Why is English spelling so weird, and why is it so hard to read hiragana?

definately byutiful

English spelling is nasty. It’s inconsistent, illogical, and only gives vague hints as to the pronunciation of the words. Why, just take a look at this poem!

When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.

Many more such lovely poems are to be found here.

Isn’t it about time we replaced it with something rational? Why don’t we use something consistent, something phonetic, something any kid could learn in a single grade year, rather than year after year of spelling bees and flashcards?

We don’t do that because, first off, that’s not what spelling *does*. Sure, we read the words, and the pronunciation pops into our brains as we read, but we don’t actually need to letters to conform to set rules of pronunciation at all. The words printed on the page don’t inform us as to the pronunciation of the word, except maybe the first time, and even then we still have our doubts until we hear the word spoken aloud. No, the words printed on the page give us the meaning of the word, and our brain pulls out the pronunciation from our mental dictionaries as soon as we see the word.

I’ll even prove it to you, paraphrasing an example from Steven Plinker’s The Language Instinct. Read these first two sentences from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and if you’re a native English speaker (or a darn good student of English), I’ll bet you a pon de ring that you can read it with barely more effort than a normal sentence.

Xll thxs hxppxnxd, mxrx xr lxss. Thx wxr pxrts, xnxwxx, xrx prxttx mxch trxx.

The word “anyway” in there might have been a touch tricky, but I’m betting you know just what that sentence says, even with all the vowels replaced with the letter “x”. Why does that work?

There are a bunch of factors at play, but essentially, we don’t really read letter by letter–at least, not after grade 3 or so. Mostly, we look at the general shape of the word, infer its meaning from its neighbors and the context of the sentence, pronounce the word in our heads (if we haven’t taken one of those speed-reading courses), and move on to the next word. Past the point of learning basic literacy, we don’t read the letters. Instead, we look at the word as a whole, and take its meaning from there.

All this is well and good, but why retain the strange and convoluted spellings we’ve passed down over the centuries? If the letters themselves don’t really matter for reading comprehension, why not make them easier to write?

First off, those antiquated spellings actually do us a lot of good. Take an English word I learned recently as an example:


Here, the “re” comes from the Latin “res”, meaning “thing”, as in “res publica”, “public things” or “republic” (I admit that I partly just want to show off my middle school Latin here). The “ify” is, of course, familiar enough to English speakers as the “hey this word is a verb about changing stuff” suffix. Even if you don’t know that little tidbit of Latin, you still probably guessed immediately that this word was a verb about changing something into something else. So, “to make into a thing.” Well, what’s the real definition?

reify – to make an abstract concept or thing real and concrete, or to regard it as real.

Not too far off the mark, I think! English spelling did its job splendidly if you ask me. It moved a concept off the page and into the reader’s brain box, wherein the reader’s mind tries to fit it with a pronunciation it knows, or outfit it with one that might work. It’s [ˈriːɪˌfaɪ], by the by.

Now, another reason we don’t change all the spellings at a go is that there’s no phonetic standard to adhere to, even if we did decide to use a phonetic alphabet. Should the word “nice” be written “nais” in Washington State, but “nois” in Australia? Should the Atlanta Journal-Constitution write an op-ed encouraging voters to “git aeot an vout fur Burak Oubaamuh”? So much for national syndication!

Having our odd-ball spelling system, complete with seeming inconsistencies like “freak” and “break”, “cow” and “low”, allows us to read texts not just from other places, but from other time periods as well. Have a listen to this bit of Shakespeare, read in original pronunciation:

Now, aren’t you glad the whole play isn’t written out phonetically like that?

This brings us to the application to Japanese. Kanji in Japanese perform much the same function: we see the shape of the word, our mind picks up the meaning, and we turn it into sounds. Writing it all out in hiragana removes that conceptual information, making hiragana-only Japanese text almost painful to read. Never mind that Japanese usually doesn’t put spaces between words!Check out this clipping from today’s Asahi Shimbun:


Pretty standard stuff if you can read Japanese, although I admit I didn’t know how to read いいだてむら initially. Now try it in hiragana:


お疲れ様でした!Tough to read, right? Kanji are hard to write, no doubt about that. But once you learn them, they’re so much easier to read, and that’s to do with the way our brains make sense of what we’re reading.

The next time you feel like wailing about the difficulty of learning to write Kanji, or start to pine for a simpler system of spelling in English, there actually is some measure of reason behind it. Our written languages aren’t perfect–well, maybe Hangul come close–but they’re a heck of a lot better than any alternatives people have dreamed up.



English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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One comment on “Why is English spelling so weird, and why is it so hard to read hiragana?
  1. seregosa says:

    I think the big issue about people wailing is the amount of kanji needed before you can properly read the language. In english, you can pretty much learn the alphabet in a few days at most, or usually have it down already since your country use it as well, and then, voilá, you can READ everything even if you can’t understand it(it doesn’t feel as daunting, by far, and we don’t get that somewhat unpleasant feeling when we don’t understand anything at all). There’s spaces that make sure we know what makes a word, so we can look it up easily and understand how the whole sentence work, we can test our way forward way, way more easy. Most people here know english with at least some proficiency, through exposure to media, enough to make themselves understood, and that is without ever attending to a proper english course. In japanese you HAVE to learn an extreme amount of kanji that takes a lot of effort to properly “imprint” in your head, along with hiragana and katakana and other information before you can even start to read, you need to understand a lot of words and rules before you can even get started on trying to read(chinese should be even worse though).

    I personally learned my english through trial and error while growing up, school contributed by almost nothing even though we take courses in it every year they just about never said anything useful or anything I didn’t already know by trudging my way forward while understanding more and more, reading stuff I wanted to read instead of boring books designed for education and I never had to bother with remembering the words, it just came naturally while reading and using the language. I wish I could do that with japanese as well, but sadly that will not happen. Before even getting started on the parts I actually want to read, I have to struggle to remember an enormous amount of stuff, grammar, words, kanji, hiragana and katakana, to make sure I get off on the proper foot and don’t get the urge to kill someone while trying to read. Perhaps I can actually start reading a bit and building it up that way without getting a brain meltdown after learning 500-1000 or so kanji by heart.

    Oh, but I’m not trying to defend those punks that wail about it all and and fantasize along with sympathizers about whether this or that would be better, they should just quit trying if it’s so harsh. I just think I would prefer if I could get to reading a bit faster, I don’t have that much against kanji, I actually think it’s pretty interesting even if it’s a bother and takes a long time(I don’t want it to change, I just want to be able to memorize faster).

    I can always keep doing what I’ve always done, wait for the translators to finish and take part of japanese stuff that way while I’m learning. It’s just that there’s a huge difference between reading it from the original source and reading what someone translated. There’s bound to be lots of stuff that can’t properly be translated or that the translator made an error in translating, a lot of information gets lost and the quality usually drops… Along with the fact that you usually have to wait for ages before they release stuff, I’d rather just buy it and read it when released, there’s rarely anything more frustrating than reading something, loving it, and then getting cut off in the middle while knowing full well that the whole thing is actually released and you would be able to read it to the end if you could read japanese 😀

    Now then, since I’m done with this comment that I probably posted for no proper reason, I need to figure out why I got here while looking for the alternate/weird version of そ… It was a while since I saw it and couldn’t quite remember if I was reading it wrong, appears I wasn’t. Good, good. Now I can get back to more studying.

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