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Why are English words difficult to spell?

English words are difficult to spell.

It is possible to learn rules for spelling, though the only one people usually remember is the rule ‘i before e except after c’. Such rules often have exceptions however – therefore learning how to spell is a generally a word-by-word matter.

Why has English ended up in this state, where it is so difficult to predict from its sound how a word is spelled?

The answer comes from the complex history both of the English vocabulary and the English sound-system. English words have come from many different sources, and sometimes carry ‘sound-spelling’ conventions with them from those different sources.

Furthermore, the conventional spellings of many English words were established several hundred years ago, after which there have been significant changes in how  English sounds.

And finally, there are not enough vowel letters in English (five: a, e, i, o, u) to capture all the different vowel sounds in English (which varies between dialects, but usually has about ten distinct vowels, and many vowel-combinations called diphthongs).

This means that in English the relation between vowel letters and vowel sounds is especially complex; and even though the relationship is generally systematic, it is usually simpler to learn sound-spelling correspondences on a word-by-word basis.

This all means that learning how to spell is a matter of memory, not intelligence.

In some ways, therefore, it is a pity that spelling mistakes are stigmatised in the way they are, since they are an understandable response to the complexity of sound-spelling correspondences in English; and in any case they rarely impede understanding.

Still, they do carry the stigma of being a poor writer and imply that you are also an inexperienced reader (because you did not spot your own mistake, and appear not to have learned the correct spelling from your reading experience).

One Response to “Why are English words difficult to spell?”

  1. Samuel Munda Benya Senesie says:

    This explanation builds my courage to learn spelling rather than cause me any fears of spelling. I thank you.

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