Language Matters: Why Spelling is So Difficult

“Through”, “cough” and “rough” look like they should rhyme, but they each sound completely different.  Why “knead” needs a silent K is a mystery to me and “bureaucracy” has far too many vowels.

But English isn’t the only language with inexplicable spelling, and there are four reasons why this mismatch between pronunciation and spelling occurs.

First, many languages borrow words from other languages.  English is especially guilty of this (check out VN’s Foreign English studylist to study some!),  but it’s not the only one.  And when you take a word from one language and insert it into another, the spelling probably won’t change, but the pronunciation will.

Second, pronunciations of words change over time.  Spelling, again, usually stays the same.  This can explain the existence of so many silent letters in words — our lazy tongues eventually drop the sound of the letter, but it stays in the word.

Third, many languages use alphabets designed for other languages.  English uses a Latin alphabet that was derived from the Greek alphabet.  Gaelic (both Scots and Irish) uses silent letters to indicate vowel length, consonant quality, and other syntactic clues to pronunciation, leading to long words that sound completely different from how they’re spelled.

Finally, in some languages, the written form is actually a different dialect than the spoken form.  The languages of Arabic, Tamil, and Sinhala are all like this.

Do you have trouble with spelling?  If your first language isn’t English, how does the spelling of your first language correspond with pronunciation?

Study some weirdly-spelled words with VocabNetwork’s Strange Spelling studylist.

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