To figure out – To decipher

Inglés | Joshua Burns

There’s a joke we like to say in English that the true spelling of ‘fish’ is actually ‘ghoti’. The explanation being that: in the word ‘enough,’ the ‘gh’ makes an ‘f’ sound; in the word ‘women,’ the ‘o’ makes an ‘i’ sound; and in the word ‘nation,’ the ‘ti’ makes an ‘sh’ sound. If you put all of this together, you can arguably spell the word ‘fish’.

While this is just an example of people playing with the language, the fact is, English spelling just doesn’t make all that much sense. Native speakers, especially as children, can have as much trouble figuring out* the correct spelling of words like ‘knife’ or ‘Wednesday’ or ‘February’ as non-native speakers.

The reason for this, understandably, has its roots* in the history of the language. It all starts about 600 AD when Christian missionaries arrived in (what is now) England, bringing with them the Roman alphabet. The natives spoke a kind of Germanic language, which had sounds that didn’t exist in Latin. So, they began to make up* spellings for these sounds, settling on ‘gh’ for a sound similar to the Spanish ‘j’. Over hundreds of years, this pronunciation began to shift* in words; with the ‘gh’ sound changing in words like ‘cough’ (koff) and disappearing in words like ‘though’ (tho).

While this was still happening, the printing press was invented. This meant that the printers decided on the spelling of words before the change in pronunciation was complete. It was around this time that the letters at the start of certain words stopped being said, which is why you have words like ‘knife’, although you now don’t pronounce the ‘k’. Furthermore, the way people were speaking changed dramatically with something called ‘the Great Vowel Shift,’ which has resulted in the wide variety of dialects and accents that exist now in English-speaking countries.

To make matters worse, the fact that French was the language of the nobility after 1066 complicated the spelling of English. Some of the ways we pronounce things are due to French influence. Aside from all this there are still more reasons (such as the borrowing of words from other languages) but, in the end, what you’re left with is all a bit difficult and messy. So, why hasn’t anybody tried to fix English spelling? Well, the answer is: they have.

The joke I mentioned at the start has been around since 1855 and has often been used as an argument for ‘the English-language spelling reform’. The idea to change the spelling of the language has actually been around since the 1500s but has had more recent supporters like the writers George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain. Twain, a founding member of the Simplified Spelling Board, is quoted as having said, ‘anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.’

These movements, however, never quite took off*. One reason is because, since English is a mixture of so many languages, to standardise the spelling you would have to favour one more than the other. Also, with so many dialects, spelling reform could result in words being spelled very differently depending on where you are in the world, making the language less accessible on a broad scale. Then there’s the fact that English is so irregular that any kind of standardisation would change the appearance of the language so much that it would become almost unrecognisable. But, most of all, there’s simply a lack of support – people just don’t want to change.

It may seem that English spelling makes no sense, and especially when learning the language it can be frustrating. When you hear that there are over six pronunciations of ‘gh’ or that ‘ph’ magically makes an ‘f’ sound (unless it’s a compound word like uphold), it’s easy to think it will be impossible to learn. The fact is, the more you read and speak, the easier it becomes. However, if you’re still struggling, don’t worry too much. Judging by many comments on youtube, it seems that even if there is a correct way to spell a word, many people simply don’t care.

Glossary

  • To figure out:  To decipher
  • To have its roots:  To originate from
  • Make up: Invent
  • Shift: Move or change
  • Take off: Become popular

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