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.
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, emergency; shop, station, cautious, facial, musician; tap, delicate; this; thing;
cup; cube, cue; van, 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
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