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‘Lawless’ English spelling is surprisingly organized

Even though the English language hasn’t been subject to regulation or governing over the centuries, it has organized itself, say researchers.

A study on the history and spelling of English suffixes demonstrates that the spelling of English words is more orderly than previously thought.

Unlike France and Italy, and other countries where national academies oversee the written language, no English-speaking country has a language academy to organize and regulate the language. Yet the study in the journal Language examines previously unnoticed systemic aspects of English spelling and explains how the system emerged on its own.

Lead investigator Mark Aronoff, professor in the linguistics department at Stony Brook University, and Kristian Berg of the University of Oldenburg, specifically investigated the spelling of four derivational suffixes and showed the spelling over time is quite consistent—even considering the sounds of the suffixes, like many English words, can have various spellings.

The suffixes include: -ous, found in words such as hazardous and nervous; -ic, found in words like allergic; -al, such as in the word final; and -y, as in funny.

“English spelling was well on its way to its modern incarnation, and no single group seems to have played a notable role in the movement of English spelling toward greater consistency,” says Aronoff.

“We show in this article that the system became gradually more consistent over a period of several hundred years, starting before the advent of printers, orthoepists, or dictionary makers, presumably through the simple interaction of the members of the community of spellers, a sort of self-organizing social network,” he summarizes.

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For each of the suffixes, the authors analyzed a large sample of written English documents dating back close to one thousand years. For every word that follows a certain modern spelling with the suffix, the authors looked at each instance in their sample and kept track of  the word’s spelling. They found a number of spellings for each suffix over time. However, for each suffix one form of spelling eventually won out over another and followed a pattern that led to consistency in spelling.

As a follow-up to the research detailed in the paper, the linguists are now testing their findings on fluent readers of English to see if they use the regularities found and to see if those learning English can learn to read more quickly and fluently with consistent spellings.

The German Academic Exchange Service supported the work, which concluded while Kristian Berg was a postdoctoral fellow at Stony Brook University.

Source: Stony Brook University

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