Why is English spelling so absurd? Every learner of English has asked herself that question multiple times. However, the answer is quite complex. Just think of the pronunciation of the conjugated verb ‘to read’: ‘read-read-read’. Both in the present tense and in the past tense we spell the word exactly the same, and yet we say: ‘I read everyday’, and ‘I read a book yesterday’. Why not make things easier, and change the spelling? There are lots of other examples, such as the word ‘queue’, which has the same pronunciation as its initial letter, ‘Q’, but with a very silent (and very English) ‘queue’ of four letters quietly following their leader. And what about the noun ‘tear as in: “I have a  tear in my eye” and the verb ‘to tear’, as in “tear the paper in two”? Why not have different spellings to distinguish these two totally different words with totally different pronunciations? We could go on, but we would be here forever.

Spelling Tests

For foreign learners of English, this is all very frustrating, since they often try to pronounce written words as they see them written. The result is often ‘foreign’ or ‘bad’ pronunciation. The Italians, the Spanish and the French have terrible problems pronouncing words like ‘bear’ (the animal) and ‘pear’ (the fruit) which rhyme. They think, logically, that they must also rhyme with ‘hear’. But they don’t.    

However, if it is any consolation, mother-tongue English speakers have problems too. Not with pronunciation —which they learn before they can read and write—, but with spelling. Spelling tests are part of all English lessons at school. There are even TV quiz shows where the contestants are asked to spell words like ‘thorough’, ‘through’, and ‘psychologist’ under time constraints

The Absurdity of English Spelling

English  Paradoxes

But why all this madness? Perhaps it is because Britain is a country of paradoxes. Is our insistence on a totally illogical but ‘correct’ spelling system just another example of our national tendency towards paradoxical extremes?   

But there is a logical, historical explanation, too. If we look at the historical origins of the English language, English is written with Roman letters, which were developed to transcribe Latin. Unlike modern Italian, French and Spanish, however, which are derived almost entirely from Latin, English mixes Germanic roots (Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse) with Romance roots (Latin and French). This has created confusion in the relation between how words sound and how they are spelled.

Gutenberg and Caxton

Nevertheless, if we go back to the Middle Ages, English was pronounced, more or less, as it was written. In the 15th century the word ‘boat’, for example, was pronounced as a non-English Italian or Spanish speaker might pronounce it today, enunciating each letter individually ‘b-o-a-t’. But then, in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany. Later, in 1476 William Caxton started printing in England. As a result, written English became fixed and a ‘correct’ spelling was established —particularly for important legal documents, and written English became more resistant to change. But then, over the course of the next five hundred years, the pronunciation of the language did change. Nobody really knows why, but some sounds changed or disappeared from some words, but not from others. The spelling, however, stubbornly remained as it was. In short, today we speak with 2021 pronunciation but some of our spelling is still in the 16th century.