The Origins of Chaos, or the English Spelling Explained

by Anna Wawrzonkowska

In 1992, Gerard Nolst Trenité, a Dutch academic and linguist, wrote his famous poem: the Chaos. It is, perhaps, the best summary of the helpless confusion any non-native speaker feels when put against the whirling maelstrom of English spelling and pronunciation.

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

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would. (…)

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!


You might wonder – that is, after you have finished banging your head against the keyboard in helpless rage, proclaiming that you will never be able to speak English properly – why exactly the pronunciation of the so-called easy language of communication is so jumbled up. The answer is twofold.

English pronunciation is not difficult per se – the sounds that it employs are fairly common and standard for most Indo-European languages, barring two oddities: [θ] like “th” in “thin”, and [ð] like “th” in “then”. What makes it difficult is the inconsistent arbitrary connection that it has to the written language (for instance, “th” could be either [θ] or [ð]). As it turns out, it is relatively easy to speak English – but much more difficult to read it.

Some languages are phonemic – i.e., the written form of the word consistently reflects the pronunciation of it, with a stable grapheme-to-phoneme (letters to sounds) connection, such as Italian or Finnish. English is very much not a phonemic language. This is understandable, there are few languages boasting perfect consistency… And yet! When one reads a line such as Trenité’s Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough [ðəʊ θruː baʊ kɒf hɒk sʌf tʌf], all logical reasoning flees in panic. Six different phonemic possibilities out of one spelling! Could there be any reasons for such chaos?

The answers, as often, lie in the darkness of the ages.

In this case, it is quite literally the Dark Ages. In particular, they can be found with Geoffrey Chaucer, the writer from this time who started the slow climb towards what is now considered the Standard English writing system. Before Chaucer’s times, the writer usually based his orthography on more or less educated guesses – English was never consistently spelt due to low literacy, little experience with written texts, and difficulty in obtaining books. (The printing press was yet to be invented.) The spelling was largely phonetic: people writing down Old English pronounced all letters. They sounded the w in write, the g in gnat, and the k in know.

Bearing that in mind, let us see what Chaucer’s orthography was like – and, just in case, compare it to today’s standard.

Original (c. 1390) Modern orthography
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the     roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licourOf which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
When April with its sweet-smelling showers
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquidBy which power the flower is created;
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
In every wood and field has breathed life into
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
Has run half its course in Aries,
And small fowls make melody,
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages.

(General Prologue, Canterbury Tales 1–12)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from which the passage above is taken, was inarguably the most important work of his times. Enormously popular, as well as copied and countlessly re-written, for a long time it was the basis of written English – an ‘ABC’ that others would apply, and a primer from which they learnt.

However, even though Chaucer’s writing had set a standard, that standard was consistently and tirelessly undermined. It might sound absurd, but shortly after Chaucer’s death in 1400, the main people contributing to the diluted orthography of the English language were people whose grasp on English was questionable at best. Clerks and monks, who – prior to the re-instating of English as an official language around 1430 – spoke only French and Latin, were now forced to write in English as well; those Francophone scribes are to be thanked for the inconsistencies such as label (English) and table (French), bubble vs. double, enter vs. centre etc.

Even following the invention of the printing press the chaos was not constrained, but only grew further. The main group operating the printing press in England were… Belgians – with scarce knowledge of the language, but on the other hand paid more for longer words. Many natively English words, such as eny or bisy, gained a corrupted spelling (any, busy), or were complicated needlessly: frend to friend, hed to head, seson to season, shal to shall.

However, the biggest dilution of orthography, which concluded English’s departure from the land of phonemic languages, was in fact the fault of the Bible. After an Englishman called William Tyndale translated it to his native tongue (which was expressly forbidden at the time), he needed to flee the country; and so it was composed and printed by foreigners who spoke no English. What happened next is elegantly summarised by the History of English Spelling:

“They [Tyndale’s writings] were also much reprinted, because English bishops kept having them searched out, bought up and brought back for public burning outside St. Paul’s cathedral in London. With repeated copying, from increasingly corrupt copies, Bible spellings became more and more varied. Yet they were the first and only book that many families ever bought, and learned to read and write from too. When Sir Thomas More’s spies finally managed to track Tyndale down and have him hanged and then burnt at the stake near Brussels in 1536, printers began to change his spellings even more, along with his name, in order to disguise his authorship. By the second half of the 16th century English spelling had consequently become very chaotic, with hardly anyone knowing what its rules were. Elizabethan manuscripts consequently became full of different spellings for identical words, on the same page, even including the Queen’s own writings and the first authorised Bible of 1611.”

From a historical point of view, it seems funny to think that the entire history of the English spelling – from the darkness of the Middle Ages until at least the late seventeen-hundreds – was created by two books: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Tyndale’s Bible. In both cases, the conclusion is clear: can foreigners really complain about English being an orthographical mess, when the foreigners were the ones to mess it up?

After the chaos had started becoming inconvenient for everybody, there were of course attempts to phoneticise English again – but they fell against the powerful force of habit. It is due to another book – Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language – that Modern English got its own standardised orthography.

Johnson’s goal was not the fool’s errand to turn English into a phonemic language. Instead, he set a much more possible, yet still challenging task: to make one written word equivalent to one spoken word. By drawing single connection between a form and an utterance, he was able to take the shapeless cloud of ‘there, theyre, thare, their’ (any of which could mean either the place I’m pointing at, belonging to them, or we are) and sharpen it into something communicable. However, Johnson is also partly responsible for messing up the spelling even further: he was the one to put a b inside debt, l inside salmon, p in receipt, and many more. As David Crystal writes for the Huffington Post, “In trying to simplify the system, the reformers ended up complicating it.”

And so, whose fault is it really? Is it on the French-speaking scribes? Is it on William Tyndale for letting foreigners publish the English Bible? Is it, finally, on Samuel Johnson and his dictionary, for insufficient effort to regularise the language? Of course, no one will ever bear the blame alone. Language development resembles an anthill; it moves swiftly and invisibly under the surface, and it is pushed forward, moved, and reformed by collective effort. Sometimes a leaf falls in and is incorporated into the complex structure of the tunnel; sometimes the wind changes and blows away many generation’s worth of effort; and sometimes the workers abandon old tunnels for no particular reason at all and build something new. It’s a collective work, an amalgam of a thousand thoughts and works and mistakes, all bound together by even less tangible things: trends, popularity, skill. And as they change, so the language – and its spelling – does.

Will English spelling change over time? Absolutely. The processes of change are far from being over (most people don’t even put that h in rhubarb anymore, and what about hiccough/hiccup?) and most likely they never will be. The only defence one might hope to have against irregularity is to understand where it is coming from – a colourful, long, ever-so-diverse history of a nation and the way it thought. Every spoken word has a thousand years’ worth of history behind it, and somewhere inside it, a reason – even if the reason is that some five hundred years ago, a man published a book and was burnt on the stake for it.

But hey, no one said that English wasn’t difficult! It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.

Reference: The History of English Spelling, by The English Spelling Society –

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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