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Jots and Tittles: English as she is writ.

One big, obvious problem with Engish is how it’s spelled. English words are not always spelled the way they are spoken: knight, for example, contains three “silent letters”, letters which are not pronounced. Daughter and laughter look as if they should rhyme, but they don’t, while the word live can be pronunced in two completely different ways, as in I live in Germany and We saw the Kaiser Chiefs live.

The confusion English spelling creates constantly trips up even native speakers. On at least one quiz show, a contestant asked to name a part of the body beginning with N immediately said “knee”.

Unsurprisingly, then, there have been calls to simplify English spelling as far back as the 18th century. Various systems have been proposed with interesting names like FLOSS, Unifon, Ipifuny and Folksrite. One that isn’t generally well-known is called Saaspel (pronounced “Saaspel”).

First reactions

Out of curiosity, I asked a highly unrepresentative sample of native English speakers for their thoughts. On reflection, perhaps I should not have linked to the Saaspel site, as I didn’t quite get the answers I was looking for. But here’s what I did discover:

  • Only one person — a schoolteacher — spoke out in favour of spelling reform. However, he used the word “tweak”, which implies a much less radical change.
  • Most were horrified at the prospect of such a radical change — the phrase “dumbing down” cropped up a couple of times. One or two said they would give up reading if these changes were introduced.
  • Few admitted to having major problems reading or writing. One admitted that she had simply refused to do any schoolwork (ironically, she is also one of the better spellers on the message board). Another said she’d learned to read at kindergarten, but was then thrown in first grade when she was re-taught using Phonics.

This is perhaps the biggest stumbling block on the road to spelling reform; most native speakers simply don’t see the need, and would probably simply refuse to comply.

Case study: German spelling reform

German is one language usually held up as an example of a phonetic language, one where words are spelled as they are pronounced. In part, this is because German spelling is “tweaked” every two or three generations. The last such reform has just been completed, and although only a few minor changes were made, it caused a huge controversy:

  • Public opinion was strongly opposed to the idea from the very start.
  • Many of the new rules were logical from a linguistic point of view, but most ordinary people have not studied linguistics.
  • Some of the new rules removed irregularities, but introduced other, more serious, problems instead. In the worst cases, minor spelling changes actually obscured the meaning of the word. During the trial phase, some of these rules had to be abandoned as unworkable.
  • As a result, almost an entire generation of schoolchildren learned three different sets of rules, causing confusion and uncertainty.

Any kind of spelling reform, no matter how minor, must be properly thought-out and planned.

Arguments for spelling reform often rely on a set of assumptions which need to be examined.

English can be spelled phonetically

“Phonetically” means, ideally, that each letter stands for one sound only, and each sound is represented by one letter only. Realistically, English has 26 letters and something like forty different sounds, so a compromise does have to be made.

The difficulty is that English is so widespread, you would have to choose which specific form of English to spell phonetically, or have a different set of spelling rules for each. For example, in some dialects, the words moot and mute are pronounced exactly the same; in others, though, the two words are pronounced quite differently. Some native English speakers pronounce shone to rhyme with gone, while others rhyme it with bone; exactly the same is true of scone.

Describing different accents is difficult in writing, so I have prepared a short video. (It does repeat some points I’ve already made so it will make sense on its own.)

Simplified spelling rules would reduce dyslexia

We should be clear what we mean by “dyslexia”: some people have in the past used it to describe anyone who has difficulty with spelling, but in fact dyslexia is a neurological problem: it has to do with the way the brain is wired. There are many different types of dyslexia, but at the heart of the problem seems to be difficulty with the entire concept of symbols representing sounds or words: new spelling rules, no matter how logical, won’t help. Dyslexia is no more prevalent in English-speaking countries than it is in, say, Italy (Italian spelling is highly phonetic), although different types of dyslexia may be more common in different countries.

Simplified spelling rules would reduce illiteracy

The logic seems inescapable: English spelling is problematic, and therefore children have a harder time learning it, and therefore illiteracy is higher in English-speaking countries.

Map showing literacy rates throughout the world (12kb)

That would seem logical, but it’s not borne out by the facts. Although the exact definition of “illiteracy” varies from country to country, the statistics suggest that illiteracy is highest in Africa, South America, parts of Asia, and Arabia, irrespective of which language is used. Rather, illiteracy in Africa and South America is more likely due to the lack of a good education system, and illiteracy in Asia and Arabia may be a result of women not being encouraged to study.

Related to this is the claim that reducing illiteracy would reduce poverty. While on an individual level, learning to read and write is important for getting a good job, it is far more likely that illiteracy is caused by poverty in the first place — and that to reduce illiteracy, you would need to reduce poverty. Forcing cash-starved education authorities in Africa to retrain their teachers and buy new textbooks doesn’t seem to be a realistic solution.

Foreigners would find it easier to learn English

One of the ways I attempt to earn a living is teaching English to foreigners (mostly, but not exclusively, Germans). In my experience, the majority of people seem to be able to instinctively pick up the most complex and subtle rules without knowing it, and one thing most of my students are very good at is pronouncing words they have never seen before. It is not pronunciation which causes problems in English classes, it is grammar.

Spelling errors are uncommon in phonetically-spelled languages

Again, my own personal experience doesn’t support this assumption. Certainly Germans manage to find ever more creative ways to misspell their own language, despite its supposed status as a phonetically-spelled language. This hasn’t gone unnoticed; parents complain that their children are not being taught properly.

Simplified spelling would make English a truly global language

According to this argument, if only English spelling was regularised, English would become the world language and everybody would speak it.

In fact, English is already the world language. If a businessman from Buenos Aires meets a partner from Shanghai, they will almost certainly speak English. The vast majority of the world’s e-mails and international snail-mail letters are written English. English is the language of international business and government, and has replaced French as the language of diplomacy.

Perhaps we are supposed to take things one step further and impose English on everybody. This will not work for a huge variety of reasons, not least because, no matter how easy English is to spell, it would be a highly unpopular move. It would be very difficult to imagine countries like France or Iran adopting English as their official languages — and why should they? Most people in the world would complain bitterly, and in many places riots and attacks against Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism would make the headlines for as long as it took to abandon the idea.

Conclusion

There is certainly a case for saying that if we made English eaiser to spell, it would make life easier. However, the benefits of a complete spelling reform are not as great as might be supposed, and there would be great resistance to the whole idea. Most changes would actually cause more problems than they solved. Like it or not, we are stuck with a highly complex writing system — but oddly enough, we manage perfectly well.

Extra copyright notice

The map of world literacy rates is taken from Wikipedia, released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Under the terms of this license, you are free to copy, edit and redistribute this image.

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