Here’s How English Spelling Got So Strange

  • April 5, 2018

Take a look at the following English words: butcher, squirrel, mortgage, and choir. Does something seem off about them?

At one point in time, the words move and love rhymed. So did blood, good, and food. But today, all of those words are pronounced differently.  

Have you ever looked at a word, such as psychology, quiche, xylophone, or journal, and thought, “Why is it spelled that way? How come the way this word is spelled doesn’t match the way it’s said?” Well, there’s a great answer to those questions.

English spelling and pronunciation have gone through a lot to get to where they are today. By a lot, I mean that English went through standardization via the printing press and something called the Great Vowel Shift.

Christopher Muscato wrote for wrote that “printing presses played a fundamental role in standardizing languages across Europe. Of course, the weirder the language, the weirder the history. That’s where English comes in.”

Fun fact: the word weird breaks everyone’s favorite spelling rule.

William Caxton, an English translator and merchant, ended up buying his own printer while he was in Belgium. In the year 1476, he went back to England, where he set up the first printing press in Westminster.

The standardization of the English language did not immediately happen after the printing press was set up, contrary to popular belief. This is because many printers did not use a standard dialect of English when printing. They typically used different spelling and punctuation, and many printers were not native speakers of English, since they came from other countries.

But as time went on, printers had to be very cautious with their work. They had to be absolutely sure that they were printing accurately, since copies in English had to be just as reputable and correct as copies from other countries written in other languages. This was the beginning of standardization, and after that, the trend caught on very rapidly. That’s part of how English orthography (spelling) got to be the way it is today. This system of standardization quickly affected how people understood the language.

Also, a long time ago, back in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, English went through a significant transformation. This transformation is known as the Great Vowel Shift, and it is one of the most prominent changes recorded in the history of sound patterns.

With the Great Vowel Shift taking place, long vowels weren’t made in the lower parts of the mouth as frequently, and front vowels became more prevalent. One example of how the Great Vowel Shift changed pronunciation can be seen in the word gave. Before the Vowel Shift, this word was pronounced as /gaw-veh/. Today, this word is pronounced as /gayv/.

These changes in pronunciation were not reflected in the spelling system, which means that the order of letters in words didn’t change. This later caused more inconsistencies, as spoken language didn’t match up with written language. Because of this, some letters are not pronounced and spelling certain words can be tricky.

Over the ages, some people have even tried to reform spelling in English to clearly reflect how words are pronounced, with one of the most known being Ben Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet. Franklin’s reformed alphabet was rejected by many, and he eventually gave up on his spelling reform. All of these attempts have failed for various reasons, the first being that pronunciation is always changing, so the reformed spelling could be inconsistent at times. The second reason is that some words are spelled differently in different dialects of English, so there would be discrepancies there as well. The third reason is that a spelling reform would temporarily throw off everyone trying to read English, since they have gotten used to a particular form of the language.

Though these adjustments happened a long time ago, English is still changing today as a result. The lasting effect of the Great Vowel Shift is fascinating and unique in nature, despite the fact that vowel shifting is an inevitable and typical process. The process of printing in English is also interesting to look at, since it shows how the written form of the language changed over time. One thing for certain is that English will continue to change.


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