Making sense of spelling

I am sure you’ve heard the long-standing theory that American English spelling just doesn’t make sense. Why in the world would “gh” make an /f/ sound?! Why isn’t phone pronounced “puh-hone”? This language of ours might be complicated, but it does actually make sense! The key to making it all come together lies in our history.

The standardization of American English spelling starts with Noah Webster. He was the first American to install a uniquely American language system. With his American Spelling Book, he created the standard for which our unique way of spelling stems from. This is why our English is different from the English spoken in Britain. Webster pulled from what was previously used, and tweaked it to make it our own.

So why do we spell things the way we do? Well, most words in our language are spelled the way they sound. But spelling is not just about the phonics of a word; the spelling points to clues in the meaning. We use different spellings for homonyms so that readers can assign a correct meaning to words that sound the same. Spelling quirks also allow readers to make connections to words. A reader can assume a connection between the words “crumb” and “crumble” because the ‘b’ is a loud and clear signal. In addition, some spellings point to our history. “Wednesday” comes from the name of the Norse god, Woden. The day used to be referred to as “Woden’s Day,” and the ‘d’ in our spelling reflects Woden’s continued presence in our language.

We can’t change our spelling now. Any change that we create would rock the entire basis of our language  and previously printed materials would be rendered obsolete. People who propose spelling change are not considering that while this change would help some people, it would seriously harm others. The system we have now may have it’s oddities, but it serves a purpose, not only in teaching us our history, but also in acting as a road map as we read. Spelling clues you in to what you are reading about, whether you realize it or not. Consider the words in your book the next time you read. It might mean more than you think!

By: Alex Thorne

Source: Essential Linguistics, Freeman & Freeman, Chapter Five: English Orthography

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