So why is English spelled like that?
By Quinton Geller Edited by Natalie Mamaril
Though, rough, cough, plough, and slough—each ends with the same four letters, and yet each ending sounds slightly different. Similarly, think about all the ways we can make that familiar ay sound: day, rein, gain, hey, bane, even resume! These strange spelling patterns seem completely normal to us English speakers. However, this is not the case for many other languages. Spanish, for example, has very standardized spelling rules—once you learn them, you can rewrite almost anything just by hearing it once. The story of how English became this way is long and twisted. But through it, we can discover how ancient cultures and the whims of ordinary people came together to perfect—or, in a sense, wreck—this beautiful language.
The earliest form of English was a messy mix of Germanic dialects that came to England over 1000 years ago, around 449 CE. (A dialect is a regional version of a language.) Most of the first words a child learns come from this ancient mishmash—for example, sit, drink, the, hand, and more—in addition to the basics of English grammar. This early version of English used an old runic alphabet called futhorc, though, so you likely wouldn’t recognize it if you saw it today.
In the following centuries, England was plagued by invasions, with each one bringing new quirks to our language. To start with, the Romans brought the Latin alphabet with them around 600 CE. The Vikings who followed brought new words that often started with th and sk. Then, the Normans brought French to the country in the mid-1000s, leading to the disappearance of written English for several centuries. When high society decided to speak French instead of English, there were almost no new English written works since the rich were the only ones who knew how to read and write.
It was not until the mid-1300s that English reappeared in writing, and by then, surviving works were few and far between. As a result, English spelling turned into chaos. Without anything to go off, the English tried to spell things how they sounded, which turns out to be pretty hard when you only have 26 or so letters! To add to this mess, some French words continued to be used, adding even more sounds and syllables that had to be spelled.
Then, starting around the 1350s, English experienced a huge sound change: the Great Vowel Shift. In this shift, the sound produced by almost every long vowel changed. For example, the i in bite was originally pronounced the way we say the ee in beet. The ee in beet was itself pronounced differently—more like the ay in day. The ou in house had a different pronunciation too, like the new sound the oo in boot makes. This change didn’t work the same way for every word, though. For example, while both great and feat had the same original sound—a long version of the e in pen—their ea’s represent completely different sounds today.
Of course, you may be wondering why written English didn’t simply change again to suit the new pronunciations. This is mostly because the printing press was brought to England in the late 1400s—a total game changer! As the people running the machines began to print more and more, their spellings, along with all their mistakes, became established. Many of these typesetters were actually Dutchmen who did not speak English, leading words like ghost to gain their familiar, yet confusing spellings. As printing became more widespread, so did literacy, going from a skill reserved for the wealthy to one even average people could learn. With common usage came common recognition, and so while the language continued to develop in pronunciation, spellings finally began to stabilize.
Up to this point, we’ve discussed the contributions of the Romans, Vikings, Normans, and Dutch typesetters, who each brought over words and traits from their own languages. However, this barely even begins to reflect the amount that English has taken from abroad. The vast reach of the British Empire, which once covered a quarter of the world’s land and people, put English speakers into contact with all sorts of native communities. By interacting with these cultures, countless words and ideas seeped into our vocabulary, often with their original spellings and/or sounds preserved.
English continues to grow, year by year, as we take in new terms from cultures the world across. And as this hodgepodge of a language expands, our pronunciation and spelling will only grow further away from the shaky standards set so many centuries ago.
A Brief History of the English Language: From Old English to Modern Days. (n.d.). Langster; A-Type Technologies GmbH. Retrieved October 22, 2023, from https://langster.org/en/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-english-language-from-old-english-to-modern-days
British Empire - New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/British_Empire
Kroch, A. (n.d.). Some English words illustrating the Great Vowel Shift. Penn Arts & Sciences Department of Linguistics; University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved October 2, 2023, from https://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kroch/courses/lx310/handouts/handouts-09/ringe/gvs-revised.pdf
Marques, N. (2023, September 7). The Eccentric History Of English Spelling (And Why It’s So Maddeningly Difficult). Babbel Magazine; Babbel GmbH. https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/the-eccentric-history-of-english-spelling-and-why-its-so-difficult
Okrent, A. (2021, July 26). Why is the English spelling system so weird and inconsistent? | Aeon Essays. Aeon; Aeon Media Group Ltd. https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-the-english-spelling-system-so-weird-and-inconsistent