Why is the English language so weird and inconsistent? Blame the printing press

Originally published at: Why is the English language so weird and inconsistent? Blame the printing press. | Boing Boing


Well, that and to annoy the French.




There’s also the matter of English bringing in lots of loanwords, and being influenced by so many varied language systems (making it not cleanly Germanic, Romantic, etc.), that the loanwords typically kept their source spelling even though their source languages had different phonetic conventions. This is how we end up with things like seven ways to pronounce ‘ough,’ none of which are phonetic.


It’s interesting stuff, but if the printing press is to blame, why didn’t it induce inconsistency in other languages?


“Hough” nearly is, if you accept that the “correct” way to pronounce “gh” is like the “ch” in Scots loch: cf. “knight”, which I believe was originally pronounced something like “ker-nikht”.


Ker-nigget, surely?




“Cum on feel the noize.”


I’m a big fan of the rules of the Simplified Spelling Board. A lot of it is just dropping extra letters, e.g. in gost, hed and hart, and getting rid of all those ough’s. Trof, laf, cof, &c. &c.
Not all the way to a fonetic spelling, but rules that keep text reasonably readable for people used to traditional spelling.
Their (~100 year old) Handbook of Simplified Spelling is at archive.org.


But this argument would go for any language, right?

English spelling is weird because it is a creole with a Germanic substrate and a Normandic superstrate with quite a bit of Celtic and Nordic thrown in(*). Many West Germanic sounds like the different types of G (, [χ], [ʁ]…) disappeared but remained in spelling, this is a common process when a pidgin becomes a standard language, the difficult stuff is dropped.

The spelling stayed, so many English words are still spelled Germanic or Normandic but the pronunciation drifted.

Nobody ever managed a sensible spelling reform not even for the vowel shifts and so the chaos remained.

(*And Latin, but the Latin words make sense because they follow Latin orthography. The modern pronunciation is all over the place of course…)


Knight is related to the German Knecht ([knɛçt], with a clear k and n) (servant or farm hand).


it’s adaptable by design.

No. No it is not. It was never designed. There is no design. It is adaptable by practice or usage (sadly, in many cases such as…)


something that built off of this idea

So, this something was something that was not built ON this idea, because you are clearly stating that it was built elsewhere other than ON this idea - namely OFF OF this idea.

See? Your usage has adapted the language to a new usage where what you THINK it means may hold true informally by repeated usage, but in fact means quite the opposite.

Metaphorical usage may hide the idiocy of this so let’s try a non metaphorical usage.

The brick walls were built on the foundations. Good. That is exactly where they should be. But if the brick walls were built off of the foundations (as you would no doubt say they were) I, for one, would not buy that house for love nor money. I don’t want my brick walls built on who knows what, elsewhere (i.e. off of) than on the foundations, thank you.

Another skirmish in the American War on Prepositions (and other abstract nouns, like drugs and terror).

But yes, typesetters have much to do with it, as does it being a highly composite language (esp. re Norman and Anglo-Saxon colliding only a thousand years ago.)


@thomdunn [quote=“thomdunn, post:1, topic:202686”]
As the author explains, this lead to a game of a cross-cultural telephone once the printing press was invented

You mean “led”. /pedantic


This is pure speculation, but perhaps it was because English was overwhelmingly dominant in England in a way that the languages that would become French and Spanish, for example, weren’t in France and Spain: Francien was up against Gascon, Occitan, etc., and Castilian against Catalan, Aragonese, and so forth. In such countries, one of the printing press’s roles would be promoting a standardised register of one of the competing tongues as the national language: having regularised and predictable spelling would be a distinct advantage, especially as it would be a second language for many of its readers.


Not just letter within words got dropped by printers. The English alphabet has lost about 8 or 9 letters over the centuries.


But…but…“lead” is also a metal that’s pronounced the same as “led” and … GAAAHHH!


My wife writes notes to herself for the grocery store or a to do list, if she can’t spell something she has to go look it up because, I guess, if she has to turn it in to be graded she might get a C.

My notes are barely legible and sometimes I have no idea what I was writing, funny thing is my wife can translate them every time.

But, I refuse to send an email or text that does not have proper spelling or punctuation. I hate it when I get text messages from very professional people that can’t be bothered with capitalization or commas.

At least no one blamed the immigrants. Lately they get the blame for everything.




Reading a phrase so clumsy as “built off of” is jarring to me, since I was educated at a time when the written word was treated with respect by professional writers and editors. And why “based off of” is replacing “based on” is a puzzle, since it makes no sense and requires more words. But that is only one example of how the language will be changed because of the usage by so many who post on social media as well as by the increasing number of professional writers who appear to have no editors. So “on accident” will replace “by accident” and “then” and “than” will be synonyms in the future.