Search this site:


April 5, 2006 08:47 AM

Broken: English spelling

Do you know why there are no spelling bees in Spain? Because Spanish is spelled just like it sounds. It's English that is so hard to spell.

Thus, I give you: Poems showing the absurdities of English spelling.

Are there spelling bees in other languages? I haven't heard of any.

(Of course, despite the difficulties of English, I think it's totally broken not to learn how to spell properly.)

(Thanks, BB)


French can also be difficult to spell. Does a "Dictée" count as a spelling bee? That is where words or sentences are said aloud and you must write them with the correct spelling and accents.

Posted by: Sean P at April 5, 2006 09:39 AM

For a fascinating historical perspective on how English got to be English, among other things, pick up a copy of Empires of the Word : A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, reviewed here.

Posted by: Steve at April 5, 2006 09:48 AM

i entered a spelling bee in French - i garantee you they exist, and French is MUCH harder than English when it comes to spelling.

Posted by: five blue at April 5, 2006 10:22 AM

There is one advantage that English has over most European languages, and that's the almost complete lack of gender. In the words of Mark Twain, "In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has." It's certainly been one of my biggest hurdles in learning French, trying to remember that nose is "le nez" (masculine) but beard is "la barbe" (feminine!).

Anyway, I understand that the biggest problem encountered by new students of English is not the spelling, but the idioms. For example, why exactly do we get "in" a car, but get "on" a plane?

Posted by: E.T. at April 5, 2006 11:11 AM

Germany also has no spelling bees. Very large and complex words are often just simple, shorter words strung together. German spelling is very straightforward.

Posted by: David at April 5, 2006 11:13 AM

I took spanish and I still spelled everything wrong.

Posted by: Stefan Hayden at April 5, 2006 11:55 AM

Exactly how is English “broken” because of its spelling, and how would you fix such breakage?

Are you saying Spanish spelling is not “broken” and is a model to follow?

Why not switch to ideograms and avoid “spelling” entirely? Or perhaps we could draft Cree syllabics into use. Or – hold on, I’ve got something here – or since sign languages do not use spelling, we could switch to one of those. (Oh, but which one?)

Really, Mark, this post is a new low.

Posted by: Joe Clark at April 5, 2006 01:15 PM

Reply to Joe Clark's comments:

Benjamin Franklin tried to clean up English spelling over 2 centuries ago (see; it is still a good idea.

Then again, we are still using the QWERTY keyboard, 30 years after it became obsoloete for all practical purposes and even though the DVORAK kb has been proven superior, so what do I know....

Posted by: shalom at April 5, 2006 01:27 PM

Uh, actually, even though I've been speaking I learned to talk, I find that english is a bit odd next to other languages. Not that I mind. Plus the poems are pretty good.

And Joe Clark, lighten up. Don't get all in a huff because someone posted a few poems about the english language. It's just a website.

Posted by: Random person at April 5, 2006 02:39 PM

How cleaver of you to use a cleaver.

Posted by: Arthur Dent at April 5, 2006 03:38 PM

How English spelling is broken is that English is a Germanic language, yet some "experts" thought it was a romantic language (Latin-based), so we get some odd conjegations and other inconsistencies.

Another good book is "The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way" by Bill Bryson.

Posted by: Tim at April 5, 2006 04:13 PM

The Dutch and Flemish also have a televised Dictee (like the French' Dictée). Usually consisting of overly complex humorous sentences. (Mostly humorous because of the complexity and odd choice of vocabulary.) And at school teachers of Dutch have been committing this crime against children for ages of course.

And trust me: although the Dutch spelling is rather regular (except for English borrowings), it's nearly impossible to get Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal right (the big/great/grand dictation of the Dutch language). Regular spelling does not equal easy spelling :)

Posted by: Ruben at April 5, 2006 04:14 PM

Spanish in Spain is written as it is said. In other countries (ie, latin america) we don't speak as we should (for example, the sound of "z" and "s" are supposed to be different, but we don't care)

Posted by: Lala at April 5, 2006 08:10 PM

The reason Qwerty doesn't change, or English for that matter, is the same reason the US doesn't adopt the metric system: millions or billions of people would have to learn a new measurement system/keyboard arrangement/language. They don't want to do that. Languages drift over time and English is simpler in some aspects than other languages, e.g. lack of gender and case inflection on most nouns. No language is perfect.

@Tim: People thinking that English is a Romance language (and over half of English words are in fact derived from Latin; English is Indo-European as is Latin, though that goes back further in time) is not the reason for its oddities. The reason is that English has diverse roots going back thousands of years and has also drifted over the millennia, e.g. occurrence of ablaut and dropping of inflection. English has many irregular verbs because of ablaut and because of those verbs' diverse roots (in, the Romans would say, barbarian languages of northern Europe).

Posted by: Fuzzy at April 5, 2006 08:43 PM

Here's a good demo:


Now, that's not the normal spelling of that word, but rather a conflation of several of the weird spelling rules.

Break it out like this:

Gh ough phth eigh tte eau

Gh as in hiccouGH (or hiccup as it's spelled in the US)

Ough as in thOUGH

Phth as in PHTHalocyanine (an organic dye)

Eigh as in nEIGHbour

Tte ad gazeTTE

Eau as in bEAU

Put it all toghether, and you have.... potato.

Posted by: Glenn Lasher at April 6, 2006 07:04 AM

I can make neither heads nor tails of German spelling. Like it seems they just string words together without end, like if I said heyGermanspellingisweird. Oh well.

Arthur Dent- How clever of you to misspell 'clever'.

I think English spelling is cool.

Posted by: Bob at April 6, 2006 08:04 AM

So it's decided.

All naturally evolved languages are broken.

So let's all learn Esperanto.


Posted by: Sean P at April 6, 2006 09:43 AM

English is a beautiful synthesis of several languages. Its diverse background allows writers to be exquisitely detailed in how they compose descriptions, among other things. It is the prototypical anarchist's tongue, the lingua franca of the unsuppressed mind, capable of supporting great depth and breadth of thought.

Naturally, one must value that sort of thing; otherwise, it is just a great waste of time.

Posted by: Sean at April 6, 2006 02:39 PM

what about chinese/japanese?

Posted by: god at April 6, 2006 04:04 PM


Gh as in enouGH

O as in wOmen

ti as in naTIon


Posted by: nick'd at April 6, 2006 04:20 PM

@god: As I pointed out, no language (naturally developed, that currently exists) is perfect. The downside of Chinese or Japanese is the thousands of characters. (Is Japanese all phonetic? There must be another downside.)

Posted by: Fuzzy at April 6, 2006 09:35 PM

Although no naturally evolved language is perfect, I agree with David that German spelling is very straightforward.

Posted by: cmadler at April 8, 2006 02:48 PM

Japanese is far from all phonetic. For example, the following kanji may all be pronounced as "hou" depending on context: 法砲報方包放訪崩邦俸封宝芳奉豊胞褒飽縫保 (Can we use Unicode here?) There are probably more, and then each of these has at least two pronunciations. And you need to know how to read/write the kanji.

Posted by: josh at April 9, 2006 02:31 AM

In my travels to Latin America I would see misspellings in Spanish, for example on signs or messages the rural poor had painted onto the sides of their own dwellings - mixing up ll for y, missing diacriticals, etc.

Posted by: criollo at April 13, 2006 01:51 PM

Um I don't think that this should get priority over some things that I submitted. We all know spelling bees are just plain worng.

Posted by: at April 13, 2006 03:24 PM

It's funny, because for me, cord does rhyme with word. Any if I try reeaally hard, I can make horse rhyme with worse without it sounding too strange.

Posted by: Gabriel Hurley at May 11, 2006 10:15 PM

Comments on this entry are closed

Previous Posts: