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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?

Fascinating stuff, eh?

Like all 'living' languages, English is still changing. The spread of the British Empire, the growth of trade with other countries and greater international movement and communication all resulted in an increase of words in our language. With them, often, come their origin language's spelling rules:

  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
cappuccino 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.

New words also appear in our language because we are inventing or discovering new things. Often, Greek and Latin spelling rules are used, to create a link with other words in that field.

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 words come directly from names of people or places which can lead to some interesting spellings including these examples which break the ic/ick rules (using ic at the end of longer, non-compound words):

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

And these which are just interesting examples of how words (and therefore spellings) can derive 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.

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Spelling proper nouns

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