The tragedy of English spelling

Finding a way of writing for a language which has no system for this is hard. Some want the writing to look like the writing in some other language. Some want the writing to perfectly represent their own language, using whatever characters are necessary. Some want the writing to be easy to learn. Improving an existing system is harder than inventing a new one, especially if the existing system is old and full of inconsistencies. The big question is: How far to go?

Back to the drawing board?

English represents a unique mix of Old English, Norse, French, Latin, and possibly a Celtic language, incorporated at different times, in different sections of society, in some cases more than once. Each of the first four of these incorporations is reflected in one way or another in the spelling. But they were all designed to suit the needs of readers familiar with one system trying to incorporate words spelt by a different system. At the time of Shakespeare there was no clearly agreed standard. He spelt his own name in various ways. After his death a spelling standard gradually emerged. But the system was a bodge. It’s not that there isn’t a system. It’s more that English spelling uses a number of different systems which don’t fit together. And there is a price to be paid for this – especially by those who don’t have an aptitude for a particular sort of figuring out, as I didn’t as a small child.

It’s now probably impossible to go back to the drawing board. But it’s worth tabulating the problem if only to protect learners from simplistic, commercially-motivated non-solutions, of which there are many.

Back to King Alfred

King Alfred was the youngest of four sons, and thus not likely to become king. But evidently he was thought to be a clever child, and in a most unusual way at the time, he was sent to Rome to be educated.

The English of Alfred’s time, now known as Old English, was in the process of becoming a fusion of the Norse of the Vikings and an ancestral form of German and Dutch, with Norse more favoured in the North, as it still is, and less favoured in the South.

Knowing Latin well, Alfred became a significant scholar in his own right. But he encouraged the use of Old English in public life and official documents. 

This included new letter forms which had been created for sounds like those in TH which had no equivalents in Latin.


With the Norman Conquest in 1066 the priorities of the new king, William, were power, control, authority, and revenue, but not culture. William and his descendants spoke a fusion of Viking Norse and the French of Northern France at the time. This endured for 300 years as the language of the court and the aristocracy. The new rulers brought with them a Latin-speaking bureaucracy.

So there were three languages, the Old English of the conquered people itself in the process of a fusion, the Norman French of the new rulers by another fusion, and the Latin of the new bureaucracy.

For the sake of trade and administration, means of communication had to be found, creating career and business opportunities for those able to speak more than one of the three languages. But the new bureaucracy had no interest in English or in preserving any of its characteristic (and well-designed and useful) letter forms. Alfred’s approach, giving preference to English, was now abandoned.

So we now have sheep and cow from the Old English for the animals and mutton and beef from Norman French for the meat.

English as a new fusion

For 300 years the descendants of William continued to speak their French. Only after eight generations, 300 years later, did a descendant of William, Edward lll start to speak publicly in the new language which had emerged as a new fusion from two previous fusions and Latin.

Edward’s rising star was a young Geoffrey Chaucer. From a young age, Chaucer carried out important official, diplomatic, and financial duties. But he also wrote the Canterbury Tales, setting out the fashions of speech at the time with brutal clarity. It was fashionable to speak French. But there was snobbery about the French variety. The prestige variety was the language of Paris and the French court. There was less prestige in what would seem to have been a pastiche of the old Norman French. Speech was as much of a minefield in Chaucer’s England as it is today.

The great English vowel shift

In Chaucer’s time English was just starting to undergo what the Danish scholar, Otto Jespersen, called ‘the Great English Vowel Shift’ by which the pronunciations of a number of vowels all moved together. Something similar is happening today in in different parts of the USA. So the process can now be studied comparatively. By this sort of process, a critical number of people all independently start to change the way they say groups of vowels at the same time and in the same way. In North America the process is lead by feisty, thirty something women, not in visibly influential positions, but with strong social circles around them. It is a reasonable guess that the leaders of the Great English Vowel Shift were similar.

The changes are slight and not noticed until they have gone through three or four generations and one vowel is said just as a completely different vowel was said at the beginning of the process. For example, in Chaucer’s time, the word divine sounded something like DIVEEN or DIVEENEH or DIVEENER, probably depending on where in England the speaker was from.

Two hundred years later, by the time of Shakespeare and Elizabeth l, divine had something more like its modern pronunciation.

But the spelling was now chaotic. Four scholars independently suggested major reforms to the spelling. With an uncommonly literate monarch, very interested in such things, there was the possibility of spelling reform. But there were larger issues including the survival of the state. So the scholarly suggestions were ignored. And the chaotic spelling remained, as it has ever since.

The little word do

In Shakespeare’s time, by another major change, people were starting to say “Do you go the church?” as opposed to “Go you to church?” From the time of Chaucer the speech and the language had changed profoundly.

A quart in a pint pot

The big problem for English spelling is that English now has twice as many speech sounds or ‘phonemes’ as Latin which provided the letters.

Unlike Latin, English has sounds which are halfway between vowels or consonants. These include Y and W. They are known as ‘glides’ or ‘semivowels’.

English also has sounds known as affricates, at the beginnings and ends of church and George. Calling ch a digraph because it uses two letters misses the key point. Affricates are a distinct category of phoneme, written with one letter in joy, two in chew, and three in itch. At the beginning of the syllable, affricates only occur on their own. Affricates are often on the last sorts of sounds which children learn to say.

English usually doubles consonants after a short stressed vowel immediately before an unstressed vowel, as in follow and hammer, where the consonant is doing two jobs, ending one syllable and beginning another.

And English has ‘syllabic consonants’, in words like bottle and button, where the L and the N have a kind of built-in unstressed vowel after a stressed vowel.

Whereas Latin had five vowels, each with long and short versions, the English sound system has always had many more vowels, with six short vowels in lexical words, in hid, head, had, hut, hod and hood, and more long vowels, some of them ‘diphthongs’ – with the tongue rising in mouth in the course of the articulation. all of the long vowels are articulated more towards the edge of what is often known as the ‘vowel space’ – with more tension in the tongue.


Other western languages, like French, German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Poltish, Icelandic, Turkish use special characters or accents to try and squeeze the quart into the pint pot. But not English. The blame can clearly be laid at the door of the bigoted scriptorium masters of early Norman England who refused to countenance the use of any letter unless it came from Latin.

The English scholar, Alcuin, who had been so far ahead of the game at the court of Charles the Great, 200 years before, would have been horrified by such an attitude. But his opinion would probably have been discounted because he was English.

Logic and keeping up to date

Russians and Icelanders are used to keeping their writing system up to date with any changes in the spoken language. But the British protest vigorously about the slightest change to even the most illogical of features, like the ‘correct’ use of the apostrophe.

The apostrophe denotes possession. after the noun and before the S in the kid’s clothes, and after the noun where there is more than one kid, in the kids’ clothes, but not where the plurality is expressed by an irregularity, as in children’s clothes and women’s clothes. But no apostrophe in its, as in ‘the palace and its treasures.’ In it’s the apostrophe denotes not possession, but the contraction of it is. If there is any logic here, it’s hard to see.

Visible speech

Once a completely new system was proposed – by Alexander Melville Bell in 1867. He called it ‘Visible speech’, and he proposed it to the government of the day, with the explicit aim of promoting international understanding. As a Scot, he was particularly aware of the suffering of wounded Scottish soldiers who had born the brunt of much of the fighting in the Crimean war. Visible Speech was the first step towards a phonetic alphabet. But unlike the phonetic alphabet, devised in the 1890s it was deliberately based on what are now known as ‘distinctive  features’, rather than what Bell contemptuously dismissed as ‘Romic’ characters. And Bell’s suggestion was ignored by the government of the day. But while Bell made some significant advances, like recognising the important contribution of the lips in the vowels in hoot, foot, paw, and pot, his feature system has not stood the test of time. And various features are still the topic of intense debate. While it is obvious and generally agreed that the positioning of the tongue is critical, much of the debate is about finding a system that works for every known language. And Visible Speech is now just a footnote in the history of writing and the theoretical study of speech.

The right place at the right time

One rare example of a writing system being successfully reformed from top to bottom was in Turkey in 1928. Atatürk, the founder of the modern republic, followed a suggestion which had been in the air for some time to replace the Arabic script from the time of the Ottomans with a script more suited to the distinctive character of Turkish.

Turkish has eight vowels contrasting with one another, but only four in any one word, in contrast to Arabic with only three vowels, and these not extensively used to keep words apart. So Arabic script is not well suited to represent a language in which vowels are used to keep words apart, as they are in English, Turkish, and most other languages.

The only time it seems to be possible to carry out a successful root and branch reform of the spelling is in the shade of a transformation of society and with the support of the transformers.