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The Horrors of English Orthography

“Vous ecrivez Londres et vous prononcez Constantinople!” said an indignant Voltaire after struggling with the mysteries of English spelling.  “You write London and you pronounce Constantinople.”

He was right, and English orthography is the linguistic equivalent of a failed third world country: corrupt, dysfunctional, hopeless. Around the turn of the twentieth century there was a rebellion against the insanity; people like George Bernard Shaw and Theodore Roosevelt wanted it reformed.  Nothing doing.

Despite its miserable spelling habits, English went from triumph to triumph during the next 100 years, and now reigns as the first truly global language. Too bad, in a way: all over the world people are struggling with the absurdities of an alphabet so misused and twisted that even short and common words are illogically spelled.  “Sugar”, for example, is pronounced “shugar”, and “sweet” and “suite” are pronounced exactly the same way.But nothing should surprise us in a language in which, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, the letters “ghoti” can be pronounced “fish”.  (‘Gh’ as in ‘tough’, ‘o’ as in ‘women’, ‘ti’ as in ‘nation’.)

Our irrational spelling system is not completely devoid of purpose; you can learn a lot about the origin of words from their conventional spelling. And these days, computer spell check programs make it less necessary for foreigners and others to dedicate years of toil to mastering the vagaries of our spelling conventions:  ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ and so on.

In any case, for your Sunday entertainment, here’s one of the best exposes of the anarchic nature of our spelling system I’ve seen for some time.  You can find the whole thing here; I’m indebted to Chaos Manor Musings, the website of author Jerry Pournelle for bringing it to my attention. As you read it, think about the difficulty foreigners (and children) have in learning to cope with this mess, and also at the mind’s ability to accept irrational realities and move on.

But don’t waste a lot of time thinking about spelling reform. English spelling seems as secure as the QWERTY keyboard, and there is probably not much to be done.

If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world.

After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud.

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Here, for your Sunday

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  • Robert

    This is from the ancient Web (ca. 1996):


    I have a spelling checker.
    It came with my PC.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    your sure reel glad two no.
    Its vary polished in it’s weigh,
    My checker tolled me sew.

    A checker is a bless sing,
    It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
    It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
    And aides me when aye rime.

    Each frays come posed up on my screen
    Eye trussed to bee a joule
    The checker poured o’er every word
    To cheque sum spelling rule.

    Be fore a veiling checkers
    Hour spelling mite decline,
    And if were lacks or have it laps,
    We wood be maid to wine.

    Butt now bee cause my spelling
    Is checked with such grate flare,
    Their are know faults with in my cite,
    Of none eye am a ware.

    Now spelling does knot phase me,
    It does knot bring a tier.
    My pay purrs awl due glad den
    With wrapped words fare as hear.

    To rite with care is quite a feet
    Of witch won should be proud.
    And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
    Sew flaws are knot aloud.

    Sew ewe can sea why aye dew prays
    Such soft ware for pea seas,
    And why I brake in two averse
    By righting wants to pleas.


  • Jim.

    Even native speakers run into problems sometimes. There is as street in San Fransisco named “Hough”. Does it rhyme with:



  • Soul

    I am a notoriously poor speller. And have been for most of my life. I also have a stomach problem that seems to be diet related. There have been times where I’ve been able to correct the gut woes, but only on very strict limited diets. I mention this because when well to the gut, I become well with my spelling. It is rather odd, as I’ve not read anything anywhere about this experience with others, but for me my poor spelling seems to be linked to nutrition absorption.

  • Richard S

    Funny. I was talking about this subject last night with a friend. We noted that English has a common law approach to language. It develops over time, incorporating more and more words from a variety of sources. Hence it’s rules are less than regular, and there are often several words with the same meaning. We don’t have the French Academy regulating the dictionary.
    It’s also true that American English is different than British English.

  • mark wauck

    Here’s a thought experiment: try working out a orthographic reform on your own. You’ll find that you’ll make seemingly good progress for a while, but will then run into difficulties. For example:

    English has no standard pronunciation. So whose pronunciation will the new orthography be based upon? English? American? Southern American? Texan? Aussie? Some compromise? A compromise, you will quickly find, is hard to implement. Regional speakers would all be confronted with different versions of what they now experience: that the written language doesn’t reflect their pronunciation.

    Throw cognates (French, Latin, Greek) right out the window. English spelling is, in reality, based on three separate systems, each of which does a reasonably good job of representing the pronunciation of the segment of English vocabulary that it arises from: English, Latin, and French (Greek words use a hybrid system). Using one system for all eliminates cognates that are helpful to at least many foreigners. The reason that is so has to do with the Great Vowel Shift, which resulted in English vowels–including that of “borrowed” vocabulary–being pronounced significantly differently than their foreign orthographic counterparts.

    So, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, a thorough, logical and consistent reform is probably impractical. However, it might be possible to do a limited reform that dealt with familiar problems like the pronunciation of the “gh” combination, and similar relatively discrete problems.

  • Charles R. Williams

    We need an orthography that encodes enough information about the pronunciation of a word that an Australian, a Brooklynite, a Texan and a South African can correctly identify the word and that simultaneously does not pick up the differences in accent when a spoken word is phonetically spelled. This is easier said than done.

    It is clear too that certain aspects of written English are easier than spoken English. Consider the rules for the formation of the past of weak verbs and the plural of nouns. Go to a phonetic spelling and you need rules to explain why the past of wawk is wawkt and the past of delivver is delivverd and why the plural of boks is boksez while the plural of top is tops and the plural of bag is bagz.

    In some respects written English is easy and spoken English is easy but the relationship between the two is very difficult. It’s not just spelling. In spoken English a great deal of information is conveyed by pauses, accents and stresses and this information is not well represented in what shows up on the printed page. This contributes to significant differences in style between what is written to be read silently and what is spoken.

  • Corlyss

    “Our irrational spelling system is not completely devoid of purpose; you can learn a lot about the origin of words from their conventional spelling.”

    Amen and may it ever be thus! I can’t look up a word without checking the origin. I want to know from which languge, remote, dead, or dying, my robust native tongue fliched it.

    That’s the glory and the bane of English: it is omnivorous when it comes to pilfering other languages for useful words. It reflects its island home’s history and its openness to foreigners and their languages. DON’T MESS WITH IT!

    For an appreciation of English and its stunning global success, check out Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

  • Hale Adams

    From Dr. Seuss, accompanying a drawing of a cold-stricken, thuggish-looking man operating a horse-drawn plow moving through some sort of goo:

    “The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough.”

  • Corlyss

    “We don’t have the French Academy regulating the dictionary.”

    An academy regulating speech is perhaps the ultimate expression of an elitist approach to rule. Thank God we don’t have one. It’s almost a sure sign of a rigidity from which no good can come. Among the stories Bryson tells in his rich little book is that of a French scientific journal that used to publish in French and English. It eventually was compelled by economics to eliminate the French edition because fewer and fewer institutions bought it. English and German are the science languages. I don’t give German much chance of lasting as long as English will. English is already the language of commerce, international travel, technology, and entertainment. Talk about an installed base! Another of Bryson’s tales is of a German firm that wanted to open a plant in Japan. The Germans didn’t speak Japanese; the Japanese didn’t speak German, so they settled on English as the language to be spoken in the plant.

    There were more students of English in China when Bryson wrote that book than there were native speakers of English.

  • mark wauck

    Charles R. Williamson wrote:

    Go to a phonetic spelling and you need rules to explain why the past of wawk is wawkt and the past of delivver is delivverd and why the plural of boks is boksez while the plural of top is tops and the plural of bag is bagz.

    Actually there’s a single easily understandable rule that explains these examples:

    In the case of endings added to words–here past endings for weak verbs (-d, -ed) and the regular plural of nouns (-s, -es)–the pronunciation of the ending is dependent upon the character of the final sound of the root. If the final sound is unvoiced, the ending “d” or “s” is also pronounced as unvoiced = “t” or “s”. If the final sound is a voiced consonant or a vowel (including the added vowel before the ending in “boxes”), then the ending is pronounced voiced = “d” or “z”. However, there are some complications regarding when an extra vowel is added before the final “d” or “s”.

    These are concepts (the voiced/unvoiced distinction) that many foreigners are acquainted with, but few Americans who are educated in American schools are. Among subjects that American schools teach poorly, the English language has to top the list. English phonetics is quite complicated enough–more so than the phonetics of many other languages–but the situation is made worse by inadequate instruction.

  • Gary L

    Although English orthography may well represent the strongest evidence we have for the historical existence of the Tower of Babel, our native tongue does have a few decisive advantages over its linguistic competitors (1) English does not have grammatical gender, that is, the masculine and feminine forms (and sometimes, neutral) which bedevil every other major European tongue ( 2) English has drastically simplified its inflections – as Albert Baugh in “A History of the English Language” writes, “Inflections in the noun have been reduced to a sign of the plural and a form for the possessive case. The elaborate Teutonic inflection of the adjective has been completely eliminated…..The verb has been simplified by the loss of practically all the personal endings, the almost complete abandonment of any distinction between the singular and the plural, and the gradual discard of the subjunctive mood.” (3) The chaos of English spelling reflects the fact that our language has been exceptionally open to allowing foreign importations –in other words, English began celebrating diversity centuries before it became politically correct to do so. Almost any European or Latin American who undertakes to learn English will find he already knows a substantial chunk of it.

    Old joke: “Don’t you the know King’s English?” “So’s the Queen!”

  • AllanJC

    “Our irrational spelling system is not completely devoid of purpose; you can learn a lot about the origin of words from their conventional spelling.”

    But is that really a purpose? Surely spellings one and only function is to make ritten (sic) communication easy, and easier to learn. Any other good feature is a bonus, and then only if it is not at the expense of the primary function.

    Retaining foreign spellings that indicate etymology is not desirable if it impedes literacy learning.

    Regularize our spelling and those who ar interested in etymology can still follow it as a hobby, while the ordinary user of the language gets on with effectiv communication.

  • valerie yule

    We have a dictator for our spelling – Spellchecker.
    Yet if we cut 6% of surplus letters (which do not help with meaning or pronunciation) and changed 3% of letters, we could cut out all the spelling traps. Keep 35 irregular words which make up 12% of everyday writing, to lern by rote.
    Fonetic spelling has the problem that we speak English in so meny dialects. Fonemic spelling of the 40 sounds of English only cuts out the traps.
    Experiment with parallel texts – oposit a normal page, put the same page with the spelling traps out.
    Experiment – cut out the surplus letters in words – See Recent Developments in Spelling English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67, ‘Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.’ pdf – See if you can spell. Most peple cant.

  • Corlyss

    “Surely spellings one and only function is to make ritten (sic) communication easy, and easier to learn.”

    Actually spelling’s one and only function is to render in written symbols the articulated sounds that are speech. The one and only function of standardized spelling is to regularize spelling in order to facilitate written communication among differently educated regions that speak the same language. Until the printing press, standardization wasn’t necessary. Before the printing press, education for the masses was not even a gleam in someone’s eye.

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