How the English language became such a mess

How the English language became such a mess

You may have seen a poem by Gerard Nolst Trinite called The Chaos. It starts like this:

Dearest creature in creation Studying English pronunciation, I will teach you in my verse Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

In its fullest version, the poem runs through about 800 of the most vexing spelling inconsistencies in English. Eight hundred.

Attempting to spell in English is like playing one of those computer games where, no matter what, you will lose eventually. If some evil mage has performed vile magic on our tongue, he should be bunged into gaol for his nefarious goal (and if you still need convincing of how inconsistent English pronunciation is, just read that last sentence out loud). But no, our spelling came to be a capricious mess for entirely human reasons.

The problem begins with the alphabet itself. Building a spelling system for English using letters that come from Latin - despite the two languages not sharing exactly the same set of sounds - is like building a playroom using an IKEA office set. But from Tlingit to Czech, many other languages that sound nothing like Latin do well enough with versions of the Latin alphabet.

So what happened with English? It's a story of invasions, thefts, sloth, caprice, mistakes, pride and the inexorable juggernaut of change. In its broadest strokes, these problems come down to people - including you and me, dear readers - being greedy, lazy and snobbish.

Invasion and theft

First, the greed: invasion and theft. The Romans invaded Britain in the 1st Century AD and brought their alphabet; in the 7th Century, the Angles and Saxons took over, along with their language. Starting in the 9th Century, Vikings occupied parts of England and brought some words (including they, displacing the Old English hie).

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