Have you had enough (or enuf) trouble spelling to make you want to scream (or skreem?) You are not alone. Since the 17th century, scholars have been protesting the irregularities that occur in English spelling. Reform movements can boast such iconic English-speaking figures Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt. English is currently the most widely-spoken language on the planet, yet it is the only language among the top ten most spoken that lacks an official regulatory academy to approve spelling.
One of the problems that spellers face is the diverse origin of English words. German, Latin, French, and Greek are all common sources, and each follows a different set of rules for spelling. Even within any one of these languages, it’s impossible to guarantee internal consistency; when these systems mix together helter skelter, one ends up with English orthography.
Students of the SAT know that memorizing the Latin roots of English words is a great way to expand vocabulary, but most Latin-rooted words entered English usage from French after the Norman Conquest of the 11th century. The British English spelling of colour and centre are vestiges of this relationship. The Normans replaced French as the language of the court, throwing Old English, a Germanic language, out of official usage for 300 years.
By the time English was again allowed at court, it was a French-infused Middle English. Geoffrey Chaucer is a great example of English spelling and pronunciation at this awkward phase. In fact, there was no set form for spelling – there are sentences in The Canterbury Tales in which the same word is spelled differently. This was no fault of Chaucer’s; he was simply following the spelling of the moment.
Our current spelling of words dates to the typical pronunciation of the 15th century, when technology effectively froze English orthography (writing.) The use of the printing press and mass distribution of books for the first time standardized the spelling of words through repetition. Taking into account the variant spelling of Anglo-Saxon words and the French-influenced Latin, English orthography did not respond to contemporary pronunciation, but to the word’s country of origin.
Now the story gets a little tricky. Between 1450 and 1750, English pronunciation went through what linguists call the Great Vowel Shift. How English speakers spoke evolved, yet the letters used to represent the words they spoke remained static.
Some advocates of English spelling reform argue that replacing words with more phonetically accurate letter combinations will enhance literacy. However readers often experience difficulty in fluency when they first approach works written in dialect, such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. While the dialect rounds out the characters of the stories, the difficulty reinforces arguments against spelling reform – whose pronunciation is chosen as the “correct” pronunciation that spelling should be modeled for?
Others argue that, while it may at first be difficult, English spelling leaves plenty of keys to unlocking the history and etymology of words, helping readers understand not only the phonetic foundation but also semantic heritage of a word. What do you think? Should English try to “fix” the spelling of words?
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