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 needs.


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