Why we Love Word History

If you saw the word “ghoti”, how would you pronounce it? What if I told you that this word read aloud sounded like “fish”? If we didn’t know how “fish” was spelled, this could very likely be the spelling! The gh, is pronounced [f] as in enough, the o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women, and the ti pronounced [sh] as in nation. So if two completely different spellings can logically be explained to sound out the same word, how does anyone know how to spell anything?

Have you ever wondered how English ended up with certain sounds? The history of language development is a fascinating subject, especially for a language such as English, which has taken bits and pieces from other languages. You’ve probably heard the joke that English “follows other languages down alleyways to mug them for spare vocabulary”. This is because English originated as a Germanic language that then started “borrowing” words from other languages. Borrowing is the process by which a word from one language is taken and adapted for use in another. One estimate is that English has about 20-33% native words, and the rest are borrowed. This means that English has a lot of words adapted from other languages! Two such languages are French and German.

Since English has taken words from other languages, this has lead to English having many sounds that are actually French (ch saying sh), Greek (ch saying k), or Latin (using qu instead of the Germanic cw). This can make it very confusing for students when spelling, because if they don’t know a sound, they may try to sound it out using the sounds that they do know.Examples of the use of “qu” include words like queen and quick, where someone unfamiliar with the word would probably try and write “cween” or “kween”. Some examples of “ch” saying “sh” are champagne, brochure, chef, and charade. For someone just learning English, when they look at these words, they would think the “ch” spelling is pronounced as it looks.

Some examples of other French words that English has borrowed are “ballet” and “buffet”. In these words, the “t” is silent. Again, with someone just learning the language, they would tend to want to pronounce the “t”, or if they were writing the word, they would not know to add this silent “t”. Another example is the word “cafe”. In French, the spelling is café, with an accent on the e., which indicates that the “e” should be pronounced and not silent. Since this accent was dropped in English, it may be hard for someone learning to know to make this sound. There are also words that have been added into English that are unchanged from French, for example “faux pas” or “rendezvous,” which are just eventually learned, but would be difficult at first. We have also borrowed words from German. Some examples of these are the words “kindergarten,” and “waltz.”

Since there are no universal language rules, and English has words from many different languages, learning how to spell and to properly pronounce certain words can be very tricky. With silent letters, exceptions to rules, and combinations of sounds making other sounds (ie “ph” in the beginning of a word for “f”, or “gh” at the end of a word, also for “f”), there’s no denying that English can be tough to learn, especially for a child with learning differences. Rest assured, our tutors can teach even the trickiest words! Each tutor has a reference book where comprehensive information is given for every spelling of every sound. For each spelling, there are rules which govern it, exceptions to the rules, and sample words. No matter how tough the spelling, or how tricky the word, our tutors are equipped to teach and explain both the difficult words and the borrowed words of English.




Rob Wahl