Difficult By Design

In a review of three new books on the history of English, Michael Skapinker talks about why spelling is so damn hard in this baggy monstrosity of a language:

“Why is English spelling such a tangle? It all started when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century without enough letters in their alphabet. They had 23. (They didn’t have ‘j’, ‘u’ or ‘w’.) Yet the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes, or distinctive sounds. The Romans didn’t have a letter, for example, for the Anglo-Saxon sound we spell ‘th’. The problem continues. Most English-speakers today have, depending on their accents, 40 phonemes, which we have to render using 26 letters. So, we use stratagems such as doubling vowels to elongate them, as in ‘feet’ and ‘fool’.

With the Norman invasion in 1066, spelling became more complicated still; French and Latin words rushed into the language. As the centuries went by, scribes found ways of reflecting the sounds people used with the letters that they had. They lengthened vowels by adding a final ‘e’, so that we could tell ‘hope’ from “hop”.

From the late 1300s, scribes used the letter combination ‘gh’ in words such as ‘night’, to represent the back-of-the-mouth noise people then used. Why did it remain even after the sound died out? Because by the end of the 15th century, William Caxton had introduced printing to England, and the printers decided to keep it.”

If you had to choose a global language based on ease of use and a general lack of exceptions to major rules, English would be one of the last choices.  Alas, due to world history, people like me get to make a living trying to untangle this glorious linguistic mess.

Also, “Skapinker” is a pretty great name.

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This entry was posted in English, History, Kultur, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Difficult By Design

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    What do you think of wider use of Esperanto as a global language?

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