Spellbound – the improbable story of English spelling

Spellbound – the improbable story of English spelling

Why does anyone write a book in the first place? Well, if you write for a living, part of the answer is ‘because a publisher has given you a contract and you’d better get on with the job.’ But that’s not really why you write a book.

Nobody in their right mind would put themselves through the gruelling business of researching and writing a book - without having any idea whether anybody is ever going to read it when it’s published – without having a strange, almost obsessional fascination for the subject matter they are writing about.

George Orwell compared writing a book to having a long bout of some horrible illness. As he wrote his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four while he was dying of tuberculosis it’s hardly surprising he was making the comparison. I think a better analogy is to compare writing a book with embarking on an odyssey. Like all odysseys, it’s going to have its exhilarating times and its challenging times. On occasion you’re going to come up against an obstacle you can’t imagine surmounting, until inspiration hits and allows you to carry on.

When I started to write my book Spellbound – the improbable story of English spelling – I was fascinated by the technology of writing and spelling as an entirety. Yes, writing and spelling really are technologies because like all man-made tools they let us extend our natural capabilities. Writing and spelling (spelling I just see as writing using an alphabet) allow us to preserve language and thought forever, and so are probably the most exciting technology we’ve ever invented.

I started out my research by looking hard at the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, which is fabulously (and in fact unnecessarily) complex, absurdly beautiful, and has exerted such a powerful pull on the minds of people who have studied it that one almost feels it curses them into being obsessed and enchanted with it all their lives. The hieroglyphic system was only deciphered as late as 1822, and even today significant discoveries are being made in understanding how hieroglyphs are written. The hieroglyphic system is also the basis for our own alphabet, and most of our letters have a direct and traceable hieroglyphic ancestry which I show in Spellbound.

I was also inspired in my work by the Chinese writing system, which – almost unbelievably – uses a system of stylised pictures (known of course as characters) to stand for individual units of meaning. In practice, this basically means that every meaning-idea or word in Chinese needs a different character. If you think that is fabulously unfair for people learning to write Chinese (including the Chinese themselves) then you’re right, but only up to a point.

It’s true that reading and writing Chinese requires a tremendous feat of memory – you need to be able to recognise at least 3,000 characters for even a rudimentary understanding of the written language, and truly literate people have mastered around 10,000. But in fact the nature of the Chinese language – which relies on speakers breaking down what they want to say into individual elements of meaning - makes it highly suited to a character-based writing system. Furthermore, there are lots of homophones in Chinese – that is, words which sound the same but have different meanings – and a writing system that depends on writing down meanings rather than sound is very good at dealing with homophones, whereas an alphabetic system isn’t. There are thousands of such homophones in English, mainly because most one-syllable nouns, eg. ‘drink’, ‘table’, ‘paper’, ‘cut’ and so on can be used both as nouns and verbs; you only know what the meaning is when you know the context.

In fact though, there are also many homophones where the very fact that English spelling is highly illogical and inconsistent helps to distinguish between them. Perhaps the most dramatic examples are the words ‘gnaw’ and ‘nor’: two words with exactly the same pronunciation but an enormous difference in meaning.

Gradually, as my research intensified, I began to see the Egyptian and Chinese systems as much less alien to our own writing system than I had first imagined. I have already mentioned that the English alphabet, which is simply the Roman alphabet with a few extra letters, derives substantially from the hieroglyphs. Furthermore, even though on the face of it the meaning-based writing system used by the Chinese is in every sense a world away from our own system, one thing that occurred to me while I was writing Spellbound was that in fact, we most likely read very much as the Chinese do: that is, by recognising shapes of words rather than by continually intoning the various letters and relating them to the sounds.

I don’t believe for a moment that when experienced readers of English see a word like ‘spell’ they literally spell out the letters in their mind. They don’t. They basically relate the appearance of the word in its entirety with the meaning of the word, and this is exactly what the Chinese do.

English also makes use of a few symbols that work like Chinese characters, or logograms (meaning-pictures) if you want the technical term. The most obvious example is the ampersand or ‘&’ which conveys the idea of ‘and’ rather than the sound of the word. The beauty of the ampersand (and of other English language logograms such as ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘+’, ‘?’, is that they can be read by people with no knowledge of English. Everyone in Europe would understand what these logograms mean.

In much the same way, although the major dialogues of Chinese are mutually incomprehensible, because the characters are based around meaning not sound, a Chinese person from Beijing can read a newspaper printed in Taiwan (where the local dialect of Cantonese is incomprehensible to mainland Mandarin speakers) and vice versa because the characters depend on meaning.

Researching and writing Spellbound was an odyssey through time and also something of a globe-trotting tour of the world as it is today. It was also to some extent an odyssey through my own personal history because I had to rediscover some of my own memories of learning to read and write English as a child.

The first time I was consciously aware of the difficulties of English spelling must have been some time back in 1964, when I was attending an infant school (as they were called in those days) in my home town of Leicester. I distinctly remember a lesson where a teacher told us the letter ‘e’ was ‘magic’ because it made the letter two letters earlier in the word be called its own name. So, for example, in a word like ‘made’, the ‘e’ caused the ‘a’ to be pronounced as the name of the letter ‘a’. If there wasn’t an ‘e’ there, the word would be pronounced as ‘mad’.

Now, when you’re a kid, the whole world seems so new and strange you tend to take things as you find them and don’t protest too much. I’m sure that none of us asked the teacher why it was that the ‘e’ had this effect on the ‘a’. It was only forty years later when I sat down to write a book about English spelling that it really started to occur to me that the English spelling system was indeed pretty mad.

What do I mean by this? Well, what I mean is that English spelling is exceptionally illogical, inconsistent and even irrational. This illogicality, inconsistency and irrationality derives from a number of causes. In particular, because the English culture was highly advanced and highly literate from the beginning (which isn’t the same thing as saying that more than a small proportion of the population was ever literate until about one hundred years ago) English spelling became relatively fixed, in different stages, quite early on.

The trouble is that the way we pronounce the words has changed, because the spoken language is the dominant form of the language, and the way we speak is continually changing. If you wonder, for example, why on earth we write the word ‘night’ the way we do when we don’t speak it anything like it’s written, the answer is simply that the spelling ‘night’ shows how the word was pronounced until about 600 years ago. For example, Chaucer pronounced it as something like ‘nicht’. Modern German preserves the ‘cht’ element of the word both in the spelling and the pronunciation: the German word for ‘night’ is Nacht.

There are many other reasons why English spelling is as wacky as it is. Another important reason is that the English language has always been a melting pot and highly partial to borrowing words from other languages, while often retaining the original spelling of the borrowing very much as it was. For example, the Malay word orang hutang, which means ‘man of the forest’ has been borrowed almost intact in our own ‘orang-utan’.

Also, about forty percent of modern English vocabulary derives directly or indirectly from Latin and most of these borrowings are spelt rather as the Romans spelt them, which is why, for example, we spell ‘accommodation’ as we do rather than as it’s often mistakenly spelt on notices in newsagents’ windows.

The practical result of this for anyone learning to spell English, is, unfortunately, that you simply have to learn to spell the word and it’s hard cheese if it seems to make little or no sense.

In researching Spellbound, I discovered some very good news, both for the English spelling system itself and for our culture: despite the apparent illogicality of most English spellings, there is in fact often an abundance of method in the madness.

What do I mean by this? I mean that while English spelling may not seem very logical, or very consistent, or very rational as a system, it wonderfully preserves the heritage of the evolution of the English language, the Anglo-Saxon culture, and even the evolution of English spelling itself. I ended up convinced that the English spelling system was a truly wonderful thing, no matter how strange it may seem, and that if we were to deprive ourselves of it by radically streamlining, simplifying and making more systematic the way we write English, we would suffer an immense cultural and historical deprivation and would no longer be anything as like as grounded as we could be.

After all, our culture is something of which we can be immensely proud, and ultimately Spellbound, while certainly telling the improbably story of English spelling, exults in the 1,500-year history of the culture of the English-speaking people.


Is English an illogical spelling system? You bet it is. Here are just some examples:

  • Different sounds are frequently represented by the same letter, or combinations of letters. A revealing example of this is the spectrum of notorious words including ‘cough’, ‘enough’, ‘borough,’ ‘nought’, ‘plough’ and – yes – even that unassuming Midlands town of ‘Loughborough’. Just a few examples are: ‘bite’/ ‘night’, ‘taught’/ ’thought’, ‘bait’/ ’gate’. There are thousands of other examples. One consequence of the fact that the same sounds in English are frequently spelt in different ways is that it is perfectly possible to construct nonsensical spellings that are entirely logical when you look at how the sounds are used in other words. For example, the writer George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that we are entitled to spell the word ‘fish’ alternatively as ‘ghoti’ using the ‘gh’ spelling from ‘cough’, the ‘o’ spelling from ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ from ‘nation’. And do you know a girl called Eaufaeleyu? This is simply ‘Ophelia,’ with the ‘eau’ in ‘plateau’, the ‘f’ in ‘field’, the ‘ae’ in ‘Caesar’, the ‘l’ in ‘lip’, the ‘ey’ in ‘key’ and the ‘u’ in ‘but’.
  • The same sounds in English are frequently represented by a different letter or combination of letters. Many of these words are homophones – words that sound the same but have different meanings; for instance, ‘gate’/‘gait’, ‘made’/‘maid’, ‘mettle’/‘metal’, ‘tea’/‘tee’. There are in fact many thousands of homophones in English because most one-syllable English nouns double as a noun and verb eg. ‘cook’/ ‘cook’ ‘knife’/ ‘knife,’ ‘nail’/ ‘nail’; ‘right’ in the senses of ‘right and left’ and ‘to right a wrong’. However, these homophones are spelt in the same way, because the verb is derived from the noun, or vice versa – other homophone nouns and verbs include ‘practice’/’practise’ and ‘licence’/’license’. Otherwise, the very fact that homophones can be spelled in different ways shows just how inconsistent English spelling really is. Almost by definition, homophones tend to lend themselves to puns. Also, many English surnames are homophones, but generally variations in the spelling of the surname have developed in order to distinguish them as such, eg. ‘hog’/‘Hogg’, ‘nun’/‘Nunn’, ‘wild’/‘Wilde’.
  • English spelling contains numerous words that feature silent letters. Indeed, this is a notorious aspect of the English spelling system and causes great difficulty to anyone trying to learn how to spell and read English. Just a few of the many examples: ‘debt,’ ‘island’, ‘knee’, ‘knight’, ‘scissors.’ The problem is hardly helped when the word containing the silent letter is also a homophone with another word of unrelated meaning, as is the case with words such as ‘gnaw’/ ‘nor’ and ‘knight’/ ‘night’.
  • The use of the letter ‘e’ - the most common letter in written English, is hugely inconsistent. It is often not pronounced at all, and seems practically redundant; as in words such as ‘image’, ‘imagine’ and ‘submerge’. The letter ‘e’ may, rather more usefully, reflect a change in the vowel sound of the spelt word to distinguish it from another word that does not have the final ‘e’. Examples are: ‘car’/‘care’, ‘jut’/‘jute’, ‘mad’/‘made’.
  • Generally, written letters in English can stand for a wide - even positively alarming - range of sounds. Consider, to take just one example, the different sounds represented by the written letter ‘o’ in the following five words: ‘police’, ‘Oswald’, ‘ozone’, ‘nation’ and ‘zoo’. Or consider how written letters can represent a range of different sounds in English in the numerous ways the ee-sound is written down in all the following words: ‘Caesar’, ‘conceive’, ‘fee’, ‘field’, ‘key’, ‘machine’, ‘me’, ‘people’, ‘quay’, ‘sea’, ‘subpoena’. Similarly, the sh-sound is written down in a range of different ways: ‘chaperon’ (or ‘chaperone’), ‘conscious’, ‘eschew’, ‘fuchsia’, ‘fissure’, ‘mansion’, ‘mission’, ‘nation’, ‘nauseous’ (there is an alternative pronunciation of this word in which the middle ‘s’ is pronounced like a ‘z’), ‘ocean’, ‘shoe’, ‘sugar’, ‘suspicion’ You don’t even need to seek out longer words to see just how inconsistent English spelling is. Consider, for example, the problems of spelling ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’.
-- James Essinger (26/05/2006)

Readers Comments

  1. ummmmmmmmmmmmmmm they speak mandarin in taiwan not cantonese and they also speak hokkien the older genneration atleast which is still quite different from cantonese

  2. F. Eugene Barber says... Thursday 24 July 2008

    Gnaw and nor?
    They are not said alike at all. Nor has a hard R on the end.

  3. Israel "izzy" Cohen says... Friday 01 August 2008


    If you define an idiom as a phrase whose meaning cannot be derived by analyzing the words contained in it, then you may conclude that idioms are spelled in a very strange way. Here's why.

    My approach to the analysis of idioms is based on determining the etymology of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology. However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of "escape by the skin of my teeth" and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B'3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B'QoSHi (which means barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into words that look/sound/feel like the target language. For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved: Germanic languages, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7 Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe), etc.

    A minority of idioms are the translation of foreign idioms. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration (sic) was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate translations should not affect the result if they were faithful.

    A cute translation idiom is "count sheep !" to go to sleep. This is probably the translation of a Hebrew pun S'PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the "original" was a euphemism and not "plain text". I suspect this is the case with "kick the bucket". It seems to be the direct transliteration of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise. Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love + B'3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had become an idiom, it might have become "a flower bush you name" but would retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign word/phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into target-language words they do know.

    For a rare modern example, "face the music" is attested in the United States from the 1840s. This "music" is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The 3 etymologies that a non-linguist is most likely to "know" are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah = esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton, not from goose + summer :-). But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for

    Best regards,
    Israel "izzy" Cohen

  4. Jacinta says... Wednesday 13 August 2008

    Gnaw and nor do have the same pronunciation in almost all non-rhotic dialects of British English.


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