Shades of Spelling – Part I

the words Shades of Spelling in shaded letters from dark to light blue

In his delightful and informative book, SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling, David Crystal explains many of the quirks and anomalies of spelling English words. He says that with well over one million words in English, affected in myriad ways by 1300 years of history, the task of attempting to find order in the chaos might seem impossible.

It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word. ―Andrew Jackson

The Complexity of English Spelling

“To understand the complexity of English spelling,” Crystal says, ”we first have to understand when and how the language was originally written down. So our story begins with the Anglo-Saxon monks. The system they devised was a good one, but it had weaknesses, and these are the source of many modern spelling difficulties.”

The Origins of the English Writing System Lie in the Alphabet the Romans Used for Latin

Crystal says that the origins of the English writing system lie in the alphabet the Romans used for Latin. The task of adaptation was a priority for the monks in 6th century Anglo-Saxon England. They found a land largely ruled by Anglo-Saxons, in several kingdoms, speaking dialects of a Germanic  language brought from the Continent a century before.   Their job was to introduce Christianity. They had to deal with the various kings, establish churches, and train local organizers. Priests needed to compose prayers and homilies in Anglo-Saxon so that ordinary people could understand them. A priority was to get the language written down.

Crystal explains that some signs of writing already existed: the Romans left inscriptions on walls, buildings, monuments, coins, and some objects during almost 400 years of occupation. But, they were Latin words.

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” ―Baltasar Gracián

Some Anglo-Saxon Wrote With Runes

Some Anglo-Saxons did know how to write: the early settlers had brought a runic (pictorial) alphabet with them from Europe and used the letters to write names or charms on swords, brooches and other objects, as well as on gravestones and buildings. Runes were mysterious and magical. The word “rune” means “something hidden” or “secret.” As Christian monks, they could not use the runes as they were too strongly associated with magic, dark forces, and pagan practices the Monks wanted to eradicate.

The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, had all the right associations: it had been used for centuries as a medium for Christian expression. Monks used what was called St. Jerome’s Latin Bible. In Ireland, monks had already produced beautiful handwritten forms of Roman letters for the missionaries since the 600’s. It was  an obvious choice. All they had to do was write down the sounds of Anglo-Saxon using Roman letters. At the time, there were twenty-three characters in the alphabet: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z. More than enough, right?

poster with Winnie the Pooh saying his spelling is wobblyy

But, Crystal explains, the Monks listened carefully to Anglo-Saxon (or English as it came to be known) and realized that some of the sounds didn’t exist in Latin! Two sounds especially caught their attention: consonant sounds made by the tongue between the teeth (what we call ‘th’ sounds today, as in this and thin). There also seemed to be  far more sounds in Anglo-Saxon than in Latin. What to do?

There Are Far More Sounds in the English Language Than There Are Letters

As Crystal says, “The origins of spelling difficulties in English lie in the fact that there are far more sounds in the language than there are letters, as can be seen from a list of the spoken vowels and consonants that have to be written down.”

The first thing they had to do was establish how many distinctive sounds there were: find all the words that change their meaning when just one of their sounds is altered. Crystal lists “pip, and change the first sound. Tip is different from pip. So is sip, and hip, and lip ….That gives us a p, t s, h, l ….Then we could change the second sounds. Pip is different from pop and pup and peep….That gives us i, o, u, ee …. Linguists call these distinctive sounds “phoenemes.” How many phonemes are there in English? The answer depends on the regional accent, but for many people the total is forty-four. That’s the number we hear, for example, in the British accent known as “Received Pronunciation,” widely understood in the UK because it’s used by many presenters on national radio and television. The corresponding accent in the USA is known as “General American.”

Simplified spelling is all right, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.  — Mark Twain

Crystal lists twenty-four consonant phonemes in both British and American accents. There are also twenty vowel phonemes in these accents, and he says the way they’re used varies only a little. There is also something called a “dipthong,” when a sound is long because it has two distinct phonetic qualities. Crystal says they play a particularly important role in the history of English spelling. He gives a few examples of the dipthong as follows:

/i/ as in see, fleece, eating
/a/ as in bath, palm, start
/u/ as in soon, goose, tube
/3/ as in nurse, bird, sermon

His point is that you would need an alphabet the same size as the sounds, but we have only twenty-six letters. “That, in a nutshell,” Crystal says, “is the problem of English spelling.”

poster saying Spelling is difficoult, struck through, chalenging, struck thriugh, hard.

(In future blogs, I’ll explore some of Crystal’s explanations for the spelling difficulties in English.)

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