Why does English spelling have a reputation for being difficult? English was first written down when Christian monks came to England in Anglo-Saxon times. They used the 23 letters of Latin to write down the sounds of Anglo-Saxon speech as they heard it. However, English has a wider range of basic sounds (over 40) than Latin. The alphabet was too small, and so combinations of letters were needed to express the different sounds. Inevitably, there were inconsistencies in the way that letters were combined.

With the Norman invasion of England, the English language was put at risk. English survived, but the spelling of many English words changed to follow French patterns, and many French words were introduced into the language. The result was more irregularity.

When the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, many early printers of English texts spoke other first languages. They made little effort to respect English spelling. Although one of the short-term effects of printing was to produce a number of variant spellings, in the long term it created fixed spellings. People became used to seeing words spelt in the same way. Rules were drawn up, and dictionaries were put together which printers and writers could refer to.

However, spoken English was not fixed and continued to change slowly - just as it still does now. Letters that were sounded in the Anglo-Saxon period, like the 'k' in 'knife', now became silent. Also, the pronunciation of vowels then had little in common with how they sound now, but the way they are spelt hasn't changed.

No wonder, then, that it is often difficult to see the link between sound and spelling.

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