The most difficult language to spell? English!

February 21, 2015 11:00 am

graduatedSome suggest that English could be the most irregularly spelled language in the world. Think about this: English has 44 sounds spelled in 205 different ways. Do you want more proofs? The same sound can be represented in numerous ways. More? The same letter combinations can produce different sounds as well. Still not convinced? Then reflect upon the fact that many English children have proven not to reach proficiency level in their native language until a certain age. The reason? Linguists discovered that kids usually acquire the ability to handle the many exceptions of the English language only at a later stage at elementary school. The result? Most of the average European children master basic language skills within a year of schooling while for English children it takes three years. In America there’s such a thing as the “reading level”, which has no correspondence in other countries. In contrast with English, there are two languages, namely Finnish and Korean, in which sounds and letters correspond to a great extent; in Finnish, particularly, the match is nearly 100%. Teachers and students are both quite happy, we guess.

But why is English so irregular? Why do the words “cat” and “queue”, even though differently written, have the same initial sound? Why does “it”, if used in the word “item”, have another pronunciation? Why do “sough” and “enough” not rhyme together? Why does “tear” have a different pronunciation as a noun and as a verb, meaning two different things? If we search through history, we can find the answer: take it as a bit of an exaggeration, but modern English, in some part of it, has many “artificial” rules. The reasons are complex, as complex as the developing (and “twisting”) of a language in time. Even Middle English, not to mention Old English, had an easier spelling than the modern one. Languages get influenced by the languages of other countries, and the passage from oral to written language is sometimes tricky and difficult. Here is what happened. After the introduction of the press, many were the mistakes made, for sometimes the printing houses had no native English speakers: for instance, Belgians introduced the letter “i” in friend and wrote “busy” instead of the original “bisy”. Things got even worse when an English Bible full of mistakes was printed in hundreds of copies. French’s influence has its part too. The introduction of foreign words, each with a certain pronunciation, contributed to make spelling the “chaotic mess” that is today. No efforts were made to correct the mistakes, as other countries had, and English was left at its own, irregular destiny.

Consequences were hard and not so fully predictable. Learning English became a challenging matter. And so? Some researchers and linguists have tried to suggest solutions, such as alternate spellings or a renewed language. Up until now, they haven’t succeeded: changing a language deliberately is quite a hard thing.

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Matteo Poles

Social Media Specialist

Communication Trainee at TermCoord

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