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Why is English Spelling So Messed Up?

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If you're a kid learning how to write, or an adult speaker of a language with sensible spelling, English spelling can seem like a cruel prank. And even if you're a completely literate adult native speaker of English, you will still run into situations that make you wonder how English spelling ever got so messed up. Here are some answers for the next time you clutch your hair yelling, "WHYYYYYYYY?!?!?" They may not comfort you, but they may make you see English as less of an arbitrary meanie and more of a victim of history.

1. Spelling was established while big pronunciation changes were underway

Before the printing press came along, there was a lot of flexibility in English spelling. Look at some of the ways beauty used to be spelled: bealte, buute, beuaute, bewtee, bewte, beaute, beaultye. People did their own thing, trying their best to match up tradition with current pronunciation. But after the printing press came to England in the late 1400s, texts could be spread more widely, and printers started to standardize spelling. The unlucky thing for English spelling is that during the very same time, huge changes in pronunciation were happening. Middle English was becoming Modern English. When this period was over people had stopped pronouncing thek in knee, the g in gnaw, the w in write, the l in talk, and the b in lamb. They had also stopped using the back-of-the-throat-sound (represented by the ch in German words like ach!) that had been spelled by scribes with gh and had been pronounced in words like nightlaughthought, and eight. But by the time all those sound changes were widespread and complete, the spellings for those words had been established.

There was also a massive change to the vowel system during that period. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift, and by the time it was over we had settled on spellings that reflected a mix of the old system and the new. So we get one spelling for many vowel sounds—ea in knead, bread, wear, and great—and multiple spellings for one vowel sound—due and dewso and sew.

2. The literate class used French until the 15th century

When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought their own words with them. While the general population carried on speaking English, French was used in universities and the courts, eventually leaving its imprint on the whole of English vocabulary. Most French words from this period were adapted to English pronunciation and spelling (attend, blame, enchant, flower, farm, join, lesson, minister, proof, etc.), but plenty retain traces of their origin that cause little spelling headaches today: people, jeopardy, muscle, marriage, autumn.

3. It was cool to change spellings during the classical craze 

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a craze for the ideas and artifacts of antiquity caused some writers to introduce spellings for English words based on Latin and Greek, even when those words had never been pronounced according to those spellings. They thought it looked more educated and fancy to write February; (on analogy with Latin Februarius) rather than Feverere, and receipt (like Latin receptum) rather than receyt. This is also how debt and doubt got their b, salmon and solder got their l, and indict got its c.

The re-Latinized words did have a very distant connection, through French, with the Latin words they were based on, even though they were borrowed into English without the extra sounds. But sometimes re-Latinizing introduced letters that had no business being there on any etymological grounds. That s in island, for example, never had any reason to be there. The word came from Old English íglund, and was spelled illond, ylonde, or ilande until some fancy-pants picked up the s from Latin insula and stuck it in and made the word more complicated than it had to be.

Other scholars complicated perfectly clear words by making them look more Greek. So asma,diaria, and fleme became asthma, diarrhea, and phlegm. Don't they look classier that way?

4. We let words keep their spellings when we borrow them

As we discussed in No. 2, English got a lot of words from French after the invasion of 1066. Around 700 years later, we willingly borrowed a whole slew of other words from French, many of them referring to the finer things in life. We let them keep their spellings, but we pronounced them our own way, so now we've got words like bouillon, casserole, vinaigretteprotégé, ballet, bouquet, boutique, silhouette, etiquette, faux pas, champagne, and hors d'oeuvres.

Of course, French isn't the only language we've borrowed from. When we see something we've got use for, we take it as is. Guerrilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini have been welcomed into the fold. It's the least English can do, as it spreads around the globe: Let the globe spread into English as well.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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