FEBRUARY 5, 2015

Alison Clarke co-authored this article. Alison is a speech pathologist at the Clifton Hill Child and Adolescent Therapy Group in Melbourne and is on Learning Difficulties Australia‘s Council.

A new batch of Australian five-year-olds has just started school, eager to learn to read and write. Unfortunately for them, English has one of the most difficult spelling systems of any language, thanks to the way it developed.

A patchwork of many languages

Words from Germanic Anglo-Saxon (woman, Wednesday) and Old Norse (thrust, give) were mixed with words from the church’s Latin (annual, bishop), and Norman French (beef, war). Pronunciation changed dramatically in England between 1350 and 1700 (The Great Vowel Shift), and scribes paid by the character added letters to words.

Science, technology and The Enlightenment added words, often based on Latin or Greek (anthropology, phone, school), wars and globalisation added even more, like “verandah” from Hindi, “tomato” from Nahuatl (Aztec) via Spanish, and “yakka” from Yagara (an Australian Indigenous language). Words are also continually being invented and added to contemporary dictionaries.

Words from other languages typically carry their spelling patterns into English. So, for example, the spelling “ch” represents different sounds in words drawn from Germanic (cheap, rich, such), Greek (chemist, anchor, echo) and French (chef, brochure, parachute).

English has 26 characters, but many more sounds. Shutterstock
Our originally Latin alphabet has only 26 letters for the 44 sounds in modern Australian English. To master our spelling system, children must grasp that words are made of sounds represented by letters, that sometimes we use two, three or four letters for a sound (feet, bridge, caught), that most sounds have several spellings (Her first nurse works early), and that many spellings represent a few sounds (food, look, flood, brooch).  TO SEE THE ENTIRE ARTICLE, CLICK THE LINK BELOW.

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