More lies about English spelling


Some people keep trying to prove that English spelling is not as chaotic as it may appear. The ‘research’ described in provides a good example of this.

English spelling is in fact far more chaotic that most people realise. I established (with close examination of the 7,000 most used English words, the sort of words that most people know) that 4,219 of them have unpredictable spellings - englishspellingproblems.blogsp...

Over the past 20 year I have also studied many early texts with original spellings and discovered that, rather than being made better, English spelling was repeatedly deliberately made worse englishspellingproblems.blogsp... (as i have described in some of my recent pieces on here).

As long ago as the 8th century, scribes deliberately substituted o for u (next to v, vv, n and m), because they thought that this looked better (loved, wonder, front, wonder). In the 15th century court scribes deliberately wrecked Chaucer’s regular e-e and e spellings (speke, speche, preste, preche; frend, lern, erly).

Johnson with his dictionary of 1755 then did even more damage by exempting many Latinate words from English consonant doubling and left us with unfathomable irregularities like ‘very merry, shoddy body, floppy copy’. He made matters still worse by using doubling to mark defunct Latin prefixes (arrive), rather than for showing a stressed, short vowel (arrow).

He also messed up several endings which by his day were becoming regular (shorten, flatten – abandon), along with some prefixes (include, inquire – enclose).

It is therefore completely wrong to claim that the English spelling “system became gradually more consistent over a period of several hundred years", as Mark Aronoff and Kristian Berg have done. - English spelling was made, or allowed to become, increasingly less regular over the centuries, and that is why learning to read and write English now takes roughly ten time longer than Finnish or Korean, with their completely regular writing systems.

That’s what happens when u don’t have some kind of body, like the Deutsche Sprachgesellschaft for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which keeps an eye on the health of the spelling system and recommends modernisations from time to time. German spelling was last improved again in 2005.

Anglophone countries should set up something similar, because English spelling is in very dire need of some repairs. They should, at the very least, try to make learning to read easier and less time-consuming, and less heavily dependent on home circumstances and parental help. 

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

22 stories


Allan Campbell Allan Campbell @allanjc 8 months ago
So true! If only our spelling was on a par with those of Finland or Korea we could expect, as they do, that almost all our learners would be confidently reading at their level by the end of their first school year.
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