏfƏnt/ 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]


See here 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]


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

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


Finally, this example shows how travel around the world brought many new words into the language:

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

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