According to this article, “written English is great for puns but terrible for learning to read or write,” and
Adults who have already mastered written English tend to forget about its many quirks. But consider this: English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. And not only can the same sounds be represented in different ways, but the same letter or letter combinations can also correspond to different sounds. For example, “cat,” “kangaroo,” “chrome,” and “queue” all start with the same sound, and “eight” and “ate” sound identical. Meanwhile, “it” doesn’t sound like the first syllable of “item,” for instance, and “cough” doesn’t rhyme with either “enough,” “through,” “furlough” or “bough.” Even some identically spelled words, such as “tear,” can be pronounced differently and mean different things.
Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the book Understanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language.
As a high school English teacher, I find it difficult to explain (particularly to students who are still learning the language) the weirdness of why “lead” sometimes rhymes with “led” but also rhymes with “leed,” and why “read” is spelled the same but pronounced differently in present and past tenses, and why it’s impossible to know how to pronounce “wind” unless it’s being used in a context.
Now, I’ve been a pretty good speller since grade school, and I’ve even trained and worked as a copy editor and proofreader, so I feel pretty comfortable with the usages myself, even if I can’t remember certain esoterica, such as whether the “L” in “cancelled” should be doubled or not. And, of course, it doesn’t matter to pronunciation or meaning whether the “L” is doubled or not.
But I feel bad for my students who struggle with these needlessly complex spellings, and also, as I’ve said before, the more I teach poetry-writing and paying attention to the sounds of words, the worse my own spelling gets.
And to show my solidarity with the bad-spellers, or, let’s say, creative spellers, I write the date on my classroom whiteboard with various spellings of the name of the current month: Febrewairi, Ffebrooairy, Phebrooaree, Ghebruairie (when the “gh” is as it is at the end of “enough” — which reminds me of the classic joke about how to pronounce “ghoti” as “fish,” when the “gh” is from “tough,” the “o” is from “women,” and the “ti is from “nation”).
But even where words have been imported from other languages, such as the name “Julius Ceasar,” we for some reason haven’t kept the original Latin pronunciation (YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr). And when Classical Greek works like “The Odyssey” was translated, why did the translators spell “Circe” and “Cyclops” with “C”s instead of the “K” sounds that may have been closer to the original Greek pronunciations?
Some people have tried to simplify or reform English spelling. It hasn’t gone very far, clearly. Perhaps that’s because those of us who got used to the weird spellings resisted change because we got used to recognizing “although” and would be slowed down when reading “altho” — or maybe those who seek to establish rules for formal English usage like to keep these complexities because, well, having learned them shows that one is educated, and those who don’t use the needlessly complex rules reveal that they haven’t submitted to learning the needlessly complex rules.
Another thing I’ve learned from teaching is that, most of the time, I can figure out what my students mean even when they don’t follow the grammar and spelling rules. In other words, regular language users can make sense of variations that would render a computer program meaningless to a computer.
I’ve actually seen some student misspellings that point out aspects of language that I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, I recently read a student’s work where he had spelled “seriously” as “seariously” — and I’d never before noticed that there was the sound of burning (well, searing) at the start of the word “serious”– which struck me as a poetically rich misspelling.
This Atlantic article also points out how arbitrary are the source of some odd spellings:
Written English has also evolved—but mostly in ways unrelated to the changes in the spoken language, thanks in part to shenanigans and human error. The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as “busy” in place of “bisy”). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters; “frend,” for example, became “friend.” In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition. English spelling became a chaotic mess, and successful attempts to simplify the spelling after that were offset by events that made the language harder to learn, such as the inclusion of many alternate spellings in Samuel Johnson’s influential English dictionary. Unlike many other languages, English spelling was never reformed to eliminate the incongruities. In a sense, English speakers now talk in one language but write a different one.
And this article also shows that the complexities of English can make real difficulties for even those native speakers learning to write formal English, as compared to the speakers and writers of some other languages.
As a result, there’s no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English—people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed. A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise.
Moreover, English-speaking children then spend years progressing through different reading levels and mastering the spelling of more and more words. That means it typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers—memorizing about 400 new words per year—and because they forget and have to revise many of the spellings they’ve previously learned, “learning to spell is a never-ending chore,” Bell says.
On the other hand, the American concept of “reading level” doesn’t even exist in countries with more regular spelling systems. In those countries, children become faster readers as they recognize more and more words by sight, Bell says, but they don’t need to have an idea of how a word sounds before they can read. The same goes for writing: In countries like Finland, children “continue to improve their vocabulary and use of language, but because they spell by rules rather than imprinting the right look of words on their brains, they can spell any word, regardless of whether they have met it before or not,” she says. The speakers of slightly more irregular languages such as Spanish, for instance, still need a small fraction of the time to memorize the exceptions in those languages compared to English.
That’s bad news for English-speaking societies, which represent about 6 percent of the world’s population. First of all, the amount of time and energy devoted to learning to read and write could have been spent learning other things. Then there’s the failure rate—the number of people who never become fully literate in the language. “One predictable consequence of any difficult-to-master system is a higher failure rate,” Bell writes on her website. “Skills that require a special aptitude are learned well by only a few. With perseverance, many others can become quite good at them, too, but a substantial number never get beyond the basics, no matter how hard they try.” (People with certain learning disabilities struggle even more: A 2001 study found that people with dyslexia have greater problems with English than with languages with more regular orthographies.)
That wouldn’t matter so much if we were talking about something recreational, such as juggling. But literacy is integral to modern societies. Schools have consequently endeavored to teach children how to read and write at younger and younger ages, but Bell says that’s problematic because children mature and learn at very different rates. It also steals time away from more developmentally appropriate activities for young children.