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 night, laugh, thought, 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 dew, so 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, vinaigrette, protégé, 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.