#EngTalk: The Size of English Spelling Problem

So fellas, we talked about English Spelling and its complication last week based on David Crystal’s book “Spell it Out”…

Today, we are going to find out just how much is “the size” of this English spelling problem or complication

According to Crystal,

“The origins of spelling difficulties in English lie in the fact that there are far more sounds in the language than there are letters.”

So how many distinctive sounds are there?

E.g. From pip, then change first sound to: tip, sip, hip, lip That gives a: p, t, s, h, l

Then we could change to second sound

E.g. Pip, pop, pup, peep That gives us i, o, u, ee

These are called “phonemes”. So, how many “phonemes” are there in English?

The answer is

“depends on the regional accent we have, but for many people the total is forty-four (44)”

Crystal shared that there are around twenty four (24) consonant phonemes, as seen here

phonemes1_2

This is only based on the consonant phonemes of British Received Pronunciation and General American

And between these accents, it varied around twenty (20) vowel phonemes

Here are the vowel phonemes stated

phonemes2_2

phonemes3

If you see a colon (:) after a symbol then it means that the sound is long with a single phonetic quality

If there is a combination of two symbols then the sound is long because it has two distinct phonetic qualities (“diphthongs”)

“Diphthongs” play a particular role in English spelling history

As has been shared above, these phonemes are only from British Received Pronunciation and General American

Other accents such as Canadian, Australian, Irish, Indian, even Cockney from England, might have more 

For example, in Cockney accent, fin – thin, vat – that, sounds the same or said either way

According to Crystal, the total of the phonemes in different English accents, including its consonants & vowels, are all up to forty

So “to write them all down in a completely regular way, we would need an alphabet of the same size. And that is what we haven’t got”

Crystal continued, “We have an alphabet of twenty-six letters. How are we going to spell forty + phonemes with twenty-six letters?”

To conclude, Crystal stated interestingly,

“That, in a nutshell, is the problem of English spelling”

So here we are today, with the English language that has gone Global – so has the “English spelling problem” got bigger? 

With Crystal’s explanation, I think it is understandable why English would be a complicated language

Yet, in the same time, can be a very interesting language to learn, plus explore 

So if you are learning English right now, keep learning it, understand its characteristics, and you will eventually master it :D

Thank you for your kind attention, fellas :) I hope this #EngTalk session is useful for you :D

Compiled and written by @daedonghae at @EnglishTips4u on November 22, 2014

Source: This session was taken from “Spell It Out” by David Crystal, please do search or Google about him if you want to know more :)

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