Why is English So Difficult to Spell?

Between 1350 and the 1600s and 1700s, beginning in southern England and then moving west and north, a change in the English language took place.  It is called The Great Vowel Change.   During this period all Middle English long vowels and some consonant sounds changed.  This was especially true with consonants that became silent.  Unfortunately, English spelling began to become standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries before the shift.

No one knows why the change occurred.  Some scholars think migration from northern England to London after the Black Death caused a mixing of accents. Others think that the “invasion” of French words caused it.  Others think that the prestige of French pronunciations among the middle classes started a process of hypercorrection that resulted in vowel pronunciations.   Curiously, there is an opposing theory that states that the wars with France caused a general anti-French sentiment and this caused a hypercorrection that deliberately tried to make English sound less like French.

Other languages also experienced similar changes.  The difference was when it happened.  The change in English occurred after the printing press had been introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton.  He used the standard forms of spelling which were based on the way words were pronounced at that time.  This form of spelling was not changed to reflect the changes that happened later.  Therefore, English continued to be spelled the way it had been spoken before the changes in pronunciation occurred.

For example:

To bite (mossegar/morder)

  • Originally pronounced /bi-te/
  • Became /bait/

House (casa/casa)

  • Originally pronounced /hus/
  • Became /haus/

Knight (cavaller/caballero)

  • Originally pronounced /cenecht/
  • Became /nait/

English orthography is no longer phonetic, but it could have been worse.  There is an anecdote that George Bernard Shaw once proposed that the word fish could alternatively be written “ghoti.”  The “gh” from enough, the “o” from women and the “ti” from nation.

 

Written by Mike Dean Alger for Aston School

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