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[The Stupidity of English Spelling] [Other Languages] [See Also]
In some languages, such as Finnish, there is a neat one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling. A k to the Finns is always "k", and l eternally and comfortingly "l". But in English pronunciation is so various -- one might say random -- that not one of our twenty-six letters can be relied on for constancy. Either they clasp to themselves a variety of pronunciations, as with the c in race, rack, and rich, or they sulk in silence, like the b in debt, the a in bread, the second t in thistle. In combinations they become even more unruly and unpredictable, most famously in the letter cluster ough, which can be pronounced in any of eight ways -- as in through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough, and lough (an Irish-English word for lake or loch, pronounced roughly as the latter). [What about cough? In Australian English hiccough is pronounced 'hiccup' -- Fred] The pronunciation possibilities are so various that probably not one English speaker in a hundred could pronounce with confidence the name of a crowlike bird called the chough. (It's chuff.) Two words in English, hegemony and phthisis, have nine pronunciations each.
In fact, they all are. So was misspelled at the end of the preceeding paragraph. So was preceding just there. I'm sorry, I'll stop. But I trust you get the point that English can be a maddeningly difficult language to spell correctly.
[...] To be fair, English does benefit from the absence of diacritical marks. These vary from language to language, but in some they play a crucial, and often confusing, role. In Hungarian, for instance, tȍke means capital, but töke means testicles. Szár means stem, but take away the accent and it becomes the sort of word you say when you hit your thumb with a hammer. [...]
A mere 3 per cent of our words may be orthographically troublesome, but they include some doozies, as one might say. Almost any argument in defence of English spelling begins to look a trifle flimsy when you consider anomalies such as colonel, a word that clearly contains no r and yet proceeds as if it did, or ache, bury, and pretty, all of which are pronounced in ways that pay the scantest regard to their spellings, or four and forty, one of which clearly has a u and the other of which clearly doesn't. In fact, all the "four" words -- four, fourth, fourteen, twenty-four, and so on -- are spelled with a u until we get to forty when suddenly the u disappears. Why?
As with most things, there are any number of reasons for all of these. Sometimes our curious spellings are simply a matter of carelessness. That is why, for instance, abdomen has an e but abdominal doesn't, why hearken has an e but hark doesn't. Colonel is perhaps the classic example of this orthographic waywardness. The word comes from the old French coronelle, which the French adapted from the Italian colonello (from which we get colonnade). When the word first came into English in the mid-sixteenth century, it was spelled with an r, but gradually the Italian spelling and pronunciation began to challenge it. For a century or more both spellings and pronunciations were common, until finally with inimitable illogic we settled on the French pronunciation and Italian spelling.
The matter of the vanishing u from forty is more problematic. Chaucer spelled it with a u, as indeed did most people until the end of the seventeenth century, and some for a century or so after that. But then, as if by universal decree, it just quietly vanished. No one seems to have remarked on it at the time. [...]
Usually in English we strive to preserve the old spelling at almost any cost to logicality. Take ache. The spelling seems desperately inconsistent today, as indeed it is. Up until Shakespeare's day, ache was pronounced aitch when it was a noun. As a verb, it was pronounced ake -- but also, rather sensibly, was spelled ake. This tendency to fluctuate between "ch" and "k" sounds was once fairly common. It accounts for such pairs as speech|speak, stench|stink, and stitch|stick. But ache, for reasons that defy logic, adopted the verb pronunciation and the noun spelling.
[...] The Normans certainly did not hesitate to introduce changes they felt more comfortable with, such as substituting qu for cw. Had William the Conqueror been turned back at Hastings, we would spell queen as cwene. The letters z and g were introduced and the Old English þ and ð were phased out. [...]
[...] When at last Anglo-Norman died out and English words rushed in to take their place in official and literary use, it sometimes happened that people adopted the spelling used in one part of the country and the pronunciation used in another. That is why we use the western English spellings for busy and bury, but give the first the London pronunciation "bizzy" and the second the Kentish pronunciation "berry". Similarly, if you've ever wondered how on earth a word spelled one could be pronounced "wun" and once could be "wunce", the answer in both cases is that Southern pronunciations attached themselves to East Midland spellings. Once they were pronounced more or less as spelled -- i.e. "oon" and "oons".
Even without the intervention of the Normans, there is every reason to suppose that English spelling would have been a trifle erratic. Largely this is because for a very long time people seemed emphatically indifferent to matters of consistency in spelling. There were exceptions. As long ago as the early thirteenth century a monk named Orm was calling for a more logical and phonetic system for English spelling. (His proposals, predictably, were entirely disregarded, but they tell scholars more about the pronunciation of the period than any other surviving document.) Even so, it is true to say that most people throughout much of the history of the English language have seemed remarkably unconcerned about the niceties of spelling -- even to the point of spelling one word two ways in the same sentence, as in the description of James I by one of his courtiers, in which just eight words come between two spellings of clothes: "He was of a middle stature, more corpulent though in his clothes than in his body, yet fat enough, his cloathes being ever made larger and easie ..." Even more remarkably perhaps, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words by Robert Cawdrey, published in 1604 and often called the first English dictionary, spelled words two ways on the title page. [David Crystal, Who Cares about English Usage?, 1984, p. 204]
[...] Before 1400, it was possible to tell with some precision where in Britain a letter or manuscript was written just from the spellings. By 1500, this had become all but impossible. The development that changed everything was the invention of the printing press. This brought a much-needed measure of uniformity to English spelling -- but at the same time guaranteed that we would inherit one of the most bewilderingly inconsistent spelling systems in the world.
From Made In America by Bill Bryson (Black Swan books, 1994):
[...] To begin with, such a statement contains the implied conceit that modern English is today somehow uniform in its spellings, which is far from true. In 1972 a scholar named Lee C. Deighton undertook the considerable task of comparing the spellings of every word in four leading American dictionaries and found there are no fewer than 1,770 common words in modern English in which there is no general agreement on the preferred spelling. [...] The dictionaries are equally - we might fairly say hopelessly - split on whether to write discussible or discussable, eyeopener, eye opener or, eye-opener, dumfound or, dumbfound, gladiolus (for the plural), gladioli or, gladioluses, gobbledegook or, gobbledygook, licenceable or, licensable, and many hundreds of others. The champion of orthographic uncertainty appears to be panatela, which can also pass muster as panatella, panetela or panetella.
[Chapter 3, A 'Democratical Phrenzy': America in the Age of Revolution, p. 53-54]
From The Comic Stories by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Harvey Pitcher, pub. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1999):
"It's what the experts demand," sighs Pimfoff.
"Experts? Charlatans, more likely. They only do it to show off, to pull the wool over people's eyes. Or take spelling, for example. If I spell "mediaeval" with 'e' in the middle instead of 'ae', does it really make a blind bit of differences?"
"Now youre going too far, Ilya Martynych, says Pimfoff, offended. "How can you posibly spell 'mediaeval' with 'e' in the middle? This is getting beyond a joke.'
Pimfoff drains his glass, blinks with a hurt expression and starts looking in the other direction.
"Yes, I've even been thrashed over that diphthong!" Yashkin continues. "The teacher called me up to the blackboard one day and dictacted: 'Our beloved teacher is an outstanding paedagogue.' I went and wrote 'paedagogue' with just 'e' at the beginning. Wrong, bend over! A week later he calls me out again and dictates: 'Our beloved teacher is an outstanding paedagogue.' This time I wrote 'ae'. Bend over again! 'But Sir,' I said, 'that's not fair. It was you told us 'ae' was correct!' 'I was mistaken last week,' he says, 'yesterday I was reading an article by a member of the Academy which proves that 'paedagogue' is derived from the Greek paidos and should be spelt 'ai'. I am in agreement with the Academy of Sciences and it is therefore my bounden duty to give you a thrashing.' Which he did. It's the same with my son Vashya. He's always coming home with a thick ear because of that diphthong. If I were Minister of Education, I'd soon stop you people having us on with your diphthongs."
"I bid you good day," sighs Pimfoff, blinking rapidly and putting on his jacket. "When you start attacking education, that really is to much ..."
[p. 146 -- A Man of Ideas / Myslitel (1885)]
Translator's note [p. 215]: "Or take spelling for example." What Yashkin objects to in Russian spelling concerns the redundant letter yat, which was abolished in the spelling reform of 1918. It is translated here into a roughly comparable feature of English spelling.
Whistling will be a compulsory subject for primary school students on Gomera, one of the Canary islands. The goal is to save the island's centuries-old whistling language.
One notorious victim [of the difficulty of translating Chinese into English or vice versa] was Coca-Cola, which tried to market its drink with the Chinese Characters "Ke-Kou-Ke-Le", which translated as "Bite the Wax Tadpole". After an emergency rebranding, Chinese now drink Ke-Kou-Ke-Le (Happy Mouth, Happiness).
One hotel has been confusing visitors for decades with a piece of paper on their beds saying: "Decadent songs and actions that go against decency are not allowed here."