Irrationality of English Spellings

Ashok Sharma

English language has been invading more and more areas with each day as it has been hailed as link language, ‘window to the world’ etc.and the English medium schools and coaching institutes are mushrooming in cities,towns and villages.The parents consider it a symbol of prestige to converse with their children in English. But despite all the craze to learn, read and speak English, learners especially at the elementery level find it difficult to learn this fast spreading language due to English spellings which have often been termed as chaotic and irrational as there is no one to one relationship between English phoneme and grapheme.There is a wide gap between how words are written and pronounced. It poses difficulty due to many reasons. For instance,different letters in English may represent the same sound e.g.through, threw; to, too, two etc. Sometimes, a single letter may represent different sounds e.g. dame dad, father; cat, cite etc. Sometimes, a combination of letters may represent a single sound e.g. rough,phase etc. Strangely enough, sometimes some letters have no sound in the words at all e.g. resign sword, debt, gnaw, lamb, knot etc.More strange, in some cases ,the same letter represents different sounds in the same word Then there are irregular verbs which defy any logic, especially in the past and past participle form.It is due to this wide gap between orthography and pronunciation that English spelling is considered chaotic and hard to learn.Then there are irregular verbs in English which defy all logic,especially in past amd past participle form.For instance,’eat’ changes into ‘ate’ and ‘eaten’ in the past and past participle respectively.In view of all this inconsistency and difficulty in learning English spellings,many famous scholars and writers from across the globe, such as Samuel Johnson,Benjamin Franklin Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Theodore Roosevelt,HGWells,Andrew Carnegie etc.have protested against the irregularity of English spelling and pleaded for reforms in English spellings.Various organisations such as Simplified Spelling Society,Simplified Spelling Board,International Spelling Reform Society etc.were formed to bring reforms in English spellings,including doing away with digraphs such as gh,mn,ch,sh etc. Some of them argued that implementing phonetic alphabet and replacing the word with more phonetically accurate letter combinations will make the learning of English easy and simpler and enhance literacy.Some of them believe that the spellings of words in English should be ‘fixed’ to avoid further confusion.
On the other hand, those who support the present system of spellings argue that if English spellings had been so irrational and chaotic,it would not have grown so fast and been a global language.They hold that English serves several other purposes other than that of a one to one phoneme- letter correspondence.According to them ,English spelling has been shaped by the three principles.The first is Conservatism which implies that when a word is widely accepted, it tends to stick to the language regardless of how the pronunciation of the word changes in course of time or across different dialects.Thus, conservatism serves the purpose of keeping the English spelling consistent no matter how the word is pronounced in India,America or Ireland.
Then,it is a fact that English has borrowed many words from other languages such as Latin, German, Greek etc. in their original form.As each language follows a different set of rules of spellings, these words have been accepted in English and the principle of conservatism applied to them.History has also influenced English spellings a lot.After the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, old English,a germanic language was replaced by French as the official language of the court.About 1500 French words associated with government, law, art, literature,food and other aspects of life found their way into English .Thus, Norman French dominated the language of the court, Government and the elite for over three hundred years and by the time it was again allowed in the Court, it was French infused Middle English. Geoffery Chaucer, who is known as Father of English Language, has used different spellings for the same word in his immortal work’The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales’.
We cannot blame Chaucer for all this,he was simply following the pattern of spellings prevailing at that time.
The use of Printing Press in the fifteenth century followed by mass distribution of books froze English Orthography and standardized the spelling of words through repetition.Between 1450 and 1750,English pronunciation went through what the linguists call ‘the Great Vowel Shift’.By the end of the seventeenth century,English spelling had stabilised and Samuel Jhonson’s dictionery published in the eighteenth century was considered as the primary source of the spellings of the English language and there have been few changes in English spellings since then.Of course,there have been demands to reform the English spelling by such methods as removing -gh endings from the words such as ‘through’and change the ‘ph’to ‘f’ in words such as ‘photo’ and remove the silent ‘k’from words such as knight and know.If this is done, the words such as ‘slightly’ will be written as ‘slytly’and ‘spelling’,as ‘spelng’.Then there have been demands of spelling a word according to the way it is pronounced. Thus ‘idea’ will be written as ‘iedeea’ and ‘genius’ as ‘jeenius’.It is most likely that majority of people will reject such type of spellings as bad spellings and sign of stupidity.Thus, it can be fairly concluded that while reforming English spelling is a good idea in theory, it is not practicable.
Should the spellings be changed,it would effectively require reteaching everyone to read and write again and run the risk of making all the existing literature and writings unreadable.So we cannot do much about it and the better option will be to let this language change naturally and accept the changes gladly.
(The writer is serving as lecturer in English,Govt. HSS (Boys) Udhampur.)