How does English spelling work?

How does English spelling work? It’s complex but completely regular and understandable.

This isn’t what you normally hear about spelling, but it’s true. Here are some facts about English spelling:

1. There are no irregular words in English.  

2. The spelling of every English word makes perfect sense and can be understood (but not every word needs to be.)

3. Spelling is based on a logical, coherent system that anyone can investigate using scientific principles to examine the words you write and read every day.

What we can’t always do is predict the pronunciation of a word by looking at its spelling. But that’s to be expected. English, like every other written language, evolved to make sense to people who already know and speak the language. And while there is a relationship between spelling and pronunciation, the primary purpose of writing is not to represent pronunciation. You may think, “Well, that’s why so many people have trouble learning to learn to read and spell.” But, actually, that’s not the case. Problems with reading and spelling are created by telling students and teachers that the primary purpose of English spelling is to represent pronunciation when that’s demonstrably false.

Let’s look at a word family and see how things actually work.

cave-matrix

This is a lexical matrix, a representation of a family of words all built from the same base element <cave>. 

For definitions of many of the terms you will read here, see this post on morphemes and morphological definitions.

When I write <cave>, the angle brackets indicate that I am talking about a spelling and I would name this base by spelling it out, “C – A – V – E.”

The base <cave> is a free base which means that this base element exists as a word all by itself. It is called “free” because it does not need anything added to it to form a stand-alone word.  There are also bound bases such as the <mit> in <admit> or the <struct> in <structure>. Bound bases need to have a prefix or suffix “bound” to them in order to appear as a word in English.

Notice that I can construct words from this <cave> family where the <a> in the base <cave> is pronounced in different ways.

<cave>

<concave>

<cavern>

<cavity>

<excavation>

The <a> can be pronounced [eɪ] (as what is often called a “long a”) as in <cave> or <concave>, as [æ] (“short a)” as in <cavity> or <cavern>, and as a schwa [ə] or unstressed, neutral vowel in <excavate>.

(If you are not familiar with IPA, it’s worth studying. This [eɪ] is a representation of my pronunciation of the <a> in <cave>. I say “my pronunciation” because I’m an American who grew up in California and now lives in the Midwest, and I may pronounce that word very differently than other English speakers.  

IPA is used to represent both phonetics and phonology. You can read more about phones and phonetics here, and read more about phonemes and phonology here.)

Notice that although we pronounce the first <a> in <cave, concave, cavern, cavity, & excavation> differently, they are spelled with the same grapheme. They are built from the same base <cave>. The spelling remains intact to clearly represent the orthographic denotation or foundational meaning of the base in all derivations.

Here’s another example with the base <heal>.

heal-matrix

This <ea> is pronounced differently in <healed> and <healthy> but the spelling doesn’t change.

This is how English works. Every written word in English is constructed with at least one base element. Sometimes that base element appears by itself, but often constructions include affixes (prefixes, suffixes and connecting vowels) and they can include other bases. 

The pronunciation of graphemes and morphemes changes as we add additional elements to the base. But the spelling of these morphemes remains consistent in that family of words except for very predictable suffixing changes. This allows for quick and accurate silent reading. The structure of English words allows us to see and understand connections in meaning and grammatical usage through the consistent spelling of morphemes in English words — base elements, prefixes and suffixes.

Look at these word sums and think about pronunciations changes as we add suffixes and a connecting vowel.

<nature/ + al natural>  

(The slash mark in a word sum signals the replacement of a final <e> by a vowel suffix.)

<intent + ion intention>

<magic + i + an magician>

<miss + ion mission>

This change in pronunciation while a spelling remains consistent is everywhere in English. It’s how English works.

English is morphophonemic.  That means that in order to make sense of graphemes (letters or combinations of letters) that we use to spell words, and the phonemes (segments of speech that change in spoken words to change meaning) that the graphemes are signaling, we have to look at graphemes and phonemes in the context of morphology — the organizing principle for English spelling.  We can’t make sense of phoneme-grapheme relationships in the absence of morphology. And to understand a word’s spelling we also need to consider etymology, the history and relationships of words.

Given the fact that English is morphophonemic, it is impossible to accurately teach even the youngest students about our writing system if we ignore morphology and etymology. They are critical from day one.

We know that there are lots of ways to spell a given speech segment in English. So, how do we know that we use a <c> to spell the [ ʃ ] (the same phone at the beginning of “ship”) in “magician?”

We spell [ ʃ ] in <magician> with a <c> because of the connection in meaning and structure to the word <magic>: <magic + i + an ➞ magician>

We find a <t> before the suffix <ion> in <intention> because of its structure: <in + tent +  ion ➞ intention>. I pronounce that <t> before the <ion> in <intention> as [ ʃ ] also.

In <mission>, the pronunciation of that double <s> shifts to [ ʃ ], while it is pronounced [ s ] in <miss>

And any vowel grapheme can represent a schwa. It is only possible to understand the first <a> in “excavation” when we think about the morpheme <cave>.

(If you don’t know about the schwa and stress, you will not be able to make sense of English spelling. I’ll write more about that soon.)

So English spelling makes perfect sense when we understand what orthographic linguistics reveals about it: the spelling of an English word is a sequence of morphemes that are spelled consistently regardless of how they are pronounced, and the graphemes used in those morphemes are influenced by their etymology — their relationship to their historical ancestors, and words that have evolved from the same origins.

We see that in the words <cave, cavity, excavation> the spelling of the base is consistent while the pronunciation varies. Pronunciation varies according to consistent patterns, and can also be studied. But we don’t spell based on pronunciation.

Spelling primarily represents the sense and meaning of words. Relationships between graphemes and phonemes make sense, and can be studied and understood deeply, but only in the context of morphology and etymology. 

Spelling always makes sense.

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