Online Lecture: Tracing the History of English Spelling Practices

Date: 23rd March 2021

Time: 7pm

Location: Online

“If we go on as we have done a few Centuries longer, our words will gradually cease to express Sounds; they will only stand for things, as the written words do in the Chinese Language” (Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Mary Stevenson, 1768)

Have you ever wondered why…. words like son and sun sound the same but are spelt differently; we write ‘c’ in choice but ‘s’ in choose; we pronounce busy as though the first letter was an ‘i’ not a ‘u’; we write many letters that we don’t pronounce, such as ‘h’ in ghost, ‘p’ in psychology or ‘b’ in doubt…? In other words, why the English spelling system is irregular, quirky and seemingly unpredictable at times. If that is the case, this talk is definitely for you!

After introducing the spelling practices during the Old English period (when words were to a great extent spelt as they sounded), this talk will address the various issues raised above and many others by providing an overview of the main forces behind the current spelling system and the lack of alignment between spelling and pronunciation (with particular focus on attempts to mark vocalic length, and the impact of important sound changes as well as foreign spelling practices and terms). The session will also offer an opportunity for participants to ask further questions and discuss the future of the English spelling system.

Dr Sara M. Pons-Sanz is a Reader in Language and Communication (Language Variation and Change) at Cardiff University. For further information, visit

This talk will take place online over Zoom. We will email the joining link one hour before the start time. The zoom will be open from 6.45pm ready for a 7pm start. Please purchase one ticket per device.

Picture: The Ormulum text from 1180 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 1). The author, Orm, could be said to be the first spelling reformer in English.