English orthography

English orthography

English orthography is the alphabetic spelling system used by the English language. English orthography, like other alphabetic orthographies, uses a set of rules that generally governs how speech sounds are represented in writing. English has relatively complicated spelling rules when compared to other languages with alphabetic orthographies. Because of the complex history of the English language, nearly every sound can be legitimately spelled in more than one way, and many spellings can be pronounced in more than one way.

Function of the letters

"Note: In the following discussion, only one or two common pronunciations of American and British English varieties are used in this article for each word cited. Other regional pronunciations may be possible for some words, but indicating all possible regional variants in the article is impractical."

Phonemic representation

Like most alphabetic systems, letters in English orthography may represent a particular sound. For example, the word "cat" (pronounced IPA|/kæt/) consists of three letters "c", "a", and "t", in which "c" represents the sound IPA|/k/, "a" the sound IPA|/æ/, and "t" the sound IPA|/t/.

Single letters or multiple sequences of letters may provide this function. Thus, the single letter "c" in the word "cat" represents the single sound IPA|/k/. In the word "ship" (pronounced IPA|/ʃɪp/), the digraph "sh" (two letters) represents the sound IPA|/ʃ/. In the word "ditch", the three letters "tch" represent the sound IPA|/tʃ/.

Less commonly, a single letter can represent more than one sound. The most common example is the letter "x", which often represents more than one sound as in the prefix "ex-" where it represents the consonant cluster IPA|/ks/ (for example, in the word "ex-wife", pronounced IPA|/ɛkswaɪf/).

The same letter (or sequence of letters) may indicate different sounds when the letter occurs in different positions. For instance, the digraph "gh" represents the sound IPA|/f/ at the end of single-syllable, single-morpheme words, such as "cough" (pronounced IPA|/kɔf/ in many dialects of American English). At the beginning of syllables (i.e. the syllable onset), the digraph "gh" represents the sound IPA|/g/, such as in the word "ghost" (pronounced IPA|/gost/ or IPA|/gəʊst/). Furthermore, the sound value represented by a particular letter (or letters) is often restricted by its position within the word. Thus, the digraph "gh" never represents the sound IPA|/f/ in syllable onsets and never represents the sound IPA|/g/ in syllable codas. (Incidentally, this shows that "ghoti" does not follow English spelling rules to sound like "fish".)

Word origin

Another type of spelling characteristic is related to word origin. For example, when representing a vowel, the letter "y" in non-word-final positions represents the sound IPA|/ɪ/ in some words borrowed from Greek (reflecting an original upsilon), whereas the letter usually representing this sound in non-Greek words is the letter "i". Thus, the word "myth" (pronounced IPA|/mɪθ/) is of Greek origin, while "pith" (pronounced IPA|/pɪθ/) is a Germanic word. Other examples include "th" representing IPA|/t/ (which is usually represented by "t"), "ph" representing IPA|/f/ (which is usually represented by "f"), and "ch" representing IPA|/k/ (which is usually represented by "c" or "k") — the use of these spellings for these sounds often mark words that have been borrowed from Greek.

Some, such as Brengelman (1970), have suggested that, in addition to this marking of word origin, these spellings indicate a more formal level of style or register in a given text, although Rollins (2004) finds this point to be exaggerated as there would many exceptions where a word with one of these spellings, such as "ph" for IPA|/f/ (like "telephone"), could occur in an informal text.

Homophone differentiation

Letters are also used to distinguish between homophones (words with the same pronunciation) that would otherwise have the same pronunciation and spelling but different meanings. The words "hour" and "our" are pronounced identically in some dialects (as IPA|/aʊə/ or IPA|/aʊr/). However, they are distinguished from each other orthographically by the addition of the letter "h". Spoken language often creates subtle difference to alleviate confusion, "our" often can if desired be pronounced like "are". Another example of this is the homophones "plain" and "plane" where both are pronounced IPA|/pleɪn/, but are marked with two different orthographic representations of the vowel IPA|/eɪ/. Often this is because of the historical pronunciation of each word where, over time, two separate sounds become the same but the different spellings remain: "plane" used to be pronounced IPA|/pleːn/, but the IPA|/eː/ sound merged with the IPA|/eɪ/ sound in "plain", making "plain" and "plane" homonyms.

In written language, this may help to resolve potential ambiguities that would arise otherwise (cf. "He's breaking the car" vs. "He's braking the car"). This can be seen in a positive light since with written language (unlike spoken language) the reader usually has no recourse to ask the writer for clarification (whereas in a conversation, the listener can ask the speaker about lexical uncertainties). Some proponents of spelling reform view homophones as undesirable and would prefer that they be eliminated. Doing so, however, would increase orthographic ambiguities that would need to be resolved via the linguistic .

Marking sound changes in other letters

Another function of English letters is to provide information about other aspects of pronunciation or the word itself. Rollins (2004) uses the term "markers" for letters with this function. Letters may mark different types of information. One common type of marking is that of a different pronunciation of another letter within the word. An example of this is the letter "e" in the word "cottage" (pronounced IPA|/kɒtɪdʒ/ or IPA|/kɑtɪdʒ/). Here "e" indicates that the preceding "g" should represent the sound IPA|/dʒ/. This contrasts with the more common value of "g" in word-final position as the sound IPA|/g/, such as in "tag" (pronounced IPA|/tæɡ/).

A particular letter may have more than one pronunciation-marking role. Besides the marking of word-final "g" as indicating IPA|/dʒ/ as in "cottage", the letter "e" may also mark an altered pronunciation for other vowels. In the pair "ban" and "bane", the "a" of "ban" has the value IPA|/æ/, whereas the "a" of "bane" is marked by the "e" as having the value IPA|/eɪ/.

Functionless letters

Other letters have no linguistic function. For example, there is a general "graphotactic" constraint in English orthography against words that end in the letter "v". Thus, in order to satisfy this constraint, syllable-final "v" is followed by the letter "e", such as in the word "give". Spellings such as "rev" and "slav" are extremely rare.

Multiple functionality

A given letter or (letters) may have dual functions. For example, the letter "i" in the word "cinema" has a sound-representing function (representing the sound IPA|/ɪ/) and a pronunciation-marking function (marking the "c" as having the value IPA|/s/ opposed to the value IPA|/k/). For another example, see Pronunciation of English "th".

Underlying representation

Like many other alphabetic orthographies, English spelling does not represent non-contrastive phonetic sounds (that is, sub-phonemic sounds). The fact that the letter "t" is pronounced with aspiration IPA| [tʰ] at the beginning of words is never indicated in the spelling, and, indeed, this phonetic detail is probably not noticeable to the average native speaker not trained in the phonetics. However, unlike some orthographies, English orthography often represents a very abstract underlying representation (or morphophonemic form) of English words (Rollins 2004: 16-19; Chomsky & Halle 1968; Chomsky 1970).

" [T] he postulated underlying forms are systematically related to the conventional orthography...and are, as is well known, related to the underlying forms of a much earlier historical stage of the language. There has, in other words, been little change in lexical representation since Middle English, and, consequently, we would expect...that lexical representation would differ very little from dialect to dialect in Modern English... [and] that conventional orthography is probably fairly close to optimal for all modern English dialects, as well as for the attested dialects of the past several hundred years." (Chomsky & Halle 1968:54)

In these cases, a given morpheme (i.e. a component of a word) is represented with a single spelling despite the fact that it is pronounced differently (i.e. has different surface representations) in different environments. An example is the past tense suffix "-ed", which may be pronounced variously as IPA| [t] , IPA| [d] , or IPA| [ɪd] (for example, "dip" IPA| [dɪp] , "dipped" IPA| [dɪpt] , "boom" IPA| [bum] , "boomed" IPA| [bumd] , "loot" IPA| [lut] , "looted" IPA| [lutɪd] ). Because these different pronunciations of "-ed" can be predicted by a few phonological rules, only a single spelling is needed in the orthography.

Another example involves the vowel differences (with accompanying stress pattern changes) in several related words. For instance, the word "photographer" is derived from the word "photograph" by adding the derivational suffix "-er". When this suffix is added, the vowel pronunciations change:


For instance, the letter "a" can represent the lax vowel IPA|/æ/, tense IPA|/eɪ/, heavy IPA|/ɑr/ or IPA|/ɑː/, or tense-r IPA|/ɛr/ or IPA|/ɛə/. Heavy and tense-r vowels are the respective lax and tense counterparts followed by the letter "r".

Tense vowels are distinguished from lax vowels with a "silent" "e" letter that is added at the end of words. Thus, the letter "a" in "hat" is lax IPA|/æ/, but when the letter "e" is added in the word "hate" the letter "a" is tense IPA|/eɪ/. Similarly, heavy and tense-r vowels pattern together: the letters "ar" in "car" are heavy IPA|/ɑː(r)/, the letters "ar" followed by silent "e" in the word "care" are IPA|/ɛə(r)/. The letter "u" represents two different vowel patterns, one being IPA|/ʌ - ju - ə(r) - jʊ(r)/, the other IPA|/ʊ - u - ʊ(r)/. There is no distinction between heavy and tense-r vowels with the letter "o", and the letter "u" in the IPA|/ʊ-u-ʊ(r)/ pattern does not have a heavy vowel member.

Besides silent "e", another strategy for indicating tense and tense-r vowels, is the addition of another orthographic vowel forming a digraph. In this case, the first vowel is usually the main vowel while the second vowel is the "marking" vowel. For example, the word "man" has a lax "a" pronounced IPA|/æ/, but with the addition of "i" (as the digraph "ai") in the word "main" the "a" is marked as tense and pronounced IPA|/eɪ/. These two strategies produce words that are spelled differently but pronounced identically, as in "mane" (silent "e" strategy), "main" (digraph strategy) and "Maine" (both strategies). The use of two different strategies relates to the function of distinguishing between words that would otherwise be homonyms.

Besides the 20 basic vowel spellings, Rollins (2004) has a reduced vowel category (representing the sounds IPA|/ə, ɪ/) and a miscellaneous category (representing the sounds IPA|/ɔɪ, aʊ, aɪr, aʊr/ and IPA|/j/+V, IPA|/w/+V, V+V).


*The dash has two different meanings. A dash after the letter indicates that it "must" be at the beginning of a "syllable", eg j- in jumper and ajar. A dash before the letter indicates that it "cannot" be at the beginning of a "word", eg -ck in sick and ticket.
*More specific rules take precedence over more general ones, eg 'c- before e, i or y' takes precedence over 'c'.
*Where the letter combination is described as 'word-final', inflectional suffixes may be added without changing the pronunciation, eg catalogues.
*The dialect used is RP.
*Isolated foreign borrowings are excluded.
*This relies highly on knowledge of where the stress in a word is, but English has no consistent way of showing stress.


English includes some words that can be written with accent marks. These words have mostly been imported from other languages, usually French. But it is increasingly rare for writers of English to actually use the accent marks for common words, even in very formal writing. The strongest tendency to retain the accent is in words that are atypical of English morphology and therefore still perceived as slightly foreign. For example, "café" and "pâté" both have a pronounced final "e", which would be "silent" by the normal English pronunciation rules.

Some examples: appliqué, attaché, blasé, bric-à-brac, brötchen,Included in Webster's Third New International Dictionary,1981] café, cliché, crème, crêpe, façade, fiancé(e), flambé, naïve, naïveté, né(e), papier-mâché, passé, piñata, protégé, raison d’être, résumé, risqué, über-, vis-à-vis, voilà.

Some words such as "rôle" and "hôtel" were first seen with accents when they were borrowed into English, but now the accent is almost never used. The words were considered very French borrowings when first used in English, even accused by some of being foreign phrases used where English alternatives would suffice, but today their French origin is largely forgotten. The accent on "élite" has disappeared from most publications today, though "Time" and the "New Yorker" magazines still use it. For some words such as "soupçon" however, the only spelling found in English dictionaries (the Oxford English Dictionary and others) uses the diacritic.

Italics, with appropriate accents, are generally applied to foreign terms that are uncommonly used in or have not been assimilated into English: for example, "adiós, coup d'état, crème brûlée, pièce de résistance, raison d'être, über (übermensch), vis-à-vis."

It was formerly common in English to use a diaeresis mark to indicate a hiatus: for example, coöperate, daïs, reëlect. One publication that still uses a diaeresis for this function is the "New Yorker" magazine. However, this is increasingly rare in modern English. Nowadays the diaeresis is normally left out (cooperate), or a hyphen is used (co-operate). It is, however, still common in loanwords such as naïve and noël.

Written accents are also used occasionally in poetry and scripts for dramatic performances to indicate that a certain normally unstressed syllable in a word should be stressed for dramatic effect, or to keep with the metre of the poetry. This use is frequently seen in archaic and pseudoarchaic writings with the "-ed" suffix, to indicate that the "e" should be fully pronounced, as with "cursèd".

In certain older texts (typically British), the use of ligatures is common in words such as archæology, diarrhœa, and encyclopædia. Such words have Latin or Greek origin. Nowadays, the ligatures have been generally replaced in British English by the separated digraph "ae" and "oe" ("encyclopaedia", "diarrhoea"; but usually "economy", "ecology") and in American English by "e" ("encyclopedia", "diarrhea"; but usually "paean", "amoeba", "oedipal", "Caesar"). [For information on entering diacritics and ligatures on keyboards, see British and American keyboards, keyboard layouts.]


The English spelling system, compared to the systems used in other languages, is quite irregular and complex. Although French presents a similar degree of difficulty when "encoding" (writing), English is more difficult when "decoding" (reading)Fact|date=February 2007. English has never had any formal regulating authority, like the Spanish Real Academia Española, Italian Accademia della Crusca or the French Académie française, so attempts to regularize or reform the language, including spelling reform, have usually met with failure.

The only significant exceptions were the reforms of Noah Webster which resulted in many of the differences between British and American spelling, such as "center/centre", and "dialog/dialogue". (Other differences, such as "-ize/-ise" in "realize/realise" etc, came about separately.)

Besides the quirks the English spelling system has inherited from its past, there are other idiosyncrasies in spelling that make it tricky to learn. English contains 24-27 (depending on dialect) separate consonant phonemes and, depending on dialect, anywhere from fourteen to twenty vowels. However, there are only 26 letters in the modern English alphabet, so there cannot be a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Many sounds are spelled using different letters or multiple letters, and for those words whose pronunciation is predictable from the spelling, the sounds denoted by the letters depend on the surrounding letters. For example, the digraph "th" represents two different sounds (the voiced interdental fricative and the voiceless interdental fricative) (see Pronunciation of English "th"), and the voiceless alveolar fricative can be represented by the letters "s" and "c".

Of course, such a philosophy can be taken too far. For instance, there was also a period when the spellings of words was altered in what is now regarded as a misguided attempt to make them conform to what were perceived to be the etymological origins of the words. For example, the letter "b" was added to "debt" in an attempt to link it to the Latin "debitum", and the letter "s" in "island" is a misplaced attempt to link it to Latin "insula" instead of the Norse word "igland", which is the true origin of the English word. The letter "p" in "ptarmigan" has no etymological justification whatsoever. Some are just randomly changed: for example, 'score' used to be spelled 'skor'.

Furthermore, in most recent loanwords, English makes no attempt to Anglicise the spellings of these words, and preserves the foreign spellings, even when they employ exotic conventions, like the Polish "cz" in "Czech" or the Old Norse "fj" in "fjord" (although New Zealand English exclusively spells it "fiord"). In fact, instead of loans being respelled to conform to English spelling standards, sometimes the pronunciation changes as a result of pressure from the spelling. One example of this is the word "ski", which was adopted from Norwegian in the mid-18th century, although it didn't become common until 1900. It used to be pronounced "shee", which is similar to the Norwegian pronunciation, but the increasing popularity of the sport after the middle of the 20th century helped the "sk" pronunciation replace it.

The spelling of English continues to evolve. Many loanwords come from languages where the pronunciation of vowels corresponds to the way they were pronounced in Old English, which is similar to the Italian or Spanish pronunciation of the vowels, and is the value the vowel symbols [a] , [e] , [i] , [o] , and [u] have in the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a result, there is a somewhat regular system of pronouncing "foreign" words in English, and some borrowed words have had their spelling changed to conform to this system. For example, Hindu used to be spelled "Hindoo", and the name "Maria" used to be pronounced like the name "Mariah", but was changed to conform to this system. It has been argued that this influence probably started with the introduction of many Italian words into English during the Renaissance, in fields like music, from which come the words "andante", "viola", "forte", etc.

Commercial advertisers have also had an effect on English spelling. In attempts to differentiate their products from others, they introduce new or simplified spellings like "lite" instead of "light", "thru" instead of "through", "smokey" instead of "smoky" (for "smokey bacon" flavour crisps), and "rucsac" instead of "rucksack". The spellings of personal names have also been a source of spelling innovations: affectionate versions of women's names that sound the same as men's names have been spelled differently: Nikki and Nicky, Toni and Tony, Jo and Joe.

As examples of the idiosyncratic nature of English spelling, the combination "ou" can be pronounced in at least seven different ways: /ə/ in "famous", /ɜː/ in "journey", /aʊ/ in "loud", /ʊ/ in "should", /uː/ in "you", /aʊə/ in "flour", /ɔː/ in "tour"; and the vowel sound /iː/ in "me" can be spelt in at least ten different ways: "paediatric", "me", "seat", "seem", "ceiling", "people", "chimney", "machine", "siege", "phoenix". (These examples assume a more-or-less standard non-regional British English accent. Other accents will vary.)

Sometimes everyday speakers of English change a counterintuitive pronunciation simply because it is counterintuitive. Changes like this are not usually seen as "standard", but can become standard if used enough. An example is the word "miniscule", which still competes with its original spelling of "minuscule", though this might also be because of analogy with the word "mini".

"Ough" words

The most notorious group of letters in the English language, "ough", is commonly pronounced at least ten different ways, six of which are illustrated in the construct, "Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through", which is quoted by Robert A. Heinlein in "The Door into Summer" to illustrate the difficulties facing automated speech transcription and reading. "Ough" is in fact a word in its own right; it is an exclamation of disgust similar to "ugh".

* "though": /IPA|oʊ/ as in "toe";
* "tough": /IPA|ʌf/ as in "cuff";
* "cough": IPA|/ɒf, ʌf/ as in "off";
* "hiccough" (a now uncommon variant of "hiccup"): /IPA|ʌp/ as in "up";
* "plough" (Commonwealth spelling): /IPA|aʊ/ as in "cow";
* "through": /IPA|u/ as in "boo".

History of the English spelling system

Throughout the history of the English language, these inconsistencies have gradually increased in number. There are a number of contributing factors. First, gradual changes in pronunciation, such as the Great Vowel Shift, account for a tremendous number of irregularities. Second, relatively recent loan words from other languages generally carry their original spellings, which are often not phonetic in English. The Romanization of languages (e.g., Chinese) using alphabets derived from the Latin alphabet has further complicated this problem, for example when pronouncing Chinese place names. Third, some prescriptivists have had partial success in their attempts to normalize the English language, forcing a change in spelling but not in pronunciation.

The regular spelling system of Old English was swept away by the Norman Conquest, and English itself was eclipsed by French for three centuries, eventually emerging with its spelling much influenced by French. English had also borrowed large numbers of words from French, which for reasons of prestige and familiarity kept their French spellings. The spelling of Middle English, such as in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, is very irregular and inconsistent, with the same word being spelled differently, sometimes even in the same sentence. However, these were generally much better guides to pronunciation than modern English spelling can honestly claim.

For example, the sound IPA|/ʌ/, normally written "u", is spelled with an "o" in "son", "love", "come", etc., due to Norman spelling conventions which prohibited writing "u" before "v", "m", "n" due to the graphical confusion that would result. ("v", "u", "n" were identically written with two minims in Norman handwriting; "w" was written as two "u" letters; "m" was written with three minims, hence "mm" looked like "vun", "nvu", "uvu", etc.) Similarly, spelling conventions also prohibited final "v". Hence the identical spellings of the three different vowel sounds in "love", "grove" and "prove" are due to ambiguity in the Middle English spelling system, not sound change.

There was also a series of linguistic sound changes towards the end of this period, including the Great Vowel Shift, which resulted in "i" in "mine" changing from a pure vowel to a diphthong. These changes for the most part did not detract from the rule-governed nature of the spelling system; but in some cases they introduced confusing inconsistencies, like the well-known example of the many pronunciations of "ough" (rough, through, though, trough, plough, etc.). Most of these changes happened before the arrival of printing in England. However, the arrival of the printing press merely froze the current system, rather than providing the impetus for a realignment of spelling with pronunciation. Furthermore, it introduced further inconsistencies, partly because of the use of typesetters trained abroad, particularly in the Low Countries.

By the time dictionaries were introduced in the mid 1600s, the spelling system of English started to stabilize, and by the 1800s, most words had set spellings.

See also

*Alternative political spellings
*American and British English spelling differences
*Basic Roman spelling of English
*Classical compound
*Disc or disk (spelling)
*English language
*English phonology
*English plural
*English spelling reform
*False etymology
*I before E except after C
*Initial-stress-derived noun
*International Phonetic Alphabet for English
*Internet spelling
*List of English homographs
*List of English words containing Q not followed by U
*List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations
*List of the longest English words with one syllable
*List of unusual English words
*Long S
*Longest word in English
*Regional accents of English
*Sensational spelling
*Spelling bee
*Three letter rule
*Weak form and strong form



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External links

* [http://www.all-about-spelling.com Teaching Spelling] - Information on teaching English spelling
*Rules for English Spelling: [http://www.kwiznet.com/p/takeQuiz.php?ChapterID=10015&CurriculumID=26 Adding Suffixes] , [http://www.kwiznet.com/p/takeQuiz.php?ChapterID=10016&CurriculumID=26 QU Rule] , [http://www.kwiznet.com/p/takeQuiz.php?ChapterID=10017&CurriculumID=26 i before e] , [http://www.kwiznet.com/p/takeQuiz.php?ChapterID=10018&CurriculumID=26 Silent e] , [http://www.kwiznet.com/p/takeQuiz.php?ChapterID=10021&CurriculumID=26 'er' vs. 'or']
* [http://www.espindle.org/whitepaper.pdf White Paper] Research based Tutoring of English Spelling
* [http://zompist.com/spell.html Hou tu pranownse Inglish] describes rules which predict a word's pronunciation from its spelling with 85% accuracy
* [http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Spelling/onspellinglinks.html Free spelling information] and [http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Spelling/spellinglessonsl.html Free spelling lessons in QuickTime movie format] at [http://www.thephonicspage.org/ The Phonics Page] .

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  • English spelling reform — is the collective term for various campaigns and efforts to change the spelling of the English language to make it simpler and more rationally consistent. There exists a small scale movement among amateur and professional linguists, but one with… …   Wikipedia

  • English language spelling reform — For hundreds of years, many groups and individuals have advocated spelling reform for English. Spelling reformers seek to make English spelling more consistent and more phonetic, so that spellings match pronunciations and follow the alphabetic… …   Wikipedia

  • Orthography — This article is about a standardized way of using a specific writing system. For the type of projection, see Orthographic projection. The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system (script) to write… …   Wikipedia

  • English language — English Pronunciation /ˈ …   Wikipedia

  • English plural — English grammar series English grammar Contraction Disputes in English grammar English compound English honorifics English personal pronouns English plural English relative clauses English verbs English irregular verbs En …   Wikipedia

  • English — Eng lish, n. 1. Collectively, the people of England; English people or persons. [1913 Webster] 2. The language of England or of the English nation, and of their descendants in America, India, and other countries. [1913 Webster] Note: The English… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • English language — Language belonging to the Germanic languages branch of the Indo European language family, widely spoken on six continents. The primary language of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and various Caribbean and Pacific… …   Universalium

  • English words of Greek origin — The Greek language has contributed to the English vocabulary in three ways: #directly as an immediate donor, #indirectly through other intermediate language(s), as an original donor (mainly through Latin and French), and #with modern coinages or… …   Wikipedia

  • English-language vowel changes before historic r — In the phonological history of the English language, vowels followed (or formerly followed) by the phoneme /r/ have undergone a number of phonological changes. In recent centuries, most or all of these changes have involved merging of vowel… …   Wikipedia

  • English-based creole languages — Part of a series on the British African Caribbean community …   Wikipedia