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Spelling Challenges in the English Language

thank you word cloud

English is the unquestionable dominant language on Earth. The United States and the British Commonwealth account for over 400 million native speakers. Another 400 million comfortably speak English as a second language, while an estimated 750 million global citizens competently speak it as a foreign language.

Worldwide Domination

English has long dominated international endeavors, being the language of consensus for air traffic control communications, science, and most recently information technology. Internationally, in politics, education, and business, English is not the sole language used, but is overwhelmingly dominant. The graphic to the left illustrates the dominance, with the text size corresponding to relative use in the world. The English phrase “Thank You” dominates, whereas other important languages like German “Danke” and Japanese “Obrigado” are proportionally smaller.

What I’ve found surprising, however, is how the language has seeped into internal use in countries where English is neither the official language nor historically, even a close second. Some companies in Sweden, for example, speak English in the workplace, even though the workers are Swedish. The rationale for this is that so much of their business is conducted in English with people and businesses outside of the country. In Austria, where German is the official language, grants for scientific research must be written in English, even though the researchers speak German or one of the other East European languages. The reason for this is that the members of the scientific community, which review the proposals, have different native languages but all speak English.

Differing Spellings for the Same Sound

What strikes me as odd about its dominance is that English is not an easy second language to learn. Unlike Spanish or Japanese, where vowels and consonants always have the same sound, English pronunciation is not consistent with spelling. For example, the consonant /k/ sound can be spelled many ways:

  • “k”, as in kick
  • “ck”, as in kick
  • “ch”, as in chronic
  • “c”, as in canine

Similarly, the consonant /s/ sound also has several possibilities:

  • “s”, as in social
  • “c” as in circle
  • “sc” as in eviscerate
  • “ss”, as in assimilate

Vowels are equally flexible. For example, look at the various pronunciations of the vowel /i/:

  • Canine (“i” sounds like the “i” in nine)
  • Ravine (like the “ee” in seen)
  • Vermin (like the “i” in win)
  • Nickel (like the “i” in sick)

There are many reasons for this. First, unlike languages such as Japanese, which developed in isolation over a period of centuries, English is derived from several languages. These include Danish, German, Greek, Latin, and the romance languages. Many words adopted into English retained some form of the original language’s spelling, resulting in a disconnect between pronunciation and spelling:

  • Mansion, from Old French. Instead of the more common “sh” spelling for the /sh/ sound, here it is spelled “si”.
  • Vociferous, from Latin. Instead of the more common “s” spelling for the /s/ sound, here it is spelled “c”.
  • Philander, from Greek. This explains why some English words spell the /f/ sound with “ph”, because that’s how the Greeks spelled it.

The second reason for the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation is that English has evolved faster than most other languages. This is because the island of England, with its Old English, was repeatedly invaded over the centuries. The Romans, Scandinavians, French, and others all invaded England and left a heavy influence on the original Old English. Then, unlike Spanish and other languages, English continued to evolve faster. Whatever consistency there initially was in Old English and Middle English was lost, because changes in pronunciation outpaced efforts to change spelling conventions.

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