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Part 1 – Historical influences on the English alphabetic code

The English writing system has a complex alphabetic code. The historical causes are explained.

Part 1: Historical influences on the English alphabetic code

 

The English alphabetic code is a bit of a mystery for most adults. Although literate people frequently use the alphabetic code, they tend not to be consciously aware of how they do it. This is not really a problem, unless you are a teacher or a parent who wishes to teach children to read and write. Then it does become important.

 

Before looking at the alphabetic code, it is worth keeping in mind how it works. Basically, we speak in words and words are made up of sounds. Then letters are written to represent the sounds, going from left to right.

 

Some languages have an easy alphabetic code, such as Spanish, Italian, German and Finnish. These languages, on the whole, use one letter to represent one sound and they are very reliable in their sound-symbol relationship. They are known as transparent alphabetic codes. They are really simple to deduce, as well as being easy to teach.

 

English, on the other hand, has a complex alphabetic code. In fact, it is the most complicated code of all the languages that use the Roman alphabet. The main reason why it is complicated is linked to our history.

 

Over the years there have been many influences, mainly from other European countries and their languages, especially those that invaded us and stayed, such as the Anglo-Saxons, Romans, Vikings and French. Many of their words were incorporated into English; this led to a huge increase in vocabulary and a greater variety of unusual spellings for the sounds. For example, the following English words have a French derivation: machine, genre, mirage, lingerie, penchant, intrigue, brochure, repertoire and bureau. Their spellings are more unusual and we tend to find them more difficult to spell, which is why these words are left until later on in the teaching.

 

The reality is that children cannot learn all the sound-symbol relationships from the beginning, which is why they need to be taught the simple and more common letter-sound relationships first, and then they can be gradually taught the more complicated ones.

 

Occasionally, the code has letter(s) that have more than one sound linked to them. For example, the children are first taught that ‹ch› has a /ch/ sound (the Anglo-Saxon influence) which comes in words like chop, chips, chick, chat and cheese. Most of our English words use the /ch/ sound.

 

Later, the children learn that ‹ch› can have a /k/ sound, as in Christmas, chemist, mechanic, chorus and echo. This is a Greek influence. After that, the children progress to learning that ‹ch› can have a /sh/ sound (the French influence), as in champagne, crochet, chef, parachute and chic, or in some of the words we looked at before: machine, penchant and brochure.

 

  • TCRW - English Alphabetic-Code

    English alphabetic-code charts are particularly useful for adults who are interested in the many alternative spellings that are used in the English code.

  • Debbie's English Alphabetic-Code Chart

    Debbie Hepplewhite has put a great amount of detail in this chart. It is an excellent teaching aid. A link has been provided to her website, which has several other types of charts available.