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Why is English spelling so hard and confusing?

There is a reason why the poem The Chaos Of English Pronunciation by Gerard Nolst Trenité (the classic English poem containing about 800 of the most nightmarish irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation) exists. English spelling is notoriously hard, contradictory and confusing. Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw pointed out the absurdities of it by proving that "fish" could be spelt "ghoti" (gh as in rough, o as in women and ti as in palatial!). In William Shakespeare's comedy Love's Labor's Lost, there is a hilariously pedantic character who wants English pronunciation to change to match spelling.

Despite some outdated examples, The Chaos is still very much relevant today. The chaotic (and sometimes jarring) discrepancy between how many English words are written and their actual pronunciation keeps puzzling non-native speakers worldwide. But how did the English spelling end up like this? Let's find out!

It all starts with Old English

The British Isles were invaded, occupied and visited by a number of different tribes and cultures over the centuries, which influenced the spelling in interesting ways.

The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic peoples that took control of Britain from the native British population at the start of the fifth century, spoke a Germanic language called Old English and had not one but two alphabets – the ‘futhorc’ or Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet and Latin alphabet, which was brought to England by Christian missionaries in the 7th century.

The language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons included sounds that had no equivalent in Latin, so they grouped Latin letters or borrowed some futhorc ones. For example, infamously complicated sounds ‘th‘ and /w/ (as in what, work and quick) were represented in the Old English Latin alphabet by runic letters – þ and p respectively!

Here come the Normans

Other big changes that complicated things even more happened after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The conquerors brought a northern dialect of Old French from northern France, a region called Normandy, to England. This dialect shared most of its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation with the medieval French of the mainland. The influence of it explains why English has so many words that are written as though they are French – that's how we ended up with cween becoming queen, table with a silent -e at the end as well as "French-looking" words like centre and theatre.

A printing press confusion

Over the years, many English words simply changed their pronunciation for mysterious reasons. For example, the word name was pronounced as something like naam (naːm) after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and began to sound closer to how we say it today only in the XIXth century.

However, another great shift in spelling happened after the invention of the printing press. Initially, most printing was done by Belgian or Dutch typesetters who spoke little or no English. They often changed the spelling of words following the spelling conventions of their languages. That's how, for example, the word gost became ghost, and the word yott transformed into yacht.

The influence of Latin

Finally, during the English Renaissance, there was an attempt to reform English spelling which, in practice, turned out to be a long love letter to Latin. As a result, many words were changed to honour their Latin roots... sometimes mistakenly, even when they didn't have any. For example, while the word det got an extra "b" and became debt as it can be traced back to the Latin word debitum, iland became island for the wrong reasons, because it actually comes from an Old English word iegland!

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