Jan 13th 2011

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How To Spell

It would not be an exaggeration to think that, at one moment or another, every literate speaker of English in history had to wrestle with the question of how to spell a word that he or she knew perfectly in terms of its meaning and pronunciation. Such moments of minuscule (not miniscule) embarrassment (not embarassment) are so common at least in part because of a distinct feature of the English language.
This descriptive feature of English concerns what linguists call the ‘orthography’ of a language – its system of symbols and their rules of usage. English has a so-called “deep orthography”, also known as “defective orthography”. This means quite simply that there is no one-to-one mapping between its written signs and their sound in speech. And indeed, can we not also swap the direction of the question “How do you spell…” and find so many cases of “How do you pronounce…”?
The “depth” of the English orthography describes the possible independence between the spelling of a word and that word’s pronunciation. But what happens in terms of spelling when two words with different meanings are pronounced exactly the same? Or, conversely, when two words are pronounced differently but nevertheless have exactly the same spelling? Through these and similar confusions, we can see how in English a distinction arises between three elements, that has a bearing on words: their meaning, their spelling and their pronunciation.
The various possible interrelations between these three elements account for several error-provoking word-categories for spellers (there are eight in total). For instance, homophones make up the category of words with identical pronunciation that differ in meaning. A speller may deliberate the homophonic different spellings of ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’, ‘there’ and ‘their’, or ‘pair’ and ‘pear’. Heteronyms make up another category, that of words with identical spellings but different sound. Here, for example, a speller may puzzle over the difference between a ‘bow’ for arrows and the customary ‘bow’ in the presence of royalty. Such cases provide a useful classification of words for spelling instruction. There are many other cases, some more simple some complex.
So we can see that these categories, which are inherent in the English language, create a special challenge for learners and native speakers alike. For all, sometimes the spelling of a word is not a trivial task. There are various methods, tips and tricks that can help us along the way. But ultimately, in order to learn, we can only observe, practice and gradually – word by word – absorb the nuances of spoken and written English.

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