[lg policy] Order and Chaos in English Spelling

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Apr 1 15:31:47 UTC 2016

 Order and Chaos in English Spelling

“But here’s the thing,” wrote David Shariatmadari in *The Guardian* a
couple of weeks ago. “English orthography makes no sense.” No sense? I know
it is exaggeration for the sake of humor (no quibble there), but I’ve
decided to use it as an excuse to come to the defense of English spelling.
It’s a hard case to make, no doubt (note the wonderfully silent *b*), but
here goes. …

The article
was a response to Donald Trump’s misspelling of the word *honor* in this
tweet from February 26:

Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer!

Shariatmadari’s playful defense of Trump’s misspelling points out the
“unbridgeable gulf” between Brits and Americans over the spelling of this
word (*honour* vs. *honor*), so why not add *honer* to the mix? And, he
notes, we might as well get rid of that initial *h*- while we’re at it,
given that it isn’t pronounced. *Oner* it is.

The article accurately explains three reasons why English spelling is such
a “basketcase”: (a) pronunciations have changed over time, while
standardized spelling has remained more conservative (hence the *k*- and –
*gh*- in *knight*); (b) spelling reformers in the Renaissance meddled with
some spellings to show Latin etymologies (e.g., they put the –*b*- “back
into” *debt*); and (c) Noah Webster successfully reformed American spelling
to distinguish it from British spelling (which leaves us with *honor* vs.
*honour*, *theater* vs. *theatre*). All very true, and we could add a few
more (e.g., French scribal practices, borrowing from dozens of other

My point here, though, is that English spelling is more regular than many
people realize. Some linguists argue that English spelling is 80 percent to
90 percent predictable. But the irregularities in English spelling — that
10 percent to 20 percent — can be spectacularly irregular. The linguist
Mario Pei didn’t call it “the world’s most awesome mess” for nothing.

The regularities tend to be unremarkable. For example, we can expect that
all these words will rhyme given that they share the same spelling –*at*: *at,
bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, spat, splat, vat*. But then, of
course, we have *what*. (I didn’t say anyone was arguing it is 100 percent

It is true that we have multiple ways to spell the same sound. For example,
the sound /k/ can be spelled with a *c* (*cat*), *k* (*kid*), *ck* (*back*),
*q* (*quack*), and *qu* (*quiche*).  That’s a lot of possibilities, but
there are patterns within that. If a word starts with the sound /k/, it
would never be spelled with *ck* (**ckid*); and if a word ends with /k/, it
would never end with *qu* (**breaqu*) (and almost never with *q* either,
except for *Iraq*).

These patterns allow us to have intuitions about which spellings of made-up
words are possible and not possible in English. For instance: *phing* and
*bight* are OK, but *ngiph* and *ghtib* are not OK.

We know that the spelling *gh* can be pronounced /f/ as in *laugh*, but we
also know the /f/ pronunciation would not happen in *ght* (*night*, *light*)
or at the beginning of a word (*ghost*).

Our knowledge of these patterns is why the well-known, jokingly proposed
spelling of *fish* as *ghoti* (*gh* as in *laugh*, *o* as in *women*, and
*ti* as in *nation*) actually isn’t a possible way to spell *fish* in
English. (An aside here: If you want to give George Bernard Shaw credit for
this clever play on the quirkiness of English spelling, you’re going to
need to rethink that <http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=81> …)

Of course, all of these examples of regularities contain examples of
irregularities (e.g., *laugh*, *night*) — and not even the kookiest of the
irregularities. *Colonel* is pronounced with an /r/? *Victual* sounds like
“vittle”? *Threw* and *through* sound exactly the same? *Corps* has a
silent *p* and a silent *s*, but *corpse* just has a silent *e*?

So in the end, here is all I’m going to assert: English orthography makes
some sense, some of the time.

If you’re thinking you would like English spelling to make more sense more
of the time, my challenge to you: Which irregular spellings are you willing
to part with? For all our joking and playful complaining about the chaotic
mess of English spelling, we are often quite attached to the quirky
spellings we’ve come to recognize on the page.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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