On Spelling

Great piece. Michael Skapinker, writing for The Financial Times:

Why, for centuries, have people struggled to spell? Because English spelling is horribly hard. It is not just that we have “for” and “four”, “stake”, “steak” and “mistake”. We also have “peak”, “peek” and “pique”. “Horrid” has a double consonant in the middle, “timid” a single one. “Prefer” has one “f”, “proffer” two.

Why is English spelling such a tangle? It all started when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century without enough letters in their alphabet. They had 23. (They didn’t have “j”, “u” or “w”.) Yet the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes, or distinctive sounds. The Romans didn’t have a letter, for example, for the Anglo-Saxon sound we spell “th”. The problem continues. Most English-speakers today have, depending on their accents, 40 phonemes, which we have to render using 26 letters. So, we use stratagems such as doubling vowels to elongate them, as in “feet” and “fool”.

Etymology has long fascinated me, and I’m grateful to always have been a terrific speller.

(via Progressive Review)