Whether English is one’s native language or second language, learning the English spelling system can be quite a daunting task. English-speaking children find it hard to learn, and so do adolescents and adults who learn English as a second language. At first glance it seems the only rule is that for every rule there is an exception. To complicate things, English spelling is far less phonetic than that of other languages; many letters have more than one sound and many sounds are represented by more than one letter.
To make a difficult situation even worse, in recent years the teaching of spelling has been considered pass at best and verboten at worst. Few things are as anathema to the Whole Language Ideology that dominates education departments and classrooms than orthography, with its connotations of politically incorrect linguistic prescription evident in its prefix ortho-, meaning “right, true, straight” in the Greek.
Linda Schrock Taylor has shown that there is rhyme and reason to the English spelling system in two excellent recent articles on these pages, Spell Logically and Spelling Rules Rule. Her articles show that Rothbardian “spontaneous order” arises out of the seeming chaos of English spelling. This article will attempt to retell how the English spelling system came to be what it is and to show how it is a unique expression of Anglo-Saxon freedom.
To understand English spelling, it is necessary to understand the script by which it is represented, the Roman or Latin alphabet. The alphabet used by English speakers has its origins in the murky depths of protohistory, long before Romulus and Remus founded the Eternal City on April 21, 753 BC. The Roman alphabet is descended from the Greek alphabet, which is in turn descended from the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenician script emerged around 1050 B.C. from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, itself descended from Egyptian hieroglyphs, and is thought to be the parent script of every Western alphabet and those of the India, Thailand, and Mongolia as well. Thus, if one accepts Gari Ledyard‘s theory that the Korean Hangul script is descended from the Mongolian Phagspa script, then the Roman and Korean alphabets are distant cousins!
The use of the Roman alphabet in the British Isles predates Anglo-Saxon colonization. Thus, the alphabet we use arrived before the language we speak. The Roman Empire extended well into what is today Scotland, as marked by the Antonine Wall, built as a defense against the Picts. But as their empire was collapsing, the Roman legions withdrew in 410 A.D., leaving their alphabet behind with the pockets of Romans who remained.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the first speakers of what was to become English arrived in 449 A.D., less than four decades after the Romans left. The invaders subjugated the native Celts (vid. England’s apartheid roots). But while the populations did not remain separate (vid. Genetic Survey Reveals Hidden Celts Of England), linguistically, the Welsh, Scots, and Irish were marginalized. This 1600-year-old conflict simmers today, as evidenced by the Welsh and Scottish independence movements and The Troubles (Na Trioblid) experienced on the other side of the Irish Sea, a conflict simplistically blamed on religion. Today Welsh, Scots, and Irish by and large learn their languages not at home from parents but at schools as a second language.
In 597 A.D., Saint Augustine of Canterbury reintroduced to the British Isles The Catholic Faith, which had survived in pockets, much like the Kakure Kirishtan of Japan a millennium later. The “Apostle to the Anglo-Saxons” managed to convert the English people within a generation, not by the sword but by the Word, and once converted the English people gave up their Runic alphabet for the one still used today and which is the subject of this article. Notably, letters like the eth () were added to express native sounds, but were sadly lost over the generations.
With the new religion was introduced the vocabulary of a Latin liturgy and a Greek theology, as well as even more exotic terms from the Near and even Far East, thereby adding to a Germanic base thousands of words with new, diverse, and foreign spellings to the English lexicon. To name but a few, we have disciple, priest, and nun from Latin, apostle, pope, and psalm from Greek, angel and devil from Hebrew, camel, lion, cedar, and ginger from Oriental languages.
“The English language is the sea which receives tributes from every region under heaven,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. With the Christianization of England arrived the first of many tributaries that flooded the language with their words, but as we will see this was only the beginning.
Between 750 and 1050 A.D., the invaders were invaded. Said the great Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” History has no perennial good guys or bad guys, perennial victims or victimizers. The English who had invaded the British Isles three centuries earlier were in turn invaded, by Vikings. They established kingdoms and settled in the new lands. Indeed, some of them became heroes of English history, like King Canute the Great. Whether friend or foe, they introduced at least 900 words, ranging from leg and skin to yard and sky to die and the now-ubiquitous “f-word.”
A mere sixteen years of peace separated the invasions described in the previous paragraph from the greatest one of all, militarily, politically, and linguistically: The Norman Conquest. In 1066 A.D., England was conquered by the Norman French, and for three hundred years a French-speaking aristocracy ruled over an English-speaking peasantry. This being essentially a fraternal conflict within a more or less united Christendom, there was of course no change of religion, and Latin retained its place of as the language of religion and education, but French became the language of social prestige. English remained the common tongue. Over time, these three linguistic traditions gave English a tripartite system of expressing the same base concept with different words for different situations. The farm, restaurant, and lecture hall come to mind when we hear cow-beef-bovine and pig-pork-porcine. The words kingly, royal, and regal have different shades of meaning, nuance, and significance.
The French never left. Over time, they became English. The two languages fused. On top of a German base was added the French lexicon. While the two languages merged, some areas remained the exclusive province of French; into the 16th Century, Saint Thomas More argued his court cases in Law French, and we still use terms like felony, perjury, and attorney. Today, an English-speaker can readily recognize a common German sentence, and vice versa, but this is not the case with French. However, the same English speaker might be able to decipher the title of an academic treatise in French, but not in German, which still uses native vocabulary in science. English is the ideal common language for Europe, for speakers of southern Romance and northern Germanic languages can both find points of familiarity with the language.
Much of the new vocabulary was Anglicized. In the heady days before printing, idiosyncratic spellings were tolerated and writers sometimes spelled the same words in different ways within the same text. Those days came to an end with Johannes Gutenberg‘s invention of the printing press in Germany in 1439. In 1476, William Caxton set up shop as England’s first printer. Basing his orthography on London speech of his time, he was responsible for fixing many of the idiosyncratic spellings that confuse learners of English to this day. For example, right and straight both had the rough Germanic “ch” sound represented by the letters “gh,” a sound which has since been lost in English. Such phonological change in words with fixed spellings occurred in thousands of cases. English was at the time in the midst of the Great Vowel Shift, but with the popularity of printing, archaic pronunciations were assigned to words for eternity.
With a largely fixed orthography, England, with the rest of Europe, entered into the Renaissance. This revival of classical learning added hundreds of resurrected words from Latin and Greek into the English language, spelled as they were in their language of origin. And also from Greek and Latin were coined new words for the new discoveries from the Scientific Revolution that followed.
With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England became a maritime power. The British Empire was born, and with the largest empire in history came an influx of new words from all corners of the world. Colonists added words like tomahawk and boomerang to the English lexicon. Words like verandah from Bengali, amok from Malay, and kowtow from Chinese entered English. All empires are bound to collapse and this one was succeeded by American Militarism, which in its wars added expressions like gung-ho from Chinese and “head honcho” from Japanese into the English lexicon.
The result of all the history detailed above, Emerson’s “tributes from every region under heaven,” is a language with an unrivaled vocabulary, resulting in an often-unwieldy orthographical system. “Why not just fix it?” some have asked. Such a one was the intolerable George Bernard Shaw, who proposed a complete phoneticization of English spelling. But, as tends to be the case with revolutionary schemes based on cold logic and a tossing of tradition out the window, what would be lost would be far greater than what might be gained. Under Shaw’s system, sign would become sain and no longer recognizably related to the verb signify, thus losing its significance. And this is but one example. English spellings, like Chinese ideograms, often carry valuable etymological clues as to the meanings of words, and just as much was lost when the Chinese communists simplified their country’s writing system, so much would be lost by any radical attempts to simplify English. Besides, just as the old Chinese characters are more beautiful than the new, is not “through” more beautiful than “thru?”
The English language has no equivalent to the Acadmie franaise governing the use of the language including orthography. The anarcho-traditionalism of the English-speaking peoples, until recently at least, would never tolerate such an intrusion into something as organic as language. The stubborn Anglo-Saxon distrust of both authority-for-authority’s-sake and change-for-change’s-sake inevitably doom grandiose efforts such as Shaw’s to failure. Correct grammar or spelling is determined not by some institution, but by what the majority of educated native speakers use. Thus, past tense forms such as “dove” or “dived” are both acceptable. In some rare cases alternative spellings are available, as in judgment and judgement. But spelling is by its nature, fixed as it is on paper and in books, resistant to change. It would take a Pol Pot and a Khmer Rouge—like assault on tradition to do anything about English orthography.
An American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, Joshua Snyder [send him mail] lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian.