‘Why don’t you write it how you pronounce it?’

*sāriġ is the Old English spelling of ‘sorry’ before the shortening of the root vowel during the Great Vowel Shift

My students often get intrigued, confused, and/or annoyed by English spelling. The reasons are many. I usually chicken out and say: ‘Sorry! I didn’t invent it!’

Most languages have a much more highly phonemic orthography than English. That is to say: in most languages, you can largely tell how to pronounce something from the way that it’s spelled or written – often to the point that there is in fact no word in that language for ‘to spell’. This is why this question is unique to students of English as opposed to other languages.

English, as we know, is different. When I don’t chicken out, I often refer students to the Great Vowel Shift in the Middle Ages. English orthography was being standardised in the same period in which the language was going through a huge multi-generational shift in vowel pronunciation. This resulted in all sorts of different ways to spell similar sounds.

To all students (and natives): This great animated video provides a much fuller answer.

This video is by Arika Orient, who makes videos for Mental Floss. Lots more great videos about language can be found on her YouTube channel.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s