Spelling and Sounds in Language

The Mouth

People hate spelling anything in English. Part of the problem is that English is four or five languages, not one. Yet another serious problem that faces linguists, is the representation of sound. Irish monks first wrote down ancient Irish using a Latin alphabet that worked well to represent Latin and worked terribly to represent Irish. Irish would have been better represented by the Cryllic alphabet because that language has letters which match the sounds in the Celtic languages much better. So used your imagination. It is your job to write down the sounds of a language. Do you do so literally? If so, you might right the word dog as "dawg." What about homonyms? These are words that sound alike, but have different meanings like rows, roes and rose. If words are borrowed do you honor the spelling of the word in the other language? Do you pronounce it differently? Many people have tried to make up artificial languages or spelling rules that went nowhere. One of the huge problems is getting everyone to agree to a change. You only have to see grammar people going crazy over simple changes to realize what faced early dictionary compilers.

There are five influences on language that are not easily captured by writing.

  • Change in the sound of the word that make the word easier to say

  • Spelling in the word that keeps the identity of the word's root

  • Trying to match the sounds of the words with limited characters

  • Using a familiar alphabet on a different language

  • Keeping up with rapid changes in speech with legacy dictionaries


The term "orthographic" is used in linguistics to talk about spelling modifications that reflect sound changes in the spoken words that make the word or phrase easier to say. For instance: "loaf" to "loaves" where the "f" sound changes to the corresponding voiced sound "v" because of the "z" sound on the end of the word and the long vowel. Spanish is the easiest of the languages I've studied to spell, with very few rules, usually of this type and almost no exceptions. English is probably the worst. It looks like a hodge-podge, but is actually a heroic attempt to point letters to sounds. Many times there is no spelling correspondent, such as "rose" instead of "roze." But if you look more closely, that final "e" is your spelling indicator that the word is long and the consonant is voiced. Loss versus lose is a good example, but loose doesn't fit the model very well.

Spelling with Roots

These are modern words in which the lexicographers have tried to honor the spelling roots. You will see x, ph, and z in Greek roots, "ch" for the "k" sound and au for the open vowel. Latinate words use the q and qu as well as the "tion" for sh. Norse and Danish words usually have the sh and sc and use the letter "k" instead of "c" in the slender position. Anglo-Saxon words is were you will see the consonant blends for hard (unvoiced) stops like "tch," "gh" and "ck" as well as the "w" instead of the "u" modifying the "a" to an open vowel. Celtic words are hard to find in English, the Celtic influence being more of a flattening effect, but the borrowed words are spelled as simply as possible except for the "ch" which the English pronounce as a "k".

English Alphabet

English is spelled with the Roman alphabet. Many of the glyphs do double duty depending on if the vowel is slender or wide. The "k" sound in "kick" is different from the "k" sound in "caulk." The "th" is a difficult sound for foreigners to master, so the thin "th" is turned into "t" and the thick "th" (dh spelled usually dth) is turned into a "d" sound. Some of the glyphs are modified by "h" others by consonant blends. In English, the vowels are an even larger problem and subject to the most change in accents. English is notorious for diphthongs or vowels that have two sounds, like the "o-e" sound in "boat." This allows for the initial consonant to be voiced with the thick sound and the final consonant to be unvoiced with the thin sound. Doubling the vowels is an attempt to signal to the reader that the vowel is a diphthong, but most long vowels in English have multiple sounds. English also has some unusual spellings to compensate for short consonants on long vowels, i.e. "laugh" or "cough." And some holdovers! The word "light" was once said with a short vowel. Other words fell into this patter without having the short vowel, once the vowel was lengthened in speech, i.e. "wight" and "might" the noun.

      Irish Examples

However horrid the spelling is in English, it is nothing compared to Irish, where the Roman alphabet to express the sounds was worse than useless. In Irish, you can use thick vowels with slender consonants and vice versa. Rather than use an alphabet like Cyrillic that has double or more the consonant glyphs for this exact reason, Irish is spelled with extra vowels to try to express this feature. Rather than a silent diphthong, Irish often has words with several vowels for one sound.

In this illustration, you can also see the Celtic tendency to flatten and murmur. Look at the last word, the Irish spelling for "Kelly." After a time, you stop seeing the letters that do not do anything than help with the sounds, but in trying to obey some grammatical rules and keep some kind of consistency, Irish ends up looking extremely difficult to read. Manx, a Celtic variant, was written down much later with less correspondence to grammar and more attempt to just mimic the sounds. And another problem that Celtic speakers have is that the rules for spelling Welsh are completely different because different groups of monks did the first transcriptions without agreeing to any one standard. This is writing to an extreme of frustration and leads to unwillingness on the part of native speakers to teach their children the language.


I'll show you this picture again because it depicts spelling variants in old manuscripts. Anyone trying to read writing from even a hundred years ago runs into the problem with legacy writing. We get most frustrated with it in legal documents, which sound like they were written by King James. Every day, words are added to "urban" dictionaries and dictionaries of slang and jargon. After a time, the words are added into new dictionaries. As much as people object to "verbing" dropping old grammatical forms (whom) and the flattening of the tongue (losing the "h" sound in when) we are faced with rapid change and unable to keep up with writing it down at the same pace. More and more problems come up in countries with literacy, and certainly with more than standard literacy which it now required to read a classic novel. Even the Bible has been updated to sound modern. The field is very much like stopping a train with a quill!

© 2018, A.R. Stone

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