It takes English-speaking children three years on average to attain basic reading fluency, while children who speak other European languages often need just three to twelve months to read at a similar level. Who’s the culprit behind this delay? The simple answer is: spelling. Even adult English-speakers are familiar with the nightmare of only ever encountering a word in written form and then attempting to say it out loud in a public setting for the first time – often with hilarious (and embarrassing) results. That’s because English spellings frequently provide little guidance about the actual phonetic manifestation a word might take. As is so often the case [link to other blog post], this has to do with the historical development of the English language.
The first alphabet used to write Old, Anglo-Saxon English was the Roman alphabet, with the letters Þ (thorn), ð (eth) and ȝ (yogh) added to represent the extra sounds “th”, “dh” and “y”/“j”. During this phase, there was a relatively good degree of phonetic matching, i.e. it was relatively easy to figure out what a word would sound like based on its spelling. However, French became the language of government after the Norman Conquest, and any fledgling process of orthographic standardisation that might have begun was stopped in its tracks, as much less English was being written. Nonetheless, English made a comeback and had once again become the official language of Britain by about 1430, although it had now incorporated a large number of French and Latin words.
So, whereas in places like Germany attempts at standardisation began as early as in the 8th century, this process did not resume in Britain until much later with the attempts to instate “Chancery spelling” of the 15th century. This was the language used by the Court of Chancery, but it used both French and English spellings. This means that some words were changed to suit spoken English – such as “boeuf” and “bataille”, which became “beef” and “battle” – while others, like “table”, “double” and “centre”, were not. This problem was exacerbated by the rise of the printing press. The introduction of printing in Germany facilitated the process of spelling standardisation, as printers believed that using a common language would allow them to sell their books throughout the German-speaking world – not a bad idea! By contrast, in Britain, the emergence of printing saw a wider dissemination of uncontrolled, chaotic spellings. For example, William Caxton brought Flemish printers and their expertise back with him to London, who are said to have introduced Flemish spellings, such as the “h” in “ghost” and “ghastly”, into the English language. Printers also lengthened words in order to get the right-hand side of the page to be as straight as the left – and because they were paid by the line.
Moreover, because printing the Bible in English was considered heretical at the time, many English-language bibles were printed abroad. This compounded the irregularity of English spellings as, without dictionaries to consult, people used whatever Bible they could grab hold of to learn how to spell. As if this were not bad enough, Renaissance scholars wanted English to better reflect its Latin and Greek origins and began introducing notorious “silent” letters into English such as the “b” in “debt”, the “p” in “receipt” and the “c” in “indict”. Parallel to these developments, the Great Vowel Shift was taking place – which, unfortunately, was not accompanied by any kind of Great Spelling Shift – further aggravating the mismatch between written English words and their spoken sounds. But also, spelling simply does not seem to have been as much of a concern as it is today, with Shakespeare famously spelling his own name however he pleased. In fact, the spelling we use today – “Shakespeare” – doesn’t even appear in any of Shakespeare’s signatures, with the Bard choosing to spell his name alternately as “Shaksper”, “Shakspe”, “Shakspere”, “Shakspere” and “Shakspeare”.
The earliest sustained calls for the systematic standardisation of English spelling came in the 16th century. For example, Richard Mulcaster published the first dictionary of the English language, the Elementaire, in 1582, with the aim of making English spellings more phonetic and consistent. However, Samuel Johnson’s much more famous and comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language from 1755 was not as interested in making English spelling more consistent as it was in deciding upon just one spelling. What’s more, Johnson was so worried about the havoc that English homonyms could wreak that he actually introduced alternative spellings to differentiate them, e.g. “stile” and “style”, ultimately introducing even more diversity into English spelling. Moreover, the increased spread of dictionaries and standardisation froze the English language in place, inconsistent spellings and all. Even Noah Webster’s [link] attempt to simplify English didn’t provide much of a remedy.
The result of all of this is that English now has the most irregular spelling system based on the alphabetic principle, with 405 graphemes (letters and letter combinations) used to spell 44 sounds. Seventy-five percent of English spellings are actually more or less phonetic, but some of the remaining 25% are the words that we use most frequently. Today, there are some vocal advocates of English spelling reform, such as the English Spelling Society [http://spellingsociety.org/], who want to change English spellings to better reflect the way that English actually sounds, arguing that the complexity of the current spelling system lowers literacy rates and makes English more difficult to learn, even for English speakers – and as we’ve seen, they’re not wrong. However, others argue that English is now so widespread as a lingua franca that this would be nearly impossible, and that there is so much variation in English dialects that the question of which dialect to base these new spellings on would be nearly impossible to answer. So for the time being, we just have to live with what we’ve got and learn to love inconsistencies like “through”, “thorough”, “though”, “rough” and “cough”!
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