We all know that English spelling is difficult to master. The fact that English spelling is tricky, or even, in some people’s opinion ‘absolutely, unspeakably awful’ (Masha Bell, Literacy Researcher) has at least one benefit – it means that there’s plenty of work out there for proofreaders and copy-editors to do!
Unlike in many other languages, the relationship between the way an English word is pronounced and the letters used to represent is not always straightforward. The irregularity of our spelling system can be a real headache, as every British schoolchild knows; however, the ordeal of spelling lists and tests is a phenomenon that’s virtually unknown in many other countries. As a Spanish friend once told me, ‘until I started to learn English, I’d never had a spelling test in my life!’
So how did this situation come about? It’s largely to do with our very colourful linguistic history. Before the French invasion we were well on the way to developing a phonetic system with a symbol for each of our 19 vowel sounds; but when the Normans arrived, they insisted that only the letters AEIOU should be used to represent these sounds. The situation now is that there’s no one way of writing any given vowel sound: the word ‘sheep’, for example, could plausibly be written ‘sheep’, ‘sheap’, or ‘shepe’.
Before the event of the printing press there was a lot of variation in the way that people spelled words, but the arrival of this revolutionary invention prompted the beginning of a series of decisions that over time led to the standardisation of written forms. Some of these decisions were fairly arbitrary – as when printers added or removed the final ‘e’ simply to make a row of words end neatly in the right-hand margin.
Many of the early printers were Dutch immigrants and they brought with them the influence of their native writing systems.
There will be more on English spelling to follow…
If you think you’ve got a great eye for spelling, why not have a go at The Proofreading Agency’s Online Test?
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