The discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation of words is perhaps the most difficult part of learning English as a second language. Or for that matter as a first language. How did this discrepancy develop?
David Crystal in By Hook or by Crook devotes a few pages to the history of English spelling that I will summarize here.
Irish monks living in England developed the first writing system for English during the Anglo-Saxon period. They did a fairly good job of recording the language as it was spoken. One problem they encountered was the difference in dialects between areas of England. Spelling phonetically resulted in hundreds of words with different spellings in different parts of the country. "Old" for example was spelled "eald" in the south but as "ald" in the north.
After the Norman Conquest (1066) the writing of English was taken over by the French who introduced their own peculiar way of spelling. Some of the Norman French contributions to English spelling are: "qu" for "cw" (thus cwen became queen), the "ou" in words like mouse and house, and the "gh" in might and rough. The Old English alphabet, with lots of up and down strokes made it hard to read words with adjacent letters "n", "m", "v" and "u", so they frequently substituted "o" for "u" making words like come, love, and son. As Crystal explains "[this] certainly helped legibility, but it added a new set of complications to spelling".
Later spelling "reformers" near the end of the Middle Ages decided that spelling should reflect a word's history, so words with a Latin origin were changed to remind readers of the original Latin word. This resulted in the "b" in debt (to remind us of Latin debitum) and the "o" in people (for Latin populum), among many others. Most modern English speakers do not view these changes as an improvement (my understatement of the day).
So why have these spellings persisted? It's not for lack of reformers. Many scholars over the years have made spelling reform proposals. All but one (more on the exception in a minute) were met with fierce resistance. No one wanted to have a new system imposed on them, even if it would make life easier (witness the resistance to metric in North America). It didn't help that the reformers couldn't agree among themselves on a single system. I have an entire book on the subject of English spelling in my language library - Righting the Mother Tongue by David Wolman - which I will delve into for more detail another time.
Now for the exception among spelling reformers: Noah Webster. His proposals came at the right time and place to gain national acceptance - the formation of the new nation of "The United States of America". Strong anti-British sentiment lent support to his proposal in 1789 for America "as an independent nation... to have a system of our own, in language as well as government." His 1828 "American Dictionary of the English Language" became the standard for American English. Webster of course only did the job of reform half way - if that. He dropped the "u" from words like colour and the "o" from diarrhoea but left the vast majority of irregularly spelled words (nearly 1/4 of the words in a modern College dictionary) the way they were. And of the words that he did change, Canada adopted both British and American versions, only adding to our spelling complexity (see my June 23 post "Canadian English, Eh?"). His opportunity may never knock again.
There is some hope, however. Modern linguists are watching the way English is being used in social media like email, chatrooms, and blogs. Here grammar, punctuation and spelling are greatly simplified, more or less without loss of meaning. Blogging is of particular interest where more complex ideas are being published but, as Crystal puts it, "without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is more like 'speaking in print' than anything before". Perhaps this is the beginning of grass-roots language reform.
Are you a traditionalist or reformer? I'd like to hear your thoughts on English spelling.