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Archive for February, 2011

English spelling reform

Through the years, various attempts have been made to simplify the spelling of English words. Given the unpredictability of English orthography, this comes as no surprise; and people have to constantly check the spelling of difficult words, whether by means of an internet spell check or with Microsoft Word’s program.

On the surface, it does look as though reforming our orthography would eliminate—or at least greatly reduce—the problem of how to check spelling. But on closer inspection, one cannot help but discover that such reforms would create at least as many problems as they would solve, if not more.

The pronunciation of English words has varied from period to period and also from locality to locality. Take William Shakespeare, the greatest writer the world has known, for instance. If he spelled Memorising words exactly as they Remodel were pronounced in his day (and even as it was, he spelled many words differently than we do, e.g. “warme” for “warm”), think of how extremely difficult it would be for us to figure out what he was saying! But in general, writing tends to be more conservative than speech.

In particular, the vowel sounds in any language are very malleable. Beginning in the mid-15th century, English pronunciation underwent what historical linguists refer to as the Great Vowel Shift, and many vowels changed the way they were articulated; thus, “boot,” which formerly sounded like “boat” does today, shifted towards its current pronunciation, and long i changed from the “ee” in “see” to the modern “i” of “dime.” The spellings of these words, however, remained the same;

Phonetic writing would present yet another practical problem. Some morphemes, such as “s” for the plural of nouns and for the present tense third person singular of verbs, are pronounced differently according as they are preceded by a voiced or an unvoiced sound (“cats” vs. dogs”; “writes” vs. “tells”). If we wrote the latter members of each pair as “dogz” and “tellz,” it would be hard to see that the same morpheme was being used in both cases. True, it would be easier for foreigners to learn to pronounce English words, but that is not what the orthography of any language is for. Words are spelled as they are for native speakers who are accustomed to encountering them in their everyday lives.

In certain cases, however, attempts at orthographic reform did meet with some degree of success—at least in America, where Noah Webster compiled his famous dictionary. It was largely through his efforts that Americans adopted such spellings as “plow” (British “plough”) and “humor” (British “humour”). Some nautical words also have such alternative phonetic spellings, e.g. “bosun” for “boatswain”).

But in the end, there is no substitute for mastering. You need to know how to check spelling, using an offline or internet spell check when necessary, and not hope that English spelling will become any simpler tomorrow than it is today.

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