Jun 28, 2012

Spelling Reform in English

written by Jeanette Koenig

Comments to a recent blog post noted that English is in dire need of spelling reform. There are many popular illustrations of why it is so badly needed, such as the argument that under the current system, fish can be spelled as “ghoti.” (To refresh your memory, the logic is that the “gh” can be pronounced [f] as in “enough”; the “o” can be pronounced as in “women”; and the “ti” can be pronounced [sh] as in “nation.”)

Spelling changes in English have been going on for as long as English has been around. Not all of the changes have been good: William Shakespeare’s grave has friend spelled as “frend,” a spelling that ought to have been left well enough alone. Those few changes that have been improvements have been inconsistent and have not kept pace with the demand. Why on earth did we change magick to magic and not follow through with knock?

However, there are many objections to spelling reform. Now before I get sent off to the guillotine, let me just state for the record that I am fully cognizant of the need for reform. Many of the causes that I champion are riddled with inherent problems. I am bringing up some of the objections because, first, they are interesting, and second, I hope to open the floor to friendly discussions about how they can be addressed.

One of the first objections to be raised is the “whose accent” question. I may think it perfectly obvious how schedule and tissue should be spelled, but I doubt the British would agree with me. Even the more egregious examples, such as words with “augh” and “ough,” are not necessarily straightforward. I wouldn’t stake my life on it, but I would almost swear that I have heard some Scottish brogues that actually do pronounce the “gh.”

To be sure, there is enough variation in English pronunciation worldwide to spawn vehement disagreement on many spellings. Realistically speaking, a common orthography is the only way that someone from Newcastle, England and someone from Tallahassee, Florida can claim to speak the same language. If each accent group were to adopt its own spelling, there would be only a short step to English, the alleged current lingua franca, splintering into a host of different (albeit related) languages. (I have been told that a more extreme phenomenon exists in Chinese: Mandarin and Cantonese are considered different languages that are not mutually intelligible, except through a common writing system that is hardly phonetic.)

A much more serious objection is that spelling reform can obscure the morphological connections among related words. An example cited in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_language_spelling_reform) is the pronunciation shift in word groups such as “electric,” “electricity,” and “electrician”—where the second “c” is pronounced [k], [s], and [sh], respectively. How should we handle this?

Another objection is that spelling reform can also obscure word etymologies: changing the spelling of “night” to “nite” hides the fact that it came from the German “nacht.” The response for most people might be “so what?” Well, for one thing, understanding common etymologies can be useful in understanding word meaning, particularly for words with Latin or Greek origins. One writer notes, “Even if their pronunciation has strayed from the original pronunciation, the written form of the word is a record of the phoneme, so derived words give clues to their own meaning, but re-spelling them could hide that link” (ibid).

How far should we take spelling reform? Do we spell the plural of dog as “dogz” or do we retain the original spelling? To me, that’s a stupid question. We shouldn’t adopt a phonetic spelling; we adopt a phonemic spelling. (The former means spelling things exactly as they are pronounced; the latter takes into account the underlying form—what people think they are saying, whether they actually are or not.) Only, isn’t the plural ending “-es” a kind of phonetic spelling? Its use is completely predictable: it occurs after hushers and sibilants (-ch, -sh, -s, etc.)—places where the vowel sound is going to get inserted just to make the word pronounceable.

I actually came across a web page where the plural of batch was spelled “batch’s.” After the hospital released me for my apoplectic fit, the linguist part of me noted that technically, the spelling made perfect sense. The apostrophe shows that the “e” has been omitted in order to preserve a universal “–s” ending for plurals! (This will not stop me from publicly denouncing the writer after the revolution comes for crimes against orthography.)

These are just a few of the questions to be asked. Others include what to do with sounds like “th,” “ch,” and “sh”—do we retain the spellings or come up with new characters? How will spelling reform affect people who have been profoundly deaf since birth and who have learned the current spelling system without knowing how the words sound? What about the many pre-reform writings that will become more difficult to understand? Will they need to be translated and republished? Most importantly, how do we establish a global regulatory authority that can agree on the necessary changes and a timeline for implementing them?

Once again, I have to note that the perplexing idiosyncrasies of English stem from the turbulent history of the little island where the language came from. We have the many invasions that occurred over the centuries to thank for all of the spelling inconsistencies. And we have colonial imperialism to thank for spreading English all over the world, where its many different pronunciations defy any kind of attempt to adopt a universal spelling system. So, what do we do? What do you think?

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