It often starts with a simple enough question…’So what is the correct spelling ‘adviser’ or ‘advisor’? And then begins the never-ending discussion on the exasperating issue of English spellings and their crazy logic or lack of any logic thereof! It is a vexing problem both for the learners and the teacher. The former can never figure out why you have to add a ‘k’ to ‘know’ or a ‘g’ to ‘gnat’; should the word be ‘advice’ or ‘advise’; does ‘tomorrow’ have a double ‘m’ or a double ‘r’ ; as for ‘immediately’…just forget it!! For the teacher it’s a nightmare, for every spelling rule you teach, there will be an exception. Take the simplest one: ” it’s always ‘I’ before ‘E’, except after ‘C'” and then you have to qualify that by saying that if you say it as ‘A’ as in ‘neighbour’ or ‘weigh’ then the rule doesn’t apply!!
The question i’ve often been asked is why can’t spellings be simpler and the answer is the classic line “it’s complicated!!” Historical reasons can be cited to explain why English spelling is as hard as it is. There is the fact that the language has evolved like a ‘salad’ with exotic words thrown in from different regions of the world. There are words borrowed from European languages like ‘hamburger’ from German or ‘chef’ from French; there are even words from our own country that have found their way in…take the example of ‘juggernaut’ which originates from the ‘jagannath rath yatra’ of Puri. The spellings of such words are generally not simple!
Before Shakespeare and before the printing press, English spellings were quite flexible. So a word like ‘beauty’ could be spelt in five different ways and no one really objected to whichever spelling you used. With the advent of the printing press an effort was made to standardise spellings and standardise they did, only they didn’t simplify them! Then in today’s world with the language being spoken in different countries across six continents, local rules sometimes apply so you can have an American spelling and a British spelling for the same word.
All such factors apart, the single most important reason for the spelling-difficulty is the fact that the language is not written as it sounds. Languages like Chinese and other related ones are not based on sound and have a different system altogether. But there are some languages, like our own Hindi for instance, where the sound of a word and the way you spell it are very close and you pretty much write down what you hear. Naturally their spellings are easier. Compare this to what we have in English…26 alphabets that are meant to represent 44 sounds! The five vowels are used for 20 sounds while the remaining alphabets make up 24 consonant sounds. That pretty much forms the crux of the problem and that is why they say that in English you can’t spell with your ears, you have to spell with your eyes! Some people find that easy enough others who don’t would agree with the poet below..
So our English, I think, you all will agree,
Is the craziest language you ever did see.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it’s said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat;
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Or dear and fear for bear and pear.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Why, man alive,
I’d learned to talk it when I was five,
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned it even at fifty-five!