Order and Chaos in English Spelling

CsccO47XPr-2“But here’s the thing,” wrote David Shariatmadari in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. “English orthography makes no sense.” No sense? I know it is exaggeration for the sake of humor (no quibble there), but I’ve decided to use it as an excuse to come to the defense of English spelling. It’s a hard case to make, no doubt (note the wonderfully silent b), but here goes. …

The article was a response to Donald Trump’s misspelling of the word honor in this tweet from February 26:

Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer!

Shariatmadari’s playful defense of Trump’s misspelling points out the “unbridgeable gulf” between Brits and Americans over the spelling of this word (honour vs. honor), so why not add honer to the mix? And, he notes, we might as well get rid of that initial h- while we’re at it, given that it isn’t pronounced. Oner it is.

The article accurately explains three reasons why English spelling is such a “basketcase”: (a) pronunciations have changed over time, while standardized spelling has remained more conservative (hence the k- and –gh- in knight); (b) spelling reformers in the Renaissance meddled with some spellings to show Latin etymologies (e.g., they put the –b- “back into” debt); and (c) Noah Webster successfully reformed American spelling to distinguish it from British spelling (which leaves us with honor vs. honour, theater vs. theatre). All very true, and we could add a few more (e.g., French scribal practices, borrowing from dozens of other languages).

My point here, though, is that English spelling is more regular than many people realize. Some linguists argue that English spelling is 80 percent to 90 percent predictable. But the irregularities in English spelling — that 10 percent to 20 percent — can be spectacularly irregular. The linguist Mario Pei didn’t call it “the world’s most awesome mess” for nothing.

The regularities tend to be unremarkable. For example, we can expect that all these words will rhyme given that they share the same spelling –at: at, bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, spat, splat, vat. But then, of course, we have what. (I didn’t say anyone was arguing it is 100 percent predictable.)

It is true that we have multiple ways to spell the same sound. For example, the sound /k/ can be spelled with a c (cat), k (kid), ck (back), q (quack), and qu (quiche).  That’s a lot of possibilities, but there are patterns within that. If a word starts with the sound /k/, it would never be spelled with ck (*ckid); and if a word ends with /k/, it would never end with qu (*breaqu) (and almost never with q either, except for Iraq).

These patterns allow us to have intuitions about which spellings of made-up words are possible and not possible in English. For instance: phing and baght are OK, but ngiph and ghtib are not OK.

We know that the spelling gh can be pronounced /f/ as in laugh, but we also know the /f/ pronunciation would not happen in ght (night, light) or at the beginning of a word (ghost).

Our knowledge of these patterns is why the well-known, jokingly proposed spelling of fish as ghoti (gh as in laugh, o as in women, and ti as in nation) actually isn’t a possible way to spell fish in English. (An aside here: If you want to give George Bernard Shaw credit for this clever play on the quirkiness of English spelling, you’re going to need to rethink that …)

Of course, all of these examples of regularities contain examples of irregularities (e.g., laugh, night) — and not even the kookiest of the irregularities. Colonel is pronounced with an /r/? Victual sounds like “vittle”? Threw and through sound exactly the same? Corps has a silent p and a silent s, but corpse just has a silent e?

So in the end, here is all I’m going to assert: English orthography makes some sense, some of the time.

If you’re thinking you would like English spelling to make more sense more of the time, my challenge to you: Which irregular spellings are you willing to part with? For all our joking and playful complaining about the chaotic mess of English spelling, we are often quite attached to the quirky spellings we’ve come to recognize on the page.

Correction (3/11/2016, 11:15 a.m.): Thanks to the reader who pointed out that bight, initially given above as an example of a made-up word, is in fact a real word. We’ve swapped it for baght.

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