easy words, hard words, and literacy

Ken writes: The Observer has an article reporting claims that the English spelling system is so bad it actually holds people back.

English spelling reform is one of the things Dot and I enjoy discussing. She favours the status quo, which is why I like to find little articles like the above linked to subtly remind her of the cogency of the case for change. The superannuated English system is causing needless suffering and actually costing us money!

I don’t know what we should replace it with, but that is best left to the experts. Get a bunch of linguists to study the phonology of various world Englishes and find the common vowel sounds and the extent of variation around those sounds and find some easily remembered correspondence between those sounds and the letters. If you have very large divergences, where different dialects use different sounds, just let them both spell the word as it sounds to them, as we do with American and British spellings of ‘mom’ and ‘mum’. The different spellings used in different dialects would pose a barrier to reading writing in other dialects, but not as great a barrier as that posed by the status quo, and people who had cause to read writing in other dialects would learn those variations quickly and would have the advantage that all that was needed to learn how to read a different dialect was to imagine it being spoken with that accent.

Changing the spelling system means we lose a certain connection with the English of the past (and the Romance languages of the past and present) because the etymology of English words would no longer be present on the surface. But this matters only to people with a historical interest in English, like me and Dot. We can take the trouble to learn the old spellings. I don’t see how our interest in the language should entail an obligation on others to suffer a difficult and counter-intuitive spelling system.

By the way, here’s an interesting site giving the pronunciations of all the characters in the International Phonetic Alphabet.


12 thoughts on “easy words, hard words, and literacy

  1. Ken,

    The argument is persuasive until one reads the list of difficult words! Alternative spellings are likely to be as confusing as the originals.

  2. ken

    I know what you mean. How can they count ‘properly’ or ‘vomit’ hard? How else would you spell them? But there are surely better ways of spelling ‘orinnj’ or ‘forrin’ or ‘rynoseros’.

  3. Dot

    My affection for the status quo is partly born of laziness: I like being able to tell from the spelling which words have Middle English long open o or e and which long closed o or e and not having to learn them by rote! I don’t consider Modern English spelling ideal (and some of its quasi-etymological features were made up later). But I am sceptical of anyone’s ability to construct a new standard spelling that would adequately represent the variety of world Englishes. The mum/mom solution is OK for one or two words but it would need to be for lots and lots. We have to accept that written English is an artificial standard shared between the wide variety of spoken forms of the language, and even after spelling reform it would still be an artificial standard with many confusing and seemingly arbitrary features.

    P.S. Why ‘orinnj’ with two ns?

  4. ken

    But Dot, you do have to learn the etymologies by rote, because you have to learn the antiquated spelling! And not just you, that’s the thing. If we don’t reform the spelling system, we’re forcing future generations to bother with these fascinating histories that will only interest the tiny fraction of anoraks among them.

    It would be difficult to design a more rational spelling system, but linguists do this quite frequently when they come to record and codify indigenous languages that didn’t acquire their own writing systems. If we gave the job to Japanese, Finnish and Indian linguists, for example, they could approach the task without prejudice and it would be hard, but not extremely hard. There would be no in-principle difficulties. The International Phonetic Alphabet already points the way, since it provides a means to represent each sound in English and any dialect of English.

    What do you mean by ‘OK’ for the mum/mom thing? The solution would obviously work more generally. Sure, the more differences there are, the harder it becomes to read fluently in another dialect, but you would get used to it quickly because it would be phonetically accurate. At first an Irving Welsh novel looks very strange, but you get your eye and ear in quickly and it’s not a problem. It’s no harder than understanding spoken Scots.

    I now think it should be ‘orrinnj’ –doubling the following consonant shortens the preceding vowel.

  5. Ken,

    ‘Orrinnj’ sounds like the pronunciation of ‘orange’ by a Co Antrim Loyalist!

    If there is an international phonetic alphabet available, why is there a lack of standardized spelling of, for example, Arabic words by English writers? A friend complained recently that even al Qaeda seemed amenable to varying spellings in the English press.

  6. ken

    Ian, isn’t the variation in spellings of ‘al qaeda’ due to the fact that there is no very regular correspondence between sounds and letters in standard English? If the English letters had more consistent sound values, there would be a more clearly right answer for how it should be written in English. (I guess people don’t use the IPA because they can’t rely on their audience understanding it and because it requires characters that aren’t on a qwerty key board.)

    You’re teasing me about the orange thing!

  7. Belle Inconnue

    The problem with this is that the pronumciation of words changes all the time, but they are still the same words – are we going to keep on changing the spelling, just as people have learnt one way? Plus what about regional and personal variations in accents?

    Also the major issue is that everything written before the change would become totally unreadable by anyone using the system. Millions of books would either have to be translated or become inaccessible, or people would have to learn to read the old style as well, just as we now have to learn to read Chaucer.

    Other languages are the same – German and Spanish are fairly phonetic but French is not at all. There are also totally different accents in Spanish and German. The Argentines pronounce ‘ll’ as ‘sh’ and the Spanish pronounce as a sort of ‘yuh’ sound, but they are spelt the same, and usually mean the same thing, as in ‘paella’.

    Also foreigners and old people would have re-learn how to spell in English. I think the whole thing is impractical and would be far more trouble than it’s worth.

  8. ken

    Belle Inconnue, how could individual variation or future further changes in pronunciation be more of a problem for a reformed English spelling system than they are for Italian, say, now? The Italians face the same problems we do, so we ought to be able to get a system at least as good as the one they have now.

    I think the publishing industry would probably welcome the fact that millions of books would have to be republished. If there is spelling reform, we should invest in publishers!

    It would be trouble initially, I grant you, but millions of children now and in the future would reap the benefits. So it would be worth it.

  9. Portugal and Brazil are updating their spelling. Hungary is planning a spelling reform for next year, the first in 25 years. Most reforms only affect about 5% of the words in the dictionary. In over 95% of the alphabeticl writing systems, most words are already spelled as they are pronounced in the broadcast dialect.

    100 high frequency Italian words have only 8 ambiguous spellings. The same 100 words translated into English have 50 ambiguous spellings. In Italian ambiguous usually means one alternative spelling. In English it usually means about 4 plausible spellings.

    rít/rýt = rite, write, right, wright, rait, ryt, riet

    English has never had a planned spelling reform guided by experts interested in making the orthography more transparent.

    The initial reform could not respell more than 10% of the words without alienating and annoying the already literate. About 50% of the spellings need to be updated.

    The first reform might eliminate the superfluous letters once agreement was reached on whether or not the g in gnat and the k in know are superfluous. They are superfluous to today’s pronunciation but they could distinguish homophones.

    “Í nó therz à nat flýìng àrôund mý hed.”

    Kidz can óvèr lûrn à dicshònary kéy in 3 mûnths.

    They can réàd àn ärticl az mûch ûndèrstandìng az when thè [ðè] ärticl iz reàd tu them àlôud.

    Müving frûm à prònunçiáshòn gídè spelìng tü à môr tràdishònàl spelìng máy tákè ànûthèr 3 mûnths. Evry kid in thè stûdy was réàding at à 3rd grádè levèl bý thè end ûv 9 mûnths.

    Spelìng with sôund sínz còntinúz tü bé mûch ézyèr than spelìng with wûrd sínz.

    (The ANSI character set will not display correctly in Unicode, be sure your encoding is set to Western).

  10. Murray

    Fortunately the fact that there is no central authority for the English language means that Ken’s wishes are almost certain to be in vain. I am by no means an English scholar but the gateway to history and to other languages and peoples provided by spellings that are at first puzzling is something I would hate to be without. The worldwide scope of English and the fact that usage and pronunciation is in constant flux means that the ill-advised venture, if seriously attempted to be carried out, would result in more inconsistencies to puzzle future generations.

  11. kenanddot

    Thanks for the comment Steve and the example. I found I could read it without much difficulty, although I would have to be taught the system to write in it myself. But it’s useful because it gives me something to say to people who say adopting a new system would be too effortful.

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