Orthography 101

Spelling demons! The English language has many of them. Students and adults alike bemoan the many exceptions to spelling “rules” that simply don’t apply. Famous writers on both sides of the Atlantic (Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw among them) had proposed simplifying English orthography. For example, according to the vagaries of the language, “ghoti” could conceivably be pronounced “fish.” This strange concoction comes from pronouncing the “gh” as in “enough,” the “o” as in “women,” and the “ti” as in “nation.” Native and non-native speakers struggle to understand how words like “threw” and “through” are homophones. One humorous verse from a book entitled Language Minority Students in American Schools: An Education in English, illustrates the complexity of the language:

Beware of heard, that dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: It sounds like bed not bead
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed.

Because of the language’s history (English derives from both Germanic and Latin roots.), it has a multitude of sounds for each letter or letter combination. This characteristic makes English words much more difficult to spell than words in romance languages like French, Spanish or Italian. An article in The Economist cited a 2003 study that indicated that English takes more than twice as long to read to learn as it does to read most other western European languages.

Recent national test results in the United Kingdom demonstrated that about 30% of British students cannot read properly. One suggestion, according to a professor at a British university is that the English-speaking population should accept the most common misspellings as variations of a word rather than errors. However, spelling reform is quite difficult because language is more than a series of phonetic sounds. In The Economist, Mari Jones of Cambridge University argues that, “ Differences in regional pronunciation mean that introducing a phonetic spelling of English would benefit only people from the region whose pronunciation was chosen as the accepted norm. . . It would need continual updating to accommodate any subsequent changes in pronunciation.”

Languages change constantly, so unless some population wholeheartedly embraces an entirely new system spelling rules, English speakers should continue to have their “spell checkers” at the ready.

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