Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Spelling Reform

The English language is a bastard, a hybrid from the mating of a Germanic tongue with a Latinate one. And ever since the Norman invasion, it has, as James D. Nicoll puts it “...pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

This bastardry given us one of the richest and most subtle languages on earth. There are few true synonyms in English. But when it comes to spelling this glorious language, we are in trouble. There have been many attempts to instigate spelling reform, and only one, to my knowledge, was ever taken up – that of the American lexicographer Noah Webster in the late C18. Webster was a clever man, but he largely wanted change for its own sake as part of the republicanisation of America. In changing the spelling, he made the difficult task of learning to pronounce English words even harder. Any child of native-speaking parents outside the USA learns, for example, that –ll in a word shortens the previous vowel, while a single –l followed by an e makes the vowel “say its own name”. Thus the American spelling “canceled” looks as if it should be pronounced “can-sealed” to any English speaker not educated in an American dialect.

Even so, one problem with changing spelling (apart from the fact that no two authorities would agree on the extent and nature of the changes) is that pronunciation is constantly changing, and can be vastly different in different areas of the English-speaking world. One of the reasons is that a lot of people have never been taught the few rules that should work universally (well, almost!) such as the accent going on the ante-penultimate syllable. So at present we have people pronouncing, for instance, in'tegral as integ'ral, and ex'quisite as exquis'ite. These are two that have changed even in my lifetime of 67 years, and I'm sure there are many more. My mother told me that she had seen many other changes – when she was young (pre WWI) for example, surveillance was pronounced surveyance, in the French manner. From there it went through a stage of being pronounced surveilyance and thence to our modern pronunciation. Likewise with Parliament - educated people when my mum was a girl used to say pah'ley-ament.

And what would we do with all the foreign words that find their way into our language each year? As soon as they are introduced we change the pronunciation to suit ourselves, despite the best efforts of linguists to match symbol to sound as closely as possible. So, for example, the Pin Yin Qi is invariably pronounced, and often spelt, Chi.

If we change spelling to match current pronunciation then the new spelling will be outdated within a century and will just have to be changed again. When it comes to spelling reform, you’re damned if you do (you risk ruining the existing rules of pronunciation, as Webster did) and damned if you don’t (you change spelling to match pronunciation and the pronunciation changes anyway).

Spelling reform is a contentious issue and many will disagree with my stance. But the system we have works fine. So the written language is not a true representation of the spoken variety - so what? This is true of most languages, and in the case of Chinese, for example, the written word is a unifying factor for the many different spoken forms. Written English meets the same purpose. Speakers of broad Yorkshire, Australian English or Texan English may not understand each other in face to face conversation, but our wonderful written language means they can all read and enjoy the same books. Even when they are written in American English:-).

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