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The Financial Express

Confusing English spelling - it's so 'Mesea'


Confusing English spelling - it's so 'Mesea'

The word ‘messy’ in the title has been deliberately spelt wrong, yet none of the readers should have any discomfort pronouncing it the right way - /ˈmɛsi/

The reason is the pronunciation of sea is /siː/, even though it is spelt differently. Without exposure to the English language, this should have been hard for the readers. 

Most languages in the world are phonetic, including Bangla – meaning the spelling is mostly written just the way it is pronounced. So, had the title been written in Bangla with the wrong spelling, it would not sound exactly the same. 

English orthography is full of such inconsistency, so much so that a poet named Gerard Nolst Trinité had written a full poem on the issue. 

Dearest creature in creation

Studying English pronunciation,

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

The full poem, ‘Chaos’ has over 800 examples of irregular spellings like the above-mentioned stanza.  

Now, the question is – why is English spelling so messy?

Loans English took from other languages:

English vocabulary mainly has four major groups - Germanic words, French words, Latin words and Greek words. Besides that, there are a few thousand loanwords from various languages, of which the English try to keep the original spelling. 

Therefore unusual spellings such as Tsar or naïve retain their original French spelling. That makes English spelling even more confusing. 

Turbulence in English history has been one of the major reasons for such chaos. English is a Germanic language that shares its roots with German, Dutch, Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. 

One of the most prominent features is the use of gender-neutral verbs. English has gender-neutral verbs, the same as Bangla or Malayalam, a phenomenon missing in all Romance languages. 

How others invaded in:

The first invasion of the English language happened during the Norman Invasion of England in 1077. The Normans spoke French and they brought their language with them. The Norman overlords imposed their tongue on the Saxons and it resulted in French being the language of the elite. 

This ‘Romanization’ of the English language can still be seen today and it influenced the spelling as well. This is evident in many ways, as words like ‘queen,’ ‘ship’ and ‘should’ used to be spelt ‘cwen,’ ‘scip’ and ‘scolde.’ 

French loan words and their derivatives in English exceed nearly 80,000. It changed the way words were being spelt. Therefore, Germanic origin words ‘Bigger,’ ‘Sit,’ ‘Keel’ sound the same as French origin words ‘Figure’, ‘City’ and ‘Cell.’ 

In came printing press:

In 1476, Willian Caxton, a medieval English writer, brought the first printing press to Britain, with that came the Flemish typesetters. They put some of the Flemish letters in the typecast and that resulted in words like ‘Ghost’ and ‘Ghastly,’ which had no additional ‘H’ in them. 

The printing press and typesetters determined orthology during the middle ages. The owners of the printing press, the writers and the editors had complete command over orthology in absence of a central supervising authority for the English spelling system. 

Therefore, several variations of some common words existed then. Within the rigid complex orthology, English pronunciation was changing slowly and it lasted till 1700. 

By then, vowels took different pronunciations, some consonants followed suit. By the late 1700s, people had adopted the new pronunciations for most of the vowels and dropped many additional consonants off the list. As a result, words like ‘Light’ and ‘Knife,’ began to be pronounced as /laɪt/ and /naɪf/ instead of lighte and k'nife.

A version remained unchanged:

However, due to the printing press, the orthology remained frozen in time. In fact, it has been almost identical to the 1500s version. The reason was the lack of incentives for the owners of printing presses to change their existing typesetters and adapt to the ever-changing phonetics. 

There had been a number of attempts to reform the inconsistencies of the English orthology, however, none of them was successful for the lack of both popular support and government patronage. 

Moderately successful reform has been that of Noah Webster, whose reformed orthology was adopted into American English. But there seems to be no prospect of a spelling reform to fix the issues in the English language in near future. 

Till then, everyone will have to go through the arduous process of learning the spelling and pronunciation separately while enjoying an exciting season of ‘Spelling Bee.' 

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