Five Reasons English Spelling Is a Mess

Whether you’re a native speaker or not, chances are you’ve struggled with English spelling at one time or another. It’s not because of you – it’s because of English’s spelling system (or lack thereof). Here are five reasons it makes no sense.

1) The alphabet wasn’t designed for English. The first people to transcribe English were the Romans, and they used what they had: the Latin alphabet. However, English had some sounds that that alphabet didn’t cover – for instance, unlike English, Latin didn’t contain the first sound of this or thick. Since there was no convention telling the Romans how to write that down, they improvised by combining t and h.

Ancient and modern Latin alphabets - source: Omniglot.com

2) Non-native speakers tried to make English spellings match those of their own languages. When the Normans ruled England, they applied some French conventions to English – changing cwen to queen, for instance. Later, when William Caxton brought the printing press to England, most of the printers were Dutch. They applied Dutch spellings to some words. No one knows why some of these replacements (like ghost for gost) stuck while others (like ghoose for goose) didn’t, but the resulting mishmash makes things even less consistent.

3) Medieval handwriting was confusing. The handwriting used in England during Norman rule made u, v, n, and m look confusingly similar. Therefore, there arose a rule that common words that should logically be spelled with a u-n or u-m would instead be spelled with an o-n-e or o-m-e for visual clarity. That’s why we have done and some rather than dun and sum. (Actually, though, dun and sum are words themselves, with separate meanings from done and some – the strangeness never ends.)
U, V, N, and M

4) People added in extra letters. In the sixteenth century, as spelling was becoming more standardized, reformers decided to use etymology to help decide what would be the “correct” spelling of a word. So, for instance, they added a silent b in debt so it would match the Latin word debitum. (In this case, the idea that debt is derived from debitum probably isn’t even correct, so this wasn’t the best idea on any level.)
NYC National Debt Clock - source: Wikimedia

5) Pronunciations were changing just when spelling was being standardized. Language is always evolving. The period from 1350 through the seventeenth or eighteenth century was a period of rapid pronunciation change in English. This is known as the Great Vowel Shift. The pronunciations of vowels shifted around, so that, for instance a word that used to be pronounced like the modern boat came to be pronounced like the modern boot and a word that used to be pronounced like the modern beet came to be pronounced like the modern bite. English orthography was standardized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, so some spellings reflect the old pronunciations and some reflect the new ones.

So, next time you have trouble spelling something, remind yourself that it’s not your fault. English spelling is simply screwy. However, there’s still a lot you can do to make sure that whatever you write is as polished as possible, such as installing eType – it’ll catch misspellings and do the correcting for you.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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