Why is English spelling exceptionally irregular?

It is well known that English words derive mainly from old German and Norman French, and that its alphabet of 26 letters makes it impossible to represent its 43 ½ speech sounds with just one symbol. But that is not why many English spellings, such as 'daughter', 'brought' and 'people', are now irregular, while their German and French relatives have much better spellings (Tochter, brachte, peuple).

The pronunciations of all three languages have changed since 1066. But only in English have numerous spellings become highly unreliable guides to pronunciation (sound, southern, soup), and spellings for identical sounds have ended up exceptionally varied (blue, shoe, flew, through, to, you, two, too, gnu).

The consistency of English spelling was first seriously corrupted during the reinstatement of English as the official language of England in 15th century. It suffered even more at the hands of foreign printers during the bible wars of the 16th century. Sadly, there has never been a serious, co-ordinated attempt to remedy the various accidental and deliberate corruptions of the alphabetic principle (of representing speech sounds in a regular manner) in English.

 

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The English Spelling System

English has 43.5 sounds:  43 as shown in bold letters in the words below

     At,  rain,   air,   car,   sauce,  bed,   chip,   dog,      

     egg,  eel,   herb,     fish,   garden,   house,  

     ink,   pie,     jug,   kite,   lips,   man,   nose,   ring

     pot,   toe,   coin,   food,   wood,   order,   out,      

     pin,   rug,   sun,   shop,  tap,   this,   thing,     

     up,  cue,     van,   window,   yak,   zip,   television

and an unstressed, often barely audible, variously spelt half-vowel, which occurs mainly in endings and prefixes (fatten, abandon, grammar; decide, divide).

If English had a completely regular spelling system, as Finnish and Korean do,  it would have no more than 44 spellings, and learning to read and write English would be as easy as those two languages. Most alphabetic writing systems, however, do not have a completely one to one relationship between their sounds and spellings, with a few more spellings than sounds.

The European average is around 50. Learning to read and write English is exceptionally difficult because it has 185 spellings for 44 sounds.  

The basic English spelling system has 91 patterns, as shown in bold letters below:

80 main spellings, 8 for unstressed endings, 2 prefixes and the consonants doubling rule:

     Cat;   plate, play;   air;   car;   sauce, saw;   bed; c/at/ot/ut, crab/ clap,  kite/kept,  comic,  pick,  seek, risk;  pocket; 

     chat, catch;  dog;     end;   eel, funny;   herb;     fish;  garden;   house;  ink;   bite,  by;     jug,  bridge,  oblige;   

     lips;   man;  nose, ring;  pot,  want,  quarrel;   bone, toe;  old;  coin, toy; food;   good;   order, wart, quarter, more; out,        now;  

 

pin; quick; rug; sun, face,  emergencyshop, station, cautious, facial, musiciantap, delicate;   this;   thing;    

     cup;   cube, cuevan, have, river;  window;  

     fix;   yes;    zip, wise;   vision, treasure.

     8 unstressed endings (doable fatal, single, ordinary, flatten, presence, present, other),

     2 prefixes (decide,  invite)

      and  the consonant doubling rule for keeping stressed vowels short  

                    (bitter – biter).

80 English spelling patterns are undermined by one or more alternatives

Cat - plait meringue
plate - wait weight straight great vein reign table
           dahlia champagne fete
play - they weigh ballet cafe matinee
air - care bear aerial their there questionnaire
car – are + (Southern Engl. bath)
sauce - caught boughalways tall crawl
saw - (UK also: or, four, more)

 

C/at/ot/ut - character, kangaroo, queue
crab/ clap - chrome
lilac - stomach, anorak
neck - cheque 
Chat - picture
clutch – much
Dad – blonde
End - heaany said Wednesday friend leisure leopard bury
her - turn bird learword journey
Eel - eaeven ceiling field police people me key ski debris quay
jolly - trolley movie corgi

This is partly because children have to learn to pronounce 185 spellings, instead of just around 50. The greatest English reading difficulties, however, are caused by the 69 spellings which have more than one pronunciation, shown in the next table.  They make at least 2000 English words not completely decodable.

69 English spellings have more than one pronunciation

a:  and – apron, any, father
a-e:  came – camera
ai:  wait – plait, said
al:  always – algebra
all:  tall - shall
are:  care - are
au:  autumn - laugh, mauve
-ate:  to deliberate  - a deliberate act
ay:  stays - says
cc:  success - soccer
ce:  centre - celtic
ch:  chop –chorus, choir, chute
cqu:  acquire - lacquer
e:  end – english
-e:  he - the
ea:  mean  - meant, break
ear:  ear – early, heart, bear
-ee:  tree - matinee
e-e:  even – seven, fete
ei:  veil - ceiling, eider, their, leisure
eigh:  weight - height
eo:  people - leopard, leotard
ere:  here – there, were
-et:  tablet - chalet
eau:  beauty – beau
-ew:  few - sew
-ey:  they - monkey

 

s:  sun – sure
sc:  scent - luscious, molusc
-se:  rose - dose
ss:  possible - possession
th:  this - thing
-ture:  picture - mature
u:  cup – push
ui:  build – fruit, ruin

 

wa:  was – wag
wh:  what - who
wo:  won - woman, women, womb
wor:  word – worn
x:  box - xylophone, anxious
-y-:  type - typical
--y:  daddy - apply
z:  zip – azure.
eau:  beauty – beau
-ew:  few - sew
-ey:  they - monkey
ge:  gem - get
gi:  ginger - girl
gy:  gym – gynaecologist 
ho:  house - hour
i:  ink – kind
-ine:  define –engine, machine
ie:  field - friend, sieve
imb:  limb – climb
ign:  signature - sign
mn:  amnesia - mnemonic
ost:  lost  - post

 

-o:  go - do
oa:  road - broad
o-e:  bone – done,  gone
-oes:  toes – does, shoes
-oll:  roll - doll
omb:  tombola - bomb, comb, tomb
oo:  boot  - foot, brooch
-ot:  despot - depot
ou:  sound - soup, couple
ough:  bough - rough, through, trough
ought:  bought - drought
oul:  should - shoulder
our:  sour - four, journey
ow:  how - low
qu:  queen – bouquet
 
Fish - photo stuff rough
Garden - ghastly guard
House – who
Ink - mystery pretty sieve women busy build

bite - might style mild kineider height climb island indict sign
my - high pie rye buy I eye

Jelly, jig – gentle, ginger
fidget - digit

Kite/ kept - chemistry
seek - unique
ris- dismosque

Lips - llama
Mum - dumb autumn
Nose - knot gone gnome mnemonic
 
On - cough sausage;    want – wont;    quarrel - quod
mole - bowl roll souold mould boast most goes mauve
toe - go dough sew cocoa pharaoh oh depot 
Oil – oyster    toy - buoy
food - rude shrewd movgroup fruit truth tomb manoeuvre
             blue do shoe through
good - would put woman courier
Order – board court
wart, quart – worquorn
more - soar door four war swore abhor
Out – town;     now - plough

Quick - acquire choir
Rug - rhubarb write