Why English spelling makes no sense | Did You Know?


How would you pronounce this word? Well, you could argue that it’s actually Fish. The argument doesn’t really hold up, of course. “gh” only sounds like /f/ if it comes at the end of a word. And “ti” only sounds like /sh/ in certain instances. But it just goes to show how strange English spelling can be. If you’ve only heard a word and had to guess how to spell it, you’d be struggling, and vice versa. Why is this “steak”, while this is “streak”? What about “done”, “gone” and “tone”? That’s why we get things like this. “E, R, Y…” “…G, A, I…” “…Q, U, E. Pendeloque.” Studying for these bees takes hours of repetition, and a good understanding of the etymology. “Aiguillette. Does this come from French?” “It’s from a Latin-derived French word.” By looking at the history of written and spoken English, we can begin to understand why the spelling can sometimes seem so illogical. Basically, writing systems are a secondary form of language – they reflect speech. And while spoken English has changed radically over the past millennium, English spelling was pretty much standardised by the mid-18th century. Which means the way we spell today, reflects how English was spoken hundreds of years ago. Right from the beginning, the alphabet itself hasn’t been very stable, and we’ve never really had enough letters for all the sounds we make. About a thousand years ago, the Anglo-Saxons moved from a runic alphabet to a Latin alphabet, and even then there weren’t enough letters for all the sounds. Over time letters have come and gone, but we now have even more sounds in Modern English – about 44 distinct sounds. “The problem is, as one linguist once described, English as being like a gigantic linguistic vacuum cleaner. We kind of suck up words from so many languages and that indeed has introduced a lot of inconsistency.” English has a Germanic core, but also has
French, Greek and Latin origins. And these all come with different spelling
systems. Old English is the earliest form of English,
and was spoken for hundreds of years. It’s very different from the English we
speak today. After the Norman conquest of 1066, a lot of French words were introduced into the language, keeping their French spellings but adopting English pronunciations. Not only that, but the Norman scribes also made changes to existing words because they preferred French spelling. This was a big change for the language, but the biggest changes came during a period called the Great Vowel Shift. It was essentially a change in pronunciation – a general raising of all long vowels, which happened over the course of a few hundred years. “So when one vowel changes for whatever reason, shifts its position, is pronounced differently, this will trigger a kind of chain
reaction change.” For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed blood with wood. Both these words were pronounced the same at the time. Later on in Shakespeare’s time, the Early
Modern English period, these words still rhymed, but sounded more like Over time, “blood” and “wood” have again shifted their pronunciations. But some words, like “food” and “boot”, still carry that “oo” sound. And early on during this pronunciation shift, spellings weren’t set in stone yet. There were several different ways to spell
a word, because there wasn’t any sort of standard or regulation. “Basically in early English you could kind of spell as you wanted. There was no right way to spell.” And people would spell their names in different ways as well. But that all changed thanks to this thing. The printing press was introduced to England in 1476 by William Caxton, around the early stages of the Great Vowel Shift. And so books began being published using popular spellings that had already begun to be established. But that doesn’t mean spelling was set in stone right away. Printers still took advantage of the flexibility of spelling to justify lines on their pages. “So for example they might add an E at the end of the word to make that line a little longer. And the fact that the Es had stopped being pronounced at the end of the word meant that, well it didn’t really matter whether it was
there or not. So it did take a long time for spelling to
settle down.” William Caxton and his Flemish typesetters also favoured Dutch spelling conventions, and so they introduced the “h” in ghost. And other changes were happening as well. Consonants were disappearing in words like knife, and knight. And words like “dette” and “doute” were being changed to match their etymology. These respellings sometimes resulted in mistakes,
or hypercorrections. For example, the “b” in dumb used to be
pronounced, and remained in the spelling as the sound disappeared. But then the b was added to words where it was never pronounced, like “limb” and “crumb”. Despite this, over time the printing press helped standardise English spelling. The problem is that by the time the Great Vowel Shift ended, hundreds of books had already been printed using a spelling system that reflected old pronunciation. “If only printing had been developed at another time, or these changes happened earlier, then there would have been a better representation or better relationship between sound and letter.” And after that in the Renaissance period,
new words kept entering the language, especially as a huge number of classical works were being translated into English, but with no equivalent English word in existence. Some words were borrowed as they were, and some were slightly altered. Along with the new words we still use today, there were also a lot of so-called “inkhorn” words that were introduced that didn’t quite make the cut. But there was no real reason why some words remained and others didn’t. Which makes it all the more confusing. By the 1700s, an increasing number of scholars believed English needed more consistent spelling that matched pronunciation. Noah Webster — you might recognise his name — is often credited with being a major force in changing American spelling, through his works. After the American Revolution, he believed strongly in developing cultural independence for the US. This included a distinctive “American” language with spelling changes he believed improved the spelling. He’s mainly the one to thank for standardising spellings such as “color” and “traveler”, and the change from aluminium to aluminum. These changes were accepted by the public, while some other changes, such as “tung” and “wimmen”, were not. Something that isn’t actually an Americanism, though, is the use of -ize. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries recommends -ize. One comes from Greek, and the other from French. But now, we seem to be disregarding etymology completely. So will any more spelling reforms take place in the near future? Now that English is spoken around the world, any type of reform would likely be both very hard, and very expensive. But while historical influences enrich a language, The “ye” in things like “Ye Olde Shoppe” shouldn’t actually be pronounced as “ye” at all. Originally, “the” was written with the letter thorn, which is now gone from the English alphabet. Over time, the writing of thorn looked more and more like the letter Y, until it was hard to really tell the two apart. So “ye” in this context should actually still be pronounced “the”. Whether those shops are actually old though, well, you can be the judge of that.

Comments 86

  • excellent work

  • its because its a smash up of all the greatest, an you know what that means, if you can't learn it you dont know it

  • Getting English spelling down is a small hurdle.
    Learning to 'spell' in an Asian language is nearly impossible.

    Africans and Native Americans were nice enough to not have a written language.

  • This is great, so far. English is insane. I have learned a little Spanish. Every letter is pronounced the same every time. Double letters are pronounced differently. It's interesting.

  • English words will change, currently the British government is replacing the native people in a sad and planned ethnocide, which will decrease True global diversity…
    Incredibly sad

  • English is the easiest language to pick up on the street, but it becomes almost impossible for an overseas migrant with another native tongue to learn the written language to perfection, unless we are Grammar Freaks and chose to become professional bullies in self defence! As if Natives would care?

  • Enuff would be enough for me.

  • English is a hodgepodge language and may it continue to be so.

  • …and the effect of stress and weak forms…

  • Anti soverign nation globalist propaganda

  • Hey 'Appril', can you not do a video on the origins of the Gaylick language…..lolol…..

  • I gained weight then knowledge

  • All the speling nazis be trigerd…………………….. I have been saying this for years that if a spell check program can't do it for my dyslexic ass then well whats the problem here?

  • say it correct: EN_ough / C_ough / THR_ough / TH_ough / L_ough

    enuff / coff / throo / thowe / loch

    Eye luff thee inglish lengwitch!!!

  • Mi speling is reel good

  • Super weird I had never seen the Ghoti word but in the last two days I have heard about it twice. I watched an old Tom Scott video and now I seen it in this new one.

  • Ultimately, the correct spelling for everyone is the one without the redline on the monitor. 😜

  • Englisch ist schmutzig

  • I like these short language videos from the ABC

  • English is a combination of Latin, Greek, French, German, and gibberish

  • Omg stop bad mouthing English and white people abc. Yawn.

  • I seriously think there are far more important things to report on than spelling right now – what a lame report…..

  • April Chan is back!!!

  • I thought thorn was replaced because of German typesetters

  • I blame China and Russia

  • One day I hope the UK, Australia and India can work together to fix British english spelling like the Germans did to clean up their language.

    Imagine if the letter C no longer made the 'K' and 'S' sounds and only made the Ch sound. So coccyx would be 'Koksyx'

    While we are at it X no longer makes the Z, Y no longer makes the 'i' sound, G only makes the G (ghost) sound, J only makes the J sound (Jam) and Y only makes the y sound (you). So we end up with words like koksix, zilophone, Jerold and phisiks/phisix. We can keep ph as "f" and X as 'ks' because they look cool.

  • "if it's white it's bad"
    -idiots who feel guilty for some weird reason

  • g

  • Why do people in the ''West'' now have such atrocious levels of English?? Just a few examples:

    – Amount of people, amount of cars (can't count?)

    – More sweet/most sweet, more good/most good (what happened to sweeter/sweetest, better/best??)

    – a tonne of cars, a bunch of people, a tonne of swans, a bunch of food, a tonne of books, a bunch of……

    – you're vs your, their vs they're, were vs where etc

  • They are not telling you the truth! Spelling a certain way is really to align with satanic numerology and gematria. Where do you think the phrase "casting s spell" came from? All words have power. Satanists have always known this. The world is NOT what you think it is people.

  • English is not a phonetic language full-stop. If you want a phonetic language go learn another language.

  • English is a language rich in vowels, vocabulary and subtlety. Its "inconsistencies", as you put it, add character and reflects our history and our heritage. Leave English to its indigenous people, you have no right to appropriate and demand changes to my people's language. Bugger off.

  • It’s interesting that Runes and ancient Hebrew script are the same.

  • That’s right, English has sucked up words/sounds from all over the place. The more you read, and the wider your reading, the better you will understand. Why is this news ABC. This info was taught to us at school; but then that was back in the 60s……..

  • Why do you say more important and not importanter? I bet no Aussie bloke knows

  • I speak two languages. Australian and English

  • Asian girl is cute, %100 would date

  • Whitey owe the Chinese for the printing press. So know ye places eh.

  • My daughter was reading/writing in german at age 5… after learning the alpabet it was easy to sound out words.
    She shed many tears when this spelling technique did.nt work anymore at school… found it hard to believe that double O could be pronounced U… etc etc… i observed her trying to make sense of the differences between the pronounciation of idividual letters and then those letters embedded into words. Gradually she "gave up" trying to m ake sense of it and just learned words by memorising… and "had to believe" what teachers said the spelling was…. it was heartbreaking to see the natural "logic" being re-educated and replaced by a completely illogical and senseless grammar system where the teacher was always right even though the childs natural logic phonetic sense was otherwise… i believe this to be a big contributor to may bright children actually "failing" the school system…broken minds that just get told a double O is a U and a U is an A etc etc… quite a waste of valuable primary school time where they could have learned one or two other languages rather than memorise obscure spelling in their own mother tounge… sad really…?!

  • I gave up when they add 'k' in Knife: as someone who speaks Somali,Swahili, Arabic and Amharic fluently .
    Below is how I prefer to pronounce english/ingriis

    The girl is holding a knife= the gal is holding a nayf .

  • I have to agree that the English language is difficult to learn due to "silent characters". Just think how much more beneficial to spell the word as it sounds. The benefits would be more students understanding the English language and writing would also be easier. Some words like "colour" , if written as it sounds, "color", as spelt and written by Americans would help many students. Elephant as spelt in English would read as "Elefant" if written as it sounds. People who migrate to Australia would find learning English would be much easier. I won't see a change in life time.

  • i love these videos!! april is awesome

  • Don't get me started on the archaic "I before E…" non-rule.

  • And yet, most Australians insist on speaking Australian instead of English 🙄

  • English is German momgrelized by the French. Blame William.

  • makes sense to me, except i refuse to spell jail with a stupid g…..

  • Blud
    Wud

    Simple as

  • English makes perfect sense… there are rules to follow in every language you learn and if you actually learn them you will have no problem… I prefer the English language to the bastardised version from America.

  • Beat episode yet!!!

  • The fact we aussies swap the pronunciation of E and I intermittently says it all…

  • Modern Chinese and Japanese have changed dramatically after 1945. Modern Japanese cannot read newspapers published before 1949. The same is true about the Chinese.

  • On the contrary, it makes perfect sense, for those who take the trouble to learn it.

  • Just introduce more letters for the sounds.

  • If you feel english are so ridiculous, ask to frenchs, spaniards, germans, or dannish

  • In India atleast, I believe this illogical nature of English spelling is a major influence in the way children learn things. English spelling is one of the first things students learn at school. When there is an incentive for memoriSing than understanding spellings, the student is silently told that many things in the world do not have any logic and that you need to learn them by heart. In the pursuit of marks students use this same approach while studying physical & social science. The result, is a generation of uneducated literates.

    The reason why i say this is because I have seen my 4 year old nephew struggling to understand the logic behind English spelling and ultimately giving up. It was because of him that I actually ended up watching this video. He asked us why this exercise of learning spelling doesn't make any sense to him. I think he is right. It doesn't make any sense. Infact it was never meant to make any sense.

    We may not be able to change anything now. But we should atleast stop penaliSing students for making mistakes while spelling.

    Hi tim! V need tu be mispell tolarant.

  • ai ken spik inglish veri wel <- this is how english should be spelled😅

  • Other European languages used to have spellings that made no sense as well, but over decades (or centuries, in the case of Spanish), they all had successful spelling reforms to regularize them.
    The recent reforms (the past 40 years or so) have been far less successful though, with the now-educated populace (and media) often resisting the changes and accusing the relevant academies of bastardizing their languages.
    So I think it is too late to regularize English spelling now, since nowadays everyone thinks spelling is immutable. Maybe a century ago, it would have been easier.

  • and yet we communicate

  • 02:30…and now we have vocal fry..😱🤢🤮

  • 03:30 The Bible was the first Book printed and mass produced on the Gutenberg press, and was responsible for the standardisation of German and English spelling and language not
    "books".

    Typical ABC left wing socialist revisionist history propaganda.
    Say it.
    The Bible.
    The Bible
    The Bible.

  • Well, at least you can "kinda read" the English words. If you still want to argue with me, argue with my Japanese Duolingo sensei, where you can't read anything because you just can't 😱

  • Webster is the worst thing to happen to English. He's in the same league as Mercator and the Pope.

  • HAHA, this video feels AWFULLY familiar!! Sneaky sneaky.

  • Webster didn't standardise shit. He corrupted words like 'colour' and 'neighbour', 'programme' and many, many others because of his hate for England. They are still spelt this way in Australia today. Americans can standardise whatever they want, but we speak English in Aus…not American or some derivation thereof. The Queen's English.

  • All languages have "strange" spellings and "don't make sense"….. for eg: The spanish 'y' sound is a "ll" but it is perfectly ok to use "Y" as an "eee" sound or a "yuh" sound invarious words…. have you tried to speak Finnish or Japanese…?

  • This broadcast must have been to make australians feel better about their total incapability to spell correctly.

  • we need a new alphabet , with slavic languages like the macedionian language how you say a word is how you spell it . no two words the same , no double letters or silent letters or sea , see two words that sound the same .

  • Dhis iz hau Ingglish spelling shud probabli luk insted Ai think

  • Why English make no sense? Because you never bothered to learn about it. Makes perfect sense to me. I learn etymology.

  • "Writing systems are a secondary form of language – they reflect speech" – what genius said this? No knowledge of Saussure, no knowledge of Deconstruction – is this a high schoo student??

  • I read about most of this on wiki a long time ago, wiki for the win!

  • 05:38. Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary featured Bible verses among it's definitions and examples of word usage.
    Proving that there was no separation of 'church and state', in the classroom.

    Subsequent editions had the references removed by unscrupulous publishers once they bought the rights.

  • This is why i love my language, and many asian languages. Because what's written is what's spoken

  • Settle down spelling

  • Depending on the root of the word the -ise and -ize is actually very important and distinguishes between the verb and noun forms of certain words. Whilst yes with others it's "trivial" usually because said words only have one function in grammar.

  • This video copied a large portion of LangFocus' video of the same topic. If you're unsure what I mean, look up the channel and look at his video on English spelling.

  • It proves that Nationism is stupid.

  • it has a latin core

  • Japan, Spanish, Italian: examples of phonetical languages. Ka = ka, Pa = Pa, etc.

    English, French, German: mongralised languages, not phonetical at all. ej: Picture: pikcha. Though: dou, Aisle: Aial, and so on.

    P H O N E T I C S, not spelling.

  • tis also my second language also ,trash and trashier.

  • An ornamental with an English accent, teachings proper English. Strange.

  • Like Britain america is full of immigrants, both now & in the past. Is it any wonder then that words are adopted from different languages? I dont care where you are from & what language you speak, all languages evolve! You think English is complicated? Try speaking Welsh! Better still, try spelling in Welsh!

  • Either this video is a ripoff of Langfocus’s or Langfocus’s is a ripoff of this

  • I came from Langfocus

  • Funny, Think so?

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