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 be 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 1,700 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 above irregularities dilute the ‘long/short’ system so much that hundreds of spellings simply have to be learned word by word, instead of being spelt systematically, like ‘fat, fate, fatter’. They result mainly from careless changes to the original English spelling system and are most responsible for making learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. Many of them cause reading difficulties as well, not just spelling ones: e.g. hide, hidden – hideous; arrow – arrive (cf. arise); save – have; ouch – touch.
They offer great scope for making English spelling more learner-friendly and literacy acquisition much faster, by merely undoing some of the changes which have made it worse than with all other Latin-based writing systems.