my top 5 “most difficult spelling systems” list

English orthography is a beautifully inconsistent, inconsistently beautiful, sadistic excuse for a “system.”  My favorite example is what happens when you add letters to the word “tough.”  (The symbols on the right are how the words are pronounced, and even if you don’t understand what they mean exactly, you can see that more changes than just a single character)
  • tough /tʌf/
  • though /ðoʊ/
  • through /θɹu:/  (notice, so far, not a single sound in common)
  • thought /θɔ:t/ (or in my dialect, /θɑ:t/)
  • thorough /ˈθʊɹoʊ/
So, there are at least four different vowels and sometimes an /f/ represented by <ough>, and there are two different sounds represented by the <th>.  Add words like “laugh,” “taught,” “draught,” and “drought” and you start to see how this spirals out of control really quickly.  Part of the problem is that we have, depending on the dialect, anywhere between about 35 and 45 distinct sounds (called phonemes), and yet a mere 26 letters to write them. Linguists, very appropriately, call that a “defective script,” and English is astonishingly defective.  Of the 26 letters we do have, several overlap in strange Venn-diagram-like sound mappings such as s-c-k-q-x.  It’s kind of mind-boggling really to think about this, but there is literally one sound in the entire English language that is written with one and only one group of letters, and that’s the so-called “soft th” /ð/ in “though” from above.  The letters <th> can represent multiple different sounds (e.g. Thomas), but the phoneme /ð/ can be written only one way.  Every other phoneme in English has at least two, sometimes more than 10, and, in the case of the sound /eɪ/ as in bay, pain, base, bass, ballet, obey, dossier, resume, or even résumé, etc., more than 20 different graphical representations!  So you can imagine that, if you were a speaker of another language trying to learn English, you might assume that native speakers had devised the system as some sort of cruel joke to keep foreigners from ever mastering it.
To every rule, there is some exception.  For every word like “photograph,” there are words like “haphazard” and “Stephen.”  Chore?  Choir and charade.  Singer?  Finger and angst.  Bureau?  Bureaucracy and beauty. Of course there are hundreds of homophones that are spelled (or spelt) differently but are pronounced the same, like write/rite/right, prince/prints, or soared/sword.  Those are decently common across languages.  It is quite rare, however, to find a language with anywhere near English’s number of heteronyms that are spelled the same and yet pronounced differently, such as having a gaping wound as opposed to being wound up, the bow of a ship or a bow and arrow.  It is not a moderate task to moderate discussions of English spelling.  Everyone knows about our silent “e,” but then there are things like silent “b” (debt, comb), silent “p” (psychology, pneumonia), silent “t” (castle, listen, soften, not to mention words that vary like “often”), silent “s” (island, debris), silent “l” (salmon, talk), and it just goes on and on like that.  It is genuinely pretty hellish, but are other languages any easier?  Are there even more horrific systems?  How does English orthography really stack up against the rest of the world’s written codes?  Well, first we need to survey the landscape and see what’s out there.
Before that, though, if you’re hearing the word “orthography” for the first time, it simply means the whole system of writing.  It comes from the Greek stems orthós-, meaning “standard,” “legal,” or “correct” (think “orthodox”), and -graphéin, meaning “to write.”  Linguists tend to use the term “orthography” rather than “spelling” for two main reasons: first and foremost, it makes us sound smarter and thus feel better about ourselves.  Second and almost equally important is the notion that a strict definition of “spelling” is relatively narrow in scope.  Spelling means the way in which words are written using letters and diacritics (which are accent marks like in résumé), and therefore doesn’t necessarily apply to all languages that have writing.  In contrast, orthography is a very broad term that encompasses many aspects of writing.  Here’s a simple graph:
Put simply, spelling is one part of orthography, but spelling is not everything you’d have to learn in trying to master English writing.  If I “spell out” some of the additional features that orthography covers, it might give a good idea of how daunting it could appear to would-be learners:
  • Punctuation and other unpronounced characters
    • Some languages don’t (or at least, didn’t) use punctuation at all, which might make an adjustment to a fully-punctuated system more taxing. Where there is punctuation, rules on usage are often quite complex, and they differ across languages, even between sister languages like French « Allons-y! » and Spanish «¡Vamos!»
    • Languages that use punctuation often use it to contrast meaningfully different phrases, like the famous “A woman without her man is useless” and “A woman: without her, man is useless.”  Those differences aren’t universal; they have to be learned
    • Emoticons and other non-letter characters like ellipses and dashes often carry meaning or perform important discourse functions, especially in informal contexts.  Anyone who has ever tried learning the stupefying array of Japanese emoticons knows the true meaning of despair. I mean, for crying out loud, there’s a specific emoticon for the act of playing volleyball! (/o^)/ °⊥ \(^o\)  When I first got that in a text message, I didn’t read that as it was intended: an invitation to go to the beach. I thought someone had to go to the hospital
  • Orientation
    • Just to list some examples, English, Russian, and Inuktitut are written horizontally from left to right
    • Arabic and Hebrew are written horizontally right to left
    • Classical Mongolian is written vertically left to right
    • Chữ Nôm (Old Vietnamese) is written vertically right to left
    • Modern Mandarin and Japanese are written in multiple different orientations depending on the format and level of formality
    • Egyptian Hieroglyphs were prototypically horizontal and right to left, but varied based on other stylistic factors and some characters were read in their own special order
    • There are yet other ways of orienting writing, too
  • Penmanship, scripts, and written styles
    • There are sometimes large differences between the way (or ways) in which things are written in the same language depending on the people, place, purpose, and time.  When people study a Chinese language, for example, they have to learn that type-font characters like 書道 can appear radically different in hand-written forms, but they have to recognize that the intent is the same.  Beginning learners of English are often confused with the Times New Roman “g” and “a/ɑ”
    • Block-print and cursive writing are other good examples in English, but even within cursive, there are different styles like Spencerian and D’Nealian, and there are often idiosyncrasies across languages
      • French cursive “1” often has the hook extending all the way down such that, to North American eyes, it looks almost like “Λ”
      • Japanese teachers of English were taught for many years to write “s” with a hook such that many still write it as “ʂ,” which is a different letter in other languages
  • Alternate characters and characters for special purposes
    • In English, accountants and mathematicians often write 0 (as well as 7 and z) with additional slashes to disambiguate or prevent fraud, but Ø is a separate letter in Swedish, for example, so Swedish accountants tend to write 0 with a dot in the center instead.  Similarly, many Japanese and Chinese legal documents write the numbers 1, 2, and 3 as “壱、弐、参” instead of the more general “一、二、三”
    • Roman numerals (like MMXII) are another part of our writing system that has to be learned in order to be fully literate
For some languages, parts of orthography fall into spelling, too, such as:
  • Spacing
    • Some languages put spaces between words like modern Korean, others like Japanese and Chinese do not
    • Some languages or language varieties that put spaces between words write compound words as one continuous sequence. German is probably the most famous example with its words like “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung,” which English spaces out into “speed limit”
    • English is wildly inconsistent on this one, though. We write fireman and highway in unbroken strings, fire truck and high school with spaces. Rollerskate, roller-skate, and roller skate are all well-attested in corpora, and even the snootiest of dictionaries often have multiple listings
  • Capitalization
    • Most languages are unicameral, meaning that they don’t have upper- and lower-case letters, but even closely-related languages that are bicameral often differ wildly in this respect; English doesn’t capitalize every noun anymore, but German still does
    • English is perhaps unique among languages in requiring that the pronoun “I,” but not “we,” “you,” or any other pronoun for that matter, is always capitalized
    • Conventions change over time. If you have an old version of Word (which is capitalized) and you run a spellcheck (no space), you might get prompted to capitalize words like “internet,” but that’s no longer the case (if you got that last pun, you can join me in tears of shame)
    • We can capitalize words mid-sentence for emphasis or to make a contrast, such as religion/Religion, or we can sometimes use ALL CAPS
    • French, English, and several other languages also have an interesting trend in the opposite direction, writing common acronyms in all lower-case (e.g. HIV/AIDS in French is “sida”; the word “radar” started as an acronym)
Even after all that, the most important, and in some ways the most obvious difference between the terms “orthography” and “spelling” is that “orthography” can refer to more types of grapheme systems. (A grapheme is just a unit of writing)  For example, it would be a little strange to talk about “spelling” for logographic writing systems like Chinese characters.  There are different ways to represent characters in Chinese, and to be sure, there are strict rules for how to write them with correct stroke order and such, but the characters don’t directly or consistently represent sounds per se.  In fact, there are quite a number of different types of written systems:
  • Alphabets like Georgian (there are actually three different Georgian alphabets) or Korean, where each character (or component part of the character) represents usually only one sound, although even the purest ones like Korean have exceptions and situational rules
    • English is alphabetic in a sense, but there are only two letters that consistently represent only one sound, <v> and <q>, both of those represent sounds that are sometimes also written using other letters, and there are an increasingly large number of foreign loanwords that break even those patterns
  • Abjads like Arabic or Hebrew, where the consonant sounds are written but some or all of the vowels are left unspecified, and the reader has to figure it out from context
  • Syllabaries where each character represents a whole syllable, not just a sound, which can be further divided into:
    • Abugidas like Ge’ez in Ethiopia where relations between related syllables are shown by added marks or changes to the same base character.  For example, in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people in North America, /ki/, /ka/, /ku/ are written ᑭ, ᑲ, ᑯ
    • “Arbitrary syllabaries” like Cherokee or Japanese kana where there is no relationship between similar sounds. Using the same syllables, /ki/ /ka/ /ku/ in Japanese hiragana are written き,か,く
  • There are yet other types of absolutely crazy hybrid systems like Mayan that used logograms and syllabics and plentiful rebuses (think of things like “gr8” for “great”) all together in the same characters.  How Mayans were able to read without having an aneurysm is beyond me.
So after all that, there’s quite a lot to consider, really, when we try to compare written systems in terms of difficulty level.  In truth, any objective comparison is flat-out impossible.  How could we compare English to a system like Hong Kong Cantonese that has more than 20,000 characters in common usage, some of which are just brutal like 戲劇 (which means “movie”), but which are nevertheless regular, represent units of meaning and not always sound, are pronounced almost always in only one way, and are composed of a limited set of simpler parts?   Put simply, we can’t.  They’re completely different challenges.  So, instead, I’ve arbitrarily limited my list to languages that either use syllabaries or alphabets, I’ve kept the list to languages that are alive today (otherwise, in my opinion, Mayan is hands-down the most astonishingly complex orthography ever devised), and I’ve excluded exceedingly rare languages or scripts like Afaka.  The remaining list is, I think understandably, not perfect, but I challenge you to come up with a better one, haha!
Last note: I have a few runners-up.  First, Thai orthography is pretty rough.  There are several characters borrowed from Sanskrit that are pronounced the same as other Thai letters but which are not interchangeable.  Thai is also interesting in that it marks tone in writing.  Its Eastern neighbour, Khmer, from which large parts of Thai script are derived, is also highly complex and irregular, with lots of variability depending on the surrounding sounds.  Both of these are, however, not quite so irregular and sadistic to make it into my subjectively-judged top 5.  The reason is simple, and also explains why English does make the list: spelling reform.
Most languages have undergone at least one, and often multiple spelling reforms, usually because the government or another authoritative body wants to standardize the language and modernize it.  Languages change over time, and pronunciation in particular is highly variable, but ink blots printed on a page don’t often change shape in response to social trends.  In French, the Académie Française was created during the time of Louis XIV to standardize the language.  They publish dictionaries, make recommendations for school curricula, and have helped to rein in the chaos (note: rein, not reign, or rain).  The French language gets a lot of flack for words like “ils accueillent” where half the letters are silent, and then words like “lent” where most of those same letters are pronounced, but once you understand a few rules about grammatical categories, reading is not so bad.  Linguists call this a distinction between “encoding” (writing) and “decoding” (making sense of that writing, usually reading), and while French is difficult to encode, the decoding process is much more doable.  That doable-ness is largely thanks to the reforms enforced (sometimes even through violence!) by the French powers that be.  Khmer, Thai, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, Mongolian, indeed a great many of the world’s languages have undergone systemic reforms to try to make the writing system more regular than it was before.  In fact, another “runner-up” for me would be Danish, which is a particularly interesting example since it’s so closely related to Swedish but hasn’t gone through the same kinds of spelling reforms.  As for English, there have been multiple attempts, but the only major influential spelling reform (Noah Webster’s) only succeeded in creating a chasm between two separate standards with equally absurd inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.  Hopefully, that provides enough context and caveats.  Here, finally, is my top 5 crazy spelling systems:
  • Uyghur has four completely separate alphabets that are all standard in modern usage, and historically there have been quite a few others. It’s one of very few languages based on Persian to obligatorily represent vowels, and there are quite a few of them: /y/ /ɪ/ /ø/ /æ/ /ɑ/ /u/ /e/ /o/, but the real irregularities come from its many Chinese loanwords that are often quite difficult to distinguish from other words and follow their own set of phonological rules
4) Burmese
  • The fact that this language’s orthography doesn’t match up with its pronunciation is a point of pride for some Burmese nationals.  There are even different words for “written language” and “spoken language” that mark the distinction.  In many ways, literate Burmese people can be said to practice diglossia, the command of multiple different dialects for different functions.  The spelling system is more or less regular viewed from the inside, but its difficulties and irregularities come from being written in stone hundreds of years ago and far removed from what has happened with the language since then
3) Irish Gaelic
  • The language is growing after it had declined in previous generations, but the writing system reflects its diverse and chaotic history.  There are digraphs and complicated allophonic rules up the wazoo, such that the word for Prime Minister, Taoiseach, is pronounced /ˈt̪ˠiːʃəx/.  A combination of having no standard spelling until the mid-20th century and huge dialectal variation, especially in vowels, has created cases where the orthography is regular in some regions for some words, and in others for other words, but nowhere for all of them
2) English
  • Truly, English is among the craziest spelling systems in the world.  Ruth Shemesh and Sheila Waller’s book explains a great deal of the subtle regularities, and I highly recommend it, but even they can’t make sense of the huge number of exceptions that continue to grow by the day.  There are some theorists who believe that English is becoming more and more like a logographic system, where basically each word has to be memorized as one chunky symbol with component parts, rather than analyzing each word internally from left to right.  That’s not far off, and yet English, I think, still only gets the silver medal in my book
1) Japanese
  • Interestingly, many of the same historical reasons for English’s, shall we say, “diversity” of spelling rules are shared by Japanese: several, chronologically-disparate waves of mass importation of foreign words, several of which use entirely foreign writing systems that were only sometimes, and then only partially, regularized.  Japanese uses three largely independent writing systems together, or increasingly four if you include roma-ji, which many academics do because of words like t-shirt, “Tシャツ,” and acronyms.  Two of those systems are mostly faithful phonetic syllabaries, but there are exceptions like particles.  The third system has more than 2,000 characters in common usage each with numerous, largely unpredictable readings depending on when and where the word originated.  All three are commonly used together in the same sentence, and combinations of two are often together in the same word: サボる (to skip class), アメリカ的 (American-style).  Pitch accent, which is contrastive for most dialects, isn’t marked anywhere (e.g. the “three hashi”: 端、橋、箸), and all the while many other characters are written with several different variants despite no meaningful phonological or even semantic contrast in any dialect (again, I’ll use “hashi”: 橋、槗).  Like English, there are tons of heteronyms, sometimes among quite frequent words like 甘い(umai, delicious / amai, sweet), 辛い(karai, spicy / tsurai, painful, or here’s a better definition), and then we get into proper nouns and fossilized expressions and what little regularity was left in the system breaks down completely
So, in my opinion, when we ask how bad English spelling is compared to other languages, the answer is: among the worst.  There are other, frighteningly complex systems out there, to be sure, but English finds a way to take its deceptively simple 26 letters and make the absolute most it can out of them.  As a final note, I think it’s important to say that, by “worst,” I don’t mean to say that we should look down on English orthography, or Japanese orthography for that matter.  In fact, in my mind, I could have equally replaced the “most difficult” in the title with “most interesting.”  Irish, English, Uyghur, Burmese, Japanese, and even French are fascinatingly rich and complex, and indeed in many ways I think they are tremendously valuable in their idiosyncrasies.  The spelling of a word in these languages contains an immense amount of information; we can know just by looking at a word like “know” that it came from German, whereas a word like “ascertain” came from Latin through French, which in turn tells us more about the connotations of those words, the usage patterns, and the history of English-speaking people.  We’d have “no” way (or at least, no immediately apparent visual way) of doing that if we spelled no and know identically.  These “top 5” are a testament to society and language’s ability to evolve and thrive within the infinitely complex interactions of people and peoples, and while that does imply a lot of baggage, I for one am not upset about having all that stuff to cart around.  I like stuff.
So yes, English spelling is a handful, but it’s not alone, and that’s a good thing.  Perhaps, instead of denouncing others for their poor spelling of a choice few words, we should in fact celebrate the fact that people get so many other highly irregular, largely nonsense spellings correct!  (Like, for instance, “people”)  In the very least, if you deal with foreign learners of English, I hope you can sympathize (or even sympathise) with their struggle.  They truly do have it pretty bad.

15 thoughts on “my top 5 “most difficult spelling systems” list

    • Truly, my pleasure. I’m very grateful for your site. I’ve actually had to use it surprisingly often to look up things my former and current students send me! Nicely compiled.

  1. The Finnish and Korean spelling systems are usually ranked as the best or, at least, in the top group. Do you have any details or references as to what makes them superior?

    • Like I said, any “ranking” is necessarily artificial, and has to be taken as a little tongue-in-cheek. It’s really impossible to compare languages systematically, and it’s tough to imagine what “best” would mean. Because of that, I don’t think there are many academic references on that subject, but there are certainly reasons why Korean and Finnish get singled out as “good” examples of spelling systems. In general, people like them because they get close to having only one letter for each sound, and only one sound for each letter. In other words, both of them get a lot closer to the idealized “one-to-one” mapping than, say, English, Burmese, or French. If you can learn the limited set of characters, in principle you can pronounce almost anything in the language. Both have their exceptions, but neither Korean nor Finnish orthography has nearly as many exceptions as English. That said, as you can see above, that’s hardly something worth bragging about.

      Take Finnish. Yes, *most* sounds are written with only one letter, and *most* letters represent only one sound, but then they have to deal with foreign names and loanwords. In Finnish, there’s no /ʃ/ sound (i.e. the English “sh” sound), so we run into a problem when we try to write foreign loanwords like “shampoo.” You can either write “sampoo”, which Finnish people often do, or you can make up a new character and use that, “šampoo”, or you can use a digraph (i.e. a combination of two letters), “shampoo.” In modern Finnish, native speakers sometimes write the ‘s’ with the diacritic, sometimes with the ‘h’, sometimes neither, sometimes try their best to pronounce it with the foreign sound, and sometimes pronounce it with the native Finnish ‘s’ sound.

      The letters c, z, q, ž, å, and, most ironically, f, (which wasn’t a native sound in Finland, despite what you’d think given the English name for it) are similarly problematic because they’re used in foreign names or words (like “pizza” or “Quebec”) where the pronunciation often varies. The result is that, for hundreds of words like “sampoo,” you can’t just look at the letters and know how they’re pronounced like you can with most Finnish words. You also have to know whether the word comes from English, or Swedish, or somewhere else, and then you still have to make a decision about how you’re going to pronounce it. If I say the word with the foreign sound, will I sound pretentious? If I say it with the native sound, will I sound ignorant or uneducated? These are familiar problems to many English speakers (e.g. is the Japanese alcohol pronounced /saki/ or /sake/ or some middle ground like /sakeɪ/?), but if the spelling system of any language were a perfect one-to-one mapping, we wouldn’t have to deal with that awkwardness. Sadly, no language is perfect like that. Korean has the same problem with its “ㄹ” sound, for example. At the beginning of Korean words, “ㄹ” is traditionally silent, but if the word comes from English or French, it’s pronounced, sometimes, by some speakers, in some situations, like the English “L,” or if they’re being really snooty, like the English “R.” Globalization strains any system; either you just embrace the paradoxes of the global marketplace and go with the flow like English has done, or you try your best to control the chaos like Korean or Finnish.

      Another, more important exception for both Korean and Finnish is something called “sandhi.” I’ll take an English example. We can add the prefix “in-” to words to create an antonym, such that “effective” becomes “ineffective” or “opportune” becomes “inopportune,” etc. However, when the next word begins with certain sounds, the prefix also changes. “Possible” doesn’t become “in-possible”; it’s “im-possible.” “Responsible” becomes “ir-responsible.” The pronunciation merges with the sound that follows it, and in English, the spelling often changes to reflect that. In Finnish or Korean, the pronunciation changes like in English, but the spelling doesn’t. For example, in Finnish, the second “n” in a word like “menenpä” is pronounced [m]. In Korean, the female name “숙미,” directly transliterated to English, creates an awkward moment for teachers reading from a class roster: “Sukmi.” Fortunately, it isn’t pronounced the way the letters look; it’s actually pronounced closer to “soong-mi,” [sʰuŋmi].

      There’s actually quite a lot of other really interesting exceptions in both languages (for instance, you can look up keywords like “lenition in Finnish” or “vowel length in Korean” if you want to know more), but I hope that’s enough to answer your question. The Korean and Finnish alphabets get a lot closer than most other languages in the world to a one-to-one system, but variation within the language, and variation introduced from other languages both make a “perfect,” logical orthographic system impossible, or even “inpossible.” 😉

      • Ryan,
        Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
        You never use the word but basically you seem to be saying that the reason the Finnish and Korean spelling systems are superior is because their alphabets are more “phonetic”. -There is a corresponding letter in their alphabets for each sound in their languages.
        As you know, George Bernard Shaw invented a phonetic alphabet for English but most advocates for spelling reform today think promoting a new phonetic alphabet would be too radical a move to ever be adopted. Rather, being more practical, they promote just being more regular and consistent in how we spell the forty-some sounds in the English language.
        You quote Masha Bell on your website. Are you a member of the Spelling Society? Do you live in the US, UK, or . . . ?
        I am a big fan of Masha. She came over twice when we were carrying signs on the street in front of the Grand Hyatt in DC while the National Spelling Bee was taking place inside.

  2. I’m a Canadian living in the US now. Masha Bell is a very thoughtful, righteous woman, and I very much applaud her work. I think that there are problems in assuming that a language’s spelling system poses an insurmountable barrier to literacy. Japan, for example, has very high literacy rates despite an orthographic system that is perhaps even less internally consistent than English’s (if that’s possible?) and composed of many more parts. She is right, though, in saying that empathy and understanding is half the battle, and perhaps that some meaningful spelling reforms are even overdue.

    I would never call Finnish or Korean “superior.” They might be more intuitive than English, but there’s also beauty in English’s, to put it cutely, “stochastic multifariousness.” We might like things that are neat and orderly, but the world itself is messy and dynamic, and I think English’s complexity and flexibility make it one of the most fascinating languages out there.

    You’re right that I purposely avoided the word “phonetic.” That’s a common misnomer by laymen, but it’s really not appropriate here. No natural language’s orthographic system would ever represent phonetic variation that wasn’t lexically meaningful. For example, the /k/ sound in the English word “cat” is, phonetically and articulatorily, much different than the /k/ sound in “caught;” the latter is produced with the tongue coming into contact with a much more posterior portion of the velum and even, for many speakers, the uvula. In Korean, the vowel sound in the word 발 (“bal,” meaning foot) is much different than the vowel in 방 (“bang,” meaning room) but those differences don’t appear in the orthography because that level of phonetic detail is irrelevant within that language. That same phonetic difference *is* meaningful in other languages (Arabic meaningfully distinguishes between the /k/ and /q/-like sounds from the English example, and French contrasts the two Korean vowels), but those phonetic dissimilarities aren’t important within the speech community that uses those symbols. So, no language will ever, or indeed, should ever use a “phonetic” alphabet because it would unnecessarily encode information that is of no value in learning or communicating. At the extreme, a “phonemic” alphabet, where there is perfect one-to-one correspondence between the meaningfully distinct sounds (phonemes) and symbols (graphemes) would be easy at first glance. The problem though, as Korean and Finnish show, is that those phonemes and graphemes have to interact with a third component of language, the minimal units of meaning called “morphemes” (like the prefix “in-“), and then we necessarily have to sacrifice consistency and/or information somewhere in the system.

    • Ryan,

      May I have permission to be argumentative?

      Tradition for tradition’s sake would have kept us in caves. The key to Western civilization is that “it” is ever seeking new and better ideas. The Shah of Iran once said, to the effect, “We are going to take the best of Western civilization and mold it to our culture.” But the key to Western civilization is that it is a destroyer of the prevailing culture. Whatever new and, hopefully, beneficial development comes down the road we are going to jump on and ride it until a better one comes along and then we will jump on and ride the new one.

      We have a problem with literacy. Spelling is nothing more than a tool for representing language on a page. Our tool is dull and way overdue for updating. We know how to do it, so why don’t we? -Tradition.

      “there are problems in assuming that a language’s spelling system poses an insurmountable barrier to literacy.” The 1950’s telephone was not an insurmountable barrier to living but who today wants one? Many overcome the barrier that our poor spelling system poses to literacy but many do not and all of us are poorer for it. We spent millions to deal with out poor literacy rates when there is an obvious huge improvement we could make.

      Your points against a phonetic alphabet have been accepted by most current advocates for spelling reform. Most promote keeping our present alphabet, just making our spelling more logical and consistent. Doesn’t that make good sense?

      Timothy F. Travis

      • Argumentation is fine, but I’m not sure what you’re arguing with. I’m not against spelling reform. In fact, I explicitly said that spelling reform might be in order. There are *many* more challenges to spelling reform than simple tradition or obstinacy, some of which might sound trivial (while being far from trivial) because they aren’t linguistic (e.g. financial cost and practicality), but the biggest challenge would likely be political, resolving discrepancies between world Englishes whose phonological systems also differ. English spelling is wildly inconsistent, and possibly even logically incoherent, so should we change things? Sure! In the very least, we should be *willing* to change them, understanding that they are fundamentally arbitrary conventions and often just historical accidents. There’s nothing sacred about those conventions, and if we think a different spelling would allow for some social good to be realized, then by all means, change could be useful.

        My argument against calling Finnish “superior” isn’t about tradition per se; it’s because I disagree with your assertion that, when it comes to making a useful spelling system for English, “we know how to do it” well. It really isn’t just a matter of copying the Finnish or Korean model because those models also struggle with some aspects of language that are very important in English like morpho-phonological changes. Other models that handle some of those things better might be more appropriate. For example, French is in some ways more faithful and consistent than Finnish in terms of how symbols are decoded into sounds while retaining more complex information about the morphosyntax than Finnish does, but many of the letters in French are not pronounced. Which one is “better”? That depends on which information you value, and it is also influenced by what information is most important in that language. As I said above, Finnish really struggles with writing foreign loanwords because the internal system is not very compatible with external influences. Well, foreign contact is a very important sociopolitical reality for English-speaking peoples; our current orthography, for all of its many foibles, allows for foreign words to be incorporated relatively smoothly into the English lexicon, and whatever reformed system we propose would do well to keep those real, sociolinguistic needs in mind. To put this simply, my point was that there are *inherent,* *inevitable* contradictions in any orthographic system because of the mutually exclusive forces involved in the phoneme-grapheme-morpheme interface. That whole spiel, in turn, interacts with foreign language contact, and internal language change over time. In the end, there is no such thing as “one system to rule them all;” it is necessarily a matter of choices based on relative pros and cons situated in context, and English’s place in the world poses particularly tough challenges for would-be reformers.

        Frankly, I don’t buy the notion that English orthography explains the putative gap in literacy on its own or even in the main. Spelling isn’t the only thing that makes learning to read and write in English a bit more idiosyncratic than Finnish or Spanish. The English lexicon itself is a hybrid of Latinate, Germanic, Celtic, and “other” words that come from different phonological and morphological systems and, as a result, follow different sets of phonological and morphological rules. Over time, those groups have bled together in some places as well. If we represented the sounds of the words regularly, that would create the false illusion of irregularities within subsets of those words because the phonological processes applied to them are heterogeneous. In other words, you’d still have a systematicity (and thus, in that framework, a readability) problem on some end. Additionally, there are other orthographic systems out there like Burmese and Japanese that are irreconcilable with the phonology of the language, and yet Japanese literacy rates are very high. In other words, orthography isn’t the only, or even the most important predictor. There *are* other factors, and while I’m all for meaningful spelling reform, I’m not able to agree that spelling reform alone would solve the perceived literacy gap, and I’m certainly not in favour of adopting a “phonemic” alphabet for English. That doesn’t suit our needs as a speech community. If we’re going to reform our spelling system, we should adopt one that works for us.

    • Well, as much as coming up with a “most difficult” list was tough to come up with and ultimately relied on arbitrary, half tongue-in-cheek assumptions, an “easiest” list would be even more so. There are many languages that have a near one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes: Finnish, Estonian, Kabiyè, Inuktitut, modern Vietnamese, and so on. In fact, as much as some discrepancies between sounds and symbols are inevitable, there are relatively few languages that have quite so much variation and internal inconsistencies as English or Burmese. English, Japanese, Uyghur and their ilk make up the exceptions. The vast majority of the world’s languages have writing systems that are more “intuitive.”

      So, an English-speaking person with some limited training in IPA could probably learn to read Kabiyè in a matter of minutes, could probably read most of Finnish without any training at all, and could learn Korean or even Cherokee in a matter of a few days. The latter two wouldn’t take longer because they are “harder” than Kabiyè per se, but because they’re more distant from English’s alphabet. Given, you’d have no idea what the words meant, but you’d be able to pronounce them. At that point, any differences in “ease” would depend entirely on how easy the individual sounds themselves were for you.

      That said, if you really forced my hand and made me choose, I’d probably have to go with a Polynesian language like Hawaiian. The modern writing system is pretty much one-to-one (i.e. one letter per sound, and one sound per letter), but Hawaiian has the additional “ease advantage” of having only 13 different sounds in total: 5 vowels and 8 consonants, only one of which, the glottal stop, would pose any real difficulty in the long run, at least from the perspective of an English speaker.

      • Thank you for your response. .
        In what order might you rank Russian, German, Hungarian, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Danish, Swedish, Finnish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Arabic, Polish, and English realizing it is hard to be scientifically precise?

  3. Oy, haha. Well, I think you’d need to put Chinese in its own kind of category. It’s not really on the same scale as the others, since it’s a totally different system. Each character has only one or maximally two/three different sounds, but you have to learn each individual character, and there are thousands of them.

    Japanese, like I said, is probably the toughest of the remaining group, and then assuming we’re *just* talking about orthography, and not talking about anything else in the language like morphology or syntax, then I could probably make some rough ranking of orthographic transparency.

    Arabic is a tough one to place, though. The system is very internally consistent, but it can be really tough to read as a foreigner without the vowels. I’m not really sure what to do with that one. I think that it’s certainly more transparent than English — you’re not going to be fooled by Arabic into thinking something is pronounced one way when it’s actually pronounced completely differently — but you’re also missing a lot of the information you’d normally need to read comfortably. So, with those caveats in mind… starting at the least transparent to most transparent (i.e. the least one-to-one to the most one-to-one), I think it’d be about…

    English –> Danish –> Arabic? –> French –> Greek –> Russian –> Italian (would be a lot “easier” if not for inconsistencies with word stress) –> Swedish –> German –> Norwegian –> Hungarian –> Polish –> Turkish –> Spanish –> Korean –> Finnish.

    I’m curious how you’d choose, actually. It could be really interesting to see what differences would appear, and maybe why.

  4. Dear Ryan,
    I am impressed.
    Here is the thing, it looks like the, London based, English Spelling Society is going to approve, at their next meeting which will be next month, a plan to have an International English Spelling Reform Congress.
    The Congress will have two sessions. The first a physical event at a venue like a conference center, probably on a university campus. The second session may be virtual, online.
    The first session will be attended by delegates and guests. Delegates to be invitees representing the major English new newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, reps from NGOs such as literacy groups and teachers organizations, and university departments of English and linguistics.
    At the first session papers will be presented on the evolution of the English language, the attempts for spelling regularization, and the history of proposed schemes.
    Also, at the first congress, a committee will be formed and tasked to study over the next year the various schemes and come up with two to be voted on by the delegates at the second session, a year later after the first session.
    The scheme chosen by the delegates at the second congress will be presented as an alternate to traditional spelling that may be used in informal writing, with the hope that someday it will become the standard. Every step of the Congress process is designed to garner maximum publicity. Publicity will give the Congress its authority with the public and policy makers.
    I am looking for people like you to be a presenter at the first session or member of the spelling scheme selection-nominating committee. And to help in any way you can.
    Might you be interested?

    • Well, I’m flattered, truly, but I’m not sure how qualified I’d be to talk about public policy or really advocate one way or another. I could present a literature review or an overview of a particular linguistic or cross-linguistic issue, but I wouldn’t call myself an “expert” in the field. Still, that sounds like a great conference! I’d be happy even just to listen in and see what people say, and if you have a website or a point of contact, I’d be happy to follow up! Certainly, if nothing else I’d be happy to recommend people to invite as speakers:

      – Rebecca Treiman has done great research in the connection between orthography and acquisition of the language with native speaking children. Her work with Kessler on analyzing English spelling patterns is also great
      – Peter Bowers and John Kirby would have lots to say about the interaction between spelling and morphology, and their meta-analysis on the benefits of different types of instruction on literacy skills has been widely cited
      – John McWhorter has some great perspective on the History of the English Language and is an engaging speaker who is also popular with the general public
      – Geoffrey Pullum, Stephen Gramley, and Rodney Huddleston are authority figures on descriptive grammars of Modern English
      – I feel like someone should at least present the late great Richard Venezky. His seminal work on English spelling has helped many people come to understand the many idiosyncrasies and historical processes that have resulted in the mess we have now. Perhaps Linnea Ehri?
      – Rachel Hayes-Harb has done very interesting research on the effects of orthography on phonological acquisition for second and foreign language learners (I’m actually starting work with one of her colleagues now on a research project related in Hayes-Harb’s paradigm, although not concerning English specifically)
      – Henry Rogers has written a great textbook on comparative writing systems across languages
      – Braj Kachru, Jennifer Jenkins, and Suresh Canagarajah are all great examples of people who could provide a (necessary) critical look at “standards” and how they interact with the world’s various Englishes

      That’s a very skewed (by my own biases) and incomplete sample of people who would really have lots to contribute to this conference. In particular, I’m hesitating to suggest James Carter, since he’s been a vocal advocate for spelling reform, but frankly his work is not widely cited. In any event, yes, I’d be happy to know more about the conference. Good luck!

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