English spelling is hard. The language has over 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, with many having no relationship to pronunciation. You can blame history for this mess. English has always adopted words from other languages* — Norse, German, Latin, French to name few — but without standard protocols on how to spell them. There are some rules like ‘i before e except after c’ and plenty of exceptions to those rules.
In German, it’s easy: if you pronounce the combination of letters ‘e’, you spell it ‘ie’. If it sounds like ‘i’, it’s ‘ei’. So the European veal dish, named after the Austrian capital Vienna, is Wiener Schnitzel. Except in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald crossword, which I just couldn’t solve because Wiener had become Weiner, meaning the solution to the clue ‘shrivelled’ was ’emaciated’ but only if you spelled Wiener wrong.
Perhaps the lesson here is for crossword compilers to avoid foreign words though that’s hard when it comes to English. Instead, what about we all learn another language so we can better appreciate the intricacies of human communication…and exercise our brains without having to do the crossword.
*If you are interested, there’s a Ted-Ed talk on the Origins of English.