Why is English Spelling So Strange?

Why do we say ‘dear’ /dɪə/ but then we say ‘pear’ /peə/? Why is /u:/ spelt as ‘few’ but also ‘boot’ and why don’t our French words sound… French? Here are 5 reasons English spelling is so weird:

1. The Great Vowel Shift

Between 1350-1700 the pronunciation of many English vowels gradually changed in a process known as the Great Vowel Shift. However, the spelling of many words became standardised in the 1400s-1500s with the arrival of more widespread printing. So English spelling is quite literally ‘stuck’ in the Middle Ages!

Here are some examples:
(ME = Middle English, NE = New English, i.e. modern English)

‘name’ 1400 [naːm] —> 1500 [næːm] —> 1600 [nɛːm]

After 1700 this word actually continued changing!

‘name’ 1750 [neːm] —> 1850 [neɪm]

2. Disappearing Consonants

Some of the silent letters in English were not actually silent in the past. For example, ‘gh’ in the word ‘light’ was once pronounced with a guttural sound (in the throat). The German word ‘Licht’ has not changed as much as the English one.

The ‘k’ in ‘kn’ was also pronounced once upon a time. You can see the resemblance of the word ‘knight’ in the German word ‘Knecht’, which has kept both the ‘kn’ and ‘gh’ sounds – although the words now have different meanings, they were more closely related in the past.

English: knight
German: Knecht

The use of a silent ‘r’ and ‘l’ to represent long vowels was adopted for some words like ‘born’ /bɔːn/ and ‘half’ /hɑ:f/. But others use two vowels for the same sound, like ‘bought’ /bɔːt/, and ‘laugh’ /lɑ:f/. This is largely down to common usage, the most popular spelling became the standard.

3. Germanic and Romance Influences

English has roots in the Germanic language family, but then the Normans invaded in 1066 with their Romance language, Norman French. Being the language of the conquerors, Norman French primarily influenced the language of the court, as well as the spheres of politics, law, commerce and higher education.

British English has kept many French spellings, but not the pronunciations. American English has logically changed some of them, such as ‘theater’ and ‘centre’ from the British ‘theatre’ and ‘centre’, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

English has a rich vocabulary thanks to the doubling up of word meanings, e.g. ‘begin’ (Germanic origins) and ‘commence’ (French origins). The end result is a confusing mixture of Germanic and Romance spellings both being pronounced in an English way!

Words from French:
government, villain, eagle, beef, pork
Germanic – Romance equivalent words in English:
bloom – flower
build – construct
feeling – sentiment
sell – vend
sleeping – dormant

4. English Evolves Easily

The world gets smaller and smaller every day and with it more and more words are exchanged between languages. English has adopted many words from other languages and has usually retained the original spelling and an attempt at the original pronunciation! Great for broadening our horizons, but not so good for our spelling system…

fjord, ballet, angst, courgette, gnocchi

5. No Regulation

English has never had a committee to oversee spelling and the use of the language. Perhaps if there had been one, English spelling would be more regular and logical. Various spelling reforms have been attempted over the years, but none have been successful yet…