The wonders of English spelling explained!
by Emily Rhodes
Whether you are a native or non-native speaker of English,
I am sure you have wondered about the sense of the phonically
incoherent jumble of letters. I know I did! Since the development
of English spelling (7th century), it has changed enormously.
A computer analysis of 17,000 English words showed that at
that time only 3% were inconsistently spelt and that an incredible
84% were spelt according to a regular pattern. I know, it's intriguing,
isn't it? Let me explain.
The chaos started in 1066 when the Normans invaded England and
brought with them their own language, Norman French. But now don't
start thinking that it was all the Norman's fault. They weren't the
only ones who played a role in English spelling today. After the invasion,
poor old English was hardly ever written over the next three centuries.
The Normans held all the power therefore the language of the law, courts
and administration was in Norman French. During those years, the Normans
corrupted the spellings and pronunciations.
But as I said earlier, the Norman's were not the only culprits. There
were a few forces at play. The Dutch also had their fair share. They were
experts at introducing extra letters. In 1465 William Caxton presented
printing to England. Unfortunately for the 'already confused' English
spelt words, these printing machines were manned by Dutch technicians
who were a crafty lot. Printers were being paid by the letter and to get
on the gravy train they just made the odd word longer or they included
additional letters to the last word of a line to make the text appear
tidier. They also added a few extra letters here and there with the
excuse that they didn't understand English handwriting. Another factor
was that people wrote how they spoke in their regional dialects. So when
printing was introduced, a mixture of regional spellings and words were
used. English spelling was spiraling out of control.
Latin and Greek also fiddled. During the 16th and 17th centuries,
they became more important due to the Renaissance. They were considered
as superior to English and in this period, English acquired many Latin
words. There were no spelling guidelines or rules, so when people who
were employed to copy the books had to do so, they became confused
between English, Norman French and Latin. What could they do? Easy.
Import some Latin and Greek words into English, sporadically keeping
their original spellings.
But there was light at the end of the tunnel. Printing also brought
standardization to English. Grammar and spelling became fixed and the
dialect of London became the standard. The first English dictionary
was published in 1604. And the rest is history!
About the author
Emily Rhodes works for comTranslations,
serving all your English and Spanish translation