A nice little BBC piece on the many historical reasons why spelling in English is so crazily inconsistent. The biggest culprits? High-falutin’ Renaissance grammar nazis:
“What really made sure that English spelling was a losing game, though, was snobbery.
It started in the 11th Century, when French became the high-class language and loaded up our culinary, legal and poetic vocabularies. But the snobbery kicked into top gear in the Renaissance, when scholars developed a crush on the ancient classics. They started borrowing words wholesale; many of our scientific and technical terms come from Latin and Greek (and most of the Greek terms came first through Latin, with Latin ideas of how to spell them). But they also decided that words that we already had ought to display their classical heritage, too. Does peple trace back to Latin populus? Then it ought to bear a special amulet to show its nobility – let’s add the o and make it people! Det owes a debt to debitum? Then put a b in so we know it! Many words had letters added by this indi(c)table fau(l)t; sometimes, they changed their pronunciation to match the spelling, as in fault. And sometimes the re-spellers were wrong about the etymology. While isle (formerly ile) comes from insula (hence the s), for example, island does not; it’s from Old English iegland.”
My Korean students think I’m being hyperbolic when I constantly remind them not to be frustrated, because English is patently insane. I’m not. Not one bit.