5 May 2006. Financial Times online. [Extracts]

Mispell or Misspell? By James Essinger.

... if you spell words incorrectly - which means nothing more or less than incorrectly according to the essentially arbitrary standard that is regarded as acceptable within a particular country or culture ...

Yet it's also true that spelling doesn't need to be as accurate as punctuation to convey an exact meaning. We can still understand misspelt words.

When you consider that the English spelling system is the most inconsistent, illogical and often plain barmy alphabetic spelling system in the world, and that there are hardly any reliable rules for spelling words properly (even the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule only covers the spelling of 11 words in the English language), it's amazing how well we do spell.

Here are just a few examples of why English is such a fearsomely difficult language to spell properly.

Different sounds are frequently represented by the same letter or combinations of letters. Examples are the words "cough", "enough", "borough", "nought", "plough", "through" and "Loughborough", the unassuming Midlands town whose spelling causes foreign learners of English so many headaches. There are thousands of other examples. Here are a few: "bite"/"night", "taught"/"thought" and "bait"/"gate".

The same sounds in English are frequently represented by a different letter or combination of letters. Many of these words are homophones - words that sound the same but have different meanings, for instance, "gate"/"gait", "made"/"maid", "mettle"/"metal" and "tea"/"tee". The very fact that homophones can be spelled in different ways shows just how inconsistent English spelling really is. Almost by definition, homophones tend to lend themselves to puns. Many English surnames are homophones, but variations in the spellings of the surname have developed to distinguish them. Such is the case with "hog"/"Hogg", "nun"/"Nunn" and "wild"/"Wilde". English spelling contains numerous words that feature silent letters. Indeed, this is a notorious aspect of the English spelling system and causes great difficulty to anyone trying to learn how to spell and read English. Here are a few of the many examples: "debt", "island", "knee", "knight", "scissors". This isn't helped when the word containing the silent letter is also a homophone with another word of unrelated meaning, as is the case with words such as "gnaw"/"nor" and "knight"/"night".

The use of the letter "e" - the most common letter in written English, is fantastically inconsistent. Often it is not pronounced at all, and seems practically redundant, as in words such as "image", "imagine" and "submerge". The letter "e" may, rather more usefully, reflect a change in the vowel sound of the spelt word to distinguish it from another word that does not have the final "e". Examples are: "car"/"care", "jut"/"jute", "mad"/"made".

Generally, written letters in English can stand for a wide - even positively alarming - range of sounds. Consider the different sounds represented by the written letter "o" in the following five words: "police", "Oswald", "ozone", "nation" and "zoo". Or consider how written letters can represent a range of different sounds in English in the numerous ways the "ee" sound is written down in all the following words: "Caesar", "conceive", "fee", "field", "key", "machine", "me", "people", "quay", "sea" and "subpoena". Similarly, the "sh" sound is written down in a range of different ways: "chaperon" (or "chaperone"), "conscious", "eschew", "fuchsia", "fissure", "mansion", "mission", "nation", "nauseous" (there is an alternative pronunciation of this word in which the middle "s" is pronounced like a "z"), "ocean", "shoe", "sugar" and "suspicion". You don't need to seek out longer words to see just how inconsistent English spelling is. Consider, for example, the problems of spelling "to", "too" and "two".

James Essinger's book "Spellbound: The Improbable Story of English Spelling" will be published by Robson Books (£9.99) on May 25.

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