E. McIntosh wrote: “I get e-mail jokes about spelling. Seriously, why is our spelling so illogical and why don’t we just use American spellings?”
McIntosh isn’t alone regarding English spelling. As far back as 1568, people tried to reform written English. Nothing happened. In 1569, John Hart suggested spelling words the way they sound. Nobody listened. A few years later, in 1582, Richard Mulcaster pointed out that letters were invented to represent sounds. He urged the invention of new letters so that English could be sounded.
Mulcaster was on to something. We use a 26-letter alphabet and no accents, yet English has about 35 different sounds. Sounds not covered by a specific letter are represented by letters responsible for more than one sound. The “u” in puny, put and putty, illustrates this.
Or, we combine letters to indicate the desired sound — shot, chip and wing, for example.
English spelling hasn’t been helped by borrowing from other languages, many of which have sounds not recognized by our alphabet. When we consider that our lexicon has words from every continent and nearly every world language, it’s a miracle anyone can spell at all.
Here are examples of borrowed words that don’t fit our alphabet. Not one of the following loanwords can be read using simple phonetics.
From French, we took camouflage; from Dutch, sleigh; from Old Norse, waif; from German, dachshund; from Afrikaans, apartheid; from Norwegian, fjord; from Malaysian, ketchup; from Hindi, bungalow; from Haitian Creole, barbecue; from Choctaw American Indian, bayou; from Hebrew, behemoth; from Japanese, bonsai; from Australian Aboringals, boomerang; from Irish and Scottish Gaelic, brogue; from Mexican Spanish, coyote; from European Spanish, vamoose; from Mandarin Chinese, chow; from Tagalog (Philippines), boondocks; from Poland, horde; from Turkish, jackal; and from Urdu, khaki.
But even without loanwords, it would be impossible to read English by sounding out the letters. This
is why it’s usual to teach spelling by emphasizing the exceptions.
Many spelling problems arise because the Roman alphabet was adopted for written English regardless of the fact that Latin is a phonetic language and English has never been phonetic.
Before the printing press made the written word accessible, spellings weren’t fixed. That is, people spelled any old way. Here are a few of the spellings that have been used for the word merry —murye, muri, mirre, meary, merrye, merie and mery. Oxford lists a further 24 spellings of merry used before 1586.
Serious reform of English spelling has been discussed for many years. Noah Webster (1758-1843) probably did more about this than anyone else. Even so, many of his new spellings were never accepted by the American people, and almost none entered British English.
Another problem with spelling arose with the Norman Conquest. French spellings were imposed on many Old English spellings. That’s when English got gu words — guard, guide, guilt, and so on. Also, the French qu replaced the English cw. So, we got queen instead of cwen, and quick rather than cwic. The letter h was replaced by gh in words like might, enough and brought. And huse became house.