Spelling in English isn’t easy! In case you need convincing, here’s an anonymous poem that illustrates many of the problem words for English spelling. It’s believed to have appeared first in The Times of London in 1936. Try reading this aloud.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead—
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it “deed”!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear;
And then there’s dose and rose and lose—
Just look them up—and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart—
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
On top of this burden, there’s the auto-correct feature on many a computer or tablet that wants to correct your spelling even when you haven’t made a mistake. Pity the innocent salesperson hoping to make a sale with this email:
Dear Sir or Madman:
Thank you for your interest in our Steakholder Pension Plan. I’m sorry you had trouble finding the sight on the Internet, and I assure you that you can view the details of the plan by exploring our website: www.noveltynightwear [auto-corrected from www.novellenetware]. I apologize for any incontinence I may have caused.
So why are English words so hard to spell correctly? My search for the answer has revealed three main reasons.
- Our alphabet was invented for Latin—a language that’s no longer in common use. The letters we use aren’t always adequate to convey the sounds they represent in a given word.
- The English language began as a mixture of French and German, but throughout history, we’ve added words from other languages, including Greek, Latin, and the Scandinavian languages. This conglomeration results in many exceptions to any spelling rule.
- When the printing press came into use, English spelling became more standardized. The problem with standardizing spelling was that pronunciations continued to change. A word that was once spelled as it sounded—for example, knee was once pronounced with an audible k—is no longer spoken that way.
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