Some linguists say there are 91 English spelling rules and some say there are none. Who is right?

By: | Post date: 2016-08-09 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

Agreed with Brian (more or less). Despite the inconsistencies and hypercorrections and weirdness, English spelling is not random. If you see a new word, you have reasonable chance of coming up with a consistent pronunciation; and if you hear a new word, you have a (somewhat less) reasonable chance of coming up with a consistent spelling.

Language is a complex system. The rules aren’t as ironclad as the rules of mathematics (what real-world system’s rules are?) But what happens in language is not random either. There are known trends and tendencies in language, and rules can be formulated to account for them. It’s just that the outcomes are not fully predictable.

Spelling in English is an even more complex system than language, because it is more fragile, and subject to a wider range of pressures. Individual errors or wilfulness can have much more of an impact, deliberate antiquarianism can have much more of a say, and spelling gets stuck at a particular historical point more readily. But it’s still not random. It’s just far less predictable.

That does not mean you give up. It means you work harder, and give up and shrug only when you have to.

English spelling is maddening, and the more you learn about the history behind it, the madder you get. My latest exasperation: heaven could have ended up a long initial vowel (from the nominative hēven) or a short initial vowel (from the oblique hĕvenes). We pronounce it with a short vowel, and we spell it with a long vowel. Argh!

But I cannot accept that English spelling is boring. English spelling can teach us a lot.

Including how not to come up with a spelling system…

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