English Spelling is Chaotic Evil

John Phillips, April 17, 2018

English spelling is a yard sale. It is highly irregular. The way words are written bears little relationship to how they are pronounced. This makes learning to read more difficult, and spelling a challenge.

Not all languages work this way. Spanish, for example, is much more regular. It has a much closer relationship between pronunciation and spelling. In Spanish, each letter or combination of letters, makes a single sound.

Examples of Strange English Spelling

Look at how many ways the letters “ough” can be pronounced:

  • through (rhymes with ‘shoe’)
  • dough (rhymes with ‘go’)
  • bought (rhymes with ‘shot’)
  • drought (rhymes with ‘out’)
  • rough (rhymes with ‘stuff’)
  • cough (rhymes with ‘off’)

There are six different pronunciations. It’s arbitrary. The only way to learn these pronunciations is to memorize them. This is one of the worst examples in English, but these are all common words.

The “ough” example shows how one set of letters can be pronounced differently, but the opposite problem also plagues English. Look at all the different ways that the short “e” vowel sound can be spelled.

  • red
  • bread
  • said
  • many
  • bury
  • friend
  • guest
  • leopard
  • aesthetic

The last two are odd spellings of uncommon words, but that is a wide variety of spellings for one of the most common vowel sounds in the language.

The spelling of long vowels is even stranger. The following is a list of words pronounced with the long “o” sound.

  • road
  • bone
  • go
  • toe
  • though
  • low
  • sew
  • bureau (French loan word)
  • brooch (ryhmes with coach)

The last two are unusual spellings, but all the others are common words. The words “low” and “sew” have ambiguous pronunciations. They could easily rhyme with “how” and “dew”.

How Did We Get Here

The rules for English spelling were codified around 1470. The language at this time was very different. We now call it Middle English. But while the spelling has been more or less fixed for the last five hundred years, pronunciation has changed dramatically. For example, the language went thru the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the pronunciation of all of the long vowels.

Additionaly, English has a large number of “loan words” borrowed from other languages. Many of these retain their original spellings.

Essentially, Modern English spelling captures the pronunciation of a much older language, combined with the spellings of loan words imported from other languages. Yep, that’s a dynamite plan.

More Sounds than Letters

There are about 44 phonemes in English, or 44 different sounds. Our alphabet has only 26 characters. There are more sounds than letters. Some phonemes are spelled using combinations of letters, like the “sh” sound in “shop,” but even these are not regular. The same phoneme is spelled differently in words like “action,” “sugar” and “chef.”

As a result, there are multiple ways to spell nearly every phoneme. And most letters have multiple pronunciations depending on their position in a word and the context.

What Can Be Done About This?

There have been many attempts to reform English spelling. Most of these failed because they were too radical. If the system tries to fix too many problems, it changes the spelling of most words. This is a non-starter. It would require everyone learning to read all over again.

Here is an example of Cut Spelling, a modern reform effort:

Th Space Race was th competition between th United States and th Soviet Union, rufly from 1957 to 1975. It involvd th efrts by each of these nations to explor outr space with satlites, to be th 1st to send there a human being and to send mand and unmand missions on th Moon with a safe return of th humans to Erth.

And an example of SoundSpel, a reform effort from 1910:

It was on the ferst dae of the nue yeer the anounsment was maed, allmoest siemultaeniusly frum three obzervatorys, that the moeshun of the planet Neptune, the outermoest of all planets that wheel about the Sun, had becum verry erratic.

Examples like these are why spelling reform has generally been regarded as the work of harmless crackpots. (Benjamin Franklin’s proposed reform added letters to the alphabet, a truly crackpot idea.)

There have been some successful reform efforts, like the one championed by Noah Webster. His first dictionary, published in 1806, contained an essay advocating for changes to English spelling. These spelling changes — with “color” replacing “colour,” “center” replacing “centre,” and the like” — became the basis for American spelling as distinct from British. Webster didn’t invent these spellings, he popularized them.

Principles for Spelling Reform

I have played around with a number of alternate spelling systems and most of them, including some I have devised, are pretty much bat-shit insane. But I think the successful reform efforts have some things in common.

  • They are modest. Rather than trying to solve every problem, they focus on a small number of changes.
  • The new spellings are shorter than those they replace.
  • The new spellings have unambiguous pronunciations.
  • They avoid changing the spelling in a way that collides with an existing word. Changing “might” to “mite” is confusing because the word “mite” already exists.
  • They often embrace alternate spellings that already exist, but are not standard.

In my writing, I use some non-standard spellings:

  • thru
  • tho
  • altho
  • nite
  • tonite
  • lite

The following seem like good candidates, altho I don’t use them regularly.

  • luv instead of love
  • ruff instead of rough
  • tuff instead of tough
  • laff instead of laugh

There are a whole host of words that end in “ve” that would be pronounced the same with the final “e” dropped. Some of these would seem to be good candidates:

  • hav instead of have
  • giv instead of give
  • liv instead of live

The last change, “live” to “liv” would help distinguish this from the word “live,” meaning alive or happening now.

When manuscripts were hand written, it was hard to tell the letters “u” and “v” apart. Adding an “e” to the end of words that would otherwise end in “u” or “v” helped make them easier to read. This became part of standard English spelling, but it has outlived its usefulness.