How does English spelling reflect its history?


In these monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at the relationship between English spelling and the history of the English language.

ENGLISH spelling is notoriously complicated and difficult to learn, even for native English speakers.
Most other languages with alphabet writing systems try to have one symbol for each sound. Tok Pisin and Indonesian are good examples of this.
Once you know the system, you can read and spell out just about any word that you know. You can even sound out new words that you have never seen before and pronounce them correctly.
English does not have such a logical system. Although most native-speaker varieties of English have around 35 sounds, the language is limited to an alphabet that has only 26 letters.
This means that it needs to combine letters to form sounds, such as “sh”, “ch”, and “th”. It also has many silent letters and inconsistencies in the way that it maps the sounds of the language onto its writing system.
All of this means that while most children in the world who grow up in societies that use alphabets can learn to read and write properly in a year, children that go to school in English are still having spelling tests in grades six and seven.

Why does island have a silent s?

While English spelling can be frustrating, it does give us interesting insights into the history of the language as it developed in Europe over the centuries.
The English language developed from languages spoken by Germanic tribes that invaded England after the Roman Empire collapsed several hundred years after Christ.
Only a small number of people could read or write at that time, most of them priests. Most of their writing was in Latin, so they developed a system of adapting the Latin alphabet to write English.
But when the French invaded in 1066, priests and government officials stopped writing in English, and were educated instead only in French and Latin, much as Papua New Guineans today are educated in English, the language of the invading colonisers, rather than their own languages.
When English started to reappear as a written language two and three hundred years later, those priests and government workers tended to write many English words as they were written in French. This is how English started to have silent “-e” at the end of “table” and the second sound in the word “double” spelt with two letters, “ou”. It is also how English ended up with many words ending in “-re”, which reflects a French, rather than English, pronunciation of words such as “centre” and “theatre”.
Just around the time writing in English was getting re-established, widespread literacy and the widespread distribution of books was spurred by the invention of the printing press. At first most printing was done outside of England, especially in Belgium and Holland, often by printers who spoke little or no English.
These printers often changed the spelling of unfamiliar English words to fit the spelling conventions of their own languages. Dutch at that time, for example, had many words spelt beginning with “gh” to represent a sound in that language, and Dutch-speaking printers unnecessarily introduced the silent “h” in words like “ghost” and “aghast” so that they looked like Dutch words. They also wrote “girl” as “gherle” and “goat” as “ghoot”, but unlike “ghost” and “aghast”, these spellings never caught on.
Another foreign influence was made by native speakers of English who thought that Latin was superior to English (much like some Papua New Guineans today think English is superior to Tok Pisin), so that words related to those languages should be spelt with all the French or Latin letters, even if these are not pronounced in English.
This is the source of the “b” in “debt”, which was originally written “dette”, and the “s” in “island”, which was originally written “iland” or “yland”. These letters have never been pronounced in English, but they were in their Latin equivalents “debitum” and “insula”, and were just added to the English words as a kind of intellectual decoration.
Another problem with English spelling is that it often reflects the way words were pronounced centuries ago, rather than today. This started with the invention of the printing press, which made it harder to change spelling as the pronunciation of words changed.

Why does the word ghost have a silent h?

About one hundred years after the printing press was introduced, there was a sudden and dramatic shift in the way that English people pronounced vowels. While the actual pronunciation of vowels changed, people tended to keep on spelling them with their old pronunciation.
For example, originally “name” and “fine” used to be pronounced as two-syllable words with vowels like we would pronounce them as if they were Tok Pisin words, but today the “a” is no longer like the “a” in Tok Pisin “papa”, the “i” is no longer like the “i” in Tok Pisin “inap”, and the final “e” has been dropped in oral English. Similarly, “he” and “be” used to be pronounced with an “e” like Tok Pisin “em”. The pronunciations changed, but the spellings did not.
Consonants also changed over the centuries. English used to have many words beginning with “cn-”, which under the influence of the French writing system, came to be written as “kn-”. This was two sounds, a “k” followed by an “n”. Gradually the “k” sound was dropped, but we continue to remember its presence and write it in words like “knight” and “knee”.
Another consonant sound that has disappeared is the sound that used to appear in the middle or end of many words and was written with “gh”. This was a sound made at the very back of the mouth, somewhat between “g” and “h”, similar to the sound that is written in languages of New Ireland with the letter “x”.
In modern English, it appears only in Scottish English, such as in “loch”, the Scottish word for “lake”. Although this sound has disappeared from other varieties of English, it is still retained in the way we spell, but do not pronounce, words such as “straight”, and “light”.
As we have seen, English spelling is a bit like linguistic archeology. Combinations of letters and apparently arbitrary silent letters are actually clues to how the language was pronounced in the past.
While English spelling can be frustrating at times, it does link us to earlier ways the language used to be spoken.

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

One thought on “How does English spelling reflect its history?

  • A detailed discourse on the history of the English language. Hopefully, most English teachers would like it too.

    Circulate copies of the next publish to Language teachers on request for background knowledge.

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