Thursday, 11 December 2014

Spelling reformers get wrong end of stick shocker

Crikey. This Guardian article seems designed to elicit spluttering apoplexy. I think the author must be trolling. Nevertheless, I shall content myself here with pointing out a few minor quibbles. Throughout, letters within <pointy brackets> refer to orthography (spelling) and letters within /slash brackets/ refer to sounds and are in the IPA. My statements apply to English only unless otherwise specified. 

The article begins with a picture of fish with this caption: 
Fish – or "ghoti", if you pronounce the gh as in rough, the o as in women, and the ti as in motion. This example of irregular English spellings is sometimes wrongly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, an advocate of spelling reform.
As one commenter notes, 
the example of the fish in the illustration is rather baffling. 
Quite. I use this example in my first year teaching, and after having a laugh working out how the logic works, there is always a bright spark who points out that it's a fallacious example because it flouts a number of English spelling conventions. For instance, <gh> is never pronounced /f/ at the start of a word. Ever. Similarly, <ti> is not pronounced /ʃ/ except when it's part of the sequence <tion>. The 'notable usage' section of the wikipedia entry is good fun though. 

Paragraph 1:
If you set out to create the most complicated spelling system in the world, then you could hardly do better than English.
False. Go and learn Japanese kanji, katakana and hiragana and then come back to me on this one. 

Paragraph 2:
The early lexicographers made little attempt to match spellings consistently with the sounds they were supposed to represent.
False. First, why would lexicographers be doing such a thing anyway? Second, they often did, but their accents were different. 

Paragraph 4:
Consider the pronunciation of sound, southern and soup (ou) or blue, shoe, flew, through, you, two, too, gnu (oo): the spellings for identical sounds have ended up exceptionally varied.
Note that these are examples of two different things. The second set is indeed an example of identical sounds /u:/ being spelt in varied ways, but the first set is the same spelling <ou> pronounced different ways. The rest of the paragraph appears to make this point so we'll put this one down to mangling in the editing process. 

Paragraph 5:
There is growing evidence that our uniquely unpredictable spelling system has economic and social costs.
Yes, quite probably, so we should try and combat those. But spelling reform isn't the way. 

Paragraph 8:
US spelling, used by the majority of maternal English speakers, is to a degree more phonemic than British.
Yes. A very tiny degree. 

Paragraph 9:
If [Webster's spelling reforms] had been implemented in full, our spelling would be far more regular and predictable than it remains on both sides of the Atlantic.
If you say so. As it is, his change from <s> to <z> in some but not all <ise> suffixes has left me far more confused than just using <ise> for all of them, as we do in UK spelling. Why is it <privatize> but not <advertize>? And I don't see why his proposed <cloke> was better than <cloak>. Some of his changes were reasonable: <masque> to <mask>, for instance. But why drop the <k> from <magick> and not <pick> etc.? 

Paragraph 10:
The English Spelling Society would admit that it is not much nearer achieving its objectives now than when it was founded in 1908.
There's a reason. 

He ends by suggesting that, as governments aren't bothered about spelling (he says there's no votes in it, but actually I think it might be a winner: people get v worked up about spelling), there should be an international spelling congress. Good luck to them, but I won't hold my breath. 

Unusually, the comments are far more sensible than the article itself. These people make relevant points about the way that English currently represents the relationships between words that aren't reflected in the sound, and also the way we obtained our words:

Rationalising spelling to phonemes only, will inevitably lose the original sense of morphemes and lexemes. 
Also making it harder for people from Germanic / Romantic [sic] languages to study English as a second language, as many clues to the root words are in the spelling, not the sounds.
And what about accents? How is this universal English going to represent Scotland? New Zealand? the Deep South of the US?
No, English spelling is not reflective of the sounds the symbols they represent, and neither is Chinese, or a host of other languages which speakers and writers seem to have no problem with. What English spelling is representative of though is the rich and multicultural history of the language including amongst others influences from Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Celtic, French, Latin, Greek, and an admixture of a host of other languages. Anyone proposing to ethnically cleanse English of its rich historical influences is beneath contempt.
Some comments revealed that one major reason to keep our system is so as not to be like the French (which is a fate worse than death for many Brits):
The French might allow themselves to be policed by the ghastly Académie Française but the English language establishes its own rules.
Some indicated a slightly bizarre belief that French is not a living, changing language:
It's clear that the French language is not as complex as English (it's a 'dead' language, which is of course the only way there can be an academy can look after it).
It is always changing, unlike for example French. 
And this one seems to have a very strange idea of what linguistics is (apparently a degree in English Language and Linguistics is essentially a degree in spelling):
Surely changing the spelling of thousands of words would require an upheaval of what is taught to Language and Linguistics students? 

1 comment:

  1. In fact the Oxford dictionaries do keep -ize in etymologically appropriate words, although they are otherwise in British spelling.

    I agree that a simple phonetic spelling system isn't appropriate for Inglish. But we cood switch to wun that elimminates aul the completely irregular spellings, making English orthography slightly less difficult than French. That is, given the spelling ov a French word yoo can (with only a handful ov exceptions) know how to pronounce it wunce you hav lerned the system, but you still hav to lern which ov the different possible spellings ov each wurd is correct. That wood make Inglish much easier to lern to read and sumwhat easier to write. (The system I am using here is a variant ov Axel Wijk's "Regularized Inglish".)

    If the result seems too alien, it would also be possible to exempt a short list of highly irregular but very common wurds from the reform, as in this sentence. Chíldren's books cood mark prímàry and sécondàry stress (or rather lack of vówel rèdúction) with áccènts, though this would be nationally specific (as an American I hav fewer vowel reductions than yoo probably doo).