Why is spelling so difficult in English? A Brief History of English

Why is spelling so difficult in English? A brief history of English. 

The short answer to this question is because English is really old, thus it has had the opportunity to encounter many influences and changes throughout the years. This phenomenon is known as morphology. Morphology is basically the study of how language changes. That’s a really simplified definition, but one that clearly exposes the relevancy of how language usage affects language changes.

Morphology exposes the ways in which language has adapted or been adapted to be used in a certain way.  Morphology comes from the Greek word morphe, meaning “form, shape.” According to linguist, John McWhorter, English had three major events historically that formed or shaped much of the language as we know it today. Many of the traits Modern English has came from various encounters with other language, such as that spoken by the Celts, Old Norse, as well as French and Latin.

The first event occurred when the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians arrived in England. The group were known as the Celts due to their language being Celtic. While they were only about 250,000, their influence on English remains notable. For example, the way we use the verb do came from the Celts. It was a Celtic linguistic trait that was then used by Celts in their rendition of English (morphology in action). The Celts “used do to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk.” John McWhorter in his article, English is Not Normal, explains “that no documented language on Earth beyond Celtic and English…uses do in just this way.” Another cool example is how “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” feels like counting. McWhorter explains if you ever felt like you were counting, it is because you are. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” are numbers in Celtic, albeit almost unrecognizable in those forms because they’ve been broken down over time. The same applies to “hickory, dickory, dock” which is eight, nine, and ten in Celtic.

The second major morphological event for the English language was English encountering Old Norse, due the rapid growth of Scandinavian merchants via sea. The interesting aspect of this encounter is that the way in which those speaking the Germanic language encountered English wasn’t in written form or in any kind of media–it was really just in oral exchanges. The motivation for the Old Norse speakers learning English was intelligibility, not really language acquisition–they needed to be able to communicate with English speakers to ply their trade. However,  there was no school or media to help them learn: they could only rely on listening to spoken English to learn it themselves.

The result of this was that English became easier to speak as it combined with the Old Norse language (morphed) over time. One example of this combination is the Scandinavians doing away with the gender words that Old English employed in their new version of English (which was a significant simplification). They also added their own words, too.  An example of words they left behind is the word “skipper” (“ship” in Old Norse was “skip,” thus “skipper” was used to explain a person who worked on a ship). McWhorter also points out that the Scandinavians didn’t just leave words in the English language–they also affected grammar. Prepositions, specifically. Dangling prepositions are not used in most other languages, and they feel unnatural in those languages. For example, “Which town do you come from?” sounds perfectly natural to us, but other languages wouldn’t end with a preposition.

The third morphological event that influenced, shaped, and formed modern English was the ruling of the Normans in England. After Normans ruling for quite some time, McWhorter explains, English acquired 10,000 new Latin words. This was a result of English being viewed as “a vehicle of sophisticated writing,” along with Latin. This led people to use Latin words to further elevate their English writing, producing many of the Latin-root words we use commonly today.

All these events contributed greatly to the way we use English today by adding words to our vocabulary and changing our grammar. Naturally, with these changes and added words, came new spellings. By combining words from many different root languages, English uses the spelling conventions of these various languages (like Celtic, Latin, and Old Norse). The result is the often confusing, unintuitive, and sometimes contradictory way we spell words in English, all stemming from the fact that they were not originally English words at all!

Do you know of any other major language-changing events in the history of the English language? If so, be sure to share below. And also check out this interesting infographic, which is a visual representation of the three morphological changes I’ve described in this post.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Lauren says:

    Nat,

    This was an incredibly fascinating post! It’s funny because sometimes when I am in an appointment with a writer and have difficulty explaining grammar rules, I playfully say “English is hard.” But, now I have proof to explain why it’s so hard! Or, really why English is the way it is with so many mysterious grammar rules and interesting ways to spell different words. It was really captivating to learn that English has been influenced and shaped into what it is now.

    Very cool! I’m happy to share this knowledge with my writers the next time someone asks me why English is so “hard.” Haha!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Nat G. says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I am glad you found it interesting. It helps to know what shaped the language in order to comprehend its usage. It is quite challenging to explain but I tried to give a quick road map to where the language has been in order to be informed about where it could go next.

  • Donovan S. says:

    Great post Nat! Just goes to show how dynamic a language like English is, and how the movement of history influences the words we use.

    • Nat G. says:

      Thanks! Yes, it is really fascinating to see its influences and how that has played a role in so much of the things we say. I really liked the bit about counting in a different language without even knowing it. It was very eye opening to research and write this post. It helped me learn more about linguistics.

  • Karina S. says:

    This is so cool! I rarely think about the development of language but it’s super insightful!