|Why Spelling in English Is so Difficult
Recently, 14-year-old Harini Logan won the Scripps
National Spelling Bee in the United States. She correctly spelled 22
words during a 90-second spell-off.
The words included phreatophyte, excimer, saccharose, and finally the
winning word “moorhen,” which means a female, red grouse bird.
Most Americans, however, would find it difficult to spell any of these
From an early age, native English speakers know there are clear
differences between how words are pronounced and how they are spelled.
But they do not know that the difference is unique to English among
Languages like Italian or Finnish can be spelled more easily because
each letter of the alphabet matches to one sound. Students studying
these languages can have 90 percent reading accuracy after the first
year. That information comes from Philip Seymore in the British Journal
In English, many letters of the alphabet have two or more sounds. This
is why even after years of learning, students of English are still far
below Italian or Finnish students in reading accuracy.
History of the English language
English started as a Germanic language. It is most closely connected to
German and Dutch, especially in grammar and basic vocabulary.
During the Norman invasion in the 12th century, Old English was spoken
but French was used in government and legal documents. And Latin was
used in religious and educational activities. As a result, more French
and Latin words entered the English language.
The printing press was invented in the late 1400s. This helped to
establish English spelling and strengthen the connection between how
English is spoken and how it is written. The English of today is how the
language was written at the time.
However, the spoken language started to change in the 1500s with the
pronunciation of all long vowels, especially in southern England.
For example, the word “bite” was pronounced closer to “beet” in 1400,
before changing through the years to its current sound. The effect was
that the English language had old spellings, but new sounds.
One letter, many sounds
English has 26 letters in the alphabet, but over 44 individual sounds
depending on the variation of spoken English.
There are several sounds represented by only one letter.
For example, the letter "C" can sound like an “S” as in “city.” And it
also sounds like a “K” as in “cat.”
If that is not hard enough, let’s try to pronounce the letter “X” as /ks/
in “box”, as /gz/ in “exam” and just /z/ in “xylophone."
So many ways to sound a vowel
There are only 5 or 6 vowel letters in the English alphabet. They
include A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. But there are 20 different ways
to sound them! For example, a double “o” sound in English can be
pronounced as /u/, as in the word “boot” or /u/ as in the word “book”.
These sounds are formed by air moving through the mouth and throat
freely. In the study of language, called linguistics, teachers use a
drawing to represent the mouth and show where vowels are formed.
At the center is the most common vowel sound of “uhhh.” It is the most
relaxed and natural sound. It takes almost no effort of the tongue or
throat to create the sound.
Brian M. Sietsema is an Associate Pronouncer for the Scripps National
Spelling Bee. He observes that since it takes little effort, the sound
“uhhh” often makes its way into pronunciations.
For example, the word “please” often turns into “PUH-lease” when someone
is trying to call attention.
This is another reason why spelling in English is so difficult!