13 Feb 2013

Why Can't My Child Spell?

It’s a miracle kids ever learn to spell. So if yours can’t, here’s one reason why. We’re speaking, and writing, a mixed-up language.


The bulk of everyday English is a muddle of Germanic languages. Anglo Saxons drove the Gaelic-speaking British - and their language - out of England from 500. From 780, Vikings invaded, bringing Old Norwegian. 1066 brought Norman French. From the 1500s onwards, we gobbled up ancient Greek and Latin. Each language had its own logic. Mix them up and it looks, and sounds, like there is no logic, especially in spelling.

As the languages collided, we lost and gained vocabulary and even letters. Did you know Anglo Saxon English had six extra letters? Ash (Æ, æ), thorn (Þ, þ), eth (Ð, ð), yogh (ȝ), and ethel (œ) are no longer used, though the sounds still exist. There was no letter (w) for the /w/ sound. Anglo Saxons used wynn (Ƿ ƿ). It’s easier to read Anglo Saxon once you know these letters, but still difficult due to scribes’ handwriting. (Þ, þ) looks like (Ƿ ƿ), (m) looks like (n) looks like (u) looks like (a) - much like a lot of kids’, and adults’, handwriting. There was no letter (j): (i) was used instead.

Today, we use (th) for ‘the’ as well as ‘theatre’. Try saying them both. The sounds are similar - but clearly different - as /f/ is to /v/. The Anglo Saxons use (þ) for the soft (th), (ð) for the hard sound. Ash was used in words like ‘mediæval’: now written (e) in some cases, (a) in others - like ‘ash’ itself.

In the Anglo Saxon alphabet, the letter (q) existed, but words like queen were spelled ‘cwene’, which is much closer to the /kw/ sound that (qu) represents. In modern English, words like ‘night’, ‘bright’, and ‘what’, seem crowded with unnecessary letters. The Anglo Saxons sounded them. They spelled ‘what’ ‘hwæt’, and that’s how they pronounced it.

Over time, pronunciation has changed. Spelling has too - to a point. But it hasn’t kept up, leaving our kids struggling as they try to join the pieces.