Thanks to reader Jeff, I became aware of this interesting article in The Atlantic by Luba Vangelova that tries to explain why English spelling is so quirky compared to other languages, making it a nightmare to learn, and resulting in children in English-speaking nations trailing those in other countries when it comes to literacy.
Why is English so different?
English spelling wasn’t always so convoluted; there was much more rhyme and reason to Old and even Middle English. But the spoken language has evolved, as all languages are wont to do: Pronunciations have changed and foreign words have been introduced, sometimes retaining the spelling conventions of their original languages.
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.
Vangelova’s article points to various efforts to try and make English spelling easier to master but I suspect that such efforts will go the way of previous attempts and simply wither on the vine. Part of the reason may be that those of us who did master English spelling early on in our lives for whatever reason and thus got a head start on literacy and academic success generally, see no compelling reason to change things. We likely believe that what worked for us should work for others too and that our own children will have the same level of success as we did.
I have never had any difficulty with English spelling. I put that down to voracious reading starting early in my life that has resulted in me seeing a lot of words many times and thus they have been imprinted on my memory even with no effort to consciously learn how to spell them. This has enabled me to ‘visualize’ words. I notice this particularly when doing word puzzles or playing games like Scrabble where letters are jumbled up and you have to form words. I find that after glancing at the letters and then looking away from the letters, words with the correct spelling kind of ‘float’ into my consciousness. Almost always I ‘see’ words in this way without actively trying to construct them.