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Ian Bowie

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

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