Why is English spelling so complicated?

Why is English spelling so complicated?

Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, with help from my friend Jade & some
math, I’m going to spell some things out for you! When I was a kid, I really struggled with
spelling. Other kids seemed to pick it up so easily,
and I was told to just memorize lists of words, but no one would ever tell me why words were
spelled the way they were. It was only when I learned some history of
the language in university that it finally start to make sense. At first glance, English seems to have a downright
chaotic spelling system, causing difficulties for young native speakers and adult second
language speakers alike. Why is it ‘circus’ not ‘serkis’? Why are we so confused about whether it’s
Gif or Jif? And why can a rough, dough-faced ploughman
stride, coughing thoughtfully, through the streets of Scarborough?! Can’t we just simplify English spelling? Well, as we’ll see, English may not be quite
as irregular as it seems, and there may actually be some benefits to those peculiarities; and
maybe the problem isn’t so much the spelling as the way it’s taught, unconnected to the
fascinating story of its development. Now, that’s a fairly complicated story,
so I’m going to pick a few key examples, and I’ll also be filling in a lot of details
later with some other videos about specific letters and sound changes. But for now, let me try to help make things
make sense for you, as they finally do for me! What is spelling anyway? Well, it’s putting the letters of words
in the so-called right order. But what does that mean? You might be surprised to know that the word
spelling didn’t have that meaning until the early modern period, which is when spelling
first really started to be standardized in English; before that you just wrote words
the way you said them depending on your own particular dialect or accent. The Old English verb spellian, from the Proto-Indo-European
root *spel- “say aloud or recite”, meant “to tell or speak” and the noun spell
meant “narrative or story” as well as “message or news”. That sense is clear in the second element
of the word gospel which literally means “good news”. Spell could also refer to a magical incantation,
a sense we still have today. But the Germanic root that lies behind the
word spell also made it into French via the Franks, and there it took on a new meaning. The Anglo-Norman and Old French forms of the
word espeler or espelir meant “to read out loud” as well as “read out letter by letter”. After the Norman conquest of England, the
French and English words merged, and it’s from the French senses that we get the modern
sense of spelling. But spell isn’t the only language word that
has magical connections. The word grammar comes from the Proto-Indo-European
root *gerbh- meaning “to scratch”, and in fact also gives us the word carve as well
as graph, the idea being that writing was originally carved into wood or stone. From the word grammar we also get the word
glamour, first appearing in Scots English ,which originally implied magic, meaning “enchantment”
or “spell”, from the notion of arcane learning. Glamour then gains its modern sense from the
idea that someone who is glamorous kind of casts a spell on people. So I suppose it’s not surprising that I
found the English spelling system mystifying! So one big problem is that there isn’t a
consistent letter-to-sound, one-to-one correspondence in the English writing system. Some sounds require multiple letters, like
the /θ/ in thin, or the /oʊ/ in oak. And some letters or letter combinations can
make multiple sounds as in the words streak and steak, now and know, here and there. This makes English spelling harder to learn,
so why haven’t we got rid of them to make thing easier? Part of the answer, surprisingly, has to do
with the mathematics of information! But you’ll have to head over to my friend
Jade’s channel, Up and Atom, to get the full story on that and why the redundancies
are really useful information! In the meantime, in order to see how those
redundancies and complexities of spellings came about in the first place, we need to
look at the history of the alphabet. So an alphabet is a writing system in which
individual characters, at least theoretically, represent individual distinct sounds. By the way, that word character ultimately
comes from another Proto-Indo-European root that implies the original carving of writing,
*gher- meaning “scrape, scratch”, which came into Greek as kharassein “to make sharp”
and kharakter which after passing through Latin and French give us not only the word
character, but also gash. The word letter, on the other hand, is a bit
of a mystery. It comes through French from Latin littera
“letter”, but before that it’s uncertain. One suggestion is that it came through Etruscan
(and we’ll be talking about that language in a minute), from Greek diphthera “writing
tablet” originally “prepared hide, piece of leather”, which I suppose might suggest
another medium of writing with ink on animal skin. Interestingly, this Greek word makes it into
French and English again, as a more direct borrowing from Greek, when physician Pierre
Bretonneau named the disease diphtheria on account of the leathery false membrane which
forms in the throat of someone who has the disease. But as I was saying, an alphabetic writing
system theoretically can have a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence, but obviously
that isn’t the case in English, and to understand why we have to take a look at the journey
the alphabet took to get to English. And when I say the alphabet, I really do mean
THE alphabet. With only a few exceptions, such as the Hangul
script of Korea which was developed independently, all the alphabets used today descend from
one original alphabet. The story starts in ancient Egypt with their
famous hieroglyphics. This was a logographic system in which characters
represented words. However, sometimes the hieroglyphs could be
used phonetically to represent the consonants of the word the picture depicted, and this
could be particularly useful for writing things like foreign names. Around 2000 BCE a Semitic group in Egypt borrowed
from the Egyptians the idea of using pictures to represent individual consonant sounds. They borrowed the pictures from the hieroglyphics,
such as a hand, but ignored the Egyptian word they represented, substituting their own Semitic
word for hand, in this case kaph, and used that character to represent the consonant
at the beginning of that word, in this case the /k/ sound. And that hand character eventually became
our letter k. Now at this point there were only letters
for the consonants, which is why that Semitic alphabet is sometimes referred to as an abjad,
an acronym made from the names of the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet, rather
than a full alphabet with consonants and vowels. This was fine for the Semitic languages, which
tended to have relatively more consonants than vowels, so writing down the consonants
is generally enough to tell you the word, and this is basically still how the writing
systems work in modern semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic. And this was the beginning of the alphabet’s
journey to English, because another closely related Semitic group known as the Phoenicians
picked it up. Not that they called themselves the Phoenicians—that’s
the Greek word for them, literally meaning “purple people”, because they were the
source of a prized purple dye extracted from sea mollusks, which they sailed around the
Mediterranean selling, and also, it seems, spreading their alphabet. And that’s how the Greeks picked it up. Now Greek was a very different language from
Phoenician, not a Semitic language, but from the completely unrelated Indo-European language
family. It had many more vowels, and fewer consonants. So what the Greeks did was use some of the
letters that represented consonants they didn’t use for their vowel sounds. Like the first letter in the alphabet. The Phoenicians called it aleph, which meant
“ox”, and the letter form was meant to represent the head of an ox with its two horns. It stood for a consonant sound that wasn’t
used in Greek, but they did need to represent the vowel /ɑ/, so that character became Greek
alpha, and eventually English’s letter. To round things off, the next letter in the
Phoenician alphabet, bayt meaning “house” and representing /b/, became Greek beta and
English, and together those first two letters, alpha and beta, give us the word
alphabet, appropriate since the Greek alphabet is the first full alphabet including vowels
as well as consonants. The next stop for the alphabet was the Etruscans,
a group of people who lived in the part of Italy known today as Tuscany. The Etruscan language is not Indo-European,
and in fact is not related to any other known language, what linguists call a language isolate. So again, this language had a rather different
sound system compared to Greek, and so some adaptations had to be made to fit the letters
to the language. And from there the alphabet rolled down into
Rome, where it became the basis of the Latin alphabet, which in turn spread around Europe
and ended up as what we write English with today, with a few extra letters added in and
some tweaks to the sounds some of the letters make; and that’s why the English alphabet
is often called the Roman alphabet. Now why is it so important to know all of
this to understand English spelling? Well, each time the alphabet moved from one
language to another, it produced redundancies and quirks in the letter-to-sound correspondences. For example, the /k/ sound. As we saw before, this was represented in
the original Semitic alphabet as kaph. But the Semitic languages had more varieties
of consonants produced at the back of the throat than Greek did, so the Greek alphabet
didn’t need all those distinct characters. Kaph it kept, which became kappa, and later
English. The Greeks also initially kept the letter
qoph, forerunner of our letter, although it was redundant for them, and they later
dropped it. The Phoenicians also had a /ɡ/ letter, called
gimmel, which became Greek gamma. /ɡ/ and /k/ are similar sounds, but it’s
an important distinction in Greek (as it is in English). But in Etruscan it wasn’t, although that
language had a number of other varieties of back of the throat sounds. So they didn’t need that Greek gamma, and
assigned another type of K sound to that letter, in addition to keeping bothand the
from early Greek. And notice that the gamma looks a lot like
the letter? Well that’s how we got the letter, making
a /k/ sound, not the hard /ɡ/ sound of Greek gamma. And then when the Romans got their hands on
the alphabet, there was no longer a letter to represent the /g/ sound, which Latin DID
have, so initially they used the letterto represent both /k/ and /ɡ/. They eventually invented the letterby
putting an extra stroke onto a, but that was only later. That’s why the common Roman name Gaius was
abbreviated with the letter. For whatever reason, the Romans didn’t uses
the lettervery much, though it hung around as a quaint redundancy. As for the letter, for the Romans it also
represented a /k/ sound, but was restricted to the letter combinationfollowed by
a vowel sound, which was common in Latin. And that’s why English has the redundant
letters,, and, often the target of those who complain about the English spelling
system. We’ll come back to the letterand the
multiple sounds it can represent in Modern English later. Now this problem of new languages using this
old system came up again when Old English speakers started to use the Latin alphabet
to write down their Germanic language which has sounds not present or distinguished in
Latin. The Anglo-Saxon scribes coped by adding in
some letters from their own earlier runic writing system or modifying existing letters
in the Latin alphabet. Later on, after Viking invaders conquered
and settled in large parts of the country, there was an influx of Norse loanwords. At least Old Norse and Old English were related
languages, but there are some significant differences, which led to further adaptations
of the spelling system. But the biggest shake up came after the French-speaking
Normans conquered the country. In addition to a vast amount of French vocabulary
with its own sounds and spellings that came into the language, the Norman scribes didn’t
like the barbaric Old English spelling conventions and began spelling the Germanic-derived English
words in new ways. So it’s this mashup of different spelling
conventions, and a bunch of snooty scribes, that made my life so hard as a kid! For example, /dʒ/, a sound not in Latin,
had been spelled in Old English asas in the word ecg, but under the Normans was
now spelledas in the modern spelling, and that convention was eventually carried
over to some words of French origin as well such as judge. But what about the /dʒ/ sound at the beginning
of that word? What about the letter? Well it hadn’t really been invented yet. In fact it’s the most recent addition to
the English alphabet. In Latin the letterdid double duty representing
both the vowel /i/ sound and the closely related consonant /j/. But as the various local dialects began transforming
into what would become the Romance languages, that /j/ sound began to shift to a /dʒ/ sound
in early French. But it was still spelled with the letter. So Latin Iupiter became Jupiter, though still
spelled with an. Theletter form did grow out of the letter
, but it wasn’t at first used to differentiate between the two sounds, it was really just
a fancy way of writing the same letter. It wasn’t until 16th century French that
the letterstarted to be used systematically, and not until the 17th century did it arrive
in English. In fact as late as the 18th century, when
Samuel Johnson wrote his famous Dictionary, though he did use the letter, he interfiled
all theandwords together. It wasn’t until later lexicographers such
as Noah Webster that the lettergot its own section in dictionaries. So that explains the two /dʒ/ sounds in judge
which came from Latin iudex. If only they’d taught me etymologies in
school I’d have won all the spelling bees. Not that I’m judging. But you can also spell /dʒ/ with a, so
what’s up with that? Well in Latin the letteralways made the
so-called hard /ɡ/ sound. But again as French developed out of Latin,
the letterwhen it came before a front vowel, that is vowels produced towards the
front of the mouth such as /i/ and /e/, it came to be pronounced /dʒ/. A similar sound change had already happened
in Old English with /ɡ/ in some contexts becoming /j/ which Norman scribes started
to spell with the letteras in yard. Confused yet? Don’t worry, it gets worse. So we see French loanwords in English like
gentle, following our hard-G soft-G rule that we’re taught in elementary school. But there are exceptions, I hear you say. What about words like get and give? Well here’s where we see the influence of
Old Norse. Get was a loan word from Old Norse, where
/ɡ/ hadn’t changed at all. And though give did exist in Old English with
that /j/ sound as giefan and should have become *yive, the word also existed in a related
Old Norse form in the north of England with a hard-G and therefore give has the pronunciation
it does today. So neither word is subject to the hard-G soft-G
rule derived from French, and you can generally identify a word as coming from or influenced
by Old Norse if it breaks that rule. So the important question is: gif or jif? Norse or French? Well as far as I’m concerned it’s an English
word so it should be yif! Now Old English did of course also have a
hard /g/ sound so that mapped easily onto the Roman letter. But it also had a couple of guttural sounds
that didn’t exist in Latin, which the English scribes spelled with eitheror, in
addition to still using those letters for their previous Latin sounds. But again the Norman scribes turned their
noses up at that double use of letters, and instead often used the combinationto
represent those guttural sounds. But why, then, ispronounced in so many
different ways in Modern English? Well, first of all, there were actually three
slightly different guttural sounds in Old English and the sounds diverged in different
ways, and some scribes changed the spellings to reflect that and some didn’t. In some contexts, the guttural sound became
a /w/ sound and came to be spelledin Modern English, as in the Old English word
boga becoming Modern English bow. But notice that Old English plog, sometimes
spelled with aand sometimes spelled with an, is spelled in Modern English as either
plow or plough. Similarly we have Modern English words with
aspelling like dough and bough, which were spelled with ain Old English, and
through and though, which were spelled with anin Old English. In some cases, such as when following a front
vowel, the guttural sound ofjust disappeared, as in high and night. And in one surprising sound change the guttural
sound became /f/ as in rough, particularly in northern dialects of English. This one’s so weird I’ll have to cover
it in a separate video! As for the different vowel sounds of the various
words spelled, they often represented quite different vowels in Old English which
all got lumped together under the one spelling and therefore developed in very different
ways. So to summarize, this train wreck is the result
of the shifting spelling conventions in Middle English and subsequent sound changes that
happened. Unfortunately thespellings became standard
even though we no longer pronounce those guttural sounds. Now let’s return to the letteragain
and consider another sound it makes. Why do we have softand hard? Well, this is a sound shift that happened
as Latin became French. In Latin,always indicated /k/. But as the various Romance languages developed
out of Latin, as with the letter, when /k/ came before a front vowel it changed,
eventually becoming /s/, and the French-speaking Normans brought that with them to England,
so we now have the hard-C/soft-C rule. And these are just some of the different spelling
conventions that influenced English spelling. In addition to the various French conventions,
English has also grappled with spellings from Greek, filtered through the Latin system of
transliterating Greek words, as well as loanwords from languages from around the world, such
as Dutch, Hindi, and Arabic. But that’s a journey for another video—for
now, let’s look at another source of my scholastic struggles, namely sound changes
in English itself. Sound changes are of course a natural part
of all languages over time, so this is always a potential problem for phonetic writing systems. If you have a one for one letter-for-sound
correspondence, then over time you either have to change the way you spell things or
live with the fact that the letters stop matching the sounds. We’ve talked about a number of changes that
happened to consonants so far, and there have been A LOT of changes to vowels too. But I’m going to focus on the most important
one in terms of its effect of spelling, which has to do with the short and long vowels. Originally short and long vowels in Old English,
as in Latin, were just that, short and long in terms of duration, with the quality of
the vowel sound more or less the same, and I’m simplifying slightly here to make this
a little easier. The letter
represented /ɑ/ and was pronounced
quickly /ɑ/ or held longer /ɑ:/. So it wasn’t too much of a problem representing
both the long and short versions of a vowel with the same letter. And if you speak other continental European
languages like French or Italian, you know that’s still roughly true in them. But something weird happened in English, right
around the time that Middle English was becoming Early Modern English, gradually changing the
sounds of those long vowels over a few hundred years. But it didn’t affect the short vowels, so
we ended up with the vowel letters representing quite different sounds. (Again, I’m simplifying a bit here as there
were some more minor sound changes that did affect the short vowels in Middle English.) So the short /ɑ/ in swan remains basically
the same from Old English to Modern English, but the long /ɑ:/ in Middle English name
became name in Modern English. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift
because it affected the whole system of long vowels, with each vowel in turn moving in
its position in the mouth. So /ɑ:/ became /e:/, /e:/ became /i:/, /i:/ eventually became /aɪ/ and so forth. And again, I swear I’m simplifying here! But that’s why today we often say to children
learning to spell that the long vowels say their name, A, E, I, O, U. This is also why it’s become more important
in Modern English to indicate long and short vowels in the spelling system. There actually had been earlier attempts at
that, well before the Great Vowel shift. In the 12th century a little while after the
Norman Invasion, a monk named Orm, who is now only remembered for his spellings not
the literary quality of his work (yes it’s that boring), was unhappy with the way people
were pronouncing English, and developed his own system of spelling. This included using a doubled consonant to
indicate that the preceding vowel was pronounced short. We do that today as in the words write and
written, but we don’t do it because of Orm. No one actually picked up on Orm’s spelling
reforms, but the same idea was reinvented by later scribes. Poor Orm. Also, in the Middle English period, many of
the Old English inflectional endings, basically word endings that indicated the grammatical
functions of words, began to become reduced or disappear altogether, with different vowel
sounds becoming an indistinct /ə/ or schwa sound spelled simply with the letter,
and over time thoses stopped being pronounced altogether. But they stuck around as the so-called silent
E, useful for marking the preceding vowel sound as long. But what’s really crucial here is the timing
of the Great Vowel Shift, along with the other sound shifts that were taking place at the
end of the Middle English period, since this was right around when standard spellings started
to be fixed. Since the pronunciation of English at that
time was so radically in flux, the spellings that became fixed reflected sometimes older
and sometimes newer forms, leaving us with the mixed bag of spellings we have today. There had been earlier attempts at standardized
spellings, but in the 15th century, there were two factors that fundamentally influenced
the standard spellings that we have today. The first is the development of the so-called
Chancery Standard, which was used in official government writings in the first half of the
15th century. It actually started with King Henry V, who
in August of 1417 decided to communicate with his officials in English rather than French. The Signet Office, which was in charge of
his personal communications, developed standard spellings based on the Central East Midland
and London dialects. From there it spread to the other government
offices, and as official documents were sent around the country other professional scribes
began to adopt this standard. The other major factor is the arrival of the
printing press. William Caxton, born in Kent, relocated to
Bruges (in what is now Belgium), working in the textile industry. He wrote an English translation of a French
account of the Trojan War, and, after he picked up the technique of printing during a trip
to Cologne, printed the first book in English, his own translation, in 1475. Then in 1476 he moved back to England and
set up his printing press in Westminster, near all those government offices, and began
his printing business. Caxton was well aware of the problems posed
by the variety of dialects around England. For his books to sell, they had to be widely
understandable. In the prologue to one of his books he tells
a story which really shows the scope of the problem. A certain merchant from the north of England,
visiting London, tries to buy eggs from a local southern woman. He asks for egges and the woman replies that
she can’t understand him because she doesn’t speak French. The merchant gets upset, his egg craving being
unsatisfied, since he also could speak no French, until a bystander steps in to translate
telling the woman that he wanted eyren. This slapstick comedy story of a food order
gone wrong is based on the fact that the northern form egges, which comes from Old Norse, and
the southern form eyren, which comes from Old English, are so different. And if you can’t do something as simple
as order some eggs, how are you going to publish books understandable by all? Caxton’s solution was to publish in the
London standard, rather than his own native Kentish dialect, which he considered crude,
and other printers soon merged this with Chancery English and spread those spellings even further. Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Early printed books were often inconsistent
in their spellings such as the silentbeing dropped or added to equalize line lengths,
and odd things sometimes crept in like thein the spelling of ghost from the influence
of Flemish printers (possibly introduced by Caxton himself). But in the end Chancery English and the printing
press give us the modern English spelling system we’re stuck with today. There have been many attempts and proposals
over the years at reforming the English spelling system, in fact almost since standard spellings
arose. An early one worth noting is Sir Thomas Smith’s
who in 1568 proposed a system involving a 34 character alphabet which for instance reassigned
the redundantto the /tʃ/ sound, added characters, and used diacritics or accent
marks to show short and long vowels. Others were more conservative such as William
Bullokar’s 1580 proposal which stuck to only the already existing characters plus
diacritics. He also wanted to drop unnecessary double
consonants and silents, and objected to the so-called etymologically based spelling. This is when, for instance, the silent letter
is added to words like debt and doubt because it shows they came from the Latin
words debitum and dubitare, even though they were never pronounced that way in English. In another example, thewas added to island
because of the mistaken belief that it was connected to the Latin derived word isle (from
Latin insula) when in fact island came from the unrelated Old English iegland and never
had anin there to begin with. I’ll admit that if only this one suggestion
had been taken up, my life would have been much easier! But spelling reformers over the years more
or less split into either conservatives or radicals, either tidying up the worst inconsistencies
or reforming the whole system. What the more conservative reformers realised
was that radical proposals were unlikely to be accepted and would create the difficulty
of learning a whole new system. But that didn’t stop the proposals. The two individuals most influential on English
spelling standards were the dictionary writers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. Dr Johnson started out initially as a language
reformer, but soon realised this was impractical, and his ultimately conservative spellings
used in his great Dictionary served to further entrench existing standards. The American Noah Webster, on the other hand,
ended up being the only successful reformer of the English spelling system. In the various editions of his Dictionary
of American English and spelling books, he started out rather conservative in his reforms,
then later radicalized, and then gradually became more and more conservative again. But he is why the American spelling system
to this day differs from the British system, which has in fact made things harder for all
of us! Now I know I said I wished some of these reforms
had happened, but really what I wish is that I’d been taught some of this history way
back in school. Because I think there are some real benefits
to the spelling system as it now stands. First of all it tells us so much about the
history of the language. And there are some advantages to having a
spelling system that doesn’t have a simple one-to-one letter-to-sound correspondence. It helps us distinguish between “the rights
of the Church” and “the rites of the Church”, or more recently between “fishing” and
“phishing”. And how would a strictly phonetic writing
system work with the many different accents around the English-speaking world? If you based your system on only one of those
accents it would be a highly political decision, favouring some and disadvantaging others. And it would obscure the relationship between
many words such as nature and natural which currently use the letter
to represent
quite different sounds. And finally a somewhat illogical spelling
system gives so much scope for creativity from brand names like Flickr to text speak
like gr8 to the unpronounceable pwn. Leave a comment or use the community tab to
tell me about your most hated English spellings, and maybe I’ll try to explain them in a
follow-up video. I’ll also be doing some videos exploring
the detailed linguistics and phonology of some of the letters and sound changes I covered
here, as well as some others I didn’t have time to include, probably in the summer. For now, please head over to the Up and Atom
channel to learn more about the fascinating mathematical concept of entropy and how it’s
connected to spelling and writing. Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations
and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of
every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make
a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can
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and more!

Comments (100)

  1. Thanking to characters, China solved that problem 2000 years ago.

  2. What was that logarithm chart about again?

  3. Because it's a shite language.

  4. It's surprising at this point, there's no Chinese influence – we're such a polyglot of practically every other culture. "Bigly"impressive. Whoops there's another influence!

  5. Got it. Clear as a bell.

  6. It's a language devised by the English that's why

  7. They should teach this kind of stuff in English class. A million times better than acting like conspiracy theorists by analysing every little detail in a piece of literature that any normal person reading it would not give two f–ks about whether they notice it or not.

  8. As much as I don't want to reform the entire alphabet, I still can't help but wish for a return of "thorn" and "daleth" for the two "th" sounds, and for special letters for "ch" and "sh".

    Having said that, when I was in grad school, I was bitten by the "reform alphabet" bug. I was torn between simplifying the alphabet to completely creating something new. I was cured, however, when I was reading one of my advisor's papers, and I realized that if we successfully reformed spelling, his work may be inaccessible to people who can't read current English — and considering that his work is in mathematics, we might very well be cutting people off from work that may solve important problems in the future!

    Lots of this in the way you speak. Every clause ends on a high note!

  10. Why Kansas and Arkansas ar so different in its pronuntiation?

  11. You speak so fast that is hard to process the Information and listen at the same time. Very stressful to watch, although the Information is surely interesting.

  12. English needs our german Umlauts for easier spelling: Ä,Ö – air =är / urgent = ördshent
    There's also "Ü" (French U) but I'm not sure if an english word with that sound exists(?).
    Otherwise we pronunce V as F and Z as TS and C as K, which might be confusing for native english speakers – but we use to keep loan words as they are.
    Die Band (music group – english loan word) is spoken the same, but Das Band (the ribbon – german word) is spoken "Bunt"

  13. I love that story about Bernard Shaw, where he wrote "fish" as "ghoti" ("gh" as in "enough", "o" as in "women" and "ti" as in "nation")

  14. How spelling and phonetics closely relate.

  15. And that's why I love the Afrikaans spelling conventions. Very phonetic spelling, with few consonantal monographs, digraphs, or trigraphs that aren't pronounced as their constituent elements in sequence would suggest (the only one I can quickly think of is our diminutive suffix 'tjie', which is pronounced [ki]). There are a few sonorant graph exceptions, but those only ever have a single pronunciation.

    All the consonantal letters also only have one pronunciation, save 'd', which is pronounced [t] in word-final position. The vowels have two possible pronunciations based on whether the syllable in which they are found is open (ending in a vowel) or closed (ending with a consonant).

    And there are a number of consonantal letters we don't even use accept in loanwords. They are 'c', 'q', 'x', and 'z'.

    EDIT: I forgot to mention we do have a few diacritics. The umlaut is used in two situations. The first is in proper names from German which use it, such as Händel and Müller, and the second in cases where multiple vowels follow one another to indicate the beginning of the next syllable and to avoid confusion between the different graphs, such as reën (rain) (two syllables: re-en, from the dutch regen), geëet (ate) (two syllables: ge-eet), and beïndruk (impress) (three syllables: be-in-druk).

    The circumflex is used to indicate a non-standard pronunciation (as one would expect from the spelling of the syllable, or just general convention). It's mostly used on 'e' and 'o', though there are one case of 'u' and 'i' each also getting it. In 'ê' it indicates [ae] rather than [e] or schwa (the two standard pronunciations of the letter) in specific closed syllables – as in vlêrmuis (bat). In 'ô' it indicates an elongated pronunciation of the short 'o' in open syllables where it would normally be pronounced with the long 'o' – as in môre (morning) instead of more (which does exist in some dialects), both two-syllable words. In 'û' and 'î' it indicates an elongation of the base vowel and is found in only one instance of each. Both cases are plurals where the base verb ends on a 'g' which is dropped in the plural – brug (bridge) -> brûe (bridges), and wig (wedge) -> wîe (wedges).

    The acute is used to indicate semantic stress on a syllable (i.e. stressing of a syllable for semantic reasons, such as emphasis). It follows the basic rule that one must alter the base spelling as little as possible. Thus letters with loose diacritic like elements, such as 'i', do not get an acute when they are in digraphs or trigraphs. So die (this) becomes dié and huis (house) becomes húis, but binne (inside/in) becomes bínne; and buk (bend over) becomes búk and sker (scissors) becomes skér, but vlêrmuis stays vlêrmuis (since the 'e' already has a diacritic).

    The grave does exist, but is only used in six words, primarily to indicate non-standard syllable accentuation. In the first, appèl (appeal), it is used to indicate stress on the second syllable and to distinguish it from the word appel (apple). In the second, third, and fourth, dè (here/there/take it in the sense of giving someone something about which they've been nagging you), nè (do you agree?/are you listening?), and hè (verb meaning 'to posess' – occuring only in V2 position (it is 'het' in V1)), it is used to indicate non-standard strong stress, though the use of the diacritic in these instances has begun to fall out of favour. In the fifth, crèche (day nursery), because it is written as such in French, from which the word is loaned. In the sixth, première (premiere, first appearance/performance/showing), to distinguish it from premiere (premiers, heads of government) and to indicate both that 'ie' is two separate vowels – [i] and long schwa – rather than the digraph vowel [i], and non-standard stress.

    We have only a single use of the dot (') (though often typed as an apostrophe for ease of typing), which is in the indefinite article ' 'n ' – pronounced as a glottal-release schwa – mostly for etymological reasons (the 'n is derived from the Dutch 'een').

  16. Put me in charge and I'll simplify the system!

  17. English should be the only language

  18. Screech has a new show.

  19. I used to be quite critical about the crazy spellings in English before I started learning Japanese, where (in one of their scripts) you have to memorize a character or two for each and every different word.
    After that I realized that just with enough practice, looking at the "shape" of the word is how you should read the language, as opposed to looking at each letter.

  20. Okay, but what about hiccough?

  21. How to learn English spelling:

    This is a word. This is how to write it. This is how to pronounce it.
    Deal with it.

  22. So this video basically suggests that one way to make English spelling clearer for English learners, is to become an etymology geek? That might work for a few who find this stuff fascinating, but to most it complicates matters significantly.

  23. So 'Ceasar' would be with a G. So basically, Geezer. ?

  24. American pronunciation needs a trace of attention.
    It's Scarborough not Scarboro.

  25. I'd like to make a correction here. You said 'The short 'a' as in swan has basically remained the same from Old English to Modern English'. But that's not true. Swan changed, but changed back in some North American dialects when short o sounds (got, sod) merged with long a sounds (father, dhal). In dialects without this father/bother merger, the sound in swan is more similar to that of a short o sound, and rhymes with Ron, which does not, in these dialects, rhyme with Khan.

  26. As I learned English as a second language when I moved to the US, I had to learn two versions of it: the spoken/listening one and the one for writing. When I used to write in English a couple of years ago, I used the phonetic rules of my native language to remember how to correctly spell, like if I wanted to write "I am speaking and writing" I went in my head like, "Ee am sp-eh-ah-k-ee-ng ah-nth wr-ee-t-ee-ng." Now I don't relay on that as much… just with words like, "wealth" or "head." The funny thing is that when I'm reading, in my head, I think in the correct sound of each word, it's only when I write I, some times, need to use my messed up method.

  27. It's all the French fault! Damn you French!

  28. The problems related to the English word spelling "system" is that large percentages of that language's words have been borrowed from Danish, Norman French, Church Latin, while the base vocabulary also comes from multiple dialectical sources (Low Saxon, Frisian, Aenglesk (language of The Angles) and Juttish (language of The Jutes). The spellings that were fixed as official, had come from many different sources and spelling systems. That shouldn't be a problem, IF the spellings were changed, periodically, to match the way the word is spoken, after its sounds have been changed. This has happened in Spanish, and Dutch, both of which have few spelling rules, with very few irregularities and exceptions to the hard-and-fast rules. The Dutch spellings were changed again just after World War II, to reflect current speech.

    There should NOT be 3 different ways to spell the sound "uff" (ough, uff, uf). or 6 different ways "ough" can be pronounced (ooh, oww, off, oh, uff, awf). The origin of the word, "enough", in English is clear that it comes from the Frisian "genöch", which sounds very close to Dutch "genoeg". Clearly, the Old English "enough" sounded almost identical to the Old Frisian "genoch" and Old Dutch "genoeg", as the Frisian gutteral, "ch" sound is very similar to the Dutch gutteral "g" word ending, and both of them differ from the English spelling, mainly because the beginning gutteral "g" sound has been first softened, and finally dropped, altogether, in English. One of the major problems with English is that the original Middle Ages chosen conventional spellings have not changed for hundreds of years since they were standardised, despite their sounds having changed many times, over that long period.

    If one learns the spelling rules in Spanish and Dutch (and several other languages), the language learner can spell almost every word, and know the sound of nearly every word he or she encounters, based on simple, logical rules, that never, or almost never, have exceptions. I would like English to do the same (change the official spellings to match the new spoken words, every 100 years, or so).

  29. Seriously great video.

  30. Speaking too quickly is rong. I want to learn in a proper slower way.

  31. Please stop blabbing cuicly like you fear there is no tomorro.

  32. This reminds me of a book I read once called "The Tough Coughs as he Ploughs the Dough" by Theodore Giessel (not sure if I spelled that correctly) also known as Dr. Seuss.

  33. 0:50 you pronounced Scarborough wrong

  34. >yif

  35. Hey there , Where could find the map of Western Europe that appears in bottom left corner at beginning of window, and such similar quality maps?

  36. No wonder I suck much in spelling. It is really hard for me to memorize all the words. I would suffer information overload so luckily the internet exist and Google exist. LOL. It is also hard to carry that bulky heavy dictionary all the time though I did carry it before way back internet was not readily available and mobile phones were not that smart.

  37. The English vowels is the most annoying thing to the spanish speaker,
    in spanish all vowel have just one sound but in english you just don't know:
    i= i, ai.
    o= o, ou,u.
    u:o, u,ou.

  38. So many irrelevant pictures that disturbed me trying to concentrate on the (quick or rapid?) oral information(i.e. talk).

  39. The G in GIF stands for graphic so it’s definitely a hard G and most certainly not “yiff” ?

  40. Spelling does it matter? I do not think so as you can see here "The qiuck red fox jmuepd over the lazy bwron dog. bisde been dyxlitc does not help at all.

  41. Gheest should be the plural of ghost

  42. At least English now doesn't sound as "barbaric" as Nordic people claimed it to be in those times, it sounds rather very nice to me 🙂

  43. The real question is why do all English motherlanguage think English spelling is hard? As a non English motherlanguage I think it's pretty easy. I never understood why they even have spelling contests, the idea of having a contest like that in my own language is simply ludicrous.

  44. A bit slower, next time, maybe. Speaking way too fast.

  45. This is how you pronounce Scarborough

  46. lits all change to Hawaiian, its simpler.

  47. This video does not explain why the giga- prefix is pronounced with a hard G, given that it comes from Greek. Other words of Greek origin are pronounced with a soft G, possibly through a process of latinization of that word, e.g. geology.

  48. I'm not a linguist, but every time I watch a video like this, and learn about the root of one of our words… I immediately think back to my notion of English being one of the oldest 'creole' languages.

    My reasoning is simple, just look at the history of this island.
    Learning Spanish has also highlighted the vast number of Latin root words we use. I now also find it easier to spot the Germanic, and Scandinavian influences on English. Knife (G), Yacht (S, Dutch), Island (S, same spelling for the country 'Iceland' with the acute(L) on the I), Hut (G), et cetera (L).

    No wonder it's so tricky. We've adopted many traits, and carry many exceptions.

  49. scar- burrow? that's scar-buh-ruh, duh.

  50. One word + Normans. They forced the use of the French spelling system in a Germanic Language.

  51. At 5:24 he succumbed to the cancer of political correctness and said BCE. I disliked and clicked off.

  52. Good thing tagalog is simplified and you can spell it already what you just heard, you don't have to get confused too

  53. The worst case of folk etymology in my book is hiccough, hands down. Leave -ough alone!

  54. What a great video! My most difficult word to spell was "necessary". Don't know why.

  55. Swedish is kinda strange to spell in too yet we had a reform 1906

  56. Way too much information. There was no need to go into such detail, for every explanation you provide some one else will offer an entirely different point of view. People seem to have the most problems with the silent letters and their purpose.

  57. I have always held a quiet sort of burning hatred for the word "rhythm". I have never been able to spell it correctly on the first try.

  58. Interesting, you've answered plenty of my questions about our modern spelling system that I didn't even know! I'll be searching through your videos to see if you have one on modern grammar. (If that's not a train wreck, I don't know what is!)

  59. What I'd like to know is why words that have the same root are pronounced differently. I.e. finite- infinite. Nature- natural.

  60. What the hell is a freaking pentagram in there? Its a very evil symbol! Take it out!

  61. Blame it on the French smh

  62. Yay! Another failure of the education system.

  63. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. <– This is a grammatically correct sentence in English. It means "Bison from Buffalo, which other bison from Buffalo confuse, confuse the bison from Buffalo."

  64. At the elementary school level in the 1950's there were daily spelling tests, with the week's worth of words showing up on Friday. As you can guess, only simple words were the subject of this rote "drill and test" exercise. It must have worked, I rarely have spelling errors crop up by auto correcting systems in word processing programs or comment bots. Since English is a polyglot language from diverse sources, spelling can be a problem for non-native students. Context helps, but public school teachers don't have that kind of time. Auto correct systems crash when faced with foreign words or phrases. "Kalanianaole" (Hawaiian) is as foreign as "Otokichi" (Japanese) or "Renko" (Russian), such is the fate of place, family, or proper names. Well, it time to vamoose, since the head honcho is breaking wind over twaddle.;)

  65. You know what I don't get? Why the word two is pronounced like that.

  66. Is there a language superior to modern english?

  67. "Of" is the word whose spelling bothers me most.

  68. this just makes me want to reform our writen language even more. I wanna go back to one letter to one soune and one sound to one letter alphabet.

  69. Tag yourselves, I'm "quaint redundancy"

  70. sou i wëz thyncyng abèwt dhys phor a wajll næw ænd aj'v cëm ëp wyth ë nu romynaizejscion ëv ynglysc. yt lóks cwajt ëgli bët yt gèts dhë džab dën.

  71. He really can speak very swiftly. If he had anything he thought is important to teach us he would’ve slowed down. I’m relaxing on my couch and I heard this linguist say blah blah blah very rapidly so I didn’t learn much today.

  72. I still don't understand "little". Makes absolutely no sense, both spelling and etymology.

  73. I thought that cupped hand was a forerunner of the letter D?

  74. One of MY spelling pet peeves? Oo making different sounds in different ood words. I.e. Food, mood; good, hood, stood, wood; blood, flood. Or different sounds in different oot words. I.e. boot, coot, hoot, loot, moot, root, scoot, snoot, toot; foot, soot.

  75. So, they don't teach the origins of English at school where you're from? Now I get why so many English speakers can't speak English.

  76. me to!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  77. I honestly don't know how newcomers to the language do it, unless they have an outstanding visual memory.

  78. A = Ā
    E = Ē
    I = Ī
    O = Ō
    U = Ū
    Hēllō, hōw ārē yōū? thīs īs īf ēnglīsh vōwēls wērē āll lōng. try tō prōnōūncē thīs.

  79. Is it only me thinks that Star Wars' baddie The Sith is badly missing a psilent P?

  80. I told my 2nd grade teacher who ever invented English was an idiot. 40 years latter I found out about Esperanto and now have an example of something more thought out.

  81. I would love to know why different forms of the same root word stress on different syllables. Like PHOtograph, but phoTOgraphy.

  82. Why someone does not simplify English spelling? It was changing for 20 centuries, why stop now?

  83. Im Polish and always hated English for the spelling!

  84. Great stuff! Best history of the complicated history of spelling.

  85. 1066 Norman Infall worst year in the sheede of the English tung.

    1066 Norman Invasion worst year in the history of the English language. These are the differences in the ENgliush language if the Norman Invasion had never happened. Check this out:

  86. The most complicated thing about Finnish spelling is the lack of some sound changes. For example "mene kotiin" actually has a geminated K. This because the second-person imperative used to end in K. Luckily, it's always the same forms that have this. The most volatile Finnish consonant is TS, the dental affricate. It's either TS, TT or HT (depending on dialect), with multiple gradation patterns for HT; TT has gradation like any other geminate T. The affricate also undergoes gradation, but this is not written; the standard language just uses TS.

  87. Fifty seconds in and… Scarborough is pronounced 'Scarbrah' or 'Scarburrah' not 'Scar-borrow'. In almost all if not all cases English place names ending in '-borough' are pronounced with either a '-bruh' or a '-burrah'. Indeed the word 'Borough' on it's own is always pronounced 'burrah' and never 'borrow'. Go to south London and ask the way to 'Borrow' and you'll be told to go to a bank. Ask the way to 'Burrah' and you'll be pointed in the general direction of London Bridge.

  88. Then the English learners of Spanish fuss about the silent h when starting a word. FAK DEM

  89. Amazing video, allow me to correct few things though:

    5:55 the Alphabet you showed is the Arabic Alphabet in modern order which is 50 years old and it starts with Aliph Baa Taa

    While the Aliph Baa Jeem Dal (Abjad) order is 6,500 years old was invented in Syria (Ugarit) and it the semetic group you didn't name is the Syrians. Each letter was a stickish shape of an object that starts with the sound (extremely smart innovation and one of the most important im history) like … Aliph means a bull and is the name of letter A. Beit means a house which is for B. Jeem means a camel which is for Gi (modern English C). Dal means a door and is for D. And so on.

    The oldest alphabet in history was found in Syria 4500BC in the form of small portable tablets that are a bit larger than a finger in size and they were given to Syrian children at ancient schools/teaching place to learn to write and read. ((I've seen the original one, i was shocked how small))

    Pheonicians called themselves Syrians

  90. Trash and start anew

  91. Very bad????? video??

  92. so your claiming there is a connection between the french written language based on rules in resemblance to spoken french, greater than pure entropy? are you sure about that??
    i always figured they pulled some kind of practical joke, involving some sort of made up spelling ever so slightly changing for never having to spell the same word the same way twice , back when cesars bureaucrats, tried to document the gaulish languge for the purpose of taxation and later ended up having to actually use it as language, once caesar was sufficiently fed up and forced them to!?

  93. I've given up long-time ago.

  94. wae dɔ̃ʔ wi ɹ̠aeˀt̚ fə̃nɛɾ̠əkɫi?

  95. 24:25 the long a is written /ɛe/ not /eɪ/

  96. In Hindi the pronunciation is quite in pair with the writing. Devnagari is a system of consonants to which vowels are added, although they can stand alone as well, with diacritics to nasalise, make a "n" sound (matching with the following consonant), etc. I can't think of any redundancy, however the "w" and "v" are somehow interchangeable and written with the same glyph. People have different accents throughout India, most noticeably, some don't make the distinction of all sounds (the Persian "z" sound could become "j" in Bihar, for example, etc). Would you say it's not old enough yet, or is there something else to it? I feel the entropy is quite high also, as they have a tendency to have shorter words with many more sounds/phonems, quite the opposite of romance languages, maybe that's what is keeping it an almost one-to-one correspondence.

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