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English Language & Linguistics

English Language




Problems, issues and solutions

Spelling describes the way in which the symbols or letters of the alphabet are arranged in a conventional way to represent the words of a language. Dictionaries are the usual arbiters on what is acceptable spelling and one effect of Dr Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755 was that soon most writers conformed to a standard spelling. In consequence spelling has changed very little since the eighteenth century.

English spelling seems irregular because words have been affected by a variety of different influences over the centuries.

Features affecting spelling

° Anglo Saxon retaining original pronunciation before writing and before the 1st Germanic Consonantal Shift
° Old English rewritten by French scribes (cwene became queen) using French conventions
° Some C17 words deliberately spelled to imitate Latin or Greek to lend credibility
° Loan words from a variety of languages, each with different original sounds "rationalised" by English speakers.
° Some spellings amended by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary; other authors such as Shakespeare and texts such as the King James Bible enshrine certain spellings which become accepted by virtue of their importance and wide readership.
° Newly invented words (neologisms), trade names and personal names may not follow conventions. Advertising words can take on a life of their own if they begin to apply to items in general rather than the specific product.
Kleeneezee, while-u-wait, Kwik Fit, color, Filofax, fish'n'chips, Bettacars, Walkrite, Rentaloo ...


US spelling is based on the English taken by the earlier settlers to the New World - which was 17th century century English. As a colony of England it remained faithful to its roots in some ways, but had constantly to adapt to the conditions of a new environment, new customs, local languages ....

In the course of time and under the influence of an independent spirit, its own dictionary, recognising the truth of the phrase coined in later years: "two countries divided by a common language" was written by Noah Webster and incorporated modifications and simplifications by Webster, bringing us

color, honor, center, theater, check (for UK cheque), defense, thru, sox ....

The increasing influence of US culture and attitudes extends to spelling too, though it is not always obvious. The two main computer operating systems come from the US and the word "quit" rather than UK "leave" or "close" joins "program" (not "programme") as a broadly understood term. Microsoft Explorer's "Favorites" would be a natural next word to change.

Attitudes and Social Acceptability

A correspondent to The Guardian wrote:

"As a teacher, I have to teach that adequate spelling is necessary for communication, correct spelling for social advancement, and that the values implicit in each are very different."

Do you agree that this seems a rational and thoughtful view of the importance of spelling.?

Read the following passage.

Aoccdrnig to rseearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't
mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt
tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can
be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is
bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig!

Does this mean spelling is a significant factor in communication?

Answer the following challenging questions:

° How far do you think people do think less of you and how far do you think they should think less of you if you cannot spell correctly?
° You may have had comments on your poor spelling, but have you ever had someone comment on you adversely as a result of your poor spelling?
° Have you ever criticised anyone else's spelling? Why? On reflection, were you right - or do you regret it?
° If you were a manager in a health centre, would you employ Ms Wilson whose spelling was poor but whose people skills were good or Ms Watson whose spelling was good but whose people skills were poor? Would you be more concerned about your image as seen by the outside world, or the way they dealt with patients?
° Is a Headmaster right in putting aside a job application for a chemistry teacher if it has spelling errors ? Is it important that a chemistry teacher can spell?
° If teachers are dyslexic does this mean they should be barred from teaching? Should they barred from being English teachers?

° Write a letter from a Headmaster to parents explaining the importance of accurate spelling in the school.


Read the following information and write
a) a letter to a quality newspaper and
b) an article for English Language Monthly explaining the issues and offering solutions
c) produce an argument either for or against the proposal that "English spelling is unfit for the modern world." and be prepared to present it to an interested group of people of your own age.

See also "Non-standard spelling forms in advertising"
What apparently tricky areas of English spelling are being simplified by the advertisers? Are there any other areas from your own experience of spelling you might suggest could be improved?


° David Crystal quotes the figure that English is about 75% regular. The 400 or so irregular spellings are "among the most frequently used".
° Other writers have claimed that 3% of the existing language is so unpredictable that it has to be learned but that 3% comprises "a very large proportion" of our everyday usage.

George Bernard Shaw created the word "Ghoti" which he suggested was pronounced like the English word "fish" if some of the precedents of English spelling were used. He pointed out that the "gh" was pronounced like "f" as in "enough", the "o" as in "women" and the "ti" as "nation."

Some common irregular words
all although autumn blood dough
colour could does friend island
key people said shoe women

More on spelling problems and a solution





Spelling showing origins