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Why do some languages have a writing system that closely represents the way the language is actually spoken while other languages have a less clear writing system?

No language has a spelling system (or orthography) which absolutely and completely represents the sounds of that language, but some are definitely better than others. Italian has a shallow orthography, which means that the spelling of the words represent the sounds of Italian quite well (although Sicilian, Sardinian, and Neapolitan Italian speakers may disagree), while English has a deep orthography, which means that spelling and pronunciation don't match so well.


Italian is consistent for two main reasons. Firstly, the Accademia della Crusca was established in 1583 and has spent several centuries since regulating the Italian language; the existence of such an academy has enabled wide-ranging and effective spelling consistency. Secondly, Standard Italian only has five vowels; a, i, u, e, and o, which makes it much easier to distinguish between them on paper. Other examples of languages with five vowel systems are Spanish and Japanese, both of which also have shallow orthographies. Japanese is an interesting case; some words are written using the Japanese characters, which accurately represent the sound of the words, but other words are written with adapted Chinese characters, which represent the meaning of the words and don't represent the sound at all.

French has a deep orthography, but in one direction; while one sound can be written several different ways, there tends to be one specific way of pronouncing a particular vowel or combination of vowels. For example, the sound [o] can be written au, eau, or o, as in haut, oiseau, and mot; however, the spelling eau can only be pronounced as [o].

English, meanwhile, has a very deep orthography, and has happily resisted spelling reform for centuries (interestingly enough, this is not the case in the USA; Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language introduced a successful modern spelling reform programme… or program). One obvious reason is the lack of a formal academy for the English language - English speakers are rather laissez-faire (certainly laissez-faire enough to use French to describe English speakers' attitudes towards English) - but there are several other reasons too.

Formed out of a melting pot of European languages - a dab of Latin and Greek here, a pinch of Celtic and French there, a fair old chunk of German, and a few handfuls of Norse - English has a long and complicated history. Some spelling irregularities in English reflect the original etymology of the words. The unpronounced b in doubt and debt harks back to their Latin roots, dubitare and debitum, while the pronunciation of ce- as "se-" in centre, certain, and celebrity is due to the influence of French (and send and sell are not "cend" and "cell" because they are Germanic in origin).

All languages change over time, but English had a particularly dramatic set of changes to the sound of its vowels in the middle ages known as the Great Vowel Shift. The early and middle phases of the Great Vowel Shift coincided with the invention of the printing press, which helped to freeze the English spelling system at that point; then, the sounds changed but the spellings didn't, meaning that Modern English spells many words the way they were pronounced 500 years ago. This means that the Shakespeare's plays were originally pronounced very differently from modern English, but the spelling is almost exactly the same. Moreover, the challenge of making the sounds of English match the spelling of English is harder because of the sheer number of vowels. Depending on their dialect, English speakers can have as many as 22 separate vowel sounds, but only the letters a, i, u, e, o, and y to represent them; it's no wonder that so many competing combinations of letters were created.

Deep orthography makes learning to read more difficult, as a native speaker and as a second language learner. Despite this, many people are resistant to spelling reform because the benefits may not make up for the loss of linguistic history. The English may love regularity when it comes to queuing and tea, but not when it comes to orthography.

Gwilym Lockwood  & Flora Vanlangendonck


Original Pronunciation in Shakespeare:

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos