Spell Check

14th March 2009

In the wake of the recent BBC4 series Why Reading Matters, Phil Wall gets his head around the complicated business of English spelling and pronunciation

As adult native speakers of English usually know, but probably don’t really care about very much, a major problem of learning the language is that spelling and pronunciation have a rather peculiar relationship. This is being brought home to me at the moment as my daughter is learning to read. That’s something we’ve all done, but it’s easy to forget how we managed it.

I’ve been fascinated to watch as my daughter goes through the different stages of understanding how language works. She began reciting the alphabet in the form of a song not long after she could speak, and she could write her full name when she was still only two. At nursery school she learnt what all the letters look like and how to write them, that there’s a capital and ‘small’ version of each (though some pairs look the same while others are completely different), that each letter has an accompanying sound and that some tricky consonants (C for example) have two sounds. That’s a lot of learning before we even get to spelling.

Now she’s at school and the real work has started. The average child starting school understands 13,000 words – but speech is one thing and reading another. The method of learning the latter is the familiar one based on knowing the sound for each letter, sounding out all the letters in a word and putting the sounds together. This is great for ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ but it quickly falls down. There are several problems. Firstly, unlike languages from French to Korean, English vowel sounds change seemingly at random. There are five regular vowels plus Y, but 33 vowel sounds – around 20 are common ones – and there’s no consistency to which sound is used and how English words rhyme. A learner seeing words written for the first time would assume that ‘to’ and ‘do’ rhyme with ‘go’. Heteronyms such as ‘row’ (propel with oars) and ‘row’ (argument) are still among the simplest of words, but only experience tells you the crucial difference in both meaning and pronunciation. Combinations of vowels also crop up in simple words and aren’t obvious: why does ‘said’ rhyme with ‘red’ but not ‘laid’? ‘Red’ also rhymes with ‘lead’, the metal, but not the verb ‘lead’, and so it goes on.

Then there are the consonants. Most in English are more predictable than the vowels, but even so… there are 24 sounds, some consonants don’t ‘own’ a sound (C is always pronounced as S or K, for example), some sounds have multiple ways of spelling them (like the ‘sh’ in ‘shun’, ‘mission’ and ‘nation’) and some letter combinations have more than one pronunciation. ‘Th’ as in ‘think’ or ‘this’ is an example that learner readers come across very early in the process, but when the reading vocabulary widens to the numerous ways that the ‘ough’ combination can be pronounced – ‘cough, ‘bough’, ‘through’ ‘dough’, ‘rough’, etc – well, it amazes me how quickly children progress and how non-natives learn the language at all.

It’s surely hard enough to master pronunciation, but what about verbs? English has at least 150 irregular verbs, where usually we must, as a minimum, learn the past tense as a new word rather than merely add a standard ending. Children soon pick up the rule that ‘-ed’ makes the past tense, and until they learn the exceptions will assume that ‘shaked’, ‘taked’, ‘buyed’, ‘catched’ and even ‘goed’ are correct. And the irregulars are, of course, the most common, so children have no choice but to learn them. Indeed, if they weren’t common, none of us would remember them and they’d soon disappear.

Irregular verbs are also all old – when a new verb is invented we don’t stop to think what the past tense should be, we just form it automatically using the general rule. It’s difficult – maybe impossible – to find an irregular past tense created in the last 200 years.

Master irregular verbs and you can move on to irregular plurals. Again, these are common and children can’t avoid them: men, women, children, feet, sheep, geese, mice, teeth – how many four year olds don’t know all those? But present a child with a word they’ve never seen before and they will nearly always follow the usual rule.

Fifty years ago the psychologist Jean Berko Gleason tested children in the US with a procedure that became known as the ‘wug test’, after one of the made up words used. Children were told, for example, that a picture of a cartoon animal was a wug. This was followed by a picture of two of the animals and the children were prompted, “These are two…”. Almost 100 per cent of first graders filled in the blank with ‘wugs’. They could have refused to answer, on the grounds that they’d never heard of a wug so couldn’t possibly guess the plural, but the rule had already been embedded. This was the first experimental proof that young children can and do extract rules from the language they hear.

So how did English get into this state, where so much appears irregular and a wug is almost the only sane thing? The reasons would take a book to explain fully, from the Celtic influence, then the French and Latin influence on Anglo-Saxon after the Norman invasion, through the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ of medieval times to the borrowing of words from all corners of the British Empire, and much more besides. For example, we use ‘ph’ as an ‘f’ sound in an attempt to replicate the Greek letter Phi. We could change such things, to be sure, but by the time Dr Johnson published his famous dictionary in 1755 lexicographers generally acknowledged that their role was to record usage, not decide what was correct. ‘I have often been obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom,’ wrote Johnson in his preface. In fact, since 1700 hardly any English spellings have changed, although the few that have include getting rid of the occasional ‘ph’ – such as changing ‘phantasy’ to ‘fantasy’.

Before Johnson, the invention of printing helped to standardise spelling, but at the same time printers introduced changes just to reduce gaps in lines of print – an extra E here, swapping an I for a Y there – and some of these stuck. So, for many reasons, English has constantly evolved and been changed to meet the needs of its users, a situation that is exacerbated because the language has no shame and takes words from anywhere. And of course we have no equivalent of the Académie Française to keep changes in check.

To highlight the complexity of English, contrast it with Spanish, in which vowels pretty much have one sound each and stick to it, and two consecutive vowels are usually pronounced separately. There are about 20 consonant sounds in total, but each letter or combination has only one of them. There are also only two contractions in Spanish – ‘al’ for ‘a el’ (‘at/to the’) and ‘del’ for ‘de el’ (‘of/from the’) – and they’re always used. English contractions are a matter of taste and many are indistinguishable except by context – for example ‘he’s’ for ‘he is’ or ‘he has’. It’s true that Spanish has a lot of irregular verbs, but no irregular plurals. Most importantly, pronunciation and stress rules are stuck to rigidly.

How can a learner get past the problems that English presents? This brings me back to my small daughter. Her teacher initially provided her with sets of ‘flash cards’ to learn by heart, and if the word couldn’t be worked out purely from the individual letter sounds she just had to remember the ‘shape’ of it. A few harder words were included with each set of cards and these have given her the confidence to try out her developing skills on books, while also helping her to realise that not everything is simple. After a couple of months she could read a hundred or so words without needing to stop and think – a good start, to be sure, but even so I do feel that if she knew what I know she might never have wanted to begin…

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