Whether English is a difficult language to learn or not is debatable, but I think everyone can agree that English spelling just does not make sense. It is bad enough that there are silent letters in words like sword and corps, but what about those words spelled with their letters in the wrong order like Wednesday (/ˈwenzdeɪ/) or comfortable (/ˈkʌmftərb(ə)l/)? Why is the word colonel (/ˈkɜːrn(ə)l/) spelled with an L in the middle and no R at all?
This inconsistency in spelling is one of the main reasons it is vital to learn how English words are written and pronounced at the same time.
If a word ends in MB, then the B is silent. The letter D is not pronounced when it comes before a G or an N. The G is generally not pronounced when it comes before the letter N.
While English learners can appreciate the relative simplicity of the English noun system (no masculine and feminine articles for inanimate objects being one obvious advantage), we can only dream of a language that follows spelling rules that match the phonetics of the language. Although reading may help English learners and native speakers alike become familiar with unusual spellings, reading practice alone is far too passive an activity to foster confidence in English spelling. In fact, regular spelling tests accompany school children well into 7th grade in the US – and, even as adults, many native speakers still find themselves looking up the spelling of not-so-common words when necessary.
Why are words not spelled how they are pronounced?
To answer this question, we have to start by looking at the influences that contribute to English vocabulary and also at the changes in pronunciation that were taking place around the time English spelling was standardized. Prior to the introduction of the printing press in 1476, there was actually a lot of variation in how English words were spelled across Britain. Back then, scribes were more or less free to use their discretion in matching a word’s spelling to the pronunciation of the time and region. It is also important to note that this standardization of spelling took place during the so-called great vowel shift, roughly between the 11th and 15th centuries, as the English language witnessed great changes in pronunciation and the language was transforming from Middle English to Modern English.
The British pronounce the H in the word ‘herb’, but the Americans do not! When a word begins with KN, the K is silent!
Notice that the L is sometimes silent when it comes after a vowel.
Thank you, printing press!
Once mass printing had been introduced, the rules for English spelling became established and could be brought to the masses. This also meant that spelling was standardized by publishers in and around London. Therefore, much of the spelling we know today is more or less reflective of the pronunciation of London in the 15th century. While English spelling has remained more or less the same since then, the pronunciation has continued to evolve throughout England and the English-speaking world.
Therefore, it is not so much English spelling that refuses to conform to pronunciation, but our pronunciation that has dissented over time.
English continues to grow!
English has always been good at adopting new and foreign words, which has helped it become both rich in vocabulary and expansive – containing more words than any other living language today and taking on an average of four new words a day – so make sure you learn at least four new words every day just to maintain your current level!
Why don’t we update English spelling to match pronunciation?
Optimists could argue that there is a bright side to irrational spelling. For one thing, variation in spelling allows us to recognize the difference between homophones – such as sea and see, know and no, to and too – in writing. However, homophones are rarely the same part of speech, e.g. both nouns, both verbs or both adjectives, and finding a sentence where you can’t differentiate the homophones by the context would actually be extremely rare.
These word pairs sound exactly the same….
and so do these!
Wouldn’t it be possible to reform English spelling?
Indeed, there have been attempts to reform English spelling in the past. It was Noah Webster, the American writer, who advocated for the simplification of English spelling when creating a dictionary of American English.
Although his proposed changes were considered drastic and mostly disregarded, the United States can thank Noah Webster for a few changes to American English spelling.
Words ending in ‘our’ in British English are reduced to ‘or’ in American English:
British colour flavour humour honour neighbour labour American color flavor humor honor neighbor labor
Words ending in ‘yse’ or ‘ise’ are changed to ‘yze’ or ize’
British analyse paralyse organise realise Americans analyze paralyze organize realize
Differences in whether the L is singular or double when conjugating the words travel and cancel
British travelled travelling traveller cancelled cancelling American traveled traveling traveler canceled canceling
Reducing the letters in some Greek and Latin rooted words
British leukaemia manoeuvre oestrogen paediatric archaeology foetus analogue catalogue dialogue American leukemia maneuver estrogen pediatric archeology fetus analog or analogue catalog or catalogue dialog or dialogue
Changes in words ending in ‘re’
British centre theatre fibre litre metre American center theater or theatre fiber liter meter
Differences in -ce and -se endings (Both spellings are recognized in the US and Great Britain, but more commonly spelled as listed below)
British defence offence licence pretence American defense offense license pretense
GH is usually silent when it comes after a vowel, but sometime it is pronounced as an F.
When a word ends in MN, only the M is pronounced. When you see MN at the end of a word, you should only pronounce the M.
Sometimes the tricky letter O is not pronounced. Memorize the spelling and pronunciation of these common words.
A note on French vocabulary
The Norman Conquest of 1066 led to the use of French as the language of administration, law and culture in Britain. During Norman rule, English speakers remained illiterate until the invention of the printing press allowed English scripts to be more easily disseminated throughout the English speaking population, as mentioned above.
The pronunciation of French words in English often differ from the same words spoken in French, depending on how long ago English borrowed the word. In many cases, the meaning of the word has even taken on a new or slightly different meaning in English. This can happen through a word’s evolution through time and across region.
When English borrows a foreign word, it is most often left with the original spelling whether the pronunciation has been Anglicized or not. This is yet another reason for discrepancies between how we spell and pronounce our words.
The letter P is not pronounced at the beginning of words using the combinations ps-, pt- and pn-.
Many French-origin words maintain a silent S in English. Do not pronounce the S in these words!
The silent R
English speakers who pronounce the /r/ have a so-called rhotic accent. If the /r/ is not always pronounced, the accent is non-rhotic English. Whereas the /r/ sound is pronounced consistently in most parts of the United States, it is often silent in parts of England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Fortunately, the rule for when the /r/ is silent in non-rhotic pronunciation is quite easy to memorize.
Whether you are learning a rhotic or non-rhotic accent, you pronounce the /r/ sound when it is followed by a vowel, as in the words replay, road and pray.
With the non-rhotic accent, however, the /r/ is silent when it is preceded by a vowel sound, as noticed in the words bird, sport and father.
Speakers with non-rhotic accents do not pronounce the R’s in the following words:
world wear weather storm farm barn corn park father baker purse minor poor water beer more
The letter T is often silent when it is sandwiched between two other consonants, like in the words “whistle” or “mortgage”. French words, such as “ballet” and “bouquet”, can also contain a silent T.
The letter W is not pronounced at the beginning of a word when it comes before the letter R; for example, write, wrest, wrong, wrack, and wrap.
The W is also silent in the words: who, whose, whole, whom, whole, whoever, answer, sword, and two. These ones you have just got to memorize!