Why English spelling is so quirky

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.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    On silent letters: my understanding is that, back in the Middle Ages, they pronounced all the letters that we now consider silent. Monty Python was making fun of that with the “English kanighits,” and people really did go to the shoppe with two syllables. But folks are lazy, and the tendency of spoken languages is to simplify over time. So our spoken language continued to simplify after our written spelling was codified.

    An interesting corollary is ebonics: simplified conjugations, like “he go to the store,” are actually more highly evolved — we’d probably all be speaking that way now if it wasn’t for grammar rules that were codified in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  2. DsylexicHippo says

    I wonder how it is with other European languages? I know some Russian and I believe this is far less of an issue in Russian (and by extension other Slavic languages?). Also, a total non-issue with Indic languages from the Indian subcontinent: AFAIK, spelling is phonetic there and it is written exactly how it is pronounced. Not sure of Tamil or Sinhala but I’d be surprised if they were any different.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Tamil and Sinhala are completely phonetic. Once you learn the alphabet and the associated sounds, reading and sounding out words is a breeze.

    As an amusing side note, I heard one of the cricket commentators during a Sri Lankan game remark that one player’s name on his shirt was spelled differently in one game from what was in the team data sheet. This is because while there is no ambiguity about how to pronounce his name or write it in Sinhala, there are many options when you write it in English and people don’t always check to see if what they put down is consistent with what was written before.

    Take for example, the name Mahela Jayawardane, one of the star batsmen in the Sri Lankan team. In English, the second, fourth and fifth vowels in his last name could be either an ‘a’ or an ‘e’ and you find all those combinations being used in SL even though the pronunciation is exactly the same. So a name that has just one spelling in Sinhala can have eight different spellings in English, which makes it tedious to find people in Google searches or in phone books because you have to try all of them.

  4. boadinum says

    I once worked with some Polish people who were recent immigrants to North America. Their spoken English was excellent, though heavily accented, but they despaired of ever mastering written English. They taught me a few simple rules about Polish spelling and pronunciation, and I quickly became able to spell any word they threw at me, even though I had no idea what it meant.

    English is a hodgepodge of many different languages and influences, so it’s no wonder that the rules for spelling are more fluid than the rules for older languages. Noah Webster didn’t improve matters when he arbitrarily decided that American English should have different spelling rules than British English. Now we have “honor” vs “honour”, “travelling” vs “traveling” and on and on, and the rules are always inconsistently applied. Newspapers are particularly good at this.

    It seems, though, that one can now adopt any particular spelling rule, or a combination of rules, or no rules at all.

    brucegee1962 @1: It’s spelled “Graham Luxury Yacht” but it’s pronounced “Throat-Warbler Mangrove”.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    I think this article gives too much blame to those horrible corrupt Belgians. For instance, most of the spelling differences between American English and British English are due to Noah Webster trying to standardize spelling with his dictionary, and this was two centuries after the Belgians had their way with us.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    An interesting corollary is ebonics: simplified conjugations, like “he go to the store,” are actually more highly evolved — we’d probably all be speaking that way now if it wasn’t for grammar rules that were codified in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    Did he already complete his trip to the store, or is he currently in the process of traveling to the store, or is he planning on travelling to the store in the near future? You need additional queries to clear all this up, which could be easily conveyed by proper verb conjugation: he went, or he has gone, or he will go.

  7. boadinum says

    @6 moarscienceplz

    Well done! American or British? British or English? Two ‘l’s or one?

    Don’t forget the subjunctive ” he had gone to the store” or the future pluperfect “he was already at the store but forgot what he was supposed to buy”.

  8. Chiroptera says

    moarscienceplz, #6: You need additional queries to clear all this up, which could be easily conveyed by proper verb conjugation….

    You could also clear it up with adding the proper time words: “Yesterday he go to the store,” vs “Now he go to the store.”

    I bring this up because that is the way it’s done in Mandarin. One of my colleagues is a native Mandarin speaker, and she tells us that one of the things that makes English so hard is knowing how to conjugate the verbs correctly for tense, aspect, and so forth even when the speaker doesn’t think it’s important or when it’s obvious from the context.

    Me, I like the conjugations of verbs and wish the language still conjugated nouns for the part of speech.


    Back to the OP: one of the reasons that English can’t be standardized is that we have so many different nations that speak English — the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zeeland, Jamaica, and others (and, as far as I’m concerned, countries with lots of “unofficial” English speakers like India and Tanzania own the language as much as we do) that the question would be whose standards do we use, or how do we reach some kind of compromise?

    Spelling would be especially problematic if the goal was phonetization: whose pronunciations do we use?

    It would be problematic in the US since I doubt that Federal Government could mandate and enforce a curriculum change in the schools.

  9. jockmcdock says

    So, the Belgians are the problem. Sorry, don’t believe a word of it. And, actually, I heard it was the Dutch wot did it.

    If you read Chaucer (1300s), much of it is fairly readable. There are a few words that have become obsolete, but most of them don’t appear too strange. If you listen to it, you think “What on earth is this?” A simple example…we pronounce the fourth month of the year as “Ay-prill”. Chaucer would have pronounced it as “Ah-pr-ill” with a greater length on the double “ill” sound. It’s still pronounced that way in Dutch and English. You can listen to Chaucer as he were spoke on youtube. Shakespeare is also worth listening in the original.

    What happened? The Great Vowel Shift. English started to change how vowels were pronounced. But it didn’t change how they were written. That’s why English is so hard to spell -- well, one reason, anyway. Dutch and German also underwent a GVS but changed the spelling.

    Disclosure: I speak Dutch and can get by in German. Vlaams (Belgian Dutch) is formally the same as Netherlands Dutch -- the countries actually have meetings to decide on the language -- but the Belgian accent is rather different to the Dutch. And there are idiomatic differences. I cannot for the life of me see why Belgian (or Dutch) printers would use the letter “u” in “busy”. They would pronounce that as “boosy” or “bus-y”. And who on earth would ever come up with the “ough” combination. I defy anyone on earth to explain the spelling of any word with such a combination from first principles.

    Silent letters? The Dutch word for knee is “knie” -- pronounced “k-nee”. But did you know the “l” in soldier used to be silent in English. In still is in parts of Scotland. Another disclosure: I speak Glaswegian. I pronounce the word as “so-jer”.

  10. Paulo Borges says

    A long time ago I made the same question to one of my English teacher and she told me that the Royal Chancellery in the 14th century started a normalization of the spelling to avoid ambiguity in the written law due to the lack of uniformity of rules be it, phonetic, morphological, grammatical and orthographic in England.
    There were two views, one that wanted to simplify the spelling and reform English language and a second that wanted to simply choose a word from then existing variations and make the norm. I guess you can figure who won.
    English language is wonderful in term of vocabulary, one of richest languages I know of, however the orthography is the most unreasonable I have ever seen.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    Did he already complete his trip to the store, or is he currently in the process of traveling to the store, or is he planning on travelling to the store in the near future? You need additional queries to clear all this up, which could be easily conveyed by proper verb conjugation: he went, or he has gone, or he will go.

    I go to the store.
    You go to the store.
    We go to the store.
    They go to the store.
    He go to the store.

    Standard English says “He goes to the store.” However, the extra es for first person singular adds no information — it just makes it more difficult for foreigners to learn. That was the ebonic simplification to which I was referring.

  12. alanuk says

    The Chaos

    Dearest creature in creation
    Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
    I will keep you, Susy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
    Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
    Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
    Pray, console your loving poet,
    Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
    Just compare heart, hear and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word.
    Sword and sward, retain and Britain
    (Mind the latter how it’s written).
    Made has not the sound of bade,
    Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.
    Now I surely will not plague you
    With such words as vague and ague,
    But be careful how you speak,
    Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,
    Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
    Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
    Woven, oven, how and low,
    Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
    Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
    Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
    Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
    Missiles, similes, reviles.
    Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
    Same, examining, but mining,
    Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
    Solar, mica, war and far.
    From “desire”: desirable-admirable from
    Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
    Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
    Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,
    One, anemone, Balmoral,
    Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
    Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
    Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,
    Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
    Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
    This phonetic labyrinth
    Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
    Have you ever yet endeavoured
    To pronounce revered and severed,
    Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
    Peter, petrol and patrol?
    Billet does not end like ballet;
    Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
    Blood and flood are not like food,
    Nor is mould like should and would.
    Banquet is not nearly parquet,
    Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
    Discount, viscount, load and broad,
    Toward, to forward, to reward,
    Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
    Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
    Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
    Friend and fiend, alive and live.
    Is your R correct in higher?
    Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
    Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
    Buoyant, minute, but minute.
    Say abscission with precision,
    Now: position and transition;
    Would it tally with my rhyme
    If I mentioned paradigm?
    Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
    But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
    Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
    Rabies, but lullabies.
    Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
    Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
    You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
    In a linen envelope.
    Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
    Affidavit, David, davit.
    To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
    Does not sound like Czech but ache.
    Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
    Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
    We say hallowed, but allowed,
    People, leopard, towed but vowed.
    Mark the difference, moreover,
    Between mover, plover, Dover.
    Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
    Chalice, but police and lice,
    Camel, constable, unstable,
    Principle, disciple, label.
    Petal, penal, and canal,
    Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,
    Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
    Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
    But it is not hard to tell
    Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
    Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
    Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
    Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
    Senator, spectator, mayor,
    Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
    Has the A of drachm and hammer.
    Pussy, hussy and possess,
    Desert, but desert, address.
    Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
    Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
    Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
    Cow, but Cowper, some and home.
    “Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker”,
    Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor”,
    Making, it is sad but true,
    In bravado, much ado.
    Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
    Neither does devour with clangour.
    Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
    Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.
    Arsenic, specific, scenic,
    Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
    Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
    Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.
    Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
    Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
    Mind! Meandering but mean,
    Valentine and magazine.
    And I bet you, dear, a penny,
    You say mani-(fold) like many,
    Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
    Tier (one who ties), but tier.
    Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
    Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
    Prison, bison, treasure trove,
    Treason, hover, cover, cove,
    Perseverance, severance. Ribald
    Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
    Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
    Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.
    Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
    And distinguish buffet, buffet;
    Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
    Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
    Say in sounds correct and sterling
    Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
    Evil, devil, mezzotint,
    Mind the Z! (A gentle hint.)
    Now you need not pay attention
    To such sounds as I don’t mention,
    Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
    Rhyming with the pronoun yours;
    Nor are proper names included,
    Though I often heard, as you did,
    Funny rhymes to unicorn,
    Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
    No, my maiden, coy and comely,
    I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
    No. Yet Froude compared with proud
    Is no better than McLeod.
    But mind trivial and vial,
    Tripod, menial, denial,
    Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
    Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
    Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
    May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
    But you’re not supposed to say
    Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.
    Had this invalid invalid
    Worthless documents? How pallid,
    How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
    When for Portsmouth I had booked!
    Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
    Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
    Episodes, antipodes,
    Acquiesce, and obsequies.
    Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
    Don’t peel ‘taters with my razor,
    Rather say in accents pure:
    Nature, stature and mature.
    Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
    Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
    Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
    Wan, sedan and artisan.
    The TH will surely trouble you
    More than R, CH or W.
    Say then these phonetic gems:
    Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.
    Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
    There are more but I forget ’em-
    Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
    Lighten your anxiety.
    The archaic word albeit
    Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
    With and forthwith, one has voice,
    One has not, you make your choice.
    Shoes, goes, does*. Now first say: finger;
    Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
    Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
    Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,
    Hero, heron, query, very,
    Parry, tarry fury, bury,
    Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
    Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
    Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
    Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners
    Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
    Puisne, truism, use, to use?
    Though the difference seems little,
    We say actual, but victual,
    Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
    Put, nut, granite, and unite.
    Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
    Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
    Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
    Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.
    Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
    Science, conscience, scientific;
    Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
    Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
    Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
    Next omit, which differs from it
    Bona fide, alibi
    Gyrate, dowry and awry.
    Sea, idea, guinea, area,
    Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
    Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
    Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
    Compare alien with Italian,
    Dandelion with battalion,
    Rally with ally; yea, ye,
    Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
    Say aver, but ever, fever,
    Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
    Never guess-it is not safe,
    We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
    Starry, granary, canary,
    Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
    Face, but preface, then grimace,
    Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
    Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
    Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
    Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
    Do not rhyme with here but heir.
    Mind the O of off and often
    Which may be pronounced as orphan,
    With the sound of saw and sauce;
    Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.
    Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
    Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
    Respite, spite, consent, resent.
    Liable, but Parliament.
    Seven is right, but so is even,
    Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
    Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
    Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.
    A of valour, vapid vapour,
    S of news (compare newspaper),
    G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
    I of antichrist and grist,
    Differ like diverse and divers,
    Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
    Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
    Polish, Polish, poll and poll.
    Pronunciation-think of Psyche!-
    Is a paling, stout and spiky.
    Won’t it make you lose your wits
    Writing groats and saying ‘grits’?
    It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
    Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
    Islington, and Isle of Wight,
    Housewife, verdict and indict.
    Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
    Saying lather, bather, father?
    Finally, which rhymes with enough,
    Though, through, bough, cough, hough,
    sough, tough??
    Hiccough has the sound of sup.
    My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

    Gerard Nolst Trenité

  13. AMM says

    brucegee1962 @1:

    An interesting corollary is ebonics: simplified conjugations, like “he go to the store,” are actually more highly evolved — we’d probably all be speaking that way now if it wasn’t for grammar rules that were codified in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    It’s simplified in the sense that African-American English doesn’t modify the verb depending upon the subject. However, it has aspects (technical term) that standard English doesn’t. I’m no expert, but I do recall that there’s a distinction between “he workin’ at the store” and “he be workin’ at the store.” They don’t mean the same thing. The Wikipedia article has more than I’d ever picked up on.

  14. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    If you read Chaucer (1300s), much of it is fairly readable.

    …and if you read William Langland, writing at about the same time, or the Gawayne-poet, they’re also fairly readable and internally consistent, Jockmcdock. The thing is that contemporary English is the result of the collision between these languages and retain the historical anomalies that resulted, with bits of several more languages added later.

    there’s a distinction between “he workin’ at the store” and “he be workin’ at the store.”

    I can’t remember the details, AMM, but there was a discussion somewhere of a very similar distinction (“He ploughing…” versus “He be ploughing…”, perhaps), in nineteenth century Dorset dialect in the poetry of William Barnes.

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