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Summary Article: orthography
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

The art of spelling, that is, of setting down the component letters of words correctly according to accepted usage.

In Western European languages there have always been fewer symbols than sounds, so orthography has rarely been a completely reliable guide to the pronunciation of a word.

Inconsistencies The spelling of Italian and Spanish is fairly consistent, that of German less so, whereas in French and English there are extensive inconsistencies. Until the Middle English period, spelling was more or less phonetic. During the Middle English period pronunciation and spelling varied in different parts of the country. There were conventional representations of the various sounds, but no conventional representations of whole words.

Even the introduction of printing did not solve the problems of orthography. The control of spelling merely passed from writers to printers, who did what they pleased with an author's spelling. The 16th and 17th centuries show a considerable degree of variation in spelling; a phonetic basis for orthography had been largely abandoned, but a uniformity based on prevailing usage had not yet been established. Pronunciation also continued to change, and spelling not only ceased to be a guide to pronunciation, but in many cases became a hindrance. Only in the 18th century, with Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and particularly in the 19th century, did English spelling become fixed.

Sounds and symbols There are only 26 symbols, and of these c, x, and q are duplications. There are 38–44 sounds to be represented, and there is inconsistency in the use of the existing symbols, especially with vowels. For instance, the vowel sound in ‘set’ is represented by e in ‘set’; by a in ‘many’; by ea in ‘feather’; by ai in ‘said’; by ei in ‘heifer’; by eo in ‘leopard’; and by ay in ‘says’. In the 20th century there have been protests for spelling reform, but there has been little progress.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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