Why we spell the way we do: Part 1

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Posted on 
May 17, 2021
Written by 
Anne-Marie Tugwell (About the author) , Language Portal of Canada

In elementary school, I enjoyed spelling quizzes. But I don’t think that I could have ever become a spelling bee champion. The spellings of words such as “ealdorman,” “marocain” or “koinonia” aren’t obvious to me. Mastering the art of spelling, even for native speakers, is certainly not an easy task.

Finding patterns in English is difficult because the language has a long history of borrowing or deriving vocabulary from other languages. English is a blend of spelling systems that entered the language at different times. Let’s take a look at the main languages that influenced English spelling.

Old English

In doing research for this post, I discovered that Old English is called Old English for a reason. The origins of the language date as far back as the 5th century! Around that time, three main Germanic tribes invaded England. They spoke Anglo-Saxon, otherwise known as Old English. I was fascinated to learn that some 4,500 words of Anglo-Saxon origin are still used in English today.Footnote 1

After falling down a rabbit hole of searching for words with Anglo-Saxon origins in the Online Etymology Dictionary (opens in new tab), I discovered that we use these words every day. Did you know that “friend” used to be spelled “freond,” that “food” was “foda” or that “laughter” was “hleahtor”? Verbs used for our daily activities, such as “eat” (from “etan”) and “sleep” (from “slaepan”), also have Anglo-Saxon roots. In Old English, most words had various spellings, and their spellings evolved as they took on their modern form. But a few words, including “he,” “of,” “him,” “for” and “on,” have stood the test of time and are spelled exactly the same way today as they were back then.Footnote 2

French

When taking dictées in my French immersion classes, I always wondered why so many words were spelled either identically or at least similarly to their English equivalents. How did they enter the English language, I wondered, and why were there so many?

After William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, Norman French was used by the court, the government and the upper class.Footnote 3 As a result, many French words made their way into English.Footnote 4 This had a major impact on English spelling. For example, words like “table,” “double” and “centre” take their spelling directly from French.Footnote 5

Individual letters were also affected. “C” was used in Old English, but in many cases it was replaced by “k,” “ck” or “ch” after the Norman Conquest. “Cw” eventually became “qu,” so our current spelling of “quick” used to be “cwic.”Footnote 6 And French is just one of many languages that has affected English spelling.

Latin and Greek

I didn’t study Latin in high school, but it definitely would have come in handy in my science classes. Why? Because academics and scientists adopted a huge number of Latin words during the English Renaissance. The spelling of these English words was derived from Latin. For example, you might think that the double “m” in “summary” is unnecessary, and you might be right! The spelling of this word comes from the Latin summarium.

Greek words also entered English during this time, often via Latin. For example, the Greek arkhitekton traded “k” for “c” in the Latin word architectus, then became architecte in French before entering English as the word “architect.”Footnote 7 You can see Greek influence in other English spelling patterns, too. Whenever a word has a “ph” in it (like “philosophy”), there’s likely some Greek in its history!Footnote 8

Now that I’ve learned all about the history of the English language, I’m not surprised that I’ve never won a national spelling bee! Do you think that studying French, Latin, Greek or another language would improve your spelling? If you speak another language, have you noticed its influence on English spelling? Let me know in the comments!

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Anne-Marie Tugwell

Anne-Marie Tugwell

Anne-Marie Tugwell started her career teaching French, Spanish and English in private and public schools. She became a translator at the Translation Bureau in 2017, and she’s currently on assignment at the Language Portal of Canada. During her spare time, she enjoys designing jewelry and writing poetry.

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Wow! Right now, I'm studying English and it seems like an excellent post, it helped me to understand many things. Thank you! Very interesting.

You’re welcome! Learning English is challenging. I’m glad that my post has given you some insight into how the language has evolved.

What a fascinating read. Word origins have always interested me. Thanks for the pleasure.

You’re welcome! It was an interesting topic to research. Since you’re interested in the history of the language, don’t forget to read Part 2, which will be posted in a couple of weeks!

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