Why does cough rhyme with toff but plough rhyme with now? Why does debt have a silent b? If ewe can be you, how comes eye can be I? Who on earth put the k into knight? Why is read read as red when it’s said in the past, but reads like its reed in the present? Indeed, why is English spelling so weird? In today’s post we look at the history of English spelling to find out some of the reasons that underlie its many orthographic idiosyncrasies.
Why is English spelling so weird?
Too few letters for too many sounds
Modern English has a phoneme inventory of 44 sounds (with some variation according to dialect) but only 26 letters with which to write them. Since its very earliest days, this mismatch has been a key obstacle to spelling the language in a regular manner. The monks who were among the first to write down Old English tried to solve the problem by adding new letters to represent sounds absent in Latin, such as a ligature of a and e, namely æ (ash), and several runic characters – þ (thorn), ð (eth), and ȝ (yogh). Æ can still occasionally be found (for example, in the official name of the Encyclopædia Britannica), but the runic symbols were eventually replaced by digraphs – combinations of two letters to represent one sound – th for þ and ð and gh for ȝ. Diacritics – those little marks above and beneath letters that you find in so many other languages (á, è, ü, ç, ñ and so on) – being absent in Latin, were never used by the early writers of English and so never really became a part of the orthography, except to write certain foreign loanwords. Continue reading