Monday, June 14, 2010

Orthographic reform

My Facebook page has been full of people commenting about the protests at the National Spelling Bee.

Admittedly, the idea of staging a protest at the Spelling Bee to argue for orthographic reform -- that is, a simplification of English spelling, and making it more consistent -- is silly. This is not a subject that warrants picketing and demonstrations, and the people at the spelling bee in particular shouldn't be its object. This was quite obviously a publicity stunt.

At least amongst the people I know, it seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect, though. Without exception every comment I saw was reactionary: people leaping to the defense of English in its current state, and taking the stance that orthographical reform equates to "dumbing down" the language. Often there was a tone in these comments of the curmudgeon who insists that he had to learn the exceptions to the "I before E" rule uphill, in the snow, both ways, and if it was good enough for him it should be good enough for you damned kids.

I don't mean to be contrary at people just because they're being contrary at other people, but I wonder how many of those folks are also arguing for us turning back those very few orthographical reforms that Webster managed to instill into the United States. Should we be putting the unnecessary U back into words like "color", and reversing the letters "er" on the ends of words like "center", just because that was good enough for King George? Perhaps we should go back to Middle English and sing "Svmer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu!" Has our language been being dumbed down since Chaucer's time?

The fact is, English is wildly and unnecessarily difficult to spell because it's such a total hodgepodge of language origins. There's no justification for "diet" and "diesel" being pronounced entirely differently, and anyone who can look at the word "through" without groaning at the spelling is too inured to the way things are. A popular demonstration of how awful it is is the made-up word "ghoti" which is pronounced "fish": the gh comes from "tough", the o comes from "women", and the ti comes from "nation".

This is a particularly troubling thing because English speakers also tend to refuse to learn other languages, and instead expect everyone else to learn English, especially now that the Internet (having originated in English-speaking lands) is so ubiquitous. And English is one of the hardest languages to learn as a second language. It's not easy even for those born to it; native speakers of English spell it far less well than native speakers of other languages spell their languages. (Cue the "state of education in this country" rant, which I'll be posting about some other day! No, it's not that simple. English is just harder, and more importantly, far more inconsistent.)

Orthographic reform used to be a hotly debated subject, and Webster made the biggest strides in the history of the language towards making changes, by happening to be at the right place at the right time. It's plain that that opportunity will never come again -- orthographic reform is just not going to happen in this language in my lifetime, maybe ever, so this discussion is purely academic. (Heck, we're so change-averse we're still refusing to learn metric, which is just head-in-the-sand stupid.) But that it isn't going to happen has no bearing on whether it would be right for it to happen.

There's nothing special about the current hodgepodge of rules and exceptions that make up the language and particularly its spelling rules. There's no intellectual advantage to be claimed in having inconsistent, erratic spelling rules so tricky that even well-educated English speakers often make mistakes. It's no real basis for proclaiming superiority. If our language were consistent, that wouldn't make our students stupider -- quite the contrary, in fact. The problem with orthographic reform is that it's too hard to make happen (due to the transition and everyone's resistance to change), not that it shouldn't happen.

Let us conclude with some of Mark Twain's writings on the subject. As with many of Twain's writings, it can be taken both humorously and seriously with equal facility.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

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.

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