There are many idiosyncrasies that make English spelling, and the English language in general, appear rather arbitrary and illogical (even though a good number of them make some sense from an historical perspective). Take, for instance, the way that the ﬁrst vowel sound in strip is affected by the addition of an “e” at the end of the word stripe. The letter “i” winds up representing the sound [i] as in din when the “e” is absent, and [ai] when the “e” is added, as in dine. A corollary of this pattern is the fact that one “p” in the word striper has the preceding vowel pronounced [ai], while the imposition of “pp” gives the [i] in stripper.
And it’s not just the case that odd combinations of letters yield unexpected sounds in English. It is also a fact that the same letters and combinations of letters yield quite different sounds when used in different words. This fact is particularly vexing to any non-native speaker of English who has ever tried to learn the language. Try explaining to a learner of English why the vowel sounds in the words pull and wool are the same but are spelled with “u” and “oo,” respectively. And why it is that the “oo” in fool represents a different sound from the “oo” in wool, but the same sound as the “u” in rule. The frustrationen gendered in such spelling arbitrariness was best caricatured in 1894 in this poem titled “OU-G-H” by Charles Battell Loomis, which depicts a French speaker’s frustration with the spelling conventions of the English language (read this poem with the best French accent you can muster):
I’m taught p-l-o-u-g-h
S’all be pronounc´e “plow.”
“Zat’s easy w’en you know,” I say,
“Mon Anglais, I’ll get through!”
My teacher say zat in zat case,
O-u-g-h is “oo.”
And zen I laugh and say to him,
“Zees Anglais make me cough.”
He say “Not ‘coo’ but in zat word,
O-u-g-h is ‘off.’”
“Oh, Sacre bleu!
Such varied sounds
Of words make me hiccough!”
He say, “Again mon frien’ ees wrong;
O-u-g-h is ‘up’ In hiccough.”
Zen I cry,
“No more, You make my t’roat feel rough.”
“Non, non!” he cry,
“You are not right; O-u-g-h is ‘uff.
’” I say, “I try to spik your words,
I cannot spik zem though.”
“In time you’ll learn, but now you’re wrong!
O-u-g-h is ‘owe.’”
“I’ll try no more, I s’all go mad,
I’ll drown me in ze lough!”
“But ere you drown yourself,” said he,
“O-u-g-h is ‘ock.’”
He taught no more, I held him fast
And killed him wiz a rough.
In explaining how English spelling differs so radically from English pronunciation, it is important to note that spelling conventions are extremely resistant to change, much more so than pronunciations. One can demonstrate this by looking at English words that end in “ight” such as night, light, and bright. The spelling of these words is faithful to their pronunciations in Old English, an historical ancestor of Modern English not much heard for some 800–900 years. In Old English, the letter “i” was pronounced [ee] and the “gh” represented the sound [h], such that night would have been pronounced something like [neeht] up until the ﬁfteenth century, and its spelling would thus have very closely mirrored its pronunciation. This Old English [“strong h”] sound represented by “gh” is very close to, and historically related to, the German [“strong h”] sound in nacht ‘night’. The spelling of these words thus trails the changes in their pronunciation by a good ﬁve hundred years.