More on the quirkiness of English spelling

It is a paradox that English has become a global language while being so difficult to learn. English is widely studied as a second language as well as being the official language of several countries and world organizations. It is now the third most natively spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

Even so, it takes longer for students to become completely fluent readers of English than of many other languages, including French, Greek, and Spanish. Students have to learn to decode more spellings for reading, to internalise more spelling rules for writing, and to memorise the quirks and idiosyncrasies of far more words than in any other alphabetic language.

Finnish children don’t need to learn any unpredictable spellings in addition to their 38 (unpronounceable if you are not Finnish) letter-to-sound correspondences, and no other Europeans have to memorise irregularities for more than a few hundred words. English-speaking children, on the other hand, have to tackle nearly 4,000 unpredictable spellings in the course of their ordinary schooling. One sympathises with the author of the following lines attributed to Vivian Buchan and published in Spelling Progress Bulletin (Spring 1966):

One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and Who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over through,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau?
And bough is never bow, it’s bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can’t I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?
Why isn’t drought spelled just like route,
Or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense – see, sounds like cents
In making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words,
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state.
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter, “It’s not fair
That I’m held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool,
When it’s the spelling that’s at fault.
Let’s call this nonsense to a halt.”


One comment on “More on the quirkiness of English spelling

  1. Peter Horsfield says:

    One could, of course, link the disjuncture between spelling and sound to the extension of the influence of printing and the need to stabilise spelling for the sake of understanding across a disparate audience, thereby fixing the spelling of the sound of the word at a particular point of time, disallowing spelling changes as the sound of the word changed. It’s interesting that the poem works (wonderfully) through the juxtaposition of sight and sound of a word. I tried reading it out loud and it loses a lot because you lose the element of sight.
    This is being reworked, of course, with electronic language and texting, where words are again being spelt as they sound and in some cases (like some of my daughters’ texts to me) can only be understood by verbalising rather than reading them.
    And that’s not even considering the power and politics of spelling correctly. The teacher’s red pencil correction of spelling mistakes is the last refuge of a dying class, I’m afraid (or am I?)

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