English Spelling Rules

Because I am a writer by vocation and a linguist by trade (seven languages other than English), my attention much of the time is on the English language, its structure, and how it works. As I reported here not long ago, English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian (western German) dialects and was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders (8th and 9th centuries AD). A second invasion led by the Norman William the Conqueror in the 11th century introduced French influence. Then other stimulus from Europe brought Latin and Greek words into our language. As time went on and the U.S. became a country, we borrowed from every language in the world.

The result is that our way of spelling words in our language is as varied as the language’s roots. Spelling of ordinary everyday words, derived from Anglo-Frisian, is supposed to follow rules based on the sound assigned to the 26 letters of our western alphabet, the alphabet used in all romantic and Germanic languages but pronounced differently in each. Compare, for example, how the phoneme con is pronounced in English, French, and Italian.

But even the basic rules are not consistent in English. Compare how we pronounce though, tough, through, thorough, and thought. Then we have words that begin with silent letters such as gnu, gnat, knee, knife, mnemonic, pneumonia, write, and psalm. Other words that contain internal silent letters are doubt, debt, aisle, and muscle. One of the most common among silent letter sets of words is those with the “ght” ending, such as night, fight, light, sought, and bought.

And words not pronounced like they’re spelled are routine in English. Witness: asthma, colonel, lasagna, Arkansas, sword, phlegm, potpourri, hors d’oeuvres, island, knight, rendezvous, Wednesday, salmon, corps, champagne, Tucson, subtle, lingerie, and rapport. Common among these words are those borrowed from French where we have maintained some semblance of the original pronunciation.  

More next time.

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