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Irregular Spelling Rules

Why English has such Irregular Spelling Rules

Adapted from Louisa Moats, How Spelling Supports Reading, American Educator, 2006.

The history of English language is such a fascinating tale. A bit of knowledge about our journey towards modern English will help explain why our spelling patterns can seem a bit absurd. One of the main reasons that English has irregular spelling rules is that we have lots of different spellings for the same sound (e.g. /k/ can be spelled with letters k, c, ck, ch, qu). Modern English has been influenced by several core languages, and each of these languages have brought their own spelling patterns. Have a look at the outline below to give you a bit of an overview of how English and our spelling system has developed.

  1. English started with the Celtic tribes of Great Britain.

  2. Roman occupation of Great Britain brought Latin to the land.

  3. When the Roman Empire declined, the Germanic tribes known as Jutes, Angles and Saxons invaded and brought their Low West German Languages.

  4. The Celtic and Latin words, roots and pronunciations were absorbed by the Germanic tribes and Anglo Saxon – or Old English was born.

  5. Words for animals, family members, numbers, common objects, emotions and universal daily activities which we use today are preserved from Anglo-Saxon (e.g. goat, wife, mother, one, house, love, cook, walk). Of the 100 most common English words, all can be traced to Anglo-Saxon origin.

  6. In 1066 the French arrived, bringing their Norman French words and pronunciations. Norman French and Old English were gradually amalgamated and merged into Middle English in the late 15th Century. Norman French gave us thousands of words for legal concepts, social and moral ideals and artistic values (e.g. justice, peace, courageous, magnificent and beauty).

  7. At this time, the educated classes wrote in both Latin and their own language, so Latin-based words became part of the language for learning, commerce, and official discourse (e.g. solar, residence, designate and refer).

  8. Along came the Renaissance, which was a time of renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek culture, language and science. Scholars looked to Greek to coin new scientific terms (e.g. atmosphere, gravty and chronology).

  9. At the same time, scholars trained in the classics brought even more Latin-based words into English (e.g. malevolent, fortitude, maternal, stadium, calculus).

  10. Along the way we have also picked up words from many other modern languages such as Italian (piano, cello), Spanish (plaza, barbeque, chocolate) and French (antique, ballet). We have adopted their spelling patterns too.

  11. Over time we have changed the pronunciation of some of the oldest Anglo- Saxon words. This means that initially logical spelling patterns no longer match up with the way we say the word today.

All these layers of language have made our spelling system more complex. However there is no denying that is has given us a rich vocabulary. Apparently the English language has roughly double the number of words of languages such as German, Spanish and French.

Learning language and then developing spelling skills can be a challenge for some children. Newcastle Speech Pathology can assist your child in developing a sound understanding of language and set them on the path to develop reading, writing and spelling skills.

Written by Alison Speech Pathologist Newcastle Speech Pathology

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