English Orthography Favors the Eyes!

The English spelling system is highly ordered, elegantly consistent, and coherently predictable.” Real Spelling

The English writing system has a great deal to recommend it.” Carol Chomski, 1970

If you are like most people, you are probably shaking your head in protest to the above statements. You probably believe that the opposite is true; especially you have spent years being frustrated by spelling. Most people tend to regard English spelling as a complicated system riddled with exceptions. Richard Venezky, who was considered an authority on English orthography, stated that many people who disparage English spelling have not taken the trouble to study the object of their scorn.

My aim is to help you see that English spelling is not as illogical and inconsistent as it is made out to be. And it doesn’t have many exceptions! It actually makes sense when you take the time to study it. The linguist Noam Chomsky is often quoted as stating that “English spelling is nearly optimal for representing the English language”.

English orthography operates on a hierarchy of three interrelated concepts: morphology, etymology, and phonology – in the order presented here. Morphology deals with meaning, etymology deals with origin and history, and phonology deals with pronunciation. Pronunciation is at the bottom of the tri-concept hierarchy. Unfortunately, that is the only aspect that is focused on in reading and spelling instruction (if there is any). English spelling prioritizes meaning over pronunciation. So the next time you get frustrated about how the spelling of a word does not match up with its pronunciation, you might want to ask whether there is an aspect of the word’s meaning or history you are ignoring.

English orthography is described as morphemic. When you study English spelling, you come across expressions like “visual morpheme” and “appeal to the eye” often used to describe English spelling. English spelling is actually designed to facilitate vocabulary development and ease of spelling (writing). Ironically, these are aspects of literacy that teachers find most difficult to teach. English words come in morphological families. Words in the same morphological family share meaning and spelling even if they are pronounced differently. Let’s take a simple illustration: <done, does, doing> all contain the spelling <do> because they are all built on the same base <do>. They share a basic meaning and therefore, share its spelling even though that base is pronounced differently across the different derivations. So if <done> and <does> were spelled with a <u>, and <do> was spelled with a double ‘oo’ <oo>, the shared meaning connections that exist among the words <do>, <doing>, <does> and <done> will be lost. It so happens that English preserves the meaning connections that exist among them by preserve the identity of the base element through spelling.

Anytime a child asks me about how to spell “done’ (and I get that question a lot) I simply ask “how do you spell “do”? Once he or she spells it, I would just say: “add ‘-ne’ to it. ” The response is almost always “Oh!”. If I have been working with that child, I would ask: what is the suffix in “done” and how do we write it?

Let’s look at another example: “Why is there is <g> if <sign> if we don’t pronounce it? It is because it is related in meaning to words like <signal, signify, signature, significant>. The fact that the <g> is not pronounced in <sign, design, resign, and assign, etc.> does not change the fact that the base morpheme is <sign>. There are countless examples like these. That is what is meant by the phrase “English spelling is morphemic”.

When I first started learning about spelling, I came across this statement: “In English spelling words that mean the same also look the same”. I thought I understood it at the time, however, the more I study words, the more amazed I become as to how true and profound that statement is. The following are some quotes that describe English spelling.

  • The role of orthography is “to speak quickly and distinctly to the eyes”.
  • “The present system, short of misleading the voice, favors the eye over the tongue and glottis”.
  • “A spelling system (orthography) has to do more than simply record speech sounds; ultimately, the written representation of a language is for the eye rather than for the ear”.

These statements indicate the fact that how a word is spelled (how it looks) tells you a lot about that particular word. It may provide information about its history, where it came from into English, its morphological relatives, its class or part of speech and how it is pronounced. So, maybe it might be a good idea to start wondering and exploring about words, especially the ones whose spellings baffle us, and who knows the wonderful adventure we might find ourselves engaging in as we strive to uncover some of the treasures buried in the spelling system!

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