Why did English spelling become such a mess?

Guest   Tue Dec 04, 2007 6:22 pm GMT
Why did English spelling become such a mess? is there any historical explanation?
Guest   Tue Dec 04, 2007 6:39 pm GMT
Because even English must have a difficult feature. If it had an easy spelling it would probably be the easiest language in the world. :-)
Guest   Tue Dec 04, 2007 6:40 pm GMT
Pronunciation would still be difficult for many people.
Guest   Tue Dec 04, 2007 8:19 pm GMT
<<Guest Tue Dec 04, 2007 6:39 pm GMT
Because even English must have a difficult feature. If it had an easy spelling it would probably be the easiest language in the world. :-)

Oh please that's the stupidest thing ever.
furrykef   Wed Dec 05, 2007 12:36 am GMT
Well, at one time, English spelling was a lot more accurate, but speech always changes faster than writing. That's true in all languages, not just English; the effect is just more noticeable in English. Even a "phonetic" language like Spanish has odd spelling conventions due to language change, such as a letter that is never pronounced ("h") as well as pairs of letters with the same sound ("y/ll" in most dialects; "s/c/z" everywhere outside Spain). Part of the reason is that writing had traditionally been done only by the educated, and proper spelling was seen as a virtue. Thus, "incorrect" spellings never caught on.

Another problem is that the dialects of English have always been variable, so what may be an accurate reflection of pronunciation in one region may not be accurate in another. For instance, some speakers in Britain pronounce the word "been" like "bean", with a long "e" sound; others, including, I believe, most people outside Britain, usually pronounce it like "Ben", with a short "e". So the spelling is regular in one region, but irregular in most others.

Finally, English does not have a language academy, so there is no authority that can successfully dictate any kind of orthographic reform, no matter how big or small. Thus, while other languages occasionally experience reforms, English pretty much never does, because there's no way to centralize and control it. The only time there was any sort of success at it was when Noah Webster compiled his dictionary using some different spellings, thus creating (or strengthening) the differences between American and British spelling. I doubt such a thing is likely to occur again.

- Kef
Guest   Wed Dec 05, 2007 12:52 am GMT
Some people pronounce the H letter in Spanish, mostly elder people. Did you ever heard of hacha-higo-higuera in Spanish ? H in the past was aspired, just like in English.
greg   Wed Dec 05, 2007 1:17 am GMT
furrykef : « Finally, English does not have a language academy, so there is no authority that can successfully dictate any kind of orthographic reform, no matter how big or small. »

C'est une illusion de croire qu'une académie puisse décréter un changement d'orthographe. Même l'Académie française n'a pas ce pouvoir.
Guest   Wed Dec 05, 2007 2:53 am GMT
Eng is too unpredictable, but it has a rich vocabulary.
Guest   Wed Dec 05, 2007 3:37 am GMT
Well the Real Academia de la lengua Española does have that power, we love our language and we want it unified and simple if they decrete something we'll follow it and maybe that's why there is a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE between English and Spanish.
mac   Wed Dec 05, 2007 9:31 am GMT
A lot of the reason why English is "messy" is historical. That being the mixture of Germanic, Norse and French-Norman languages from 5th century to about 14th century I think. Then we have the infamous "Great vowel shift" where some pronunciation changed due to the spread of an English dialect/accent out of the London area. The printing press also came out about this time.

This to the best of my knowledge. I'm wrong anywhere, please correct me.
Guest   Wed Dec 05, 2007 12:34 pm GMT
RAE has not as much power either. For example years ago RAE wanted the Spanish speakers to write güisqui instead of whisky (in US English whiskey) but people still use whisky because güisqui looks awful. RAE can give recommendations but people can follow them or not. Many timens Spanish speakers just ignore what RAE says.
Vytenis   Wed Dec 05, 2007 3:30 pm GMT
Other languages are either 100 percent phonetically spelled or have a few simple spelling-pronunciation rules (like German). English has very few spelling-pronunciation rules and far more exceptions, so I never even bother to teach them to my students.
Margaret   Thu Dec 06, 2007 12:17 am GMT
Mac was right - the great vowel shift is the big culprit. Before that happened, English vowels were pronounced mostly like the other European languages. By the fifteenth and sixteenth century English spelling was pretty much standardized, but shortly afterwards, and within a matter of a few decades, English speakers had changed how they pronounce their vowels. The spelling did not change though, and we are still suffering because of it four hundred years later.
Travis   Thu Dec 06, 2007 12:45 am GMT
It is not just the Great Vowel Shift, as if purely the Great Vowel Shift were at fault, then we would have an English orthography that differed significantly largely from continental European orthgraphic traditions, both Germanic and Romance, but which would still be largely internally consistent overall (aside from variation due to varying levels of standardization). In this regard it really would not be all that different from the Icelandic and Faroese orthographies, where the spelling of long vowels largely matches normalized Old Norse orthography but their actual pronunciations very often differ greatly from such in non-obvious but internally self-consistent ways.

What is primarily at fault is not simply the Great Vowel Shift alone, but also the adoption of Romance, Latinate, and Greek words without changing them to systematically behave like native words orthographically. Consequently, two parallel spelling systems effectively came into being, one for Germanic words (largely Old English and Old Norse, but also with some Dutch, Low Saxon, and German words) and one for Romance and Latinate words, with their own separate sets of rules. Another thing that has complicated all of this is that there are both words that underwent the Great Vowel Shift being spelled as if it never occurred (both most Germanic words and earlier Romance and Latinate loans) and later loans (largely Romance and Latinate) which never underwent the Great Vowel Shift which were never respelled to be consistent with the words that underwent the Great Vowel Shift. Sometimes such later loans changed pronunciation to be consistent with the first set of words, but this was not systematic in any fashion.

Aside from that, there are also other irregular sound changes that occurred during parts of the Middle English and Early New English periods which reduced the predictability of spelling. The most important is the shortening (and laxing) of vowels in certain phonetic environments, which was not consistent in not only which words it influenced, but also when particular words were affected. The Great Vowel Shift was occurring at the same, and was gradual and inconsistent as well, so that certain vowels were shortened at different points in the Great Vowel Shift than others. Furthermore, the inconsistency of the Great Vowel Shift itself meant that not all vowels in all words were necessarily shifted as far as they could have been either, aside from the mere shortening of vowels. There were other inconsistent changes as well; for instance, trisyllabic laxing was once consistent and systematic, but many words were actually reverted over time, making the vowels in the second syllables of trisyllabic words inconsistent orthographically.
Guest   Thu Dec 06, 2007 10:55 pm GMT
>>Because even English must have a difficult feature. If it had an easy spelling it would probably be the easiest language in the world<<

'AN easy spelling'?

Your English is good, but even within the space of two sentences you demonstrate that spelling is not the only difficulty of English.