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English and its crazy spellings
Oct 21, 2011


Immediately following the column on “mic,” I heard from M.
“When we start to spell ‘enough’ the way it sounds,” M wrote, “then I’ll worry about ‘mic’ and ‘mike.’”
Fair comment.
English has never been a phonetic language and many have had fun with that fact. Strangely, however, there are fewer than 500 English words with truly irregular spellings. That’s pretty small potatoes in a language of more than one million words. Unfortunately, many of these irregulars are hard to ignore because they occur so frequently.
It’s surprising there are only 500 irregularly spelled words when we consider that the English alphabet has a mere 26 letters and no accents. Twenty-six letters to represent more than 40 sounds is quite a challenge. As well, there are good reasons for such strange spellings as enough, might, pneumonia, and knee.
Following the Norman Conquest (1066), the French introduced new spellings, many of which replaced existing Old English forms. For example, French scribes changed the Old English cwik to conform for the French spelling of the sound cw. We got quick. Words like migt and enow became might and enough. Church had once been curc and house was huse before the Normans came.
They went further. The letter u looked so much like v, i and m when written that French scribes replaced u with o in all kinds of words. This gave us come, love, son, etc., rather than cum, luv and sun.
Within 300 years of the Battle of Hastings, English spelling was an amalgam of both French and Old English.
Spelling change didn’t stop there.
Unbelievable problems beset English once the printing press was invented. Early printers insisted on justified (aligned) right-hand margins. They achieved this uniformity by lengthening or shortening words rather than by altering space between words as modern printers (and computers) do. The end result of this tinkering was lack of uniformity in the final “e” of many words. The fact that most early printers weren’t English-speakers didn’t help our spelling.
Then in the 16th century, scholars altered even more spellings when they decided words should show their heredity. An example is the b in debt. This was added to demonstrate that debt is from the Latin debitum. Another example is the g in reign, which was added to indicate that reign comes from regno.
Next, spelling reformers attempted to make irregular spellings match. We already had might. Now, delight and other words took on the same spelling.
Loanwords also affected spelling. When English explorers brought exotic new words from afar, they also brought equally exotic spellings, such as bizarre, intrigue and grotto. This borrowing still goes on. Think of such recent additions to English as perestroika, intifada, feng shui, latte, karaoke, and so on.
This spelling history covers more than 1,000 years of language change and growth. The spellings we now have are pretty well-established. Unless new words are loans from other tongues, there’s no reason to add even more confusing spellings. New alternatives should simplify not perplex.