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English orthography (or spelling), has relatively complicated rules when compared to other orthographic systems written with alphabetic scripts and contains many inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation, necessitating rote learning for most people learning to read or write English.
N.B. In the following discussion, only one or two common pronunciations of American and British English varieties are used in this article for each word cited. Other regional pronunciations may be possible for some words, but indicating all possible regional variants in the article is impractical.
Function of symbols
Indicating sound values
Like most alphabetic systems, letters in English orthography may represent a particular sound. For example, the word cat (pronounced /kæt/) consists of three letters c, a, and t, in which c represents the sound /k/, a the sound /æ/, and t the sound /t/.
Single letters or multiple sequences of letters may provide this function. Thus, the single letter c in the word cat represents the single sound /k/. In the word ship (pronounced /ʃɪp/), the digraph sh (two letters) represents the sound /ʃ/. Additionally, the letter x often represents more than one sound as in in the prefix ex- where it represents the consonant cluster /ks/ (for example, in the word ex-wife, pronounced /ɛkswaɪf/).
The same letter (or sequence of letters) may indicate different sounds when the letter occurs in different positions. For instance, the digraph gh represents the sound /f/ at the end of single-syllable, single-morpheme words, such as cough (pronounced /kɔf/ in many dialects of American English). At the beginning of syllables (i.e. the syllable onset), the digraph gh represents the sound /g/, such as in the word ghost (pronounced /goʊst/ or /gəʊst/). Furthermore, the sound value represented by a particular letter (or letters) is often restricted to its position within the word. Thus, the digraph gh never represents the sound /f/ in syllable onsets and never represents the sound /g/ in syllable codas. (Incidentally, this shows that ghoti does not follow English spelling rules to sound like fish.)
Another function of English letters is to provide information about other aspects of pronunciation or the word itself. Rollins (2004) uses the term "markers" for letters with this function. Letters may mark different types of information. One common type of marking is that of a different pronunciation of another letter within the word. An example of this is the letter e in the word cottage (pronounced /kɒtɪdʒ/ or /kɑtɪdʒ/). Here e marks that the preceding g should represent the sound /dʒ/. This contrasts with the more common value of g in word-final position as the sound /g/, such as in tag (pronounced /tæɡ/). A particular letter may have more than one pronunciation-marking role. Besides the marking of word-final g as indicating /dʒ/, the letter e may also mark an altered pronunciation for other vowels. In the pair ban and bane, the a of ban has the value /æ/, whereas the a of bane is marked by the e as having the value /eɪ/.
Marking word origin
Other types of marking include indicating information about word origins. When used as a vowel, the letter y in non-word-final positions represents the sound /ɪ/ in many words borrowed from Greek, whereas the letter usually representing this sound in non-Greek words is the letter i. Thus, the word myth (pronounced /mɪθ/) is of Greek origin, while pith (pronounced /pɪθ/) is a Germanic word. Other examples include the silent t in castle (pronounced /kæsəl/ or /kɑːsəl/).
Letters are also used to distinguish between homophones (words with the same pronunciation) that would otherwise be homonyms (i.e. different words with the same pronunciation and spelling). The words hour and our are pronounced identically (as /aʊə/ or /aʊr/). However, they are distinguished from each other orthographically by the addition of the letter h. Another example of this is the homophones plain and plane where both are pronounced /pleɪn/, but are marked with two different orthographic representations of the vowel /eɪ/.
In written language, this may help to resolve potential ambiguities that would arise otherwise (cf. He's breaking the car vs. He's braking the car). This can be seen in a positive light since with written language, unlike spoken language, the reader usually has no recourse to ask the writer for clarification (whereas in a conversation, the listener can ask the speaker about lexical uncertainties). Some proponents of spelling reform view homophones as undesirable and would prefer that they be eliminated. Doing so, however, would increase orthographic ambiguities that would need to be resolved via the linguistic context.
A given letter or (letters) may have dual functions. For example, the letter i in the word cinema has a sound-representing function (representing the sound /ɪ/) and a pronunciation-marking function (marking the c as having the value /s/ opposed to the value /k/).
Other letters have no linguistic function. For example, there is a general "graphotactic" constraint in English orthography that no word may end in the letter v. Thus, in order to satisfy this contraint, syllable-final v is followed by the letter e, such as in the word give. Thus, words like rev and slav are extremely rare.
In a generative approach to English spelling, Rollins (2004) identifies twenty main orthographic vowels of stressed syllables that are grouped into four main categories: "Lax", "Tense", "Heavy", "Tense-R". (As this classification is based on orthography, not all orthographic "lax" vowels are necessarily phonologically lax.)
For instance, the letter a can represent the lax vowel /æ/, tense /eɪ/, heavy /ɑr/ or /ɑː/, or tense-r /ɛr/ or /ɛə/. Heavy and tense-r vowels are the respective lax and tense counterparts followed by the letter r.
Tense vowels are distinguished from lax vowels with a "silent" e letter that is added at the end of words. Thus, the letter a in hat is lax /æ/, but when the letter e is added in the word hate the letter a is tense /eɪ/. Similarly, heavy and tense-r vowels pattern together: the letters ar in car are heavy /ɑː(r)/, the letters ar followed by silent e in the word care are /ɛə(r)/. The letter u represents two different vowel patterns, one being /ʌ - ju - ə(r) - jʊ(r)/, the other /ʊ - u - ʊ(r)/. There is no distinction between heavy and tense-r vowels with the letter o, and the letter u in the /ʊ-u-ʊ(r)/ pattern does not have a heavy vowel member.
Besides silent e, another strategy for indicating tense and tense-r vowels, is the addition of another orthographic vowel forming a digraph. In this case, the first vowel is usually the main vowel while the second vowel is the "marking" vowel. For example, the word man has a lax a pronounced /æ/, but with the addition of i (as the digraph ai) in the word main the a is marked as tense and pronounced /eɪ/. These two strategies produce words that are spelled differently but pronounced identically, as in mane (silent e strategy) and main (digraph strategy). The use of two different strategies relates to the function of distinguishing between words that would otherwise be homonyms.
Besides the 20 basic vowel spellings, Rollins (2004) has a reduced vowel category (representing the sounds /ə, ɪ/) and a miscellaneous category (representing the sounds /ɔɪ, aʊ, aɪr, aʊr/ and /j/+V, /w/+V, V+V).
Unlike most other Germanic languages, English has almost no diacritics, except in foreign loanwords (like the acute accent in café) and in the less uncommon use of a diaeresis mark (often in formal writing) to separate a prefix from a word that begins with a vowel (e.g. naïve, coördinate).
Like many other alphabetic orthographies, English spelling does not represent non-contrastive phonetic sounds (that is, sub-phonemic sounds). The fact that the letter t is pronounced with aspiration [tʰ] at the beginning of words is never indicated in the spelling, and, indeed, this phonetic detail is probably not salient to the average native speaker not trained in the phonetics. However, unlike some orthographies, English orthography often represents a very abstract underlying representation (or morphophonemic form) of English words (Rollins 2004: 16-19; Chomsky & Halle 1968; Chomsky 1970).
"[T]he postulated underlying forms are systematically related to the conventional orthography...and are, as is well known, related to the underlying forms of a much earlier historical stage of the language. There has, in other words, been little change in lexical representation since Middle English, and, consequently, we would expect...that lexical representation would differ very little from dialect to dialect in Modern English...[and] that conventional orthography is probably fairly close to optimal for all modern English dialects, as well as for the attested dialects of the past several hundred years." (Chomsky & Halle 1968:54)
In these cases, a given morpheme (i.e. a component of a word) is represented with a single spelling despite the fact that it is pronounced differently (i.e. has different surface representations) in different environments. An example is the past tense suffix -ed, which may be pronounced variously as [t], [d], or [ɪd] (for example, dip [dɪp], dipped [dɪpt], boom [bum], boomed [bumd], loot [lut], looted [lutɪd]). Because these different pronunciations of -ed can be predicted by a few phonological rules, only a single spelling is needed in the orthography.
Another example involves the vowel differences (with accompaning stress pattern changes) in several related words. For instance, the word photographer is derived from the word photograph by adding the derivational suffix -er. When this suffix is added, the vowel pronunciations change:
It may be argued that the underlying representation of photo is a single phonological form, such as |fotɒgrɑːf|. Since the (surface) pronunciation of the vowels can be predicted by phonological rules according to the different stress patterns, the orthography only needs to have one spelling that corresponds to the underlying form. Other examples of this type, include words with the -ity suffix (as in agile vs agility, acid vs acidity, divine vs divinity, sane vs sanity, etc.). (See also: Trisyllabic laxing.)
Another example includes words like sign (pronounced [saɪn]) and bomb (pronounced [bɑm] or [bɒm]) where the "silent" letters g and b, respectively, seem to be "inert" letters with no functional role. However, there are the related words signature and bombard in which the so-called "silent" letters are pronounced [sɪɡnətʃər] and [bɑmbɑrd] or [bɒmbɑːd], respectively. Here it may be argued that the underlying representation of sign and bomb is |saɪgn| and |bɑmb| or |bɒmb|, in which the underlying |g| and |b| are only pronounced in the surface forms when followed by certain suffixes (-ature, -ard). Otherwise, the |g| and |b| are not realized in the surface pronunciation (e.g. when standing alone, or when followed by suffixes like -ing or -er). In these cases, the orthography indicates the underlying consonants that are present in certain words but are absent in other related words. Other examples include the t in fast [fæst] / [fɑːst] and fasten [fæsən] / [fɑːsən] and the h in heir [ɛr] / [ɛə] and inherit [ɪnhɛrət] / [ɪnhɛrɪt].
Another example includes words like mean (pronounced [min]) and meant (pronounced [mɛnt]). Here the vowel spelling ea is pronounced differently in the two related words. Thus, again the orthography uses only a single spelling that corresponds to the single morphemic form rather than to the surface phonological form.
English orthography does not always provide an underlying representation; sometimes it provides an intermediate representation between the underlying form and the surface pronunciation. This is the case with the spelling of the regular plural morpheme, which is written as either -s (as in tick, ticks and mite, mites) or -es (as in box, boxes). Here the spelling -s is pronounced either [s] or [z] (depending on the environment, e.g. ticks [tɪks] and pigs [pɪɡz]) while -es is pronounced [ɪz] (e.g. boxes [bɑksɪz] or [bɒksɪz]). Thus, there are two different spellings that correspond to the single underlying representation |-z| of the plural suffix and the three surface forms. The spelling indicates the insertion of [ɪ] before the [z] in the spelling -es, but does not indicate the devoiced [s] distinctly from the unaffected [z] in the spelling -s.
The abstract representation of words as indicated by the orthography can be considered to be advantageous since the etymological relationships between words are very apparent to English readers. This makes writing English more complex, but arguably makes reading English more efficient (Chomsky 1970:294; Rollins 2004:17).
However, very abstract underlying representations, such as that of Chomsky & Halle (1968) or of underspecification theories, are sometimes considered too abstract to accurately reflect the linguistic knowledge of native speakers. Followers of these arguments believe the less abstract surface forms are more "pyschologically real" and thus more useful in terms of pedagogy (Rollins 2004:17-19).
The English spelling system, compared to the systems used in other languages, is quite irregular and complex. Although French presents a similar degree of difficulty when encoding (writing), English is more difficult when decoding (reading). English has never had any formal regulating authority, like the Spanish Real Academia Española, Italian Accademia della Crusca or the French Académie française, so attempts to regularize or reform the language, including spelling reform, have usually met with failure.
The only significant exceptions were the reforms of Noah Webster which resulted in many of the differences between British and American spelling, such as center/centre, and dialog/dialogue. (Other differences, such as -ize/-ise in realize/realise etc, came about separately.)
Besides the quirks the English spelling system has inherited from its past, there are other idiosyncrasies in spelling that make it tricky to learn. English contains 24-27 (depending on dialect) separate consonant phonemes and, depending on dialect, anywhere from fourteen to twenty vowels. However, there are only 26 letters in the modern English alphabet, so there cannot be a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Many sounds are spelled using different letters or multiple letters, and for those words whose pronunciation is predictable from the spelling, the sounds denoted by the letters depend on the surrounding letters. For example, the digraph "th" represents two different sounds (the voiced interdental fricative and the voiceless interdental fricative) (see Pronunciation of English th), and the voiceless alveolar fricative can be represented by the letters "s" and "c".
Of course, such a philosophy can be taken too far. For instance, there was also a period when the spellings of words was altered in what is now regarded as a misguided attempt to make them conform to what were perceived to be the etymological origins of the words. For example, the letter "b" was added to "debt" in an attempt to link it to the Latin debitum, and the letter "s" in "island" is a misplaced attempt to link it to Latin insula instead of the Norse word igland, which is the true origin of the English word. The letter "p" in "ptarmigan" has no etymological justification whatsoever. Some are just randomly changed, like 'score' used to be spelled 'skor'.
Furthermore, in most recent loanwords, English makes no attempt to Anglicise the spellings of these words, and preserves the foreign spellings, even when they employ exotic conventions, like the Polish "cz" in "Czech" or the Old Norse "fj" in "fjord" (Although New Zealand English exclusively spells it "fiord"). In fact, instead of loans being respelled to conform to English spelling standards, sometimes the pronunciation changes as a result of pressure from the spelling. One example of this is the word "ski", which was adopted from Norwegian in the mid-18th century, although it didn't become common until 1900. It used to be pronounced "shee", which is similar to the Norwegian pronunciation, but the increasing popularity of the sport after the middle of the 20th century helped the "sk" pronunciation replace it.
The spelling of English continues to evolve. Many loanwords come from languages where the pronunciation of vowels corresponds to the way they were pronounced in Old English, which is similar to the Italian or Spanish pronunciation of the vowels, and is the value the vowel symbols [a], [e], [i], [o], and [u] have in the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a result, there is a somewhat regular system of pronouncing "foreign" words in English, and some borrowed words have had their spelling changed to conform to this system. For example, Hindu used to be spelled "Hindoo", and the name "Maria" used to be pronounced like the name "Mariah", but was changed to conform to this system. It has been argued that this influence probably started with the introduction of many Italian words into English during the Renaissance, in fields like music, from which come the words "andante", "viola", "forte", etc.
Commercial advertisers have also had an effect on English spelling. In attempts to differentiate their products from others, they introduce new or simplified spellings like "lite" instead of "light", "thru" instead of "through", "smokey" instead of "smoky" (for "smokey bacon" flavour crisps), and "rucsac" instead of "rucksack". The spellings of personal names have also been a source of spelling innovations: affectionate versions of women's names that sound the same as men's names have been spelled differently: Nikki and Nicky, Toni and Tony, Jo and Joe.
As examples of the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling, the combination "ou" can be pronounced in at least eleven different ways: "famous", "journey", "cough", "dough", "bought", "loud", "tough", "should", "you", "flour", "tour"; and the vowel sound in "me" can be spelt in at least eleven different ways: "paediatric", "me", "seat", "seem", "ceiling", "people", "chimney", "machine", "siege", "phoenix", "lazy". (These examples assume a more-or-less standard non-regional British English accent. Other accents will vary.)
Sometimes everyday speakers of English change a non-intuitive pronunciation simply because it's non-intuitive. Changes like this aren't usually seen as "standard", but can become standard if used enough. An example is the word "miniscule", which still competes with its original spelling of "minuscule", though this might also be because of analogy with the word "mini".
The most notorious group of letters in the English language, ough, is commonly pronounced at least ten different ways, six of which are illustrated in the construct, Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through, which is quoted by Robert A. Heinlein in The Door into Summer to illustrate the difficulties facing automated speech transcription and reading. Ough is in fact a word in its own right; it is an exclamation of disgust similar to "ugh".
Other pronunciations can be found in proper nouns. For example the surname Coughlin is sometimes pronounced [kɔglin].
The original pronunciation in all cases was the one of lough. However the kh sound has disappeared from most modern English dialects. As it faded, different speakers replaced it by different near equivalents in different words. Thus the present confusion resulted.
The two "ough"s in the English place name Loughborough are pronounced differently, resulting in Luffburruh.
Tough, though, through, and thorough are formed by adding an additional letter each time, yet none of them rhymes with another.
A comparable group is the -omb group, which can be pronounced in at least four ways: bomb, comb, tomb and zombie. "Bombie" and Zombie rhyme perfectly in American English however, so the difference there is only in other dialects.
History of the English spelling system
Throughout the history of the English language, these inconsistencies have gradually increased in number. There are a number of contributing factors. First, gradual changes in pronunciation, such as the Great Vowel Shift, account for a tremendous amount of irregularities. Second, relatively recent loan words from other languages generally carry their original spellings, which are often not phonetic in English. The Romanization of languages (e.g., Chinese) using alphabets derived from the Latin alphabet has further complicated this problem, for example when pronouncing Chinese place names. Third, some prescriptivists have had partial success in their attempts to normalize the English language, forcing a change in spelling but not in pronunciation.
The regular spelling system of Old English was swept away by the Norman Conquest, and English itself was eclipsed by French for three centuries, eventually emerging with its spelling much influenced by French. English had also borrowed large numbers of words from French, which for reasons of prestige and familiarity kept their French spellings. The spelling of Middle English, such as in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, is very irregular and inconsistent, with the same word being spelled differently, sometimes even in the same sentence. However, these were generally much better guides to pronunciation than modern English spelling can honestly claim.
The pronunciation /ʌ/ (normally spelled u) of written o in son, love, come, etc. is due to Norman spelling conventions prohibiting writing of u before v, m, n due to the graphical confusion that would result. (v, u, n were identically written with two minims in Norman handwriting; w was written as two u letters; m was written with three minims, hence mm looked like vun, nvu, uvu, etc.) Similarly, spelling conventions also prohibited final v. Hence the identical spellings of the three different vowel sounds in love, grove and prove are due to ambiguity in the Middle English spelling system, not sound change.
There was also a series of linguistic sound changes towards the end of this period, including the Great Vowel Shift, which resulted in "i" in "mine" changing from a pure vowel to a diphthong. These changes for the most part did not detract from the rule-governed nature of the spelling system; but in some cases they introduced confusing inconsistencies, like the well-known example of the many pronunciations of "ough" (rough, through, though, trough, plough, etc.). Most of these changes happened before the arrival of printing in England. However, the arrival of the printing press merely froze the current system, rather than providing the impetus for a realignment of spelling with pronunciation. Furthermore, it introduced further inconsistencies, partly because of the use of typesetters trained abroad, particularly in the Low Countries.
By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid 1600s, the spelling system of English started to stabilize, and by the 1800s, most words had set spellings.
The state of English spelling
It has been shown that regular alphabetic spelling systems make languages easier to learn. Indeed, the concept of learning "spelling" seems very strange to literate speakers of languages such as Finnish or Spanish, as those languages' spelling systems are extremely regular. This is also the case with several abugida alphabets, such as Devanagari, used to write many languages of India. Vietnamese used to be written exclusively using Chinese characters, so that becoming literate in Vietnamese required years of study, and as a result, very few people were literate. However, after the introduction of a modified form of the Latin alphabet for writing Vietnamese, the writing system could be mastered by a native speaker with only a few hours or days of study, and literacy in Vietnamese is much more widespread now. English, it seems, is somewhere in between: its spelling system is irregular, but it is regular to some degree and mastery only requires knowledge of the 26 letters of the alphabet, whereas mastering written Chinese or Japanese is much more difficult, requiring the memorization of thousands of different characters.
Studies have shown that dyslexia occurs more often (or at least is more noticeable) among speakers of languages such as English whose orthography differs heavily from the phonology than speakers of languages where the letter-sound correspondence is more regular.
Sound to spelling correspondences
The following table shows for each sound, the various spelling patterns used to denote it. The symbol "…" stands for an intervening consonant. The letter sequences are in order of frequency with the most common first. Some of these patterns are very rare or unique, such as au for the æ sound in laugh.
Spelling to sound correspondences
- The dash has 2 different meanings. A dash after the letter indicates that it must be at the beginning of a syllable, eg j- in jumper and ajar. A dash before the letter indicates that it cannot be at the beginning of a word, eg -ck in sick and ticket.
- More specific rules take precedence over more general ones, eg 'c- before e, i or y' takes precedence over 'c'.
- Where the letter combination is described as 'word-final', inflectional suffixes may be added without changing the pronunciation, eg catalogues.
- The dialect used is RP.
- Isolated foreign borrowings are excluded.
- This relies highly on knowledge of where the stress in a word is, but English has no consistent way of showing stress.
Combinations of consonant and vowel letters
'*' There is absolutely no way to tell if it is the morpheme or an integral part of the word. Compare snaked and naked.
'**' Same as above compare the two pronunciations of axes.
- English language
- Spelling reform
- International Phonetic Alphabet for English (or the condensed IPA chart for English)
- English phonology
- Alternative political spellings
- List of unusual English words
- Longest word in English
- Three letter rule
- List of names in English with non-intuitive pronunciations
- List of common misspellings
- I before e
- Silent E
- List of English words containing a Q not followed by a U
- Sensational spelling
- English plural
- Classical compound
- Shavian alphabet
- Transliteration of Greek into English
- Teaching Spelling - Information on teaching English spelling
- Rules for English Spelling: Adding Suffixes, QU Rule, i before e, Silent e, 'er' vs. 'or'
- White Paper Research based Tutoring of English Spelling
- Hou tu pranownse Inglish describes rules which predict a word's pronunciation from its spelling with 85% accuracy
- Basic Roman Spelling of English
- Free spelling information and Free spelling lessons in QuickTime movie format at The Phonics Page.
- Carney, Edward. (1994). A survey of English spelling. London: Routledge.
- Chomsky, Carol. (1970). Reading, writing and phonology. Harvard Educational Review, 40 (2), 287-309.
- Chomsky, Noam; & Halle, Morris. (1968). The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.
- Rollins, Andrew G. The spelling patterns of English. LINCOM studies in English linguistics (04). Muenchen: LINCOM EUROPA.
- Sapmpson, Geoffrey. (1985). Writing systems: A linguistic introduction. London: Hutchinson.