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The Hazards of English Spelling: New Findings Make It Less Hazardous than Previously Thought

A new study of English spelling practices demonstrates that the way we spell words is much more orderly and self-organising than previously thought.

Their research examines previously unnoticed systematic aspects of English spelling and explains how the system emerged. One suffix that the authors report on is -ous, found in words like nervous and hazardous, which turns nouns like nerve and hazard into adjectives. They discovered that the final letter sequence ous may serve as a flag, informing readers that a word must be an adjective. The sound of this suffix is a short vowel (linguists call it schwa) followed by s: ?s. The authors found that any written English word that ends in the three letter ous is an adjective and conversely that a word that that ends in the sound ?s but is not an adjective is never spelled with ous: service, genius, menace. They also have found similar patterns for other adjective suffixes, including the -ic of allergic, the -al of final, and the -y of funny.

For each of these affixes, the authors analysed a large sample of written English documents dating back close to a thousand years. For every word that follows each of the regular pattern nowadays (e.g., hazardous, allergic, final, and funny), the linguists looked at every instance in their sample, keeping track of how it was spelled. They found a number of spellings for each suffix over time (e.g., ose, ows, is, owse, ys, es, ouse, us, and ous for modern ous). For every suffix, though, one spelling eventually won out and each suffix followed the sort of pattern that is known from biological competition between species.

This is a striking example of self-organisation: No one is or was in charge of English spelling. As opposed to countries like Italy and France and Israel, where national academies oversee the written language, no English-speaking country has a language academy. And yet, somehow, the written language slowly but gradually evolved a system of marking word categories in cases like nervous — despite the fact that this system was never purposely designed. What is apparently a nuisance — we can spell one word ending in more than one way — is actually the trade-off for the grammatical ‘flag’ that says (in case of -ous), ‘This word is an adjective’.

As a follow-up to this research, the authors are now testing their findings experimentally on fluent readers of English. Do they use the regularities that we found when they read? Furthermore, can these be used to help children and adults to learn to read more quickly and more fluently?

The study “Self-organization in the spelling of English suffixes: The emergence of culture out of anarchy,” by Kristian Berg (University of Oldenburg) and Mark Aronoff (Stony Brook University) was published in the March, 2017 issue of the scholarly journal Language.


Edublox Reading, Maths and Learning Clinic keeps you abreast of research on reading, learning, brain development and neuroplasticity.

Edublox is a system of cognitive exercises, aimed at developing and automatising the foundational skills of reading, spelling, writing, mathematics and the skills required in the learning of subjects such as History. Our programmes are adaptable for the gifted and less gifted, and applicable for all age groups. They can develop the learning skills of the high school learner to a very high degree, while they can also be used to prepare the Grade R child for reading and learning.

Edublox is effective for a variety of learning difficulties: reading difficulties, maths difficulties, dyslexia and ADD/ADHD.

In this video we combined two TV programmes and a radio interview.

Help for reading, spelling and learning problems is at hand:

Most of us take for granted the amazing processes that happen in our brains. Every bit of information, every question, and each fragment of sensory input is processed at lightning speed so that we can read, analyse, integrate, decide, answer and learn.

Struggling learners are often let down by these automatic processes. The ease of understanding new information that should have been normal becomes difficult. Learning that should have been easy is a frustrating effort. Reading that should have been effortless is a slow, embarrassing trial. Other problems may include:

* Inattention or loss of focus
* Reversal of letters and/or numbers
* Spelling difficulties
* Difficulty with homework
* Falling behind in class, sometimes even with special help or tutoring.

Edublox clinics specialise in cognitive training that makes learners smarter, and helps them learn and read faster, easier, and better. The classes address:

* Concentration: Focused and sustained attention.

* Perceptual skills: Visual and auditory foreground-background differentiation; visual and auditory discrimination, synthesis and analysis; form discrimination; spatial relations.

* Memory: Visual, auditory, sequential, iconic, short-term, long-term and working memory.

* Logical thinking: Deductive and inductive reasoning.

* Reading, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension.

Classes are offered in English and Afrikaans. Contact us

Edublox class.


590+ Documented success stories…

“Christo had a bumpy start in primary school, struggling with reading and writing. After numerous interactions, therapy, programmes etc. he was still regularly alternating his b and d. Thus we enrolled him at Edublox early in his Gr. 6 year.

“Using the wrong b or d has now become the exception! This is a big victory! Preparing for spelling tests is now a breeze compared to 18 months ago. He would get all 20 words correct in two rounds of practice versus multiple efforts previously. His self-confidence has improved vastly, and a love for reading has kicked in after notable resistance in the past.

“Edublox helped Christo to address those nagging problems that kept his self-esteem low. Now he has started to excel in schoolwork and feels so proud of himself. It was worth the time and money.”

Elize Kruger
4 August 2016

Read more… 

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