English is the most popular foreign language in the world. It is learned in nearly every country in the world, starting from the first grade, and it is the language most people resort to when traveling or working abroad. English is recognized as a state language in over 67 countries, as well as in 27 non-sovereign entities. More than that, English is used as a working language by most international organizations, including the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and the European Union.
The answer to the question of why English took its current position as a main means of international communication can be found in history and politics. However, taking a position is one thing, and holding it is another. No matter what might have happened over the span of a particular few decades, if a language is too hard to learn and master, no one would think of using it internationally. A simpler alternative will be found, and if one doesn’t exist, somebody might just make one.
English, considered to be one of the easier languages to learn, does not have that problem. It manages just fine without many things crucial for the functioning of other languages, such as grammatical case, gender systems, or extended verb conjugation patterns.
There is, however, one thing about English that is universally believed to be quite difficult by both native speakers and learners: the orthography. (That is to say, the spelling.)
To put it bluntly, English’s orthography is a mess, and everybody knows that. So much so that spelling bee contests are held across almost the entire English-speaking world for young native speakers to demonstrate they can spell words properly. You might be surprised to know that in many other countries, spelling bees are only held for English learners, and not for other languages. English aside, most languages have decided it’s reasonable that words should be spelled like they sound — or at least somewhat similarly. Naturally, this tendency eliminates the point of such contests. (A notable exception is the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgian province of Flanders, where they also hold a similar contest.)
As an English tutor, I can tell you that learning how to write and spell words takes up a significant portion of the initial stages of learning English. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard “why does it have to be so hard?” from my students. Indeed, English's orthography was dubbed “The Chaos” in an infamous work of poetry.
- “Through” and “though” do not rhyme
- “Through” and “who” do rhyme
Have you ever wondered why things turned out that way? Just to make the lives of native speaking children and foreign learners more difficult? Let’s find out.
Answer #1: Foreign influence
Almost every language out there is subject to foreign influence. People have been communicating with each other throughout the entirety of history, and ancient times were no exception. English’s inception was as a language spoken by the descendants of Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes, which settled in the British Isles ca. 450 CE.
The language they spoke had very little in common with the one we know and love today; it had a totally different (much more complex) grammatical structure and tons of words with Germanic origins.
As we can tell, this changed at some point.
Around the 11th century CE, England was conquered by an army made of Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French troops, all led by the Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror. He was crowned the King of England on December 25th, 1066. This event not only marked the beginning of a new era in the history of England, but also initiated the changes that led to English becoming the language we speak today.
At that time, the native language of nearly all English nobility was French. This included the king, who barely bothered learning the tongue of the country's common folk (they continued speaking Germanic English.) This situation, when a different language is spoken by the “lower” and “upper” classes, is called diglossia.
Despite the unwillingness of either group to learn the language of the other, over time both languages influenced each other and the lingual discrepancies between them shrank. By the 15th century, almost the entirety of the court and the royalty were speaking English. Henry IV (1367–1413) became the first monarch who spoke English natively.
The two languages never merged but one made a significant influence on the other: many French words became part of English’s vocabulary. This influence can still be seen today. Orthography is one of those traits, and as you might know, French spelling rules are also notoriously intricate.
Here are a few examples of how French spelling influenced English:
- Many French words retained their original French spelling (though English speakers may pronounce them differently) — now we've got a mix of Germanic and French words, oftentimes for the same thing (ie, chair and stool)
- The letter C began being used to represent /k/ and /s/ sounds (previously, S would have been used)
- The CH digraph and the TCH trigraph came into existence (previously, these would have just been written as C)
Answer #2: The Great Vowel Shift
Between roughly 1400 and 1700, a number of changes swept the English language. The changes began in southern England and spread to other parts of the country during the following decades, and these transformations can now be seen (heard) throughout all of English’s current variations around the globe. Because of this event, the pronunciation of all Middle English's long vowels changed.
This is what’s known as the Great Vowel Shift.
More detail on what exactly happened is available here, but the rough idea is that long single vowels became pairs of different sounds. If we were to say that a given vowel gets two musical beats, you’d see a single vowel occupying both of those beats in Old English, but two different vowels each occupying a single beat in Middle English and beyond. Taking the word bite for example, the vowel sound in old English was /i:/ (the same sound as in seen... the : symbol just means to extend the length of the preceiding vowel), but in modern English, the vowel sound is actually /ai/ — say bite very slowly and you’ll hear it. Several vowels underwent similar shifts.
Some consonant sounds also changed during the same period, notably resulting in the birth of silent consonants. There were no silent consonants in Old English, which means that sounds like the k in knee (cnēow) would have been pronounced as a “hard” K. The letter H also used to be audible in the middle of words, like night (niht). Scholars have not been able to find an objective reason for why these changes took place or what caused them.
To spell that out in more practical terms: different generations of the same family might have pronounced the same words differently because of how they approached vowel sounds. This resulted in situations where the accents of a grandfather and a grandson would be different, despite being from the same area. (Of course, life expectancy in the late Middle Ages was much shorter, so a grandfather likely wouldn’t have met his grandson… but still.)
However, all these vowel changes had absolutely nothing to do with orthography. Most words retained the same spelling they'd had for hundreds of years. Only some words actually had their spellings adjusted to match these new pronunciations. Literacy was not a common thing during the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, but those few who could write and read were able to manage with little or no trouble.
By the time that people realized that there were now miles between the written and spoken language, it was already too late. Words sounded one way and were written another.
Answer #3: The lack of a regulatory organization
Have you ever wondered who determines the correctness of grammar rules? Why should does be used with he, she, and it, but do with all other words and pronouns? There’s an answer: a regulatory organization decides things work that way.
Regulatory organizations are special institutions that estimate and, well, regulate what is and isn’t considered to be the “standard” form of a language. Sometimes, these organizations also put out the main dictionary of their language. (On a side note, here’s how new words get added into dictionaries.)
Here are a few examples:
- Rat für die deutsche Orthography (“Council for German orthography”) — German;
- Académie Française (“French Academy”) — French;
- 国立国語研究所 (“National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics”) — Japanese;
- Институт русского языка Российской Академии Наук (“Russian language institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences”) — Russian.
English has no such organization.
To be clear: there’s not a single organization, foundation, or an institution that assumes and establishes the “correct” form(s) that all English speakers “should” stick to. This isn’t simply because the language is spoken by over 1.5 billion people in many countries throughout the world. Rather, barely anyone felt the need for such an establishment, neither in Britain, nor in the US.
There have been several attempts at creating such an organization throughout history, the earliest one going as far back as the 1570s. Looking to the United States a couple hundred years later, John Adams advocated for the creation of a language academy as part of the federal government in 1780. However, it was rejected by the Continental Congress due to concerns about individual liberty. This decision marked one of the earliest instances of the government’s considerations for linguistic diversity.
The closest thing English has to a regulatory organization is the initiatives of several private organizations, such as the dictionaries produced by Oxford and Cambridge.
Answer #4: Plain old habit
One of the main reasons for the orthography of English being such a mess is simple: everybody’s already gotten used to the way the language is. Changing it now would be nightmarish because the current population of English speakers would have to make major adjustments. Imagine having to relearn how to read and write simply because someone decided that the old ways were “wrong” and “outdated.” Some people would refuse to adjust, and for at least a few generations, we’d have to live in a world where there were multiple spellings of most words. This could create a major rift in the language community, potentially dividing it forever.
In a nutshell: English tries to maintain the spellings of both old English words and also words borrowed from other languages. There's nobody overseeing that process. Furthermore, the way English sounds has changed over time, but the way it's written largely hasn't. In fact, there's not even a regulatory body that might hope to keep the written and spoken language in sync.
Things got out of hand as time went on, but people got used to it.
Is English’s spelling a mess? Yes. Does it have to be changed, though? No.
The written English language has over 1,000 years of history, during which time it was evolving and changing to get to how it is today — to become a language that billions of people enjoy using. You’re reading this piece in English, too, which means the tricky writing patterns did not stop you from opening it up.
More than that, the language is still evolving. Who knows how our ancestors will be writing English in a few hundred thousand years? We are not responsible for the past, but we still hold the future in our hands.
As for now, that’s it, folks. We hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, stay tuned for the updates, a new piece will follow-up soon! Have a nice day, and bye!