102 yr. old man walks us through English’s crazy spelling (video)

102 year old Ed Ronthaler walks us through the various crazy ways that the English language spells every word wrong.   (All you foreigners out there will love this, or hate it as the case may be :)

For example, pronounce: comb; tomb; and bomb.


It really is an amazing video, particularly because you find out at the very end that the man was 102 years old when this was shot in 2008.

Ronthaler passed away two years later at the age of 104. Amazing.

Here’s more on the video from Vimeo from Bob Smartner, then the video follows:

Although suffering from a late Autumn cold, the always gracious Ed Rondthaler spent a day with us and our film crew on a rainy, cold November afternoon.

Framed by the muted surroundings of his Croton-on-Hudson Sears-and-Roebuck-kit log house that he purchased from a Naval Commander in 1938, Ed talked about his years running Photo-Lettering Inc. and the surrounding developments with remarkable precision and clarity.

A lifetime proponent of spelling reform, Ed was gracious enough to state a compelling case with a well worn flip chart.

Ed would live on another two years before finally giving way to the Twenty-First Century at the ripe young age of 104. We cannot begin to express our gratitude to Ed Rondthaler for his time and effort in helping us preserve the Photo-Lettering legacy, but we hope to perpetuate his passion for spelling reform by showing this short film.

Ed Rondthaler on English spelling from Bob Smartner on Vimeo.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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34 Responses to “102 yr. old man walks us through English’s crazy spelling (video)”

  1. Steve Bett says:

    If this is the best you have seen then you haven’t examined many of the over 100 reform proposals.

    The story, which is sometimes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, is a parody of the stages approach to spelling change. Both the scheme and the plan for implementing it are flawed and this is part of the humor. Parts of the scheme are very close to actual reform proposals.

    Ben Franklin’s fonetik did away with w and y: *what year” became “uot iir”. Franklin did reassign some letters but he usually invented new characters in order to represent 39 phonemes with 26 characters.. fµinali ðen aftµr sµm 20 iirz wii wud hav µ lojikµl kohirµnt spelin…

    There are several versions around and most make stranger reassignments of the unused traditional letters than y for sh /S/ above.

    For the phased plan to work, people would have to accept and adjust to new spellings at the same rate. As soon as English speaking public got used to one respelling, they would have to adjust to another. The maddening confusion would last 20 years.

    If the ANSI characters are corrupted, try Unicode encoding.

  2. Steve Bett says:

    I am not sure why these archaic spellings survived.

    They matched up fairly well with archaic pronunciations but make no sense today.
    There is more than one way to match the words with current pronunciation.

    One of the challenges for reformers is to come up with the best respelling.

    Dictionaries and pronunciation guides have largely solved the problem of how to represent broadcast English. However, an orthography does not have to be as precise as a dictionary key spelling in order to make it much easier to learn than traditional spelling.

    tho and thru for though and through replace a spelling that is difficult to pronounce with one that is both shorter, more transparent, and highly phonemic. People are still reluctant to use the replacement even when they are listed as variant spellings in many dictionaries.

    though – THó – /Dou/ – tho

    through – thrü – /Tu:/ – thru

    also possible: throo threw (*thru is arrived at by dropping surplus characters)

    cough – kôf – /kOf/ – cof? cauf?

    rough – ‘røf – /rVf/ – ruf? ruff?

    enough – i’nøf – /i’nVf/ – enuf, inuf

    plough – ‘plau – /plaU/ – plow?

    ought – ‘ôt – /Ot/ – aut?

    borough ‘børó – /’[email protected]@/ – boro? Webster: ˈbər-(ˌ)ō, ˈbə-(ˌ)rō


  3. Jim Olson says:

    hells yeah!

  4. No. It was just kah-nite. And ka-nife, etc.

  5. 1jetpackangel says:

    So Monty Python was right and it actually used to be “k-nig-it?”

  6. TampaZeke says:

    What about thought and bough?

  7. hippysuperstar says:

    Laughter, Daughter.

  8. hippysuperstar says:

    Also, Einstein has it wrong twice in his name.

  9. perljammer says:

    LOL, if you want a comprehensive list, check this out.


  10. perljammer says:

    Heh. The best suggestion for simplifying English spelling is Mark Twain’s “A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling” (and yes, I’m aware that there is some uncertainty as to whether this is actually a Twain quote):

    “For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.”

  11. Yes, I’ve never studied it, but I’ve heard that. I was in Finland recently and that language is crazy hard to look at, or make any sense of (it’s a non indo-european tongue), but they assured me it was much easier to sound out than English because it’s phonetic. Hmmm…they didn’t mention it’s the second hardest language in the world to actually learn, so I could just sound it out and not understand myself maybe??

  12. The K in Knight used to be pronounced; that was one way to distinguish between the two. The word “one” used to be pronounced “on-eh”; the spelling was just never updated.

  13. emjayay says:

    German is also pretty consistent. As one might expect.

  14. newbroom says:

    I remember the first word I ever misspelled on a test. 2nd grade. The word was “does”.
    At that time soap was sold on television with great vigor, and one brand of clothes detergent was Duz.

  15. Indigo says:

    From Romano-Breton to Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman to Elizabethan to the collection of spellings and pronunciations we are now pleased to call Angle-ish is a journey worth surveying. There is no solution to the dilemma on the horizon but perhaps that’s just as well. What would we talk about instead? Oh, wait, I know! “Welcome to America, now speak English (damn it!).”

  16. Constant Comment says:

    I think you’re referring to The Story of English, which is a book and was also on PBS. The podcast is done by Kevin Stroud and he pretty much starts at the beginning of civilization.

  17. olandp says:

    A knight is a person, night is nite. Unless I am wrong, can you explain?

  18. Bomer says:

    That was always one gripe I had in grade school when they would start nattering at us to spell phonetically: Sound it out. Spell it like it sounds! Yeah, except they aren’t spelled like they sound. >.<

  19. There’s a podcast? I have the book! I’m told there was a video a long time ago, or a series – does it still exist?

  20. koralroget7yq says:

    мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт…­ ­ViewMore——————————————&#46qr&#46net/kAgk

    That might be an influence from the Arab occupation as the Arabic alhabet is spoken pretty much how you see it. Also English is a big hodgepodge of Latin, French, Germanic and Celtic; hence the reason for the various ways of spelling the same sound.

  21. English spelling, as it was pronounced in the Middle Ages. King Edward III could understand it! Had English been spelled as it sounds, like Italian, we’d have to drop some letters (j,k,w,x,y) as it did.

  22. pricknick says:

    It matters not how it is spelled but in what context it is used.
    The english language is considered by many to be an easy language to speak, however it is a pain in the duff to properly compose in writing.

  23. BeccaM says:

    Well filet that thing and slap it on the grill — I’m hungry! ;-)

  24. BeccaM says:

    I’ll have to look for that. I adore language in all its forms, and the history of specific language development and change is one of the most fascinating aspects.

    One of my favorite party ‘tricks’ is to describe how knight eventually became ‘nite’ (as pronounced).

  25. Jim Olson says:

    Something is ghotichey to me.

  26. HolyMoly says:

    I love the rule “I before E except after C”…unless you’re spelling weird, leisure, seize, protein, neighbor, caffeine, beige, forfeit…(deep breath)…etc. etc. etc. What a useless rule if ever there was one.

  27. I’d be curious to listen to that podcast. I am under the impression that French and English are so hard to read because they kept the etymology visible whereas languages like Spanish spelled things out more phonetically. That might be an influence from the Arab occupation as the Arabic alhabet is spoken pretty much how you see it. Also English is a big hodgepodge of Latin, French, Germanic and Celtic; hence the reason for the various ways of spelling the same sound.

  28. DastiusKrazitauc says:

    Thanks for the tip, CC. I´ve been reading The Adventure of English and the podcast will go very well with it.

  29. Zorba says:

    Hee, hee! Or a beer! Would you prefer a beer? :-)

  30. Zorba says:

    Oh, you beat me on this, Rob! With many more examples! Kudos! ;-)

  31. Rob Dowdy says:

    We posted the same thing simultaneously. Under the Jinx Rules of Order, I’m pretty sure you owe me a Coke.

  32. Zorba says:

    Through, though, tough (or rough, or enough), cough. Among other examples.
    I don’t even mind the complexity of English spelling. I think that it’s fascinating, in fact.
    But Ed was amazingly with it, especially for someone of his incredibly advanced age.

  33. Rob Dowdy says:

    Wish he had done the -ough words, which are pretty damn ridiculous:



  34. Constant Comment says:

    On a related note, I’m a recent fan of the History of English podcast and am in the process of binge-listening. If you’re a linguistics nerd like me, you might enjoy it, too–plus, it answers the question of why English got to be so wacky.

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