Why Is English Spelling So Bizarre?

The story of English spelling is the story of thousands of people - some well-known, most totally unknown - who left a permanent linguistic fingerprint on our orthography. It's a story whose events cover the best part of 1500 years. And it's not over yet.
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The story of English spelling is the story of thousands of people - some well-known, most totally unknown - who left a permanent linguistic fingerprint on our orthography. It's a story whose events cover the best part of 1500 years. And it's not over yet.

The story starts with the missionaries who first wrote English down as best they could using the Roman alphabet they knew. They made a reasonable job of it - once they'd found extra letters to cope with the pesky Germanic sounds they didn't have in Latin, such as the two th's (as in thin and this). The spelling of Old English was largely phonetic: all letters were pronounced. They sounded the w in write, the g in gnat, and the k in know.

Then the French arrived, with their own ideas about how to spell. Out went some of the old forms, and in came new ones. Cwen became queen; mys became mice. Medieval scribes continued to spell words as they were pronounced; but as English had many regional accents, the result was a huge amount of variation. Over 60 spellings of night are known from the Middle Ages - nite, nyght, nicht, nihte....

Things couldn't carry on like that. As England developed centralized government, the need to develop a standard system became urgent. But whose standard should it be? Widely read authors such as Chaucer? The emerging civil service? The English translations of the Bible? The printers? The modern system emerged out of all of them.

Each new factor brought idiosyncrasies as well as order. William Caxton's Flemish typesetters didn't know English well, so spelled some words in a Flemish way. That's where the h in ghost comes from. It was gost in Middle English. They put it into goose too - ghoose - but for some reason this didn't catch on. That's the great mystery of English spelling: why some spellings have appealed and others haven't.

There was still a great deal of variation, though, so in the 16th century spelling reformers came up with their Big Idea: etymology. If the word meaning 'money owed' appeared in such varied ways as det, dett, and deytt, people obviously needed help, and this would come from the word's history. The word was debitum in Latin, so they recommended a 'silent' b. You might think such an arcane idea would never catch on. But it did - as did the b in subtle, the l in salmon, the p in receipt, and many more. In trying to simplify the system, the reformers ended up complicating it.

The big dictionaries of later years, such as Johnson's and Webster's, did their best to standardize spelling, but with only limited success. Today, there are many differences between British and American English. And publishing houses vary over such words as realize and realise, judgment and judgement, bible and Bible, flower pot, flower-pot and flowerpot. So do restaurants: next time you go to an Indian restaurant, see how they spell poppadom/papadom/puppodum... I've collected over 20 variants in the past 10 years. Encyclopedias make different choices over foreign names - Tutankhamen, Tutankhamun, Tut'ankhamun... Add up all the variation in a dictionary and we find a surprising 15 percent of the words have alternative spellings.

Then in the 19th century there was another big change. Previously, foreign words that came into English would tend to have their spelling anglicised - so, German nudel gave us noodles, not nudels, in the 16th century. But in the modern era this policy was reversed: strudel arrived at the end of the 19th century, and we don't spell it stroodle. Thousands of words retained their original spelling in this way, and some letter sequences are unprecedented. How do you spell the name of the Irish prime minister? It sounds like 'teeshuck', but we spell it taoiseach. We respect foreign spellings these days - a sign of our more egalitarian times, perhaps.

And we ain't seen nothin' yet. Spellings are made by people. Dictionaries eventually reflect popular choices. And the Internet is allowing more people to influence spelling than ever before. In 2001 there were just a few dozen instances of rubarb (without the h) on Google; in 2006 there were a few hundred instances of rubarb; by 2010 there were nearly 100,000. This month there's over 150,000. People are voting with their fingers. The original medieval spelling without h is reasserting itself. I think it will be a standard alternative one day, and - who knows - may supplant rhubarb entirely. The story of English spelling is by no means over.

My aim in writing Spell it Out was to try to explain this story. Army generals used to say 'know your enemy.' My belief is that the more we understand why English spelling is the way it is, the more we will find its irregularity less off-putting, and the more we will become confident spellers. And this explanatory approach seems to have met a need. I've been amazed by the book's reception, when it came out in the UK a few months ago. It has become my best-selling book - something I never anticipated. How much best-selling? Well, here's a story to die for.

I was asked for interview on one of the popular radio talk-shows at the BBC, the Jeremy Vine show. They asked me to do five minutes, but ended up keeping me for half an hour, as they'd never had so many emails, tweets, and phone calls. 'What is it about spelling?' said the editor, as I left. I shook my head. Then he added, 'Watch Amazon tonight, as every time we do a book there is a sales spike.' I was doubtful, but followed his advice. And indeed, that evening, Spell it Out rose to be number 4 on the best-selling Amazon chart - ahead of Fifty Shades of Grey!! Who ever would have thought that spelling would one day beat sex - even if it was for only a few hours!

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