The English alphabet is rubbish

English is a very hard language to learn. I only realised this when I started to learn other languages and realised how much simpler their rules of pronunciation, grammar and spelling are. A lot of the problem is that English has developed as a kind of literary stew over thousands of years – aspects of latin, germanic, norse and celtic have been thrown in the pot and stirred by the tongues of our ancestors. Actually, that’s a pretty gross metaphor, but you know what I mean. And we continue to add more foreign phrases every day to this smorgasbord of words which flood into our language like a tsunami.

I think the major issue is our alphabet. We don’t have the right letters to make the sounds our words need. For example, Sochi is hosting the winter Olympics at the moment, and there are notices at every venue declaring “Sochi 2014”, every competitor wears a vest showing their number and “Sochi 2014”. Except that this is only the name of the Russian town in the Latin alphabet. In Cyrillic, the alphabet used by Russia and most of eastern Europe, it is spelt  СОЧИ. And I wondered, why don’t we have an equivalent letter to Ч? We have to use h if we want to write the word cheese. (And surely that should end in a z right?)

It’s not just an issue of transliteration from Cyrillic to Latin. The simple, apparently harmless word “cheese” would cause problems to an Italian who would pronounce it the same as “keys” because the letters ch in Italian become a k sound. Omitting the h is how the Italians would write the equivalent of Ч, as in cento, which in English would be spelled “chento”. All too confusing.

I am learning Icelandic at the moment (or trying to) ready for my holiday later this year, a language that has 33 letters. Admittedly it lacks w or c but it doesn’t need them as it makes do by using other homophone letters like u or s/k. The alphabet is packed with variant vowel sounds like áæö which is much more helpful when trying to work out the pronunciation. And it boasts my favourite letter of all – Þ. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you the letter known as “thorn” which Icelanders use to spell the sound at the start of our word “think”.

English needs more letters like this, more accurate letters, it would make spelling and pronunciation so much simpler. Because at the moment, you cant pronounce a word like “bough” or “cough” unless you have thoroughly thought it through.

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2 responses to “The English alphabet is rubbish

  • Hannah in Iceland

    Oh hush. The English letters are just fine. Perhaps it’s the spelling you should take issue with if you want to make the case for one language being “better” than another. English orthography is beautiful because even in the modern language you can see clear evidence of the huge changes in the language and influences from other languages over the last 1000 years. It’s certainly not harder to learn than Icelandic. And the English alphabet has nothing to do with our grammar. Our grammar is actually very simple since we’ve lost most of our inflectional endings (you know, the ones that make Icelandic a huge pain to learn properly). Once you memorize the strong/ irregular verbs used most often and the various forms of pluralization, the grammar is much much simpler than English relatives such as German and Icelandic.

    • Ade Branwell

      Hi Hannah! Thanks for reading and for commenting.
      You’re right, i think it’s the spelling, although by exrtension its irregular nature makes pronunciation a gamble, Even as native speakers if we see a new word we can only make an educated guess at how it is pronounced. But I do think it would be handy to have some more letters, it seems daft that we have to use two letters to make a single sound.
      I admit that my language learning has been latin-based up to now – french, italian and spanish. My new venture into icelandic is so far only through a phrase book (i am learning the phrases and seeng how the grammar is constructed as i match words in different phrases together) and the early chapters of Teach Yourself Icelandic. There is a lot of grammar but it’s not grammar per se i have an issue with, more its irregularity. Icelandic grammar seems to follow logical steps (so far) which appeals to a mind like mine which likes order. Maybe i will change my mind as i learn more…

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