What’s behind the spelling of colonel? Or knight? Why is it four but also forty? English spelling has sometimes been described as an awesome mess. While there is more regularity in our spelling system than you might realize, the irregularities can be so strikingly irregular as to overwhelm the patterns.
From her perspective as a historian of the English language, linguist Anne Curzan discusses why an examination of how we spell can reveal a treasure trove of stories about the history of our language. The museum that is English spelling reflects historical shifts in the pronunciation of words; many layers of borrowed words; the project of creating American spellings (such as honor rather than honour); and the etymologies of borrowed words through revisions to spelling.
Should we revise English spelling to be less of a mess? Why can’t dictionaries agree on when to hyphenate compound words? Curzan illustrates how efforts to reform English spelling are not straightforward at all—and at the same time, spelling changes are happening all around us.
Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman collegiate professor of English, linguistics, and education and dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
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