HOW DO YOU SPELL IT?
Of all the skills involved
in learning English the one that causes learners the greatest difficulty
is surely that of spelling. No matter how hard you try it is almost impossible
to find any logic whatsoever to help you learn how to spell. Learners
of English are not alone in their difficulty; native English speakers
often experience just as many problems in attempting to spell their own
language. The development of the spell check facility that comes with
most word processing programmes has gone some way to helping matters although
even here the differences between standard British and American spelling
can cause confusion. To understand why English is so idiosyncratic we
must look to history and the development of writing itself.
The written word is only some 5000 years old and therefore in comparison
to speech a very recent development. With it history begins, before it
we must rely on the archaeologist. There is little doubt that writing
developed from drawing. The American Indians made many such drawings but
although they communicate something once one understands their context
they give no indication as to the speech sounds or word order of the language
of the artists. It is Semitic writing that forms the basis for English,
and indeed, all other alphabets. The original Semitic alphabet consisted
of consonants only; the Greeks introduced vowels when they adopted the
alphabet to form the basis of their own writing system. The Romans further
developed the alphabet and it is from this that the beginnings of written
English started to evolve.
The oldest written records of the English language date back to A.D. 700
and are based on the Irish modification of the Roman alphabet. It would
be difficult for many people in England to admit but it was the Irish
who taught the English how to write. This first form of English is commonly
known as Old English and was further developed by the Normans from France
after their invasion in 1066. This was followed, from 1100 to 1500, by
the period known as Middle English, but it is from 1500 onwards, the period
known as Modern English, that we must look to in order to understand why
English spelling is so difficult and illogical.
As many of you are probably aware, all languages are constantly changing
and evolving. One of the areas of English that has seen the greatest change
over the centuries is that of pronunciation. The way in which we pronounce
different words changes for different reasons. As people from different
cultural and language backgrounds come into contact with each other they
bring with them differences in pronunciation. Eventually the pronunciation
of the dominant community will become accepted as the norm. In addition,
as we develop in new areas such as medicine and science we require new
words to describe what we discover and finally certain words are changed
completely because of their relationship to others.
For example, the side on which a ship is loaded used to be known as the
ladeboard but its opposite, starboard, influenced a change to larboard.
Then, because larboard was likely to be confused with starboard it was
generally replaced by portside.
Unfortunately the spelling of words does not follow the changes in their
pronunciation. One of the major influences on English spelling was the
introduction of the printing press. With it came the need for a standardisation
of the way in which English was spelt. Although there are some discrepancies
in the spelling of certain words in early English printed documents of
the time, the spelling of English has remained reasonably constant since
the 1500s. (our thanks to Dr Samuel Johnson for that-Ed).
Modern English spelling is the result of thirteen centuries of writing
in the Latin alphabet. It started with Anglo-Saxon monks who had learned
it from Irish scribes and developed and was influenced by the Norman Conquest
and the introduction of printing. And what of the answer to the question,
how do you spell it? Why, the answer is easy I T of course!
© Ian Bowie 2002
See also the Creation of the
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