6. WHY ENGLISH SPELLING IS SO DIFFICULT

Even more than the inconsistencies of English grammar, the characteristic of English that most holds it back from being an effective means of global communication is its chaotic spelling. English has more spelling inconsistencies than practically any written language in the world today. This chapter is meant to illustrate these problems, and to show why the solution to these problems is the respelling system that I came up with. If you accept that English has bad spelling and simply want to try the Williams respellings, then you may skip this chapter and go to the end where the Williams respelling pronunciation guide is held.

If you are reading this book in English you obviously know enough of the language to be familiar with the way words are spelled, but forget for a moment that you have memorized the way to pronounce the words below. Imagine that you only know the general way that particular letters are pronounced. Now try to figure out how to pronounce these words by the regular pronunciations of those letters strung together in this order:

Circle  [“kirk” + “le” =  kirk’ le ]

Laugh  [“la” + “uh” + “ga” + “ha” =  la uh’ga ha ]

Quotient  [ “quo” + “ti” + “unt” = quo’ ti unt ]

Disguise  [ “dis” + “gah” + “uh” + “is” + “e” =  dis’ gah uh is e  ]

Choir  [ “see” + “ha” + “o” + “ear” = see’ha o ear ]

Weight  [ “wa” + “ei” + “ga” + “ha” + “te” = wa ei ga ha’ te]

Conscience [ “con” + “sci” + “uns” = con’ science ]

Century [ “ken” + “tu” + “ry” = ken tu’ ry ]

Phase  [“pa” + “ha” +”se” = pa ha’ se ]

Neighbor  [“nei” + “ga” + “ha” + “b” + “or” = nei ga’ ha bor ]

dictionary.  [ “dic” + “ti” + “o” + “na” + “ry” = dic ti o’ na ry ]

Imagine a person first trying to learn this language, and trying to figure out a logical pattern to pronunciation.  How do they know that the “w” is silent in “who, whose” but the “h” is silent in “hour”?  Most words with “–tion” at the end, like “nation, condition” are pronounced as “shn” which is crazy enough by itself, but that is very different from the pronunciation of “question” which ends in a “chn” sound.  English has complex spelling rules that will let someone know when adding a single letter to “us” makes “use,” when “are” makes “bare,” when “tub” makes “tube.” And then teachers have to explain which words do not follow the rules. The only way people can learn these exceptions is to memorize them. Who can figure out by logic how a slight difference in spelling makes a very different sound, as with these words:

this / thin     though / through       sugar / suggest

lone / long / lose / loud       study / student      is / island

There are so many inconsistencies that English almost defies logic.  Why does the same sound get spelled so many different ways?  Why is the winner said to have “won” but the first number is spelled “one,” and the nearest star is the “sun” but a male child is a “son”?  Why is “defense” spelled with an “se” ending but “instance” with “ce,” and “heresy” with an “sy” ending but “agency” with “cy?”  How is an English learner expected to know that the exact same sound in the words “fade, grade, invade, jade, made, trade, wade” is spelled differently in the words “aid, laid, paid” but the similar spelling of “said” is not pronounced the same way?  Try to find a pattern in the spelling of the following words that all end with the same sound but have different spellings:

shoe, blue, Jew

me, key, agree, flea, debris

concur, defer, were, stir, purr

assure, detour, amateur, your, you’re

calendar, customer, janitor, massacre

rain, reign, cane, chowmein, campaign, cocaine

pupil, able, several

rule, school, beautiful

week, speak, unique, batik, chic, eke, sheik, shriek

 

The ultimate inconsistency consists of many words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, as in:

ate / eight      bear / bare       gray / grey          hay / hey         I / eye

maid / made       their / there / they’re        weigh / way            your/ you’re

 

Beyond this problem of multiple spellings for similar sounds, there is also the opposite problem that some words that are spelled the same way are pronounced differently.  For example, three words with only one letter difference are pronounced very differently:  comb, tomb, bomb. The word for the hearing organ “ear” is pronounced as “ir”, but by adding the two letters “ly” at the end the pronunciation is changed to “ur” in the word “early.” Consider how difficult it is for people trying to learn how to spell and pronounce words in English when they see sentences like these confusing examples:

1. It is hard for farmers to produce enough produce, but it is equally hard for them to refuse to see much of it as refuse.

2. We must take the lead in reducing the content of lead in paint, or the claims of the invalid will be invalid.

3. The Polish subject had to subject herself to the strong smell of shoe polish before deciding to desert in the desert.

4.  I could not close the door because my clothes were too close to it.

5.  Since you are my intimate friend I will intimate to you that I will not object because the object I wanted to present is not present.

6.  He shed a tear because the bandage had a big tear and was not wound well around the wound.

7.  She wanted to record a record, but because a dove dove into the wind tunnel, they had to wind up their session without recording anything.

 

Some related words are spelled alike but pronounced differently, as with music (pronounced  myu-zk) / musician (which if English were consistent would be pronounced as myu-zk-e-un, but is actually pronounced myu-zi-shn).  If English were consistent, one who performs music would not be called a musician at all, but should be called a musicter, just as one who sings is a singer, one who acts is an actor, one who directs is a director, and one who writes is a writer.  If these words were spelled the way they sound, and for the sake of consistency, they should all have “r” at the end and be spelled as myuzktr, singr, aktr, direktr, ritr.

In terms of spelling, whether of different sounds spelled the same way or similar sounds spelled differently, English is truly awful!  American and British schoolchildren have to spend years doing rote memorization of all the myriad ways that similar words are spelled.  Spelling tests and spelling bees are major subjects in schools. It takes students many years of study to achieve good spelling. And many people do not succeed at spelling. This lack of success has a terrible impact on literacy levels. A 1998 study sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy, titled “The State of Literacy in America” [at http://nifl.gov online, and reported at http://www.americanliteracy.com online] found that twenty percent of Americans cannot read adequately. That is, one in five adult Americans cannot perform even simple reading-writing tasks, such as reading a children’s book to their child, filling out a job interview form, finding locations on a map, understanding written directions to get to a specific location, or being able to use written instructions to assemble material items.

Dyslexia is diagnosed as a major mental health problem in America and Britain, with many people not being able to read well.

In contrast, in nations like Italy and Spain that have phonetic alphabets, literacy rates are higher and dyslexia is much lower. Yet, schools in these nations spend much less effort to teach reading. Spelling is not even taught as a subject in schools, and the idea of spelling bees is absurd because basically everyone is a good speller. Once people learn the basic rules of pronunciation (for example that the letter “j” is always pronounced as an English “h” sound, and “i” is always pronounced as an English “ee” sound), it is very easy to know how to pronounce a word.

Since I remember quite clearly how difficult spelling was for me to learn in my childhood, I can only begin to imagine how much more difficult it must be for a non-native speaker to learn English. As an anthropologist, I never became much interested in linguistics. All those jargon-filled linguistic terms, like glottal stops and fixated aspirations, rather reminded me of those stressful spelling tests from my youth. Yet, the more I have learned about other languages, and can see how much more simple and consistent they are than English, I am more and more driven by the need to reform English.

Why is English spelling so inconsistent, and so divergent from the regular sound of the alphabet? Part of the reason is due to this language’s history of multiple influences from other languages, on spelling as well as on other aspects of English. But the English language was made even worse in its spelling due to the influence of early publishers of books and pamphlets. Printers in England were paid by the page, and so from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century it was common for printers to insert extra letters into words for no other purpose than to make words longer and thus to reap more profit. For example, a body pain that had previously been spelled as “ak” became “ache.” The sound of the letter “f” started being spelled as “ph” in some words, even though a word like “philosophy” is still pronounced like the “f” in “fill.” Extra silent letters were added into words like the “s” in island, “b” in crumb and thumb, “g” in foreign and sovereign, “h” in ghost, and “a” in team, head, road, beauty, yearn, roar. These letters did not alter the way the words continued to be spoken, but with other changes in pronunciation over time, the way a word was spelled diverged ever more widely from the way it was spoken.

It is impossible to estimate how much money has been wasted over the centuries, in terms of extra printing costs for all these needlessly added silent letters, and how many trees lost their lives for printing the extra pages. As English spreads around the world, it is an ever expanding tragedy as these same wasteful practices of needless letters are extended globally.

In Italy, in contrast, printers were paid by the amount of time they worked rather than by the page, so there was no financial incentive for Italian printers to add useless letters into words. The Italian language, having evolved mostly from the single source of Latin, is also much more consistent in its spelling than English. When a person who knows Italian looks at a word, it is very easy to know how it is pronounced because each sound is always spelled the same way.  English, in contrast, has an average of fourteen different acceptable ways to spell a particular sound! This means that a simple word, for example “scissors,” might be spelled over a hundred different ways. The only way to learn which of these possible spellings is correct is to memorize the spelling for every single word. So, as a result, English learners have to remember that, for example, the word “beautiful” is spelled this way, as opposed to “buetifl, biutiful, butifel” or any number of  other possibilities.  English learners have to remember that the “oo” sound in the words “too zoo” is spelled differently in the words “you, to, two, view, cue, due, few, jew” even though it is the exact same sound.

This process unnecessarily taxes the brain. The memorization process takes a lot more time than simply learning one spelling for one sound. As a result, children in Italy can learn to read and write much quicker than children in English-speaking nations. Despite the popularity of “Spelling Bee” contests in Britain and America, which do not even exist in Italy because spelling is so easy, both children and adults make many more mistakes in English spelling.

Most alarmingly, English-speaking nations have much higher rates of functional illiteracy and of dyslexia. Economic studies have shown that this impairment in literacy costs the British and American economy many millions of pounds/dollars in lost income due to spelling mistakes. It is not that English-speaking people are less intelligent than Italians. The problem is with the language itself. Studies show that only about forty percent of English words are spelled consistently. Spelling reformers are asking only that English reduce the number of acceptable orthographic options, so that there is always one acceptable way to write one sound, and that each sound should be consistently spelled the same way in all words. This is not a difficult thing to accomplish, as Italian and other alphabetic languages show.

G. Dewey,English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. Ken Ives, Written Dialects and Spelling Reform New York: American Literacy Council, 1979. James Pitman and John St. John, Alphabets and Reading. London: Pitman Publishing, 1968.  The scholar’s edition of the American Literacy Council, Dictionary of American Spellings. New York: American Literacy Council  provides an excellent analysis of the problems of English spelling.  Good internet sources include Steve Bett’s “English Spelling Reform”  http://victorian.fortunecity.com/vangogh/555/Spell/spel-links.html

 

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About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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