Why is the English language so weird and inconsistent? Blame the printing press.

When I started learning the Irish language, I was quickly blown away by how simple and logical it was. Which sounds weird, because you frequently encounter words like "chomharthaíochta" and "admhálacha." But while those spellings might seem jarring or overwhelming, at least the words are defined by consistent rules. Once you learn the different letter combinations, you find that they're pronounced the same every time.

The same, however, cannot be said about the English language, which often feels like a clusterfuck of arbitrary rules. It's a difficult and confusing language, but also a malleable one. Grammar and pronunciations vary depending on location, because it's adaptable by design.

Aeon has a great new article that traces the history of spelling conventions and pronunciation in the English language. It's full of fascinating tidbits that also ask essential questions about the foundational purposes of language and literacy.

For the first few hundred years of English using the Latin alphabet, its spelling was pretty consistent and phonetic. Monks and missionaries, beginning around 600 CEtranslated Latin religious texts into local languages – not necessarily so they could be read by the general population, but so they could at least read aloud to them. Most people were illiterate. The vernacular translations were written to be pronounced, and the spelling was intended to get as close to the pronunciation as possible.

But what really stuck out to me was something that built off of this idea that spelling was just meant to be accessible and pronounceable. As the author explains, this lead to a game of a cross-cultural telephone once the printing press was invented — and that technological innovation ended up accidentally cementing the inconsistent spellings to which we've all grown accustomed:

Printing houses developed habits for spelling frequent words, often based on what made setting type more efficient. In a manuscript, hadde might be replaced with hadthankefull with thankful. When it came to spelling, the primary objective wasn't to faithfully represent the author's spelling, nor to uphold some standard idea of 'correct' English – it was to produce texts that people could read and, more importantly, that they would buy. Habits and tricks became standards, as typesetters learned their trade by apprenticing to other typesetters. They then often moved around as journeymen workers, which entailed dispersing their own habits or picking up those of the printing houses they worked in.


When an English speaker sat down to write something at the end of the Middle Ages, the way they wrote it could depend on where they lived and what the dialectal pronunciation of vowels was there. It would also depend on what they had read and incorporated into their spelling habits. When a printer was setting type for that writing, they had their own pronunciation and spelling preferences. When a piece of writing was set in type and spread to other towns, it would be received by people of varying literacy levels, and that would influence how it was incorporated into their habits. In other words, there was tremendous variation at each of these waystations on the journey to being read. When a text was set in type and distributed, it had the effect of propagating the habit it represented, but how much it propagated depended on how widely it was distributed and where. Which specific aspects of the habit would stick and which fall away? The answer could be some or none. The result, ultimately, is a very irregular habit.

Paradoxically, this actually supported the argument that the language should be accessible to the illiterate masses. People read faster when they're familiar with words; purely phonetic spellings can actually be jarring, if they look too strange. If you wanted to sell books, you had to make them readable, and if people have an easier time reading words they're familiar with, then it makes sense to pander to that in order to keep your sales up…which lead to the normalization of an inconsistent language.

The more texts there were, the more reading there was, and the greater the sensibility about what looks right. Once that sense develops, it can be a very powerful enforcer of norms. These norms in the literacy of English speakers today are so well entrenched that simple adjustments are very jarring. If ai trai tu repreezent mai akshuel pronownseeayshun in raiteeng, yu kan reed it, but its difikelt and disterbeeng tu du soh. It just looks wrong, and that feeling of wrongness interrupts the flow of reading. The fluency of reading depends on the speed with which you visually identify the words, and the speed of identification increases with exposure. The more we see a word, the more quickly we recognise it, even if its spelling doesn't match the sound.

This looks like I'm quoting a lot from the article (for which I do apologize to the author). But there's so, so, so much more contained within the link — 3400 words or so, in fact — that it's all worth a read.

Typos, tricks and misprints [Arika Okrent / Aeon]

Image: Public Domain via NeedPix