Six Reasons Why English Spelling Is So Weird

The English spelling system never fails to amaze and confuse linguists and learners alike for having weird and inconsistent spelling rules. It is so challenging and complex, that it is often cited as one of the reasons why English is difficult for learners to master. 

We understand what they feel. We literally named this blog after the creative respelling of the word “fish,” ghoti. But that’s not how fish is spelled in English, by the way. It’s just a way to demonstrate how chaotic English spelling can be. 

But the chaos and irregularities of the English spelling system weren’t random or accidental. A closer look at its history will give us insights into why English spelling is so weird. And that’s what we will do in this article. 

Why is English Spelling So Weird?

The English spelling system didn’t come out of random chance or mambo-jumbo. Instead, it was a product of centuries of development and changes that greatly impacted how words are spelled in English. Would you believe an invasion over 900 years ago dramatically changed how English spells its words today?

But major historical events like the Norman invasion of England in 1066 aren’t the only factors that influenced the English spelling system. Here are some of the other factors that led to this anarchy. 

Lack of a Regulatory Agency

Many countries have bodies, academies, or agencies that regulate how their languages are used. For instance, France has the Académie française, while Spain has the Real Academia Española, which is part of the larger Association of Academies of the Spanish Language. 

However, the English language has no similar government agency or language academy that regulates how it is used and spelled, which is one of the primary reasons why the English spelling system is irregular. 

These bodies or academies often regulate not just how users of a language like English should spell words but also when to use loanwords from other tongues. For example, the Académie française has long discouraged using anglicisms, or loanwords from English, in French and recommends using French alternatives instead, like nouvelles for news. 

The nearest thing English could get for a language regulator is the Oxford English Dictionary, which published its first edition in 1884. Many experts often consider it the most authoritative source on the historical development of the English language. The OED recently added ten new words in 2023 like textspeak (defined as “language regarded as characteristic of text messaging”) and mononym (meaning “a one-word name (typically a given name or nickname) by which someone, especially a celebrity, is known.”)

Borrowing Loanwords from Other Languages 

Speaking of loanwords, English has a long history of borrowing and appropriating words from other languages, like French, German, Italian, and Chinese. Around 28% of words in English are of French origin, a higher number than 25% of English words with a Germanic origin. Latin also influenced English significantly, with around 28% of English’s vocabulary originating from Latin. 

Because it borrows so many words from other languages, implementing a more systematic way of spelling words in English can be challenging. Many loanwords also retain their spelling or original transliteration, even though their pronunciation has been changed to fit English phonology. One example is the word construction, borrowed from Latin via Old French. 

This word is spelled the same way in both English and French. However, English pronounces it as /kənˈstrʌkʃn/ while French pronounces it as /kɔ̃stʁyksjɔ̃/ with the nasal vowels. Many other loanwords from French largely retained their original French spelling, even though their pronunciation has changed to fit English speaking conventions. 

Norman Scribes

One of the most significant events that triggered a major change in the English language was the Norman invasion of England in 1066. When William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, stepped foot in England, Norman French became the language of the new aristocratic class. He also brought scribes that would significantly impact how English words are spelled today.

These Norman scribes preferred French spelling conventions when writing English words. So when they transliterated existing words in the language, their original Old English spellings were modified to reflect these preferences better. 

For instance, some words spelled with a /kw/ sound at the beginning, like the word queen, were used to be written with cw in Old English, as in cwen. But Norman scribes later changed this spelling to queen because, in Norman French,  the /kw/ sound existed, unlike in Parisian French, where words starting in qu are usually pronounced as /k/, like etiquette (/ˈɛtɪkɛt/).

Another example is the words knight and laugh. Both words were spelled with a “gh,” but it was pronounced differently depending on the word. In Middle English, knight used to be pronounced as /kniçt/, just like the German word licht, while laugh used to be spoken like /ˈlau̯xə/ in Middle English. 

However, Norman scribes wrote the [ç] and [x] sound with a gh. The [ç] sound eventually disappeared, while the [x] sound disappeared in some words and turned into a [f] sound in others. 

The Great Vowel Shift

Aside from the Normans, the English language experienced another significant historical event called the Great Vowel Shift, which greatly impacted how words, specifically vowels, are pronounced in English. These changes in English phonology spanned from the 15th to the 18th centuries and sparked the end of Middle English and the beginning of Modern English. 

The causes of the Great Vowel Shift are still widely debated by scholars and linguists. However, English is not the only language that experienced massive but gradual changes in its pronunciation. Another example is German, which saw the High German consonant shift from the 5th to the 8th century CE.

These series of phonetic changes resulted in the divergence between spelling and pronunciation. Words that were once pronounced differently are now spelled in a way that reflects their historical pronunciation. 

To learn more about this linguistic phenomenon that shaped English pronunciation and spelling, you may read this brief overview of the Great Vowel Shift

The Printing Press

After German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, it quickly spread across Europe, and it was soon introduced in England by William Caxton in 1476, after operating one in Belgium. 

The introduction of the printing press in 15th century England played a significant role in shaping English spelling. Printing made it possible to mass-produce books, leading to increased literacy and greater standardization of spelling conventions. 

However, the printing press arrived during a time of linguistic upheaval, with different dialects and variations in pronunciation still prevalent. As a result, spelling conventions were not uniformly established, leading to inconsistencies in English spelling.

And because England had no agency or committee that regulated the use of the English language or offered suggested spellings to certain words, the power to change the English spelling was concentrated in the hands of printing press owners, their staff, and authors.  

Printers and their staff often had to decide which variant spellings to use, or in some cases, made their spellings. This is especially true with Caxton, whose typesetters he used for his printing press reflected Flemish spelling conventions. Therefore, these Flemish typesetters changed the spelling of some words in English to reflect Flemish spelling rules, such as adding the words “h” in ghost and ghastly. 

In addition, printers often preferred conservative spellings of words and ignored the phonetic changes brought by the Great Vowel Shift, essentially freezing the spelling of many English words in time. 

Hypercorrection

Printing presses aside, printers made several mistakes while printing certain words. For instance, the word “dumb” ends with the letter “b.” However, printers mistakenly added the letter “b” to words that rhymed with “dumb,” such as limb, crumb, and numb.

This error of adding letters to words that never had them was also made yet again during the Renaissance when the English language borrowed many words from Latin, French, and Greek. This period led to another form of change in English spelling: Respelling words based on their etymology, or where they originally came from.

Take the words “physics” and “phlegm.” They used to be spelled with an “f” instead of a “ph.” But some scholars substituted the “f” with a “ph” in these words to remind people of their Greek origins. The spellings of many English words of Latin origin, such as debt and isle, were also changed for the same purpose.

Debt used to be spelled as det, dett, or dette in Middle English. Isle also didn’t have the extra “s” in the middle and was only spelled as ile. However, scholars changed the spelling of det and added the “b” to resemble the Latin word debitum, where the word originated from. As for the word ile, the extra “s” was added to resemble the original French spelling of the word, which in turn came from the Latin word insula

However, these scholars mistakenly added an extra “s” to the Middle English word iland, believing that the words ile and iland were related. Iland (or island in Modern English spelling) did not come from Latin but from Old English igland. These errors resulted in hypercorrection or the process of adding letters to words where it wasn’t needed. 

English Spelling Can Be Difficult to Decipher

The English spelling system is indeed inconsistent and can make learners and even experts scratch their heads. But these inconsistencies didn’t just come out of nowhere. Rather, the unique historical and linguistic factors that have shaped the English language contributed to its irregularities. 

From the absence of an agency that regulates the use of the English language to the invention of the printing press, multiple factors have played a huge role in the development of English spelling conventions. 

Although English spelling may seem daunting, learners can improve their skills and navigate the complexities of the English spelling system and the English language as a whole. But learning how to spell words in English on your own can be more difficult than expected.

As you embark on a journey to learn English, you should always have a guide that will help you find the right path. With Italki, you can find dozens of well-experienced tutors who offer personalized, one-on-one lessons about different aspects, from pronunciation and spelling to assistance in passing standardized tests like IELTS and TOEFL. 

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