English: the Good, the Bad, and the Spelling

For better or for worse, English currently functions as a lingua franca in many parts of the world. That’s nice for us and really annoying, I’m sure, for everybody else. It could be worse, though. English has its good points and its bad points.

On the one hand English tends to be a pretty open and inclusive language. Speakers of English generally aren’t fussy about how you pronounce it. (We even elect presidents who say nook-yoo-ler for “nuclear”.) Most of us tend to regard foreign accents as colorful or charming, and foreign words are always welcome. No snobbery here; we welcome armada, gestalt, karma, milieu, and tsunami.

We also must believe that brevity is the soul of wit because we shorten everything. Frequently down to an acronym: (TV, CD, DVD). And we’re never happier than when we can reduce some polysyllabic mouthful to a monosyllable: (sync, hype, nuke). This is good for people who happen to be in a hurry, who like their efforts at communication to be short and sweet, and, hopefully, quickly understood. It’s also potentially confusing, however, since the process goes on continually and usually at a break-brain rate of speed. Just blink and people are talking gibberish.

English offers some familiarity in the form of cognates (words of common origin) to folks whose native tongues hail from either of two major branches of the Indo-European language super-family – the Germanic languages and the Latin-based Romance languages. This is a consequence of its having been born out of the forcible collision of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French that occurred as a result of the Normans’ conquest of England in 1066 AD. (At this point a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry would seem in order)

Deutsch: Teppich von Bayeux

Anglo-Saxon collides with Norman French (Battle of Hastings, from the Bayeux Tapestry) Image via Wikipedia

On the up-side, English’s assortment of language sounds (phones) contains relatively few really rare ones to trip up the tongues of people whose native languages don’t happen to contain them. We have only one major offender: th. (Actually, that’s two major offenders because English contains two distinct sounds represented as “th”, the unvoiced and the voiced forms, exemplified by the words thin and this. We just aren’t aware that the two sounds are different because they never make a difference between words in English.)

On the down-side, English has an unusually large lexicon – that’s the sum-total of all the words it can claim as its own. The linguistic collision resulting from the Norman Conquest may be at least partly to blame, as well as all that free and easy borrowing. It really is an absurdly large lexicon. Pick up any unabridged dictionary and it’s pretty obvious there are more words in there than anyone could ever have any reasonable use for. (Ha! Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition, and I’m not a bit sorry!)

Then there’s the Seventh Circle of Hell known as English Spelling.

Whenever I meet some poor non-native speaker who is trying to master English I feel a compulsion to apologize for what has to be the least phonetic spelling (orthography) of any language that has ever been committed to a nominally phonetic written form. If English has any serious competition for this dubious honor, I would love to hear about it. It’s not just the stunning illogic of words like could, island and knight, it’s the appalling inconsistency, especially in our spelling of vowel sounds. English spelling is both redundant and degenerate, meaning we have both more than one spelling for the same sound and more than one sound for the same spelling. (I may have gotten those turned around.) It’s bad enough that we have only 26 letters to work with while we have about 40 phonemes (sounds that make a difference between words.) Then we make matters worse by completely wasting three of the letters – C, Q, and X – all of which are used to spell sounds that could be covered by other letters (kow, senter, kwilt, ekstra). We double-up some letters to represent consonants not covered by a single letter, like ch, sh, and th – which is okay. But when it comes to the vowels, for which we have only five letters to work with, we get really creative – to the point of total chaos.

Here’s a little game: Start with a simple little English word and try to think of another English word that has either a different spelling for some sound in the first word or a different sound corresponding to some part of the first word’s spelling. Then try to do the same with the second word, and so on. See how long you can keep the string going. Here are four seven-word strings:

be bee been bin bind pined signed
right rite write isle aisle stile style
fluff tough thought through though throw chow
sew so hoe shoe too to Few

I could go on like this all day.

We try to find rules to help us deal with some of this insanity. Rules like the familiar:

“I before E, except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh.”

Notice that the “rule” already embodies two exceptions. Unfortunately, these exceptions don’t cover everything, as demonstrated by this mnemonic intended to help us remember how to spell five exceptions to it:

“The weird foreigner seizes leisure at its height.”

I don’t think this list of exceptional exceptions is exhaustive, and notice that these five examples include three different vowel pronunciations for a single spelling.

We also have:

“When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.”

If that were really true, what would we need the second one for? It isn’t consistently true, of course. The neighbor/weigh group is an exception, for starters. So is “height.”  So is “believe,” although “believe” does at least follow the “I before E” rule.

Honestly, it’s just about hopeless.  It seems as if the inconsistency of English spelling is its most consistent feature. I grew up with this mess, which puts me ahead of that pitiable soul who is tackling English as a second language. Even so, spelling is my frequent downfall. (If you are similarly frustrated by it, I will gladly join you in a rant any day of the week.)  I was not gifted with total visual recall for the spelling of words – unlike some annoying people, such as my mother. I love my mother dearly, but one of her more annoying habits when I was a growing up was telling me to look up words when I asked her how to spell them rather than just graciously answering my question. I knew how to use a dictionary, for Pete’s sake. Asking her was just a whole lot faster – or it should have been. It can be amazingly difficult to find some English words in the dictionary if you don’t already know how to spell them, and what’s the use of having someone with that kind of talent around if he/she won’t act as a resource?

At this point, fairness compels me to mention that there is one upside to this spelling morass: Having different spellings that correspond to a single pronunciation allows us to distinguish between homonyms in our written language, (“rite,” “write,” and “right;” or “isle,” “aisle,” and “I’ll”). If we had completely consistent spelling, we wouldn’t even be able to have homonyms, though we would still, of course, have homophones, (words that sound alike). (And without those, we couldn’t have puns – and just think how much duller life would be.) Seriously, being able to distinguish homonyms in writing can aid clarity, although usually the context provides adequate clarification. Even here, spelling lets us down sometimes, as in distinguishing between “right” meaning the opposite of “left”, “right” meaning “correct”, and “right” referring to one of those inalienable thingies guaranteed us by the Constitution. (That’s a highly technical term, “thingy”).

How did English spelling get this way? That’s a subject for another day. I do know some of the answers, thanks to having once taken a Linguistics course (Dr. Elizabeth Barber’s class called “Natural and Artificial Languages” at Occidental College, in 1975), but I would like to know more. I recently spotted a book on the subject that I’d like to buy and read before making a further report. It’s called Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English spelling by James Essinger. Let me check that out, and get back to you. (I’ll give you a hint, though; language change and dictionaries are partially to blame…)