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SPELLING The act, process, or system of relating speech sounds to LETTERS and to the written form of WORDS. The spelling system of an alphabetic language consists of the conventions by which its letters represent sounds and words (E-G-G spells egg) and the way(s) in which words are spelt/spelled (How d'you spell ‘accommodation’—one m or two?). Phoneticians describe the ideal relationship between sound and alphabetic WRITING as phonographic: letters indicate sounds and sounds indicate letters. As ALPHABETS have evolved, however, they have been adapted in different ways to different languages, and the relationship is sometimes indirect and far from ideal. In FRENCH and ENGLISH, whose orthographic traditions are ancient and intricate, the current situation is complex and often confused.

English spelling

The spelling of English has traditionally been discussed (and often taught) in terms of rules and exceptions. For example, the rule that the ee combination in meet, sleep, etc., stands for a single long /i/ sound, but the fact that the long /i/ sound can be represented in other ways, as in be, sea, key, quay, ski, esprit, deceit, field, people, amoeba/ameba, aeon/eon, leave, these. Similarly there is a rule that c before a/o/u is hard (cat, cot, cut) but before e/i is soft (cent, cite), with such exceptions as façade on the one hand and a common PRONUNCIATION of Celtic on the other. Word forms that conflict with the phonographic principle are common: (1) Those with aberrant letter values, such as the a in any, the e in sew, the g in BrE gaol, the gh in laugh, the l in colonel, the o in woman and women, the s in sugar, the x in xenophobia, and the z in schizophrenia. (2) Those with silent letters, such as the a in head, the b in thumb, the c in indict, the e in height, the g in foreign, the h in honest, the k in knee, the n in column, the p in ptarmigan, the t in castle, and the w in write. (3) Those that carry over all or something of their non-English spelling from other languages, such as the aa in bazaar (from Persian), the c in cello (from Italian), the dd in eisteddfod (from Welsh), the ch and y in chrysanthemum (from Latinized GREEK), the chs in fuchsia (from Latinized GERMAN), and the j in marijuana (from Spanish).

Although most of the letters of the alphabet have in isolation an unambiguous sound value, as represented in children's alphabet lists (A is for Apple, etc.) in the spelling of many words this correspondence does not apply (A is also for above, all, and any). Adult native speakers are often unsure how to pronounce such words as algae, fungi, hegemony, and lichen. Common misspellings include confusion over silent letters (for example, ‘figth’ for fight), doubled consonants (‘supprise’ for surprise, ‘accomodate’ for accommodate, ‘commitee’ for committee, ‘dissapear’ for disappear), and the representation of the weak vowel schwa (‘assistent’ for assistant, ‘consistant’ for consistent, ‘burgler’ for burglar, ‘docter’ for doctor).

A hybrid system

The major elements in the creation of the present-day spelling of English have been the adaptation of the Roman alphabet to serve English, outside influences on that language, and the GREAT VOWEL SHIFT. When the Roman alphabet was adopted for writing OLD ENGLISH, it was supplemented to cover sounds not present in Latin. The letters ASH, ETH, THORN, and WYNN (along with YOGH, a variant of Roman g) have not survived into Modern English, while the consonants j, v, w have been recent additions. Old English spelling appears to have represented pronunciation relatively consistently, but the Norman Conquest in 1066 introduced many Norman-French usages that conflicted with Old English tradition, such as the qu- in queen (Old English cwēn). Massive borrowing of LATIN and Greek words (often through French or French spelling conventions) as well as the adoption of words from many other languages created a great variety of often conflicting spelling patterns. Many small sets of words with their own inherited patterns of letters emerged, such as the kn- group representing Old English cn- (such as knave, knife, know), the gu- group from NORMAN FRENCH (such as guard, guide, guise), the -ence group from Latin through French (such as sequence, diligence, residence), and the group of silent p- words from Greek (pneumonia, pterodactyl, psychology). The spelling of early loans conforms to what are now traditional ‘native’ patterns (beef from Norman French boef is like keep from Old English cēpan), but later loans have tended to keep their foreign forms (rendezvous French, spaghetti ITALIAN, yacht Dutch). In the 15c the Great Vowel Shift changed the basic sound values of the language (compare Chaucerian with Modern pronunciations) and such ancient Germanic consonant sounds as the k and gh of knight were lost. Spellings often did not change to reflect these phonological developments. At the same time, writers inserted letters in a number of words on erroneous grounds of etymology, such as the s in island and the gh in delight by analogy with isle and light.

Fixed spellings

Before the spread of printing, publishing, and education, spelling reflected differences in individual and regional usage. The OED records, from the 9c onward, the following spellings of one word, only the last of which is now accepted: myrʒe, murʒe, myriʒe miriʒe, merʒe, meriʒe, murye, muri, murie, mury, miri, mirie, myry, miry, myrie, myri, mirrie, mirry, myrrie, myrry, mirre, meri, merey, merie, mery, merye, merrye, mere, meary, merrie, merry. In 1586, Elizabeth of England wrote in a letter to James of Scotland desiar and wold and James in his reply wrote desyre, desire and wolde, woulde. As a consequence of the spread of printing and publishing (15c onward) and wider education in the VERNACULAR, most common words had acquired their present-day fixed spellings by the 19c, with minor variations between AmE and BrE. Samuel JOHNSON'S Dictionary of the English Language (1755) served as an authoritative work of reference. Until the late 18c, when AmE and BrE usage began to diverge, both members of such pairs as center/centre, color/colour, magic/magick, plow/plough were in general use. AmE usage followed Noah WEBSTER'S dictionary in 1829 in settling on the first in each of these cases. BrE usage, however, having favoured the second in each pair (as in Johnson's dictionary of 1755), continued with all but the -ick form as its standard practice, turning them into tokens of national distinctiveness. As a result, the most obtrusive differences between present-day American and British documents are their spellings.

A system of systems

Spellings became fixed in the 18c by a social consensus and not through the recommendation of an Academy or other institution. The result has been at the same time a lessening of variability and a fossilization of forms that came into existence in different times and places. These fossils occur, as it were, in orthographic strata: a vernacular SUBSTRATUM of ANGLO-SAXON, DANISH, and other Germanic material (and exotic material borrowed so early that it has come to look Germanic), a mid-stratum of Norman-French material, and a superstratum of nativized NEO-LATIN (Latin and Latinized Greek). The intricacies of this system of systems are so great that it is close to impossible to sort out its sets and subsets neatly, but literate users of English appear, by and large, to be aware (in functional, not etymological, terms) of the main patterns. These are amenable to several descriptions: a two-part contrast of Germanic and Romance (including Latinized Greek and ignoring the exotica); a five-part system of Germanic, French, Latin, Greek, and exotica; or a three-part system in line with the three major traditions of word-formation, Germanic, Latin, and Greek (Norman-French patterns variously affecting all three), representing a cline from the everyday to the highly technical. In addition to the core words that belong etymologically to each group there are many words that have crossed over from group to group or been drawn into a group from elsewhere, but what marks a group (among other things) is the distinctive pattern of its spellings, a limited selection of which are:

A vernacular-style spelling

(1) Syllable initial sets of consonants: kn-with silent k in knave, knee, knife, know, knuckle: sk in skate, skill, skunk, sky. (2) Syllable final sets of consonants: -sh in bash, mesh, dish, slosh, gush; -tch in batch, ketch, ditch, splotch, hutch; -ck in back, deck, tick, mock, suck; -le in cattle, kettle, sizzle, bottle, nuzzle; -ckle in crackle, heckle, sickle, grockle, knuckle; -dge in badge, hedge, midge, dodge, nudge. (3) Prefixes: a- in ablaze, aglow, alive, asleep; be- in become, believe, belong. (4) Suffixes: -ly in brotherly, kindly, lordly, northerly; -ness in darkness, lordliness, slimness, wetness; -y in sandy, slimy, wishy-washy.

A Romance-style spelling.

(1) Soft c and g before e and i: cell, gelatin, decision, ginger. (2) Prefixes (unaltered or assimilated): ad- in admit, adopt, advise, allege, apparent; con- in conclude, commensurate, collection; locative in- in inherent, innate, instinct, investigate; negative in- in indecisive, inconclusive, ignoble, illiterate, impossible, irreversible; post- in post-date, postpone; pre- in prescribe, prevent; pro- in progress, provide. (3) Suffixes: -ity in adversity, centrality; -ion in addition, admission, condition, eruption, propulsion, segregation.

A transliterated Greek-style spelling.

(1) Ch with the sound value /k/: chaos, archetype, orchid, cholesterol, monarch. (2) Word-initial silent m and p: mnemonic, psychology, pterodactyl. (3) Use of y rather than i: analysis, psychology, synthetic, syzygy. (4) Use of ph rather than f: amphibious, pharmacy, philosophical. (5) Initial rh and medial and final rrh as in rhetoric, rhythm, diarrh(o)ea, h(a)emorrhage, catarrh.

Spelling and stress

English is a stress-timed language, but its written form does not show where the stress falls in polysyllabic words. The noun and adjective present, which are stressed on the first syllable (présent), have the same spelling as the verb, which is stressed on the second syllable (presént). English can, however, indicate stress when an unstressed vowel is spelt with a syllabic consonant and not a vowel letter: apple, acre, hadn't, and spasm show that the first syllable, with the vowel a, carries the stress, and not the second syllable, in which no vowel letter figures. In the weak syllables of the language (initial in about, conspire, decide, persuade, remove, final in anthem, beggar, metal, phantom, worker), the vowel is reduced in speech to a central weak quality (schwa) or is represented by a syllabic consonant. Unless one already knows the spelling of such unstressed or weak syllables, it is not easy to guess what it might be: compare anthem/fathom, medal/model, principal/principle. In addition, patterns of stress associated with suffixes change the pronunciation of words without affecting spelling and without any indication of stress shift shown in writing, as in átom/atómic, eléctric/electrícity, nátional/nationálity, phótograph/phótographer/photográphic. Elsewhere, the stress shift is reflected in the spelling: maintáin/máintenance, revéal/revelátion.

Homographs and heterographs

Ambiguity of word form in English has three aspects: (1) HOMONYMS, words that have distinct meanings and are in origin unconnected, but have the same sound and spelling: tender as in tender feelings, a locomotive tender, and to tender one's resignation. In context, however, they seldom trouble the reader. (2) HOMOPHONES or HETERONYMS/heterographs, words that have the same pronunciations but are differently spelt, of which there are over 600 sets in English. Phonologically they are homophones, orthographically heterographs: pair/pare/pear, right/rite/write/wright, cent/scent/sent. Such forms are made possible by the many alternative sound–symbol correspondences in English. In reading, the different spellings prevent visual ambiguity, but for writing they require an effort of memorization and can lead to confusion, as when flair is written as flare. (3) HOMOGRAPHS or heterophones, words that have the same spelling but different pronunciations: bow for a violin, bow of a ship. These are ambiguous for readers but cause writers little trouble and are of two kinds: related and unrelated pairs. Related pairs include those that shift stress (an ínsert/to insért), introduce voicing (a house/to house), give an otherwise mute vowel full value (aged, agèd), and involve inflected forms (bathing, either from bath or bathe) and part-of-speech differences (a live wire/to live nearby). Unrelated pairs have usually resulted from accidental convergence: axes (plural of ax(e) or axis). Encounters with a member of such a pair can pose problems comparable to an optical illusion that can be interpreted in two ways: bass, buffet, does, furrier, gill, lower, multiply, routed, sewer, skier, supply, tarry. Such heterophones are not generally felt to constitute a problem, but some of the commoner pairs are easily misread: lead, read, tear, wind, wound, bow, row, sow.

The psychology of literacy

Because of the complexity of English spelling, psychologists, educationists, and linguists have long puzzled over the best way to teach it. It has become a widely held view that rather than seek sound–symbol correspondences, the spelling of words should be seen as forming a constellation of letters whose image is (or can be) more or less imprinted on the mind. Considered from this point of view, English spelling has been called logographic: not simply alphabetic, but with some of the qualities of Chinese writing; spellings such as one and who are read as wholes (gestalts), regardless of the implications of a letter-by-letter READING. Even a simple spelling such as bad triggers sound and meaning in a skilled reader's mind not by virtue of the letters alone but by global image, just like one and who. Proponents of such a ‘look and say’ approach to reading and writing consider that once these word gestalts are imprinted on the mind, they can be read and written as easily as the spelling of a more directly phonographic language such as Spanish or Hungarian. Proponents of a ‘phonic’ approach (relating individual letters to sounds) as well as spelling reformers argue that it is precisely the difficulty of acquiring a separate mental image of so many English spellings that prevents a large number of people from reaching a functional level of literacy. The ‘look and say’ approach teaches quick recognition of familiar words, but can leave users helpless in the face of unfamiliar words if they do not know how to relate sounds and letters. While it is relatively easy to learn to read and write by a system of regular sound–symbol correspondences, the irregularities of English spelling make it difficult for many to master the unpredictable conventions of the written language.



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spell1 / spel/ • v. (past and past part. spelled / speld/ or chiefly Brit. spelt / spelt/ ) [tr.] write or name the letters that form (a word) in correct sequence: Dolly spelled her name | [intr.] journals have a house style about how to spell. ∎  (of letters) make up or form (a word): the letters spell the word “how.” ∎  be recognizable as a sign or characteristic of: she had the chic, efficient look that spells Milan. ∎  lead to: the plans would spell disaster for the economy.PHRASAL VERBS: spell something out speak the letters that form a word in sequence. ∎  explain something in detail: I'll spell out the problem again.spell2 • n. a form of words used as a magical charm or incantation. ∎  a state of enchantment caused by such a form of words: the magician may cast a spell on himself. ∎  an ability to control or influence people as though one had magical power over them: she is afraid that you are waking from her spell.PHRASES: under a spell not fully in control of one's thoughts and actions, as though in a state of enchantment.under someone's spell so devoted to someone that they seem to have magic power over one.spell3 • n. a short period: I want to get away from racing for a spell. ∎  a period spent in an activity: a spell of greenhouse work. ∎  a period of a specified kind of weather: an early cold spell in autumn. ∎  a period of suffering from a specified kind of illness: she plunges off a yacht and suffers a spell of amnesia. ∎ Austral. a period of rest from work.• v. [tr.] allow (someone) to rest briefly by taking their place in some activity: I got sleepy and needed her to spell me for a while at the wheel. ∎  [intr.] Austral. take a brief rest: I'll spell for a bit.


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383. Spelling

See also 236. LANGUAGE .

the practice or defect of incorrect spelling. cacographer, n. cacographic, cacographical, adj.
a phonetic spelling system in which for each sound the letter or digraph most commonly found representing that sound is used.
Rare. the study of nonphonetic spelling. hetericist, n.
1. the practice of spelling in a way contrary to standard usage.
2. the use of the same letters or combinations of letters to represent different sounds, as in English tough and dough. heterographic, heterographical, adj.
1. the art of writing words according to accepted usage; correct spelling.
2. that part of grammar that treats of letters and spelling.
3. a method of spelling. orthographer, n. orthographic, adj.
any phonetic spelling, writing, or shorthand system. phonog-rapher, phonographist, n. phonographic, phonographical, adj.


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spell·ing / ˈspeling/ • n. the process or activity of writing or naming the letters of a word. ∎  the way a word is spelled: the spelling of his name was influenced by French. ∎  a person's ability to spell words: her spelling was deplorable. ∎  a school subject.


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spell a form of words used as a magical charm or incantation. Recorded from Old English, the word originally meant ‘narration’, and is of Germanic origin; the current sense is found first in late Middle English, in night-spell, a spell intended as a protection against harm at night.


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spell1 †discourse OE.; formula of incantation. first in night-s. XIV. OE. spel(l) = OS., OHG. spel ON. spjall, Goth. spill recital, tale :- Gmc. *spellam; of unkn. orig. Comp. spellbound enchanted XVIII; hence spellbind vb., whence (U.S.) spellbinder XX


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spell2 pt., pp. spelled, (usu.) spelt read out as if letter by letter XIII; name or set down the letters of XV; make out, decipher XVI. Aphetic — OF. espel(l)er (mod. épeler), espelir, for older *espeldre, espeaudre, of Gmc. orig. (cf. prec.)


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spell3 relieve (another) at work XVI. Later form of †spele take the place of, OE. spelian, rel. to spala substitute, of unkn. orig.
Hence spell sb. †relief gang XVI; turn of work taken in relief of another XVII; continuous course of time XVIII.