Teacher Teacher: Why Is English Spelling Confusing?!

December 25, 2015
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Imagine this situation: You’re out on a vacation at the beach. Walking by the shore, you remembered that hipsterish photo of the sea which your friend posted on Instagram. Excited and inspired, you lay down on the sand and took a breathtaking picture of the sky. You then activated your mobile data and proceeded to write a deep-sounding caption for the picture you just took. While typing that caption and hoping for multiple reposts, your fingers suddenly stopped. You stood aghast, and your face turned paler than the white sand of the beach. In such pain and agony, you begin to scream:

“How do I spell that word!?! Nooo!!!”

Sounds familiar?

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Ok, that’s probably a bit too dramatic. But perhaps, you’re writing an assignment, a report, or even a text message to a loved one, and you’re frustrated because you can’t seem to figure out the spelling of certain words. The issue of spelling seems to have cast its frustrating spell. Some spellings in English are just so weird! Why is there an “h” in “hour” and an “l” in “salmon”, when those letters aren’t pronounced? Why does “pronounce” have a “u”, but “pronunciation” doesn’t?

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If you’ve ever felt frustrated with English spelling, you’re not the only one who feels that way. In fact, it has frustrated people since the late 1800s. Way back then, people already realized that the pronunciation of English words change radically when you change just one letter. To make matters more mysterious, changing a letter in one part of a word changes the pronunciation of another part of the word. To illustrate this, let’s look at the following:

- Nobody pronounces “gh” in the word “though”. However, when you remove the first “h”, turning it into the word “tough”, the “gh” gets pronounced! So, “gh” = “f”.
- In the word “woman”, changing the letter “a” to “e” changes the pronunciation of “o”! So, “o” = “I”.
- You actually pronounce the “t” in “active”, but when you swap the “ve” for “on”, turning it into “action”, you suddenly don’t pronounce the “t”! So, “ti” = “sh”.

If that’s the case, the word “ghoti” should be pronounced as “fish”, right? This seems like madness!

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Why is English spelling so chaotic? Why aren’t words spelled the way they are pronounced?  There are several reasons behind this phenomenon:

  • In the old days, words were originally spelled the way they were pronounced. So, if you have a word like “knight”, yes, you guessed it right, the “k”, “g” and “h” were actually pronounced! However, the pronunciation of words in all languages changes over time. Interestingly, scholars of olden days decided to maintain the original spelling of English words in order to preserve the historical value of words. Talk about being sentimental!

 

  • Another reason behind the chaotic spelling of English words is because of the era in which the words were borrowed. If a word was borrowed in the early years of the English language, the spelling was adjusted to match the pronunciation, but if the word was borrowed much later in time, the original spelling is maintained. That’s why we have words like “buffet” and “rendezvous” in English – they aren’t pronounced the way they’re spelled, simply because they were borrowed much later in time! But who would have guessed that words such as “skirt” and “fish” were actually borrowed (yes, they were!) from ancient Scandinavian languages?

 

  • The most surprising reason behind the chaotic spelling of the English language is actually society itself. The way language works, when a certain spelling becomes popular in society, over time, that spelling becomes the official spelling. If a spelling is not popular, it dies over time! That’s why these days, we rarely find words such as “spelt” or “amongst”. They’re simply a hassle to spell, so they become less popular. Who knows, perhaps one day, we might have to vote for the survival of words a la American Idol!

 

So, if that’s the case, how do we master the spelling of English words? Fortunately, it’s not as hard as it seems!  It’s just a mental challenge of telling yourself not to associate spelling with pronunciation, because it simply doesn’t work that way in English, unlike the way things work in Bahasa Malaysia. In other words, a fair amount of memorization is needed when it comes to spelling in English.

While this may seem daunting at first, you may notice there are some patterns. For example, in determining whether a word is spelled with “ie” or “ei”, as long as the pronunciation is “eee”, it is always spelled with “ie” except if the letter before that is a “c” (e.g. “receive”), and in that case, we use “ei”. You may also notice that “l”, “f” and “s” are always doubled if the word only has one syllable and they appear after the vowel (e.g. “pull”).

Exploring these patterns is an amazing part of the journey of learning the English language, and you’re sure to come across more interesting spelling patterns along the way! As always, a positive and curious mind is essential to properly master all the aspects of the English language. Until next time!

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Mr. Nazriq Ahmad is a lecturer who enjoys being mistaken as a student because he believes learning is a lifetime process . He secretly dreams of becoming a rock star and can always be found with a guitar when not lecturing. Follow him (@nazriqahmad) and send him a thank you note!