Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Why Is English Spelling So Damn Weird?!

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Hello everyone, welcome to the Langfocus Channel, and my name is Paul.

Today, I want to talk about: Why English spelling is so damn weird?!

"Damn", with a silent "n".

English is well known for its chaotic and seemingly unpredictable spelling.

How do you think you say this word?

It's "fish", here we have /f/, as in "rough";

/ɪ/, as in "women"; and /ʃ/, as in "nation", well, okay, that's not really how "fish" is spelled,

but you get the point. Sometimes "gh" sounds like /f/,

Sometimes "o" sounds like /ɪ/, and sometimes "ti" sounds like /ʃ/.

The famed British philologist William Walter Skeat once said "No one can tell how to pronounce an English word unless he has at some time or other heard it".

I guess that's like the time I referred to the Pyrenees /piɹəˈni:s"/ Mountains

as /pi'ɹəni:s/. "A region that spans the Spain-France border, in the westernmost Pyrenees mountains".


A learner of English, or a young native speaker seeing this word for the first time, might read it asn.dɪkt/,

but it's actuallyn.daɪt/. And once they learned that this word is pronounced /ɹʌf/, they might pronounce *this* word asoʊ.ɹʌf/.

But it's /θɜ˞.oʊ/ or /θʌɹ.ə/

For people who already use these words in speech then reading them is not much of a problem.

But I doubt they'll always be able to spell them when writing. "Doubt (with a silent "b")".

Why is English spelling like this, when so many other languages have systematic spelling that corresponds with pronunciation?

Well, many other languages have undergone a spelling reform, to clean up their own

inconsistencies, while English has never really undergone that type of spelling reform, so, modern English spelling continues to be a product of its history -

1300 years of history.

The vocabulary of English consists of four major words stocks: A Germanic Core,

mainly from Anglo-Saxon, but also from Old Norse; French, including both Norman French and Parisian French; Latin; and Greek.

These four word stocks all have different spelling systems.

English spelling has had its complications right from the start. When the

Anglo-Saxons first began writing in the Latin alphabet rather than their Runic alphabet, there weren't enough

individual letters to represent all of the sounds of Old English

So some letters represented more than one sound and some non-Latin letters were used.

Nowadays, many of us tend to think of written English as the basis of English, but back in those days,

it was seen as merely a representation of speech.

So, there was a lot of dialectal variation that was reflected in spelling, and the same word was often spelled in various ways, even by the same person.

This situation continued through the Middle English period and even into the Early Modern English period.

Shakespeare even spelled his own name in several different ways.

But let's go back to Middle English for a minute.

English entered the Middle English period with the Norman Conquest, when the Norman French-speaking rulers had a tremendous impact on the language.

Many many French words were adopted into English, in large part keeping their French spelling,

even though the sounds and stress patterns changed to match the English language.

So there's "bigger", which is probably Germanic, and there's "figure", from the French word "figure (It is written the same, but it is pronounced differently) ";

there is "bridge", and there's "marriage", from French "marriage"; we have the Germanic word "sit", with an "s"

and we have the French loanword "city" with a "c", because in French, "c" is pronounced /s/ before "e" and "i".

Similarly, there's the Germanic word "kill", and the French loanword "cell".

Changes to the spelling of existing words were also made by Norman scribes, who preferred French spelling conventions.

The /tʃ/ sound as in "church", used to be written with the letter "c",

but the Normans began using "ch", since at the time

"ch" represented /tʃ/ in French. That changed and "ch" came to represent the sound /ʃ/.

So, there are additional words borrowed from French in more recent centuries, that feature the /ʃ/ sound, like "champagne" and "château".

You'll also see /tʃ/ spelled "tch" after short vowels as in "catch" and "Dutch", but as always in English,

there are exceptions, like "much" and "such".

Norman scribes also changed the spelling of /kw/ from "cw" to "qu"

So the word "cwen", meaning "queen", was originally spelled like *this*, but became spelled like *this*.

Even though "qu" was already pronounced /k/ in Parisian French at that time, the /kw/ pronunciation existed in Anglo-Norman,

the Norman French dialect that had developed in England.

So some French loanwords, in particular those from Anglo-Norman, feature the /kw/ sound, like "question" and "equal".

But later, Parisian French grew an influence while Anglo-Norman faded, and French borrowings from that time onward featured the /k/ sound,

like "etiquette". And there are many words like this, that

historically, never had a /kw/ sound, but are spelled with "qu", because that's how /k/ is now most commonly written in French:

"physique", "unique", "quay", "lacquer".

They introduced the "ou" spelling of the sound /u/.

So, "hus", the word for "house" began to be spelled with "ou", closer to the modern spelling.

This also happened to the word "mus", meaning "mouse".

They also changed the letter "u" to "o" in some cases when it was followed by "v", "n" or "m",

because in cursive writing it looked too similar to those letters.

So, now we have words like "come", "some", "love" and "son", in which "o" represents the short u sound /ʌ/.

But this spelling didn't fully catch on, so, we also have words like "dumb", "drum", etc.

The main thing to remember is that the Anglo-Normans made a number of changes

and additions to English spelling that sometimes clashed with other ways of spelling.

The Great Vowel Shift and the printing press

The biggest changes to English pronunciation took place between the years of 1350 and 1700,

in a process called "The Great Vowel Shift",

which spanned the transition from Late Middle English to Early Modern English, and into the Modern English period.

For reasons that are not exactly clear, all the long vowels of Middle English shifted

/a:/ as in "name /na:m/" became /æ:/ as in /næ:m/,

which then shifted to /ɛ:/, as in /nɛ:m/, and then shifted to /e/ as in /nem/; /e:/ as in "sweete /swe:tə/",

shifted to /i/, as in "sweet /swit/"; /ɛ:/ as in "great /gɹɛ:t/",

shifted to /e/ as in "great /gɹet/"; /i:/, as in "time /ti:m/",

shifted to /əɪ/, as in "time /təɪm/, and shifted further to /aɪ/, as in "time /taɪm/"; /o:/, as in "boote /bo:tə/,

shifted to /u/, as in "boot /but/; /ɔ:/, as in "boot /bɔ:t/", shifted to /o/ as in "boat /bot/";

/u:/, as in "hous /hu:s/, shifted to /əʊ/ as in "house /həʊs/", and then /aʊ/, as in "house /haʊs/".

You might be thinking "Okay, so the sounds changed,

they must have updated the spelling to match the new sounds, right?"


During the 1400s and 1500s, English spelling became more standardized due to the arrival of the printing press in England,

so English spelling was essentially frozen in time

and English spelling today, in large part, reflects the pronunciation of Middle English, from hundreds of years ago.

The fate of English spelling lay in the hands of a very small number of people,

specifically, the owners of printing presses, their staff, and authors.

There was no regulatory agency, no committee offering suggested spellings, or anything like that, authors submitted their works, and the printers produced the final text

that would be printed, and they could pretty much do whatever they wanted with the spelling.

William Caxton brought the first printing press to England in 1476, after running one in Belgium.

The Flemish typesetters he brought with him to England changed the spelling of some words to match the spelling conventions of Flemish.

This is why there's an "h" in the words "ghost" and "ghastly".

Those are just a couple of words, but printers and their staff made countless decisions about which

variant spellings to use, or used their own spellings.

And over the 15th and 16th centuries, "standard" spelling gradually arose, based mainly on the London variety of English. Some odd things happened in the process.

Sometimes the spelling of a word came from one dialect, while its pronunciation

came from another. The words "one" and "once" use East Midlands spelling

but Southern pronunciation. The word "busy" uses West Midlands spelling

but East Midlands or London pronunciation. And the word "bury" has West Midlands spelling but Kentish pronunciation.

But the biggest generalization we can make about the printers is that they favored

conservative spellings, and they ignored the changes of The Great Vowel Shift. And it wasn't only vowels that were shifting during that time.

Some consonants were disappearing from words, but they continued to be written. The "k" in the word "knife" for example.

It used to be pronounced /kni:f/. And how about the word "knight"?

It has a silent "k" and a silent "gh". /kniçt/

The Norman scribes had written two sounds /ç/ and /x/, with de digraph "gh".

The palatal /ç/ sound disappeared, while the /x/ sound disappeared or turned into /f/.

The word "light" comes from Middle English "light /liçt/". You can still hear that consonant in the German cognate "licht"

"Night" comes from Middle English "nighte /niçt/".

One word with the /f/ sound is "laugh", which comes from Middle English "laughe" /'lau̯xə/

There's a common word in modern English that features a silent "gh" even though it never had a /x/ or

/ç/ sound: the word "delight". In Middle English it was "delita" /de:li:t(ə)/. It was respelled to resemble the word "light".

Another type of intentional tweaking of English spelling took place:

respelling words based on their etymology. For example, the word "doubt" was "douta" /du:tə/ in Middle English.

The word "debt" was "det" or "dette". Both words entered English from French without a "b",

but they respelled to resemble their Latin words of origin: "dubitare", "debitum".

"Indict" was "enditen" in Middle English. The "c" was added to match its Latin word of origin "indicto".

The word "isle" was "ile" with no "s" in Middle English. This word originally came from French,

but then was respelled with an "s", to match a respelling of the French word with an "s",

then that respelling was also mistakenly applied to the word "island", which was "iland" in Middle English,

even though it doesn't share the same etymology as "isle".

Another example of a mistaken respelling occurs with the word ending "mb", the "b" in the word "dumb", for example, used to be

pronounced, but then became silent, while it remained in writing, but some other words ending in "m" were mistakenly

respelled to end with "mb", such as the word "limb", some more examples are "crumb", "numb", "thumb", etc.

Because some words had an etymological "b"

that wasn't pronounced, people could no longer tell when a "b" was needed based on the sound of the word. This resulted in hypercorrection,

adding the letter to words where it wasn't necessary.

It may seem like these scholars made self-indulgent unnecessary changes,

but I guess they all became part of the story of English. The last big shake-up to English spelling came during the Renaissance period

when English took in many new loan words from French, Latin, Greek, and other European languages, many of them of a more academic nature.

The reason for this was the need for a new

vocabulary for all the new concepts in the emerging fields of science, medicine, and the arts. And

increased interest in Latin and Greek literature encouraged the borrowing.

A few examples from this new wave of vocabulary are: "epitome",

"vignette", "repertoire", "amateur", "camouflage",

"anesthesia", "decorum", "notorious", "chlorine", and the word "Renaissance" itself, which comes from the French word meaning "rebirth".

Since then, smaller numbers of loanwords from numerous other languages have continued to flow into English, often

retaining their original spelling or a transliteration of it, or at least an approximation of it. There's the Japanese word

"karaoke", the Polynesian word "tattoo", the Spanish word "aficionado", the Chinese word "kowtow",

and many other words that may have forced you to rely on your iPhone's autocorrect function,

which is never a safe bet

Some people might say that all of these historical influences on English spelling enrich the language, and make it more

fascinating while others might say that English spelling is a mess and a major pain in the butt.

I generally tend to think that it enriches the language... until I make a spelling mistake seen by a million people in a video like this.

Then it's a major pain in the butt.

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