The quirks of English spelling

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In American movies you can often see children taking part in spelling competitions – so-called spelling bees. This is a perfect example of how the issue of spelling really poses a problem, both for learners of English as a foreign language, but also for native speakers.

Considering the fact that there are as many spelling rules as there are exceptions to those rules, people simply resort to learning a new word in two ways: how it is spelled and how it is pronounced. The fact remains that even if English is your mother tongue, spelling will always be an issue, one that can be dealt with only through years of education and regular use of the language in writing.

The same applies to all those learning English as a foreign language. Due to the complexity and lack of spelling rules, we will often find ourselves scratching our heads over the spelling of a word, even if we write in English on a regular basis. This is because drawing a link between the pronounced and written word requires not only the knowledge of many rules (as well as exceptions to those rules) but also the knowledge of which syllable is stressed, and which is not (something that can in no way be deduced from the spelling of the word, for comparison: hallow and allow) as well as which combinations of vowels present one, and which two syllables, as in please and create, for example).

In this article we will attempt to explain (in short) the reasons behind such complexity, but we will also mention some interesting spelling-related facts, in order to finish this text in a somewhat happier tone.

Irregularities in spelling and pronunciation are the result of historical changes in the English language. They include gradually occurring changes, such as the Great Vowel Shift which resulted in many different ways to spell certain sounds, for example long sounds  /oo//ee/ and /oe/ (too, true, shoe, flew, through; sleeve, leave, even, seize, siege; stole, coal, bowl, roll, old, mould) and in using letters in the same order to produce different sounds (over, oven, move). For example, ou can be pronounced in at least four different ways: /ə/ in famous, // in loud, /ʊ/ in should, // in you; whereas the sound // as in me can be written in as many as nine different ways: paediatricmeseatseemceilingpeoplemachinesiegephoenix.

One of the most infamous examples of confusing spelling is in words ending in -ough (roughthroughthoughtroughplough, etc.), which have at least ten different pronunciations, whereupon even “ough” is considered a word, an exclamation signifying disgust.

  • though// as in toe; (other examples: dough)
  • tough/ʌf/ as in  cuff; (other examples: rough, enough)
  • cough/ɒf/ as in  off; (other examples: Gough (name, in some pronunciations)
  • hiccough (now better known as hiccup): /ʌp/ as in up; (unique example)
  • plough// as in  cow; (other examples: sough, drought, bough, and the name Doughty)
  • through// as in  blue;
  • nought/ɔː/ as in  caught; (other examples: ought, sought, thought, brought)
  • lough/ɒx/ with a rough breathing sound like the ch in loch

Last but not the least, there is a place called Loughborough, where the first ough is pronounced as in cuff and the second rhymes with thorough.

For fun, try to read this sentence: “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”

The changes mentioned above happened before the arrival of printing in England, which also resulted in some pretty weird changes, to say the least, such as the addition or deletion of the so-called “silent e” at the end of words in order for the margins on the printed page to line up more neatly. Some language reforms also resulted in differences between British and American English, eg. center/centredialog/dialogue, which is another thing which needs to be taken into account when writing.

Nowadays, loan words are introduced into English practically on a daily basis and they simply bring along with them their original spelling. This was not the case in history, when one used to attempt to anglicize such words. So, today in English we have, for example, the word fjord literally taken from Norwegian, whereas the word battle is in fact the French word bataille adapted to the English system. Modern developments such as advertising have also had their (unexpected) effect on English spelling. So we have lite instead of lightthru instead of throughsmokey instead of smoky. The spelling of personal names has also proved to be a source of innovation: women’s nicknames which sound like the men’s are spelled differently: Nikki and NickyToni and TonyJo and Joe.

In addition to everything mentioned earlier in the text, modern speakers of English sometimes intuitively change the spelling of a word the pronunciation of which they find counterintuitive. If this is done frequently enough, the new spelling of the word simply finds its way into standard language. This is the case with the word miniscule, which still competes with its original spelling minuscule.

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Projekt je započeo 20. 12. 2016., a završit će 20. 12. 2017.

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