The Peculiarity of English Spelling

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Helping speakers of other nationalities in their English pronunciation makes me aware of just how odd our English spelling is, and how unreliable it is in predicting how words should be spoken.

Take rough, bough, through, and thought, for instance. All have “ough” in their spelling, yet we English speakers use four completely different vowels. I would forgive someone for assuming that, since I pronounce rough as I do, that I would pronounce bough as buff; or because I say bough as I do, I will pronounce through the same way (throw?). How confusing! I couldn’t even come up with a clear way to represent that in ordinary spelling.

And why do we say soot but hoot; give but dive; thing (with a voiceless “th”) but this (with a voiced “th”)? I have no idea!

How about “wh” words? We say which, why, when, and what with a “w” sound. But who, whole, whose don’t follow suit; we use the “h” sound instead of saying woo, wole, and woos. To complicate the matter, some speakers say which, why, when, and what using the breathy version of the “wh.” You’d think we’d spell those words hwich, hwy, hwen and hwat since the “h” sound comes before the “w” sound. Or if we didn’t want to change the spelling, we should say them as we spell them: w-Hich, w-Hy, w-Hen, and w-Hat. But no such luck!

Then there are “ng” words. We say anger, longer, and finger with a “g” sound. But we drape our shirt on a hanger, not a hanger; and the airplane is parked in the hangar, not the hanGar. This could get dangerous! Or should that be danGerous, or daNGerous?

Some English words have evil, hidden pronunciation traps. The “y” sound is easy enough in Yankee, yogurt, and yacht (shouldn’t that be yaCHt?) – the letter “y” gives us the clue. But that same “y” sound is also hidden in beauty, or it would sound the same as booty; it also lurks somewhere inside cue and queue, or those homonyms would sound the same as coo or coup, and then we’d all be in the soup, or should that be the soo? A Brit would also use the “y” sound to report that, The news said the duke fought a duel in the nude, though his American cousin would leave it out and say, The noos said the dook fought a dool in the nood. They do agree, however, to face the m-yoozik and not the moozik.

English is clearly a language of exceptions within exceptions within exceptions. I’m told that, for many languages, one can predict pronunciation from spelling with much greater confidence. Spanish, for instance.

The explanation I’ve heard for all this is that English is such an old language, continuously used in an island free of conquering invaders for nearly 1,000 years; and although spelling was once much more predictive of pronunciation (the now silent “k” and “gh” of knight once being sounded, for instance, as we know from Monty Python) that spelling has not kept abreast with pronunciation as it evolves. So the chasm separating spelling from pronunciation will get only wider as time goes on, unless some very influential spelling reformer comes along.

My thanks to the rest of the world for making English your lingua franca of choice, but my deepest apologies for our atrocious spelling.


For more information in this topic, listen to Paul’s November 2021 episode of his free podcast, In a Manner of Speaking.