Friday, September 16, 2005

On English spelling

As it seems to be language week: here's something I clipped from Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language while ago, which brings home how gloriously irregular the English language really is. Try reading this poem aloud at a conversational pace:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead—it’s said like bed, not bead—
For goodness sake, don’t call it ‘deed’.
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose—
Just look them up—and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front, and word and sword,
And do and go, and thwart and cart—
Come! Come! I’ve barely made a start!

T.G.W., Manchester Guardian, 21 June 1954.
Why is English spelling so odd? Says Deutscher:

Although the conventions of spelling might not have changed much for nearly four centuries, the peregrinations of pronunciation have carried on regardless. And it is for precisely this reason that English spelling is so infamously irrational. […] It is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is—it’s only that it renders the speech of the sixteenth century.
So, English spelling is frozen in time, while pronunciation shifts around it. Somehow, this rather appeals to me.


That's a blinding poem - I haven't seen that before. I've pocketed it somewhere handy.

It would go down a storm as part of an oral test when applying for a British passport