Suggestions for reducing the worst irregularities of English spelling

Learning to read and write English is exceptionally slow and difficult, because over 4,000 common words have tricky spellings which require word-by-word memorisation. Many of them pose reading difficulties as well (e.g. shoe, flew, to – toe, sew, go). If substantial numbers of the gremlins were brought into line with the main patterns, learning to read and write would become easier and faster. This has been confirmed by several studies.

English-speaking countries are not in the habit of reviewing and updating their writing system. It was last slightly improved between 1642-9 when Civil War pamphleteers cut surplus letters from words like ‘hadde, olde, shoppe’, to squeeze more propaganda onto a page. Other spelling changes have nearly all made it worse. There is now so much wrong with it, that even deciding where to start improving it has become difficult. Most English spellings now have some exceptions, but the worst are :

 irregular spellings for short e and u (e.g. head, said, friend; does, done, double),

 long /ee/ spellings (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, machine, people),

 inconsistent consonant doubling (carrot, carol; arise, arrive),

 different spellings for identical words (e.g. bred/bread, hear/here)

and surplus –e endings (refine – engine).

Correcting all of them would make learning to read and write much easier and less time-consuming. But even amending just some of them would already make a substantial difference. The confusion caused by ea for example, (to read, have read; dream, dreamt) could be much reduced by merely making the spellings of short /e/ more regular.

Ea is used in 254 words: 156 for /ee/, 51 for short /e/ and several other sounds in another 47 (tear, break, react, create, learn). If the 51 ea spellings became e, the clearly dominant pronunciation of ea would become /ee/, with different pronunciations in just 47 words. This would already eliminate many reading and spelling problems. Learners would benefit even more if all 61 common words with irregularly spelt /e/ were regularised, including ‘any, many, friend, said, says, bury, heifer, Wednesday’.

Another 158 words have irregular spellings for short a, i, o and u (e.g. plait, busy, was, some). Some of them hinder progress significantly too, because young children generally start learning to read and write with short words like ‘a fat cat sat; sit in pit; pot got hot; mum must run’. All exceptions to them retard early literacy progress, but not equally. Short /a/ is irregular in just three words (plait, plaid, meringue). Exceptions to short /i/ make only seven common words tricky (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women, sieve). The other 38 (e.g. abyss, crypt, crystal, cyclical, cygnet…) occur in less often used words and therefore don’t impede either learning to read or write very much. The a spelling for short /o/ after w and qu in 29 words (e.g. was, want, squash, squat) is almost regular, with the exceptions and ‘wobbly, wonky, wodge, wombat’ and ‘cough, trough, laurel, sausage’. The wa and qua spellings cause some reading difficulties, with inconsistencies like ‘swan swam’ and ‘was wagging’, but they are also not among the most serious impediments of learning.

Alternatives for short /u/ by contrast, like those for short /e/, are much more damaging. They occur in 68 mostly very common words (come, some, mother, other, brother, done, nothing, tough, rough, blood, flood…) and hinder early progress in both learning to read and write a great deal. Most were made irregular deliberately, around 1200 years ago, when some scribes decided to use o for the short /u/ sound.

The spelling of short /e/ was made irregular, mainly with ea, in the 15th century, when Chaucer’s regular spellings for the /ee/ sound (leve, sleve, even, beleve, reson…) were also ruined. One can only guess what motivated the court scribes, but the 12 unpredictable spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, weird, police, people…). are now one of the three main sources of English misspellings. They necessitate word-by-word memorisation of irregularities for 459 words, and most of them cause significant reading difficulties as well, because they are used for more than one sound: treat – great, threat, react;    even – ever;  ceiling – veil, eider;  fiend – friend, died, diet;  he – then;  key – they;  machine – define, engine;  people – leopard, leotard;  ski – hi;  debristennis.

Only the [ee] spelling which is used for the /ee/ sound in 133 words, has an almost completely regular pronunciation (keep, sheep, asleep…) and is easy for beginning readers. Consistent use of ee for the /ee/ sound, including the 47 words which now have two spellings (e.g. be/bee, here/hear), would therefore remove a very big source of both spelling errors and reading difficulties.

The adoption of different spellings for 335 identically sounding words was one of the major blows dealt to English spelling consistency by Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. Undoing them all is now probably too much of a mental challenge for people who have spent years learning to master them, but making a start on their abolition, with regular spellings for /ee/ (e.g. here/hear → heer) would be a good start.

Johnson wrecked English spelling even further by diluting systematic use of consonant doubling, for differentiating between long and short vowels, as in ‘made – madder, diner – dinner’. He omitted doubling in over 500 words from Latin roots (radical, sinister) and also used it superfluously in over 200 words (address, annoy), for Latin grammatical reasons. He made doubling logically unpredictable in at least 1,250 words.

Omitted and surplus consonant doublings make not just learning to spell more difficult but learning to read too. They both make it harder to see which vowel is stressed and short or long: hide, hidden – hideous; arrow, arise – arrive. Doubling could easily be made regular again, by deciding to use it systematically, instead of randomly as dictated by dictionaries. It should at least be applied when amending words with currently irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ which would remain only partly regular without it (e.g. ready → redy; honey → huny), in comparison to ‘teddy’ and ‘runny’.

Surplus letters were inserted mainly by early printers to earn more money, because they were paid by the line. Some words with irregular spellings for short /u/ cannot be made completely regular without cutting their surplus letters as well (e.g. done → dun, some – sum, courage → currage).

It is unlikely that any of my suggestion will get dopted in my lifetime, because most people remain unaware of the many educational, social and fiscal costs which they incur. But I believe that it will happen one day. The exceptionally simple and learner-friendly Korean writing system was first devised in the 15th century but not implemented until the 20th.

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