English spelling is crazy. Even people born and raised in English-speaking societies who speak no other language still often have a lot of trouble with English spelling.
You may think that English is unique in its spelling insanity. For instance, Spanish spelling is very consistent and phonetic. And even languages that look weird have rules that they generally don't break. Right?
Right some of the time, yes. But not right all of the time.
The same factors that make English spelling so bizarre can also come into play in other languages. Some languages have pretty dodgy spelling. Some have even bigger challenges than English has.
How does spelling go awry? Here, four common ways.
1. Borrowing words from other languages
One way a language gets words with weird spellings is by borrowing them from another language that has a different spelling system. If the borrowing language doesn't change the spelling or pronunciation, then it can have a "wrong" spelling. Many languages do this. But borrowed words come in as exceptions to a system of spelling that may otherwise be consistent. They only become a more systematic factor when the language borrows very heavily, as English has.
2. Pronunciations changing over time
The more usual and thorough way for spelling to peel apart from pronunciation is the whips and scorns of time. Over time, pronunciations shift, everywhere, in every language. Even Latin has several different standards for pronunciation depending on when and where the Latin was written. Printed material, however, stays printed as it is. And when people write new material, they tend to go with the spellings in the old material, unless there's a conscious and concerted effort to change spellings to match the changed sounds. So spelling can be like the car sitting stalled out at the green light while the pronunciation car is halfway to the next light.
Because pronunciations tend to lose sounds and distinctions over time just through the usual laziness of tongues, the number one thing we can expect is silent letters. English has a lot of these, of course, but it's not the only language with silent letters. French has plenty — for instance, parle, parles, and parlent are all pronounced the same. Some other languages have a fair few too. In Norwegian, if you say "I am with Ingrid," Jeg er med Ingrid, it's sort of like "Yigh ahr meh Ingry."
Another thing we can expect: letters sometimes standing for a sound different from the one they usually stand for. For instance, in Russian there is a suffix that looks like it should be said "ogo" but is actually said "ovo." Sometimes there's a sound with no letter there to indicate it at all: In Swedish, you may hear de är pronounced "dom eh."
But these languages are all still more phonetic overall than English. And they're a cakewalk compared to Tibetan or Mongolian. The Tibetan and Mongolian alphabets are quite old, and many sounds have been dropped and others have changed in the spoken language without the spellings changing.
So if you see Tibetan transliterated directly on the basis of what the letters stand for, you'll see the word for "accomplished" spelled bsgrubs but you'll hear it said like drup. There's a school of Tibetan Buddhism that is spelled bka'brgyud that's usually rendered in English how it's actually said: as Kagyu. Have you heard of the Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa? The Tibetan spelling of his name comes out as Chos rgyam Drung pa.
In Mongolia, the Mongolian language is now usually spelled reasonably phonetically using the Cyrillic alphabet. But Mongolian speakers in China still use the old Mongolian alphabet, and the pronunciation has slipped far away from that. The word for "coal," spelled like neguresu, is pronounced like nuurs. "Goat," spelled imaga, is said as jamaa.
3. Borrowing entire alphabets from other languages
At least the Tibetan and Mongolian alphabets were designed for the languages that use them, even if the languages have changed. Many languages use an alphabet borrowed from a different language. It's like building a dining room set using an IKEA kit for a dresser. So you have to use combinations of letters, or use the same letter for multiple sounds. In English we do this with ng, th, ch, and sh, silent e's, and so on. In German, you need four letters — tsch — to spell something that's covered by a single letter in many languages. And in one writing system for Hmong, the word Hmong is spelled Hmoob: the oo means the o is nasal, and the b just indicates the tone.
One of the most striking results of this kind of adaptation is Gaelic — both Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, two distinct but quite similar languages. They make an absolutely luxurious use of silent letters: to indicate consonant quality, to indicate vowel length, to indicate changes to a consonant due to syntactic relationships… A single letter might stand for two or more sounds depending on context, and a single sound might use up to six letters to represent it in some places. Toss in some little changes in pronunciation over time and you get, in Irish Gaelic, a word like cruithneacht ("wheat"), which is pronounced "creen-hakht." To ask "Is the window open" you would write An bhfuil an fhuinneog ar oscailt but say it like "A will an ing-yoag air osgilt." The phrase Biodh ar do shuiamhneas is pronounced like "be air dough hoo-a-nus." Does that make you tense? It shouldn't; it means "Relax."
4. The written and spoken forms of a language represent different dialects
But even in Gaelic, you know at least that what you're reading is meant to represent what you're saying. Some languages have a situation called diglossia, in which the written form actually represents a different dialect from the spoken form. The numerous (and not all mutually intelligible) dialects of Arabic are written in a different version of Arabic from what's spoken. The same is true of Tamil and Sinhala: the spoken versions of the languages are now different in not just sound but some points of grammar and vocabulary from the official standard written versions.
That's a lot harder than just having an awkward writing system. It gets to be like needing to know two languages. It's like having an everyday spoken language that's like what you hear in, say, rap music, or country music, or teenage slang, and having to read and write everything like you see in Shakespeare. So count your blessings if what you write is at least supposed to represent what you're saying. (And ask yourself how often it's not!)
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- Sorry, GOP, tax cuts don't pay for themselves
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- Pope Francis' American problem
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Are there dogs in heaven? Let's hope not.
- Hey, bosses: Stop giving bonuses to your employees
- Cuba should beware of Westerners bearing gifts
- 10 things you need to know today: December 19, 2014
Subscribe to the Week