News / Edmonton

It's official, English spelling is not 'optimal': University of Alberta study

We all know it, but computer scientists say they've got proof.

Graduate student Garrett Nicolai was part of a study that found spelling in English is not a great predictor of how things are pronounced.

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Graduate student Garrett Nicolai was part of a study that found spelling in English is not a great predictor of how things are pronounced.

It’s not just you, spelling in English is weird.

But a couple of computer scientists at the University of Alberta now say they’ve got definitive proof, putting to rest a long-disputed claim from famous linguist Noam Chomsky that English spelling is A-OK.

In one his major works, The Sound Pattern of English, Chomsky argues that English orthography, or spelling, is “close to optimal.”

Garrett Nicolai, a graduate student in computing science, said it’s a claim most linguists don’t take all that seriously. After all, most people know on some level that English doesn’t quite make sense.

"I before e, except after c. Except in this word, and that word, and this set of words,” he said.  “As a native speaker of English, I've had to memorize the spelling of a very large number of ‘irregular’ words, which suggests that English spelling ‘rules’ are more of a guideline.”

Still, he and professor Greg Kondrak wanted to prove it, and set out to do so using the relatively new tools of computational linguistics.

So they used a computer program that took words and converted individual letters to phonemes, or the sounds they made. That was then compared to how the word should be pronounced based on its spelling.

Not surprisingly, is that spelling is actually not that “optimal.” In other words, it doesn’t always make sense.

“I think this is a very interesting,” Kondrak said. “People have been arguing about this for the last 50 years, but this is the first time we have a scientific proof that its not optimal.”

Of course, there’s more than one way to look at the efficiency of language, and Chomsky also argued that spelling reflected how words relate to each other. For example, economy and economic share a common stem that is pronounced differently in each, but reflects a shared meaning.

So they studied that too, and found that English spellings don’t do a great job of showing the relationships between words either.

“That was a big surprise,” Kondrak said.

Nicolai and Kondrak recently presenting their findings at a conference of the Association of Computational Linguistics.

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