Christopher Knutson asked if the Roman alphabet was suitable for modern English, and if we needed a modern “spelling revolution” because of the inconsistencies. Good question! Some scholars have proposed these kinds of changes, and anyone who struggled with spelling in 3rd grade (read: each of us) has asked this very question at some point in our life.
Our way of writing with an alphabet, where each sound is (supposedly) represented by a letter, is not the only possibility. Other languages (like Cherokee and the ancient Baybayin script in the Philippines) write with symbols which represent syllables. Chinese is an example of a language where each word gets a unique symbol.
Christopher, who started the LinkedIn thread, asked for everyone’s thoughts. Here is what I wrote (edited and expanded just a bit):
There are many varieties of English around the globe. A number of these are so different in sound as to be mutually unintelligible. Many of them exist within a few miles of each other in London. So while spelling is standard, pronunciation widely varies. We’ve (almost) gotten to the point of having a system like Chinese where everyone can read it, no matter how they pronounce the words.
I was at a school once in the upper Midwest where the receptionist (a student doing on-campus work) was from Northern Ireland. Part of her job was to page other students so they would come and accept an incoming long distance call (so yes, this was a few decades back!) Whenever her voice came over the intercom, everyone with a long-distance boyfriend or girlfriend ran to see if the call was for them… no one could understand the girl’s announcement over the PA, even though it was spoken in English!
As for why English spelling is the way it is today, there are many reasons. One is that English itself has changed in pronunciation. It actually used to be much more phonetic and consistent. The [k] in “knight,” for example used to be pronounced, and the [gh] represented a sound still found in Germanic languages and similar to the [x] in some dialects of Spanish.
Then there was the Great Vowel Shift. Scholars have proven how one day, everyone basically woke up and changed how they pronounced all their vowels. (Well, it wasn’t quite that simple, but almost… honest!)
Another difficulty with trying to have consistent English spelling is that English has ELEVEN vowel sounds (linguists argue about this number, give or take one or two), but only five vowel letters with which to spell them. So you need weird combinations, and inconsistency is unavoidable. Okay time out… You don’t believe me on the eleven vowel sounds? Take the frame “b_t” and you can produce most of them in a jiffy, depending, of course, of your own dialect: try reading these: beat, bit, bait, bet, bat, baht, but, boot, boat, bought, beaut, bite and then get one more by changing the [t] to a [k] and saying book. Almost anyone will get at least eleven sounds from that list and it doesn’t even include the schwa, which is common in every dialect of English.
Another reason for our messy spelling is that words were borrowed from other languages and their spelling was completely (or partially) retained. Much of this sort of borrowing happened during times when English was conquered or variously under heavy influence by French- or Norse-speaking peoples. Now, in the past century, we have been taken over by what seem to be Scottish conquerors who have introduced words like McChicken.
Another reason is that spelling comes in part from morphology (the meaningful PARTS of words). So to spell only by phonetic sound of the word loses a visual connection with the words’ derivational roots (for example, the machine part of “machinist” and “machination” would be spelled differently in a phonetic spelling.)
Which brings us to the whole idea of “visual.” Reading by sounding words out (e.g. with a phonetic alphabet) is actually quite slow and inefficient. It’s great for beginners and children, etc. But eventually, any good reader reads by rapid recognition of entire words based on the visual word “shape” and their context.
So to change to a phonetic system now would actually be a step backward in literacy from that angle alone. It would also be impossible to make a phonetic alphabet serve as a universal spelling standard. Plus, we would lose access to the incredible volumes of published English already “out there” (like BillDavisWords!), since modern Standard English would quickly become a “ancient language” like Old English, that only scholars could read.
What do you find odd about English spelling? Please comment, even if you spel ril bad…