English Spelling, Though, Needs A Tough Makeover

As you know from a recent post, I’d hate to see English lose its more complex tenses and moods or vast array of adjectives and adverbs. But when it comes to spelling reform, I’d be all for it.

Just take a look at a few samples of how the same spelling is pronounced so differently—and how different spellings can be pronounced the same way. And these are simple words.

SPIs it any wonder spelling is often the most difficult part of English to learn for both native and non-native speakers?

Historically, using multiple spellings for a single word was considered the mark of a well-educated person. Consistency originally was not an important component of spelling. This didn’t really matter when literacy was confined to the wealthy, noble, and priestly classes.

With mass printing and public education, however, attempts have been made to standardize spelling. And while some creative spellings have disappeared, many still remain to confuse everyone who learns the language.

Some of the spelling inconsistencies also can be attributed to shifts in pronunciation through time. My own family name is an excellent example of this (and creative spelling). The Colonial spellings for the “Mc” part of the name were Mc, Mac, Mack and M’. The most common spellings for the “Dowell” part were Duel, Duell, Dewel, and Dewell. “Dowell” was rare.

The name would have been pronounced more like “Mc Doo ull,” which was very close to the “MacDougall” from which it derived. But somewhere along the line, the more common pronunciation became the “ow” sound as in cow—not the “ow” as in the bow used to loose an arrow. Is anyone confused yet? At least the spelling did change to something more like the new version of the name. The same can’t be said for many other words. Does anyone pronounce the “k” in knife?

The myriad ways to spell the same sounds in English is staggering. Some of that stems from our ready acceptance of words (and their native spellings) from other languages. And there are some great examples to illustrate them. I believe I read about this particular example years ago in Peter Farb’s Word Play, originally published in 1974. Given the fluidity of English spelling, a common word could be spelled as:

GHOTI

Any guesses? Without cheating and looking at Google?

How would you pronounce it?

How many syllables would there be in your pronunciation?

Did you come up with this?

image credit: Microsoft clip art

image credit: Microsoft clip art

Yes, the word is “fish.” The “gh” is the “f” of rough. The “o” is as pronounced in women. And the “ti” is the “sh” of nation. Obvious, isn’t it?

I wonder how much reading speeds would increase if we had simple, consistent spelling for all our words….

Anyway, time is a bit short this week, and many American readers are gearing up for the Thanksgiving holiday and the preparations for Christmas. So we’ll keep this post short. For those of you celebrating on Thursday, I hope you have a wonderful holiday with friends and family. And may everyone have a great week!

43 thoughts on “English Spelling, Though, Needs A Tough Makeover

  1. Yes, it’s no wonder people struggle to learn English! Then there’s the different pronunciations varying between accents, just to make it even harder to find any sense with the spellings! Like “route” that we in England pronounce with an “oo” sound in the middle, like root. But you guys mostly pronounce with an “ow” sound like when you hurt yourself right? Although that probably varies from state to state!

    Is this a new direction for your blog J? Speaking more about the intricacies of language, or is just that you happen to have done a couple of posts like that recently? Either way is good! I always enjoy whatever you choose to write about.

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    • “Route” does vary—sometimes with the same person as with me! I usually use the “ow” as in cow pronunciation. But sometimes I use the “root” pronunciation—as in that old song, “Get your kicks on Route 66.” And I don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason as to when I use which pronunciation….

      I often wonder how long the various forms of English will remain mutually intelligible. The range of accents I heard in England was amazing, but exactly what you’d expect in a language’s “home” area. I don’t think our American accents are quite so diverse yet. But I find myself struggling at times to understand English speakers from India and Australia. And they’re probably furthest from the home area, so they might be the ones to diverge into new languages first. Fascinating, really. 🙂

      I think I just happened to post on these two language issues because they’ve been on my mind for so long, and I’ve been wondering what the heck to post. I’ll probably do a book review next Tuesday, and then I may just take a break until after New Year’s. Things just get so busy over the holidays, and many readers seem to disappear. Maybe I’ll have some writing progress to report then, too…. Maybe. 🙂

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  2. I agree with you that English spelling is unruly. But don’t you find it fascinating, as an archaeologist, to uncover the layers of English language and pronunciation, all the way back to Anglo Saxon, via French? I’ve read some fascinating posts here http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/01/laughter-daughter.html (he explains who put the ‘h’ in ‘ghost’ too) and here http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=81 (where he takes apart the GHOTI meme, among other things)

    I know the language archaeology idea doesn’t give instant help to the bemused school child or the language learner trying to decipher the words on the page but, once you’ve heard the reasons for the different pronunciation of ‘daughter’ and ‘laughter’ nowadays, you can appreciate the historical rationale for English spelling. It doesn’t seem so disconcertingly random.

    Reforming the spelling would destroy that historical record. And who would be the one to decide, for all of us forever, just how our language should be written? Which part of the world would they come from?

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    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      I do enjoy linguistic history, although I suspect I’m in a small minority there. It’s been quite some time since I was in school, so I’m not sure how much students today learn about the etymology of words. We spent hours in my college prep English course learning Greek and Latin roots so that we could reason out the meaning of new words that we would encounter, especially in the sciences. And, of course, grade school and middle school featured weekly spelling tests and learning the differences between homophones like “sow” and “sew” and homonyms such as “quail” (the noun) and “quail” (the verb). That did help some of us learn spelling. But there have always been very smart and well-educated people who have had great difficulty with spelling!

      As for who would make the decisions, that is, of course, the biggest hurdle to implementing any kind of change. I think each country would have its own system that best matches local pronunciations, but accents and pronunciations vary, even within a single country. I often wonder, though, if a standardized and simplified spelling system might slow the rate of language change and thus the development of dialects and mutually unintelligible languages…. A bit of food for thought before the holidays, maybe.

      Thank you for the links, too. I’ll check them out when I have a few free minutes!

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    • French spelling is far more consistent. But sometimes there seem to be entire syllables that aren’t pronounced. 😉

      We’ve had two lovely days yesterday and today. But tomorrow, they’re calling for 1–3 inches of snow, with the possibility for more. Nooooo! We want decent conditions for hopping down to DC on Thursday. And no bad weather for people traveling anywhere.

      Enjoy your holiday, too! 🙂

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  3. I’m constantly confused by the English language, and I consider myself to be somewhat in the know. The one thing that always drives me crazy when I’m editing over and over again are the amount of words that are separated which should be combined, such as hairstylist. Drives me bonkers!

    Oh, well. Have a lovely Thanksgiving!!! 🙂

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    • Oh, yeah—Every press has different conventions for those compound words. One might use “hair stylist,” another “hairstylist,” and another might even go with “hair-stylist.” And then, of course, some hair stylists might use “colorist” or “designer” instead of stylist! There’s just no easy way to simplify things. 😛

      You have a wonderful holiday, too! And may your weather be good.

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  4. I don’t know if reading speeds would increase if spelling were reformed. We recognize words by the letters in them, which can be scrambled as long as the first and last letters stay in place. If you changed the letters we wouldn’t recognize them anymore. Learning to read might go faster. But having all homonyms spelled the same might cause more confusion. Hmm. I really think the only thing that would be unambiguously improved would be my ability to spell. I have a distressing tendency to apply the wrong paradigm out of all that confusing array of alternates! Thanks for an interesting post.

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  5. Why does WordPress insist on sending all of your comments to moderation? I have my posts set so that only the first comment is held. But yours continue to go to moderation. Strange!

    Change always entails confusion and difficulty for those who learned the “old” way of doing something. But children starting fresh would probably have an easier time. And maybe we could find a simple convention for distinguishing words like “do” and “due” so they would stand out even without context around them.

    I doubt any major change will come in my lifetime. But if we don’t destroy ourselves with our technology, our entire means of “written” communication may take such a new form that spelling changes are the smallest bit of the new paradigm! It would be interesting to see….

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  6. American spelling is a little simpler than British spelling. You guys should have gone the whole hog and made it sensible when you were about it!!
    British spelling is gradually becoming more American because American English is the default setting for checking written text. It’s possible to change it in most word processors but lots of people don’t know how or don’t bother. Google doesn’t take much notice of preferences entered so gmail always puts little red lines under words like “colour” and “travelling”.

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    • It would have been easier to change with fewer people back then! Did you know that our Founding Fathers debated whether the official language of the country should be English or German? There were nearly as many German speakers in the colonies as there were English. How different might history have been if we’d gone that route?!

      I think spellings like “colour” harken back to the French influences stemming from the Norman Invasion. And the “double letters” before “ing” probably were meant to show the preceding vowel was short, not long. That’s one of the “rules” of English spelling that I remember from grade school. 🙂

      Ah, the long reach of Google. Who knows what influence it will have on English as time goes by!

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  7. I’m amazed at anyone from other places that learn the English language. It’s confusing! And that fish word, JM, I’d never have figured that one out. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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    • The basics of English aren’t too hard, but when you start learning all the exceptions to the rules, they really pile on. Especially when it comes to spelling!

      The ghoti/fish example is fun, although in reality, none of our few words that begin with “gh” are pronounced with the “f” sound. So I don’t think anyone would really use that combination. But it’s a fun exercise to decipher it. I should have recommended that people read Word Play. It’s really a fascinating book written in a very approachable style.

      You have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too! I’m impatiently waiting for this snow to end!

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  8. My husband had no idea of his ancestry until recently. We found out there was originally an O’ in front of his last name (Irish), and it was spelled way differently. They may have changed the spelling to try and get people to pronounce it phonetically. You have a wonderful Thanksgiving, JM.

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    • Oh man, Irish spelling makes English look easy! The version I usually see for my name is MaghDubhghaill. I don’t think you’ll see me converting to that one any time soon. 😉 You have a great holiday, too, Lori. We’re dealing with some snow today—you’d think tomorrow was Christmas!

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  9. What? You don’t say the “k” in knife? (as kids we used to “say” all the silent letters to drive my mom crazy when we were bored in the summer.)
    We have so many words derived/directly from other languages, it’s the crazy quilt English. So many cognates (so learning another language does offer a few comfortable/familiar looking words during language acquisition?) And language was mostly verbal for so long for so many…no wonder it’s more exceptions than rules
    I still like grey and colour spellings. In elementary school I delighted in the idea you could embellish writing with vocabulary and physical forms of words – just pick with one suits meaning, character, and mood best?
    Stay warm – looks pretty brrrrrrr up there. Happy gobble day!

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    • We had an entire section of my College Prep English course dedicated to learning Latin and Greek roots so we could more easily recognize the scientific terms and such that we would encounter in our university courses. That came in so handy for all the jargon in the text books! I just wish I could remember more of them these days. I do seem to need the dictionary more than I used to. Sigh.

      Grey sums up much of the weather we’ve been having the last few days, although we did get some sun today. But the temperatures have been well below normal, and that snow on Wednesday wasn’t very welcome—even though it wasn’t much by us. At least the weather was dry for Thanksgiving in DC!

      Hope you had a great holiday and are fully recovered!

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  10. As someone who learned English as a foreign language I can vouch for the challenges of learning to spell and pronounce it. Luckily for me, I was active in drama in high school and had a great drama teacher who coached me on correct pronunciations. I’m a fan of phonetic spelling. Let’s see that would be spelled fonetik I think.

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    • Phonetic spelling would be a tough sell for many folks, but after a generation or so, I doubt there would be any problems. I wonder, though, if our technology will drive the written language into something I can’t even imagine. It already seems to be moving language to shorter and simpler words, so maybe some of the tougher words to spell will fall out of English anyway. I’d hate to see that, of course. About all I can say with certainty is that the language (and therefore spelling) will change!

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    • Ghoti is a classic example of the extreme spelling that English could take. Of course, we have very few words that begin with “gh,” and none are pronounced with that “f” sound. But you could understand how a non-native speaker/speller might come up with it. 🙂 I hope you had a great holiday, too!

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  11. Happy Thanksgiving, JM!
    Reading about human migration through history and how it impacted various languages is somewhat a hobby of mine. Fascinating stuff! And I feel much smarter now that I know Ghoti! maybe it will turn up in the Sunday NYT crossword puzzle!

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    • Hope you had a great holiday, SHBG!

      Language change is really a fascinating study. It’s just too bad that most of the research is written in highly academic language. 😉 And I’m awed by anyone who can do the NYT crossword puzzle. I have a hard enough time with the Washington Post’s—and it’s really not that bad as crosswords go. Ghoti might be too simple for the Times! 🙂

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    • Maybe it would help if students learned some of the history that goes into English spelling. I never had anything like that until my high school honors English courses. But if we’d learned that a word was originally French and we kept that spelling, maybe it would make more sense and be easier to understand. Even if we still thought it should be simplified!

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  12. I guess what I would like is, perhaps, two versions of English: 1) Consistent – used in formal writing and speaking. 2) More imaginative version – used for, perhaps, common speech and writings and informal books, such as fiction and so on.
    Just a thought,
    Scott

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    • I know so many bright, intelligent, well-read people who were lucky to get a “B” on their spelling tests in school. Even though I got As, many of them were as good of students as me or better. As I said to ParentingisFunny above, maybe students would do better with spelling if they were also taught where the words originally came from and how they became part of English—with their original spelling. I think showing the relationships between the various subjects would be a much better way for kids to learn. Good to see you here!

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      • Ah, I cannot remember the course name, now, but in high school, we had the opportunity to take a class which taught the Latin roots of many words. I did not want to take the class then as I was already swamped and knew it to be really tough – ah – entomology, was the name!
        Scott

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  13. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #11 | Doug's Archaeology

  14. we’re always adding words to our language. English isn’t static. Samuel Johnson did a great job putting some order to the chaos, but we keep evolving. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I won three pence in a. spelling bee when I was 8. I think it’s.because I read a lot.

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    • Every language, indeed, changes. They must—to keep up with changing culture, new technology and discoveries, and more. And that’s one reason why I think some simplified spelling would fit right in. If new words can arise and pronunciation can shift, why not have spelling do the same? Easier said than done, of course! I honestly think, though, that it will be technology that changes our languages as a whole, not just the written forms. Spelling will change. How, I don’t know. But I suspect our means of preserving words and sending them across distances will be unrecognizable in a century or so…..

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      • You’re right about it all, particularly the technology part. I’m a touch typist but when I use my iPad or phone, I tend to contract wherever I can because using one finger slows me right down. My son texts K for okay, for instance. I give it less than a century. (What are they going to do with Shakespeare? 🙂 )

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    • Very confused! I understood most people in England, but there were some… well, I couldn’t quite believe we were speaking the same language! And maybe my hearing just isn’t what it used to be, but I have a hard time understanding some Australian accents on the television! 😀

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  15. Excellent post! Your examples are superb.
    As an English teacher, I heard the pros and cons of simplifying the English language. It made for interesting arguments, but the only changes that happened came via teens and codes and texts, which really confused things.

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    • It’s funny. Ultimately, we’re all responsible to some extent for our language’s evolution. And yet, when we want to guide it purposely, we usually fall flat on our faces! Somehow, it’s that younger generation that seems to be most effective at making changes, no matter whether “older folks” consider them for the better or worse. I am curious, though, how our technology will change the way we share information that is written today. Difficult spelling may become a moot point if writing itself disappears.

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    • I studied Spanish at university and the spelling was much simpler than English. Of course, we have so many words in English that are today pronounced the same but spelled differently—such as wear, ware, and where. If they were all spelled the same way, we wouldn’t know which word was meant if it stood alone in a list. Context in a sentence would help, but I suppose could still be confusing in some cases. Of course, that’s probably an argument to keep the spelling differences! I still think we have room to simplify those differences, though.

      Thank you for stopping by and joining the conversation!

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