English has an almost unique system for showing if the letters
a, e, i, o, u have a long or a short sound, as in:
mate – mat, matter; theme – hem, hemmed; hide – hid, hidden;
dote – dot, dotty; tube – tub, tubby.
When followed by just one consonant, or several consonants and a vowel,
a, e, i, o, u are ‘closed’ and should have a short sound, as in:
am, ample; ten, tender; pin, pinked; pond ponder; bun bunker.
When followed by a single consonant and a vowel, they are meant to be‘open’ and long;
male, halo; peter, period; fine, final; sole, solo; tube, tubular’.
|If a stressed short vowel before a single consonant and another vowel is
to stay short, it should be followed by a doubled consonant:
allergy, petty, Finnish, dolly, butter.
Schoolchildren spend much time learning to use the rule when adding suffixes to short words: cut + er→ cutter, prefer + ed→preferred; but cute + er →cuter, enter +ed →entered.
Sadly, at least 1,250 words of more than one syllable disobey the ‘closed /short’ – ‘open / long’ vowel system in one (or several) of 5 ways:
- At least 567 common words fail to double a consonant after a short, stressed vowel, e.g. ‘habit, very, similar, body, study’.
- 219 words have needlessly doubled consonants after unstressed vowels, e.g. account, terrific, immense, occur, hurrah (when compared to regular use) accurate, terror, simmer, occupy, hurry.
- Nearly 200 words end with a surplus –e: (give, promise – cf.spiv drive, surprise tennis).
- Around 200 words have irregular spellings for a, e, i, o and u (plait, bread, pretty, cough, touch), sometimes with missing doubled consonants as well (many, women, sausage, money).
- At least 665 words do not use the ‘open’ vowel method: 87 for long a (late – wait, straight, eight), 373 long e (eke – seek, speak, shriek, key, ski, people, police ) – [e-e is used just in 86 words], 79 long i (while – style, whilst, island, height), 100 long o (mole – bowl, coal, roll, soul), 26 long u (use – youth, juice, feud, lewd, beauty, Tuesday).
The five kinds of irregularities dilute the ‘long/short’ system so much that hundreds of spellings simply have to be learned word by word, instead of spelling them systematically. And most of the exceptions cause reading difficulties as well, not just spelling ones: e.g. hide, hidden – hideous; arrow – arrive (cf. arise); save – have; ouch – touch.
Those spellings were made irregular mainly with careless changes to the original English spelling system. They offer great scope for improving it, by merely undoing some of the changes which are most responsible for making learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult and time-consuming.