Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible

If you’re like me and have vivid memories of learning to read English, you probably remember being deeply frustrated. As far as four-year-old-Rachael was concerned,  math was nice and simple: two and two always, always equals four. Not sometimes. Not only when it felt like it. All the time. Nice and simple.

Reading, and particularly phonics, on the other hand, was a minefield of dirty tricks. Oh, sure, they told us that each letter represented a single sound, but even a kid knows that’s hooey. Cough? Bough? Come on, that was like throwing sand in a fight; completely unfair. And what about those vowels? What and cut rhyme with each other, not cut and put. Even as phonics training was increasing my phonemic awareness, pushing me to pay more attention to the speech sounds I made, English orthography (that’s our spelling system) was dragging me behind the ball-shed and pulling out my hair in clumps. Metaphorically.

Books that make literacy fun
“Oh man, they’re trying to tell us that A makes the ‘Aaahhh’ sound. What do they take us for, complete idiots? Or is that ‘whaahhht’ to they take us for?”
“I know, right? One-to-one correspondence? Complete rubbish!”
Of course, I did eventually pass third grade and gain mastery of the written English language. But it was an uphill battle all the way. Why? Because English orthography is retarded. Wait. I’m sorry. That’s completely unfair to individuals suffering from retardation. English orthography is spiteful, contradictory and completely unsuited to representing the second most widely-spoken second language. This poem really highlights the problem:

Recovering Sounds from Orthography

Brush up Your English

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough 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, or brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s doze 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, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.

A dreadful language? Man alive! I mastered it when I was five.

— T.S. Watt (1954)

So why don’t we get our acts together and fix this mess? Well… trying to fix it is kind of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. Basically, in renaissance England we started out with a basically phonetic spelling system. You actually sounded out words and wrote them as they sounded. “Aks” instead of “ask”, for example. (For what it’s worth, “aks” is the original pronunciation.) And you would be writing by hand. On very expensive parchment with very expensive quills and ink for very rich people.

Enter the printing press. Suddenly we can not only produce massive amounts of literature, but everyone can access them. Spelling goes from being something that only really rich people and scribes care about to a popular phenomena. And printing press owners were quick to capitalize on that phenomena  by printing spelling lists that showed the “correct” way to write words. Except there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement between the different printing houses and they were already so heavily invested in their own systems that they weren’t really willing to all switch over to a centralized system. By the time Samuel Johnson comes around to pin down every word of English like an entomologist in a field of butterflies, we have standardized spellings for most words… that all come from different systems developed by different people. And it’s just gotten more complex from there. One of the main reasons is that we keep shoving new words into the language without regard for how they’re spelled.

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.”

― James Nicoll

There’s actually a sound in English, the zh sort of sound in “lesiure”, that only exists in words we’ve “borrowed” from other language and, of course, there’s no letter for it. Of course not; that would be too simple. And English detests simple. If you’re really interested in more of the gory details, there’s a great lecture you can listen to/watch here by Edwin Duncan which goes into way more detail on the historical background. Or you can just scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary and wince constantly.



6 thoughts on “Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible

  1. I hadn’t heard about the advent of printing being a factor before — very interesting. But I think you also should have mentioned the sound changes over the centuries that made once phonetic spelling like “knight” illogical, plus the fact that trying to fit 13 or so vowels to 5 letters was probably a lost cause from the beginning.

    1. Yeah, that’s a good point. Of course, the “kn” thing is predictable so I have a bit less of a problem with that. But the vowels are *terrible*. Particularly considering that most unstressed vowels are the mid central one and we just sort of randomly pick a letter to stick in there.

  2. Hi, I am trying to determine if T.S. Watt truly is the author of the poem you have cited here for a research project in university. Could you tell me where you found that the author was T.S. Watt?

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