Anglopolis: the Anarchy of the English Language Explained to Students of English

A los estudiantes de inglés puede parecerles que las normas gramaticales de este idioma son arbitrarias. En realidad, siguen una lógica fundada en su compleja historia. La explicamos.

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A native English speaker today uses around 44 distinct sounds … called ‘phonemes’– while speaking. It depends a bit on your accent, but more than forty is a lot of sounds. There were already around 37 phonemes in 5th-century Anglo Saxon. Then, as words from other languages, especially Latin and French, poured into the language over the centuries, they brought new sounds with them that had to be spelt somehow. As there are only 26 letters in today’s alphabet, some of the 44 phonemes have to be represented by combinations of letters. And that’s where English spelling gets tricky. We could of course use the phonetic alphabet to represent sounds consistently. But most people would find that /ɪmˈpɒsəb(ə)l/ /tə/ /riːd/ (impossible to read).

Reading aloud

So, imagine the scene, in 7th-century Britain, monks are working away in different monasteries in remote parts of the country, writing down poetry and religious texts using the Roman alphabet. There are slightly fewer phonemes at this point but also fewer letters to work with, (‘w’, ‘j’ and ‘v’ have not yet been introduced). There are no dictionaries and no way of checking which spellings scribes in other parts of the country are using. In fact, there isn’t yet the idea that spelling should be standardised. Texts are written to be read out loud to a group (the idea of silent private reading as we usually do now came centuries later.) So monks primarily want to ensure that sounds will not be confused while the texts are being read aloud. Scribes in different regions of the country have different accents and this, too, sometimes affects the way they spell words.

Standardising 

Until the first English dictionaries were compiled in the 18th century, there was no rule to say which spelling was the correct form. Some spellings became more popular than others over time and sometimes different spellings were popular in different parts of the country. The 18th-century lexicographers simply put into their dictionaries the spellings that seemed most common to them. There was nothing very scientific about the process and so the inconsistencies became established.

Long or short?

Given that there are around twenty vowel sounds in English and only five vowel letters, it’s not surprising that writers found many different ways to represent these vowel sounds in letters. Until the 16th century, they often emphasised that a vowel had a short sound, as in ‘cat’ by doubling the next letter, for example ‘catt’, ‘dogg’, ‘tell’, or ‘cliff’. Later, depending on the final sound of the word, some of these words got shortened back again. For example, ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, while others like ‘tell’ and ‘cliff’ kept the double letter. Inconsistent but understandable.

THE DOUBLE ‘E’

And what about long vowel sounds, for example the ‘ee’ sound in ‘free’? Writers chose different solutions to make it clear when a long ‘e’ should be pronounced: by doubling (‘free’, ‘see); combining the ‘e’ with another vowel (‘sea’, ‘please’, ‘piece’); or adding a final ‘e’ (‘these’). 

Not guilty!

So, yes, English spelling is terribly inconsistent but there are some fascinating historical reasons to explain why this was pretty much inevitable. If you want to know more about the history of English spelling try David Crystal’s excellent book Spell it Out.

the magic ‘e’

A favourite rule among kids learning to spell is the “magic final e”. According to this rule, an ‘e’ at the end of words makes vowels “say their real name” (in English, of course.) Here are some examples:

Mad /mæd/ has a short ‘a’ sound. made /meɪd/ has a long ‘a’ sound. The letter ‘a’ is saying its name. Magic!

And it works for all the vowel letters:

then /ðen/, these /ðiːz/
pin /pɪn/, pine /paɪn/
us /ʌs/, use /juːz/
hop /hɒp/, hope /həʊp/

Los entusiastas del inglés que deseen no sólo aprender a hablar el idioma, sino también conocer su compleja y fascinante historia, disfrutarán también de estos artículos:

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