Good read on the reliable topic of the horrors of English spelling, courtesy of a review by Tom Shippey on two new language books:
English spelling is notoriously inconsistent, and some have gone further, calling it “the world’s most awesome mess” or “an insult to human intelligence” (both these from linguists, one American, one Austrian). Maybe this is just because our alphabet only has twenty-six letters to represent more than forty phonemes, or distinctive speech-sounds, and some of those – notably q and x – are not pulling their weight, while j is not allowed to (see “John” but also “George”). If we gave s and z a consistent value (“seazon”) and extended this to k and c (“klok” and “sertain”), we could free c up for other duties, such as maybe representing ch, as once it did. But then there are all the vowels . . . .
How did this unsystematic system come about? And is it really that bad? Some say that there are only a few hundred deeply irregular words, but the trouble is that most of them are common. Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle even went so far as to claim that we have “close to an optimal system”, though that takes a deal of argument to convince.
Nice nod to my friend Tim Halle’s dad, Morris.
Full review at TLS review of “The History of English Spelling”