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Why Spelling in English Is so Difficult

Harini Logan, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, participates in the final round on her way to winning the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee held at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., June 2, 2022. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Harini Logan, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, participates in the final round on her way to winning the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee held at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., June 2, 2022. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Why Spelling in English Is so Difficult
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Recently, 14-year-old Harini Logan won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the United States. She correctly spelled 22 words during a 90-second spell-off.

The words included phreatophyte, excimer, saccharose, and finally the winning word “moorhen,” which means a female, red grouse bird.

Most Americans, however, would find it difficult to spell any of these words!

From an early age, native English speakers know there are clear differences between how words are pronounced and how they are spelled. But they do not know that the difference is unique to English among major languages.

Languages like Italian or Finnish can be spelled more easily because each letter of the alphabet matches to one sound. Students studying these languages can have 90 percent reading accuracy after the first year. That information comes from Philip Seymore in the British Journal of Psychology.

In English, many letters of the alphabet have two or more sounds. This is why even after years of learning, students of English are still far below Italian or Finnish students in reading accuracy.

History of the English language

English started as a Germanic language. It is most closely connected to German and Dutch, especially in grammar and basic vocabulary.

During the Norman invasion in the 12th century, Old English was spoken but French was used in government and legal documents. And Latin was used in religious and educational activities. As a result, more French and Latin words entered the English language.

The printing press was invented in the late 1400s. This helped to establish English spelling and strengthen the connection between how English is spoken and how it is written. The English of today is how the language was written at the time.

However, the spoken language started to change in the 1500s with the pronunciation of all long vowels, especially in southern England.

For example, the word “bite” was pronounced closer to “beet” in 1400, before changing through the years to its current sound. The effect was that the English language had old spellings, but new sounds.

One letter, many sounds

English has 26 letters in the alphabet, but over 44 individual sounds depending on the variation of spoken English.

There are several sounds represented by only one letter.

For example, the letter "C" can sound like an “S” as in “city.” And it also sounds like a “K” as in “cat.”

If that is not hard enough, let’s try to pronounce the letter “X” as /ks/ in “box”, as /gz/ in “exam” and just /z/ in “xylophone."

Letters vs. Sounds in English
Letters vs. Sounds in English

So many ways to sound a vowel

There are only 5 or 6 vowel letters in the English alphabet. They include A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. But there are 20 different ways to sound them! For example, a double “o” sound in English can be pronounced as /u/, as in the word “boot” or /ʊ/ as in the word “book”.

These sounds are formed by air moving through the mouth and throat freely. In the study of language, called linguistics, teachers use a drawing to represent the mouth and show where vowels are formed.

Vowel Space
Vowel Space

At the center is the most common vowel sound of “uhhh.” It is the most relaxed and natural sound. It takes almost no effort of the tongue or throat to create the sound.

Brian M. Sietsema is an Associate Pronouncer for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He observes that since it takes little effort, the sound “uhhh” often makes its way into pronunciations.

For example, the word “please” often turns into “PUH-lease” when someone is trying to call attention.

This is another reason why spelling in English is so difficult!

I’m Faith Pirlo.

And I’m Jonathan Evans.

Travis Hartman reported this story for Reuters. Faith Pirlo adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

unique – adj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else

accuracy n. the ability to work without making mistakes

printing press – n. a machine that prints books, newspapers, magazines, and similar materials in large numbers

vowels n. speech sounds made with your mouth open and your tongue in the middle of your mouth not touching your teeth, lips, etc.

consonants – n. a speech sound (such as /p/, /d/, or /s/) that is made by partly or completely stopping the flow of air breathed out from the mouth