How sound is English spelling?

Here are some pairs of words found on the Y13 English Language group’s latest homework sheet:

Sane Sanity
Vain Vanity
Serene Serenity
Saline Salinity
Crime Criminal
Sign Signal
Cone conical
Divine| divinity

What sorts of conclusions can you draw from the pronunciation variations between each pair of related words? How might the Great Vowel Shift help to explain this?

What about other apparent ‘anomalies’ in English spelling & pronunciation?

How would you respond to George Bernard Shaw’s complaint that in English, ‘fish’ could be spelled ‘ghoti’ (the ‘gh’ as in ‘rough’, the ‘o’ as in ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ as in ‘nation’?

And what about the peculiarities contained in these poems about English spelling? Are they all as absurd as spelling reformists suggest? Even where to modern ears and eyes they may seem absurd, what historical reasons can you identify for them?

And what do you think of the idea of spelling reform? What are the pros and cons? What are the likely chances of success?

I look forward to reading your thoughts . Over to you…

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17 Responses to How sound is English spelling?

  1. Sarah Kenny says:

    ‘Sane’ contains a long, stressed vowel and was affected by the great vowel shift. The middle English pronunciation would have included an ‘e’ sound as in ‘me’. ‘Sanity’ in middle English would have been pronounced in the same way as it is now so was not affected by the great vowel shift (I think/ hope)… In the same way ‘vain’ was affected by the great showel shift whereas ‘vanity’ was not.

    In response to Shaw’s complaint about English spelling, it seems that although he has pushed the complaint to its logical limit, it still makes sense- the phonemes in his alternative spelling of ‘fish’ do correspond to the alphabet. Whilst it could be possible to change the spelling of words in theory, I don’ think it would be sucessful. For example in the case of ‘fish’, Shaw’s spelling requires 5 letters as opposed to the 4 in ‘fish’, so to spell it his way would not be as time effective. We could use the phonetic alphabet symbols to spell our words, which may seem more straightforward to the learner, but as different people pronounce words with different phonemes, spelling could not be fixed. Pronunciation variation in accents cannot be gotten rid of- accents are important culturally as they give people an identity and represenent variety. What’s more, the idea of spelling reform would be a hastle because if we changed spelling then all texts would have to be translated into a new spelling. Books aswell as internet sites would have to be re- written to accomodate new spellings.

    The spellings in the poems are as absurd as the poets suggest, but unless they start to pose a spelling and pronunciation problem that future generations can never begin to overcome, it is unlikely that anything will change.

  2. Sam Dunstan says:

    I agree with Sarah in that the fact that Shaw’s spelling means that ‘fish’ would be spelt with 5 letters instead of 4 and lets face it that is the same reason why internet abreviations such as ‘lol’ and ‘cba’ are so popularly used because we English speakers are lazy. Fair enough is might be true that you can spell fish ‘ghoti’ (Though I do disagree because would things those sounds be different because they are in a different position in the word- so the ‘gh’ is from ‘rough’ but wouldn’t the way in which it is pronounced differ because in Shaw’s spelling of ‘ghoti’ for ‘fish it is at the beginning instead of the end?) but the fact of the matter is we English speakers like it plain and simple (Even though suprisingly it isnt that simple after all) so even one letter would make the difference to how we would want to spell a word. But I am digressing let me return to the task.

    I also agree with Sarah that ‘Sane’ would have a long stressed ‘e’ and was affected by the great vowel shift, but I would take it as far as to say the same for every word on the left hand side of that chart! ‘Crime’, ‘Saline’, ‘Cone’ they are all words that have changed in pronunciation because of the great vowel shift which caused the ‘e’ on the end of these words to cause our pronounciation to change. The ‘e’ (Would you call it a suffix?) causes us to pronounce the main vowels of each word as an upper case vowel rather than as it is written in a lower case form (I am referring to them as lower and upper case sounding because I can’t seem to find my I.P.A to use there correct terms). Words like ‘Saline’ would be proununced with what we know as the pronunciation of an upper case ‘A’ rather than a lower case ‘a’ and would mean we would pronounce the word as ‘SA-lE-n’ rather than ‘saleenee’ which is how it might have been pronounced before the great vowel shift occured. Similarly for ‘Sane’ because of the ‘e’ at the end it causes the ‘a’ to sound as a stressed, uper case ‘A’ rather than the ‘a’ way it is written and becomes ‘SA-n’ instead of ‘Sanee’. Then on the opposing column once the ‘e’ letter is dropped these words return to there original pronunciation using what we know as a lower case/un-stressed vowel rather than a capitalised one. ‘SA-lE-n’ becomes ‘Sa-lin-iti’.

    As far as other anomalies go can someone give me an explanation as to why ‘read’ and ‘read’ are spelt the same way even though one is past tense and one is present tense!

    Using the phonetic alphabet I believe for spelling would be a bad idea! Very bad! If we introduced it now it would cause chaos as no english speakers would be able to understand it or grasp it unless taught at an early age and even then it would mean those who have been taugh to write in this way would not be able to read the current spellings we use, it would become a foreign language within its own language! Bringing it in now would also mean that everything would change spelling and then of course the people act out saying ‘We don’t want this, we do not understand it, blah blah’ and it would become crushed. The only pro of changing spelling to the phonetic spellings would be that it might help us communicate with other languages better if every country in the world changed to phonetic spelling-again MAYBE. From what we have seen in the adventures of English no massive change to any part of English comes quickly by force. Infact only exestential factors such as other language speakers invading has caused massive changes in grammer, spelling, introducing new words, etc. No internal, forced language change has been successful so far!! And probably never will be!

    As for the poems once the link eventually worked! I was very confused by them. Hiccough i think it was, What is that?!? I didn’t know how to read or pronounce it, very strange.

    Maybe in 1,000 years what we see as ‘problems’ with the language will disappear but then that will jsut mean new ones will appear, there is no such thing as bad language, bad pronunciation, bad anything! Its all just a different variation, and that very variation someone correctst could be dominant in however many years time.

    Well that seems like a sufficient enough little rant.

  3. Mr Heald says:

    “Hiccough” is pronounced [hɪkʊp] or, I guess, [hɪkʌp] in RP.
    By the way, to use IPA symbols, one straightforward way of doing so is to use this:

  4. Zerin Pekin says:

    I think the difference in pronunciation is due to the Great Vowel Shift, as both Sarah and Sam have noticed. This is due to the fact that the difference in pronunciation is a similar type of change for all the words in the above table. ‘Sane’ and ‘vain’ both have long vowel sounds whereas ‘sanity’ and ‘vanity’ both have shorter vowel sounds.
    In response to the title of this blog post, English spelling is not particularly sound at all in my opinion. There are several words that are exceptions to the Great Vowel Shift, such as ‘great’ and ‘swear’. We have a number of words from different languages that have maintained their spelling from their origin language, such as ‘croissant’ and ‘soufflé’. Despite being spelt with the same sequence of letters, ‘cough’ and ‘dough’ are pronounced differently. In my opinion, the poems are very good at showing just how complicated English spelling has become. I believe that a spelling reform would be a good solution in an ideal world but, unfortunately, I can’t imagine it would be particularly successful.

  5. Mr Heald says:

    Has anybody thought to look into spelling reform? Is it necessarily as doomed to failure as has been suggested by the three commenters so far?

  6. Zerin Pekin says:

    I can’t see how something as drastic as spelling reform would be possible. For one, who’s going to decide what the reformed spelling of the English language should be? Even if we could decide on a set of new rules regarding our spelling, it would take a very long time to actually come into effect. Also, spelling is linked to phonology and this could pose another problem. There are so many different accents in this country, I imagine it’d be quite difficult to standardise the language on such a wide scale. Don’t get me wrong, I think spelling reform would be good for the language. It’d be more standardised, easier to learn as a foreign language and maybe even easier for children to acquire. Nevertheless, I personally don’t think it is possible.

  7. Ryan Bailey says:

    What stood out for me was the ‘Saline’ ‘Salinity’ difference. The word ‘Saline ‘ has a notably longer vowel sound than the sharp-sounding ‘a’ phoneme in ‘salinity’. A possible reason may be a newly taken on word, or again , a change may have been taken on through way of The Great Vowel Shift. The real question is, if one word was affected, why not the other word?

  8. Mr Heald says:

    Yes Ryan – that is the question. So what possible answers can you offer?

    It’s also worth trying to use more precise terminology than everyday words like ‘sharp-sounding’. I guess I know what you mean, but it’s not a description that helps much (what would it actually mean for a vowel to be ‘sharp’?)

  9. Daniel says:

    Apart from the reform bringing standardisation and being easy to learn there are more cons than pros. If we spelled words as they’re pronounced, confusion would ensue homophones for example minor and miner, two and to would become indistinguishable.Literature and famous texts will be slowly forgotten as the old spellings will slowly disappear. The origin of borrowed words will be unrecognisable and politicians are too lazy and concentrating on other things to put it into action. And finally god forbid people who play scrabble will be left reeling.

  10. Mr Heald says:

    Some interesting points there, Daniel. You are right about the confusion of homophones that might ensue. What about the counter-argument that some homonyms would now be distinguished? The past and present tense of ‘read’ would be clear, for example.

    You say: “Literature and famous texts will be slowly forgotten as the old spellings will slowly disappear.”

    I’m not convinced by that.

    Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are invariably printed with ‘modernised’ spelling, yet I can’t see anyone arguing that this has made Shakespeare’s plays disappear. How is that different from what would follow any deliberate spelling reform?

  11. Amy Kilner says:

    I think that there are positive points which can counteract the negatives for spelling reform. There are a number of pairings of letters such as the ‘GH’ in words such as ‘hiccough’ and ‘straight’ which have different pronunciations yet visually look the same in the words. The word ‘hiccough’ is pronounced ‘hiccup’ ( I cant find the IPA symbols) this is confusing for a child learning the English language as the spelling and pronunciation are completely different. Using the spelling reform makes the learning of these words easier and more logical for a child learning the language. Another point which may be argued is that the spelling reform cannot be integrated into the English language we use now, as it would be too confusing and difficult for people to change the way they spell words. But on the points for the spelling reform of the english language, is that other languages manage spelling reform with some languages phasing in new spellings each generation.

  12. Sarah Kenny says:

    If other languages can do it why not English? Spain is currently undertaking a reform but it involves simply taking into account that two letters that were pronounced differently in the past are now spoken the same. This, it seems is not a drastic shake up of the spelling system at all! If it took disasters such as the Battle of Hastings to change the English language all those centuries ago, would it take something as drastic now? If so, we couldn’t wish something like that upon England just for the chance of an easier spelling system! However it is a problem that young readers are struggling with spelling, the modern age of computers requires literacy skills; nothing like the Victorian times where the majority relied on their labour or a trade to make a living and not so much on spelling. As times change, the English language does need to become more accessible to learners.

  13. Sarah Kenny says:
    I think this article shows just how much of a problem it is that standards of spoken and written English are slipping.

  14. Ryan Bailey says:

    To be honest, people have different views to how grammar should be used. You get the people that are really quite aware of how their grammar is shown, (like me!) and then there are people that probably don’t care whether their grammar is seen as ‘good’ or not, because ‘they can’t do English’. This may be another reason why a spelling reform won’t work, as people may think ‘I couldn’t do English before, why bother learning it again?’

  15. Alex says:

    Sat reading through this, people seem to sense that language change may be a good thing… but when I know I did the pro’s and con’s of any potential change, the negatives were highly stacked against any future change! If we change the language style, then actually, we will just be taking society backwards. Whilst our population is ageing and living longer- the “proud old” can be oblivious to the outside world – and they wouldn’t want to learn “new English” (as it should be dubbed) as that would requite extra learning and coming to terms with ‘change’ with concepts which they may have no idea about at all. Children in education would have to learn new ideas and concepts, spelling and grammatical rules – which are different to what they have started learning already. – Confusion, cost of implementation, and defiance are all problems that change would bring about the country – and now amidst the current climate, is not the time to do so, but also
    things are constantly changing enough, without the added complications of reforming our language.

    “According to research by the British Council, “English has official* or special status in at least seventy-five countries with a total population of over two billion. English is spoken as a native* language by around 375 million and as a second language* by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language*. One out of four of the world’s population speak English to some level of competence. Demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.” – (quite a useful website)

    can you imagine trying to convey the reform and the changes to over 2 billion people?

  16. Mr Heald says:

    Helen was unable to post her own comment, so here it is on her behalf:

    A spelling reform would be difficult, if not impossible for a number of reasons. Firstly, by giving English a phonetic spelling system, with one symbol for each sound, there would be a range of ill-effects such as: Compound sounds like “J” (which is phonetically “D” + “ZH”) would have to be clumsily spelled out in full (so becomes ‘dzhey’).
    Furthermore, because of the vast range of accents across England, it would be difficult to standardise the language so that everybody could read/spell/understand it.
    However, previously, the use of ITA has been somewhat successful. It showed that the standards of literacy in younger generations was improved vastly. If this was used as a long term solution, the number of fluent adult readers would also be improved. However, there are short term effects which aren’t as beneficial, such as if ITA was not taught at every school across the entirity of England, children wouldn’t receive the same kind of education and some would be fluent in ITA whereas others would be in the current method.

  17. Daniel says:

    In response to sarahs point I think that computes do compensate for people who have poor literacy skills such as Microsoft word Gavin spellcheck and thesaurus facilities.

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