Why Is English Spelling So Complicated?

Do you remember that kid in school that could never keep his story straight? He didn’t steal his neighbor’s pencil, he just accidentally put it in his desk. Then it was in the backpack. Then the coat. Then the desk again.

That’s English spelling–a thief who can’t get his story straight.

We Steal Words All the Time

I was inspired to write this because of a LinkedIn post. The writer expressed how much she hated spelling bees. In 7th grade, her teacher asked her to spell “naive.” She knew what the word naive means because she had read it. But having never heard it pronounced, when she heard /nīˈēv/, she spelled it the way she heard it in her head.

The English language has always “borrowed” words from other languages, with estimates that over 40% of the language is comprised of loanwords.  The English “borrowed” these words as a result of repeated invasions. 

  • Latin words like bonus, alibi, and extra entered the lexicon after the Romans invaded.
  • German words like kindergarten, tackle, and quartz are thanks to the Anglo-Saxon invasions.
  • Thank the Normans for French words like advice, honesty, and modern (and additional Latinate words).

The Elite Used the “Borrowed” Words

Once the English were invaded, the elites (borrowed from the French élite) began to incorporate words (or learned the language).  This allowed them to stay in the invaders’ good graces, do business with them, and was generally the smart thing to do.

For the most part, peasants ignored these new words.  But since wealthier individuals saw to it that their children were literate, the newly-incorporated words remained.

So Why Is Naive Pronounced the Way it Is?

Orthographic depth refers to how much the spelling of a language aligns with the sounds of the words.  Languages with a shallow orthography have easy spelling because most sounds and letters have a one-to-one correspondence. 

Italian, Romanian, Turkish, and most African languages have a shallow orthography.  Spanish, German, and Korean are examples of languages with some spelling irregularities, so they lie in the middle of the orthography scale.

And English is among the languages where the orthography is difficult, or deep.  The spelling is irregular and often cannot be predicted by the word’s pronunciation.

French is also orthographically deep.  This is why French words like naïve are more challenging to spell than a German word such as kindergarten. 

English is Now the Chief Loaner of Words

After having “borrowed” hundreds of words from other languages, English is now the number one “lender” of words.   This can be a sign of the prestige (from French prestige) of the language. 

Or it is a sign of a need to learn the language. 

“Global Business Speaks English,” the Harvard Business Review wrote a few years ago.  Multi-national businesses have realized that it is more efficient if everyone spoke a common language.  English has become the common ground that makes it possible for firms in Germany, Japan, and America to communicate.

Some Countries Are Trying to Keep English Out

Not everyone is happy with the “invasion” of English.  In 1994, the French decreed that French is the national language, and words from other languages should not be used.  The Toubon law decreed that all official documents, advertisements, commercial contracts, and schools should use French. 

France is not the only country that has tried to dictate language purity, but as long as there is cross-cultural communication, such attempts are bound to fail. 

Who Is to Blame for English’s Spelling Difficulties?

I think the blame lies with the English—for letting themselves get conquered repeatedly.  If only they could have kept the Romans, the Saxons, and the Normans out, we would all be speaking Old English.  Or is that Olde English?

Nicholas Rossis wrote an excellent post on the transition from Latin to Modern Italian, another example of how languages grow and change. Check it out.

What word do you struggle to spell correctly?

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