The mess that is the English spelling system

The latest XKCD reads:


The first part is a reference to the cheesy pick-up line ‘If I could rearrange the alphabet, I’d put U and I together’.

The irregularity of the English spelling system is part of folk-lore now. You have countless poems and articles and whatnots, all trying to hammer in the fact that English pronunciation is the work of the Devil.

English wasn’t always this way. Let’s travel through time to the 14th century and listen to a recitation of the General Prologue to Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English. Note that no one who’s alive today has heard Middle English being spoken, but this seems to be a reasonable reconstruction. Notice how the spellings of the words aren’t significantly different from what we have in Modern English, but the pronunciation is so markedly different.

The Wiki page for English Orthography summarizes the situation well: This is largely due to the complex history of the English language, together with the absence of systematic spelling reforms implemented in English, in contrast to the position in a number of other languages.

To put it in short, the pronunciation has undergone significant changes, some very systematic ones (The Great Vowel Shift), but the orthography hasn’t followed suit. So what was once pronounced as it was written now sounds very different from its spelling. For instance, the word I wasn’t pronounced Aye; it was pronounced ee, the way you would expect in a speak as you spell language. The gh in night wasn’t silent, it was actually pronounced. And the i in night wasn’t aye, it was ee.

Apart from this, there is the whole issue of loan words. English usually just retains the spelling of the loan word and modifies its pronunciation slightly, while still retaining a bit of the original. When there are loan words from all kinds of languages, you are bound to have a lot of mess. You are effectively borrowing words which have been written using completely different spelling conventions. So you have words like Czech and Fjord. When there are too many conventions, there isn’t any convention at all. That, my friend, is English. Of course, with enough experience, you do begin to see patterns in English words, and can often predict the spelling of a word with reasonable accuracy, but it is true that our orthography remains a veritable mess.

As Mark Liberman wrote on Language Log, the English writing system is a complex pattern of overlapping historical layers with sporadic intrusions of reform, for which the appropriate mode of analysis is more geological than logical. 

While English orthography is indeed a colossal mess (and no linguist would claim otherwise), there are some bright sides to it once you manage to get over the terrible spelling. Often you can tell where a word has come from merely by looking at it, because it carries a signature of its original language. The letter ch pronounced as sh? It’s probably come via French. The same letter pronounced as k? We are mostly looking at a gift from the Greeks. And so on…

Finally, I hope you’ve seen this excellent video!

4 Comments to “The mess that is the English spelling system”

  1. Val Yule 17 June 2012 at 06:58 #


    is ridiculous that English spelling has so many words with illogical spellings
    and surplus letters, because so
    many people are disadvantaged and cannot learn them.  We spend millions of pounds and dollars in English-speaking
    countries on illiteracy, which we need not, if we only fixed up the anomalies
    and surplus letters. Most people cannot spell without spell-checkers. See for


    Yule, Valerie  ‘Recent developments
    which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties
    in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print
    intact.’  English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67

   Can you spell?  The
    best of us may not be perfect. Writing systems of
    the world A half hour cartoon
    overview of reading and spelling, especially useful for learners who are stuck


    2002. It’s the spelling that’s stupid, not me; Taking
    Ockham’s Razor to English Spelling. ABC Radio National broadcast. Ockham’s
    Razor. 5.5.—not-me/3505566

  2. Anonymous 17 June 2012 at 07:48 #

    if u’r interested sign

  3. Nigel H 18 June 2012 at 00:12 #

    A very succinct overview – however the up-side to having such an irregular and
    corrupted system seems to me of interest only to linguists and other
    academics. There is an etymological structure to the spelling but that is contradicted by other parallel systems.
    In fact you could say that there are too many contradictory
    systems happening all at the same time and it is this that makes  it
    hugely difficult to learn to read and write in English. We have a
    semi-illiteracy rate of 23% in the English speaking world and this is
    greatly because of these systemic problems.

  4. LoboSolo 25 September 2012 at 03:46 #

    The biggest downfall to spelling wasn’t the so-call’d Great Vowel Shift but the imposition of French orthography onto English words. Þurh (with Þ=Th) was how through was spell’d … throw in the French ou for u and gh for h and one has a mess.

    However, a lot of it could be fixt. Many reformers in the US, England, and Australia hav put forth changes see . It’s up to everyone of us to do our bit. I stoppt spelling thru as through as a teenager. I went thru undergrad, graduate school, the military (where thru is preferr’d), and the corporate world with altho, tho, and thru.

    Don’t bemoan about it and then keep doing it. It starts with yu …

Leave a Reply