Kan Yu Spel Gud?

A question on a LinkedIn forum got me to thinking.

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…

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About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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5 Responses to Kan Yu Spel Gud?

  1. Don says:

    Hey, great post – made me think. I’ll get to posting a real response when I can (on a bus right now).

  2. Don says:

    The first time I read this, I felt like I would be in opposition to any changes in spelling in the English language and stubbornly use the “newly Old” English.

    I don’t know if you realize, but there is already a widely known and adopted method of phonetically writing English – when u send a txt, 4 example. Personally though, I refuse to write like that; all my texts are correctly spelled, punctuated and spaced.

    Obviously this system of English has gained the most footing with the youngest demographic, with some tragic cases using nothing but “text-speak”, even in official correspondence (e-mails).

    Is that where English is headed? I certainly hope not, although I can’t develop any arguments behind my views other than ‘that’s how it’s done’.

    English spelling isn’t anywhere near as messy as French, though – there are many words where you just don’t pronounce the last 3 or 4 letters (disent [deez], par exemple).

    • Bill Davis says:

      Yes, text-speak is rampant here in the Philippines with an added mixture of two (or more) languages. The English version annoys me (and I refuse to use it). The Taglish version confuses me and when it’s pure Tagalog text-speak (they call it Jejemon), I can hardly understand it! They do some interesting things with grammar, too, when they mingle. Hmmm…. I smell a blog post.

      I also hope this isn’t where English is headed. I didn’t study French (5 years of Spanish). My wife did. And the joke seems to be that you don’t pronounce the last letter. If you’re supposed to pronounce it you add a few more letters, like an [e]. I know that’s an ignorant oversimplification, but you know what I mean.

  3. Ohhhhh (spelled to stress) there is a place to comment. One must just scroll all the way to the bottom. Mear moments ago I posted your comments concerning Mongolia on my FB because I didn’t see anywhere to comment. (Epitome: Lazy American.) Though now I’ve scrolled up and read the comments between you and Don too, but I am sitting down; so, I think that still qualifies as lazy.

    I really relate to your post as I am currently teaching my youngest a bit of reading before she heads to her very first day in the classroom. My older two, at 7 and 8 yoa, are budding bibliophiles. Though, I wonder if it counts considering a portion of their personal libraries are kept on a hard drive.

    Anyway, the idea of 11 vowel sounds got me thinking. I’ve had to go back and check your list a few times. Seems you’ve illustrated 13 vowel sounds and the schwa is represented in butt. Isn’t it?

    What’s troubling me is that I picked the words fir to fire and Florida pine to pin to illustrate a silent – e, only to have my 7 yoa daughter come and question the existence of a vowel in the word fir which ought to be spelled the same as brr or the non-existent word grr. With the first, the two trees were so easy to draw. Illustration are obviously necessary necessary for a non-reader. (hmm…check out illustration when capitalized using Ariel font…)

    The introduced conundrum had me philosophizing to my seven yr old (Funnily yr is recognized as meaning a period of time and is cited as first appearance 1991.) We spoke of pin vs pen. If only one of either of these items were sitting on the table and I asked for it using sloppy enunciation. The person I asked would likely give me the pen or pin as the case might be; but, if I both were there they’d have to look for clarification. Did I have a piece of paper in my hand or was I holding my blouse together?

    I remember while in college I drove my English 101 professor crazy because I love commas so much I’ll put them anywhere. When I blog I’ve taken to redefining ellipsis a space to stop and think but I’ve been scolded and try very hard not to use them…Still, Google sets me up for spelling; though, if I go to dictionary.com it likes to tell me that my spelling of mere as mear is now obsolete and half the worlds I enjoy using are archaic.

    Alas, or maybe better to say at last, as I sigh and think to myself, I should look up sigh to see if it’s etiology is German and it’s actually a exacting onomatopoeia, I firmly believe that if one can convey their meaning, communicate an idea and inspire others to step up and declare, initiate debate and understanding, who cares if I use your or ur, you or u and for that matter, where I put my comma.

    Of course, to that my father would say, “what is this thing called, love?” and I’d have to look over at what he happened to be holding. 🙂

  4. Bill Davis says:

    Welcome aboard, Allison. Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to answer your questions and make a few observations…

    Yes, I list 11 vowels, plus a diphthong (the vowel in beaut). I see I missed the diphthong in “bout” and will edit the blog to show that. You get fill credit for that! Some linguists say these diphthongs are single entities (i.e. each is a complex single vowel in English, thus #12 and #13). Others say they are a glide between two vowels. That’s an issue of how to analyze them, not a difference in how they sound.

    The schwa is not the vowel in “butt” (or “but”). That “uh” vowel has the tongue a bit lower in the mouth than the schwa. The schwa is not analyzed as being an actual vowel in English, because it does not make a meaning distinction (i.e. like the difference between “beat” and “bit” shows that those who vowels are distinct; only the vowel is different, the hearer notices this and the meaning changes.) The schwa occurs when speakers tend to “centralize” unstressed vowels. For example we say emPHAtic (the stressed “a” being the same vowel as in “Apple”), but EMphxsis, the here standing for the schwa. This tendency to centralize unstressed vowels gives Americans their accent when they speak Spanish, for example, where all [a] vowels keep their nice “a” sounds and never come out as a schwa.

    Fir… ah, yes. Phonetically, there is no vowel in “fir.” The [i] is probably there because of etymology and how some regions might pronounce it. But for most us us it is a syllabic . Phonetically English is more like a vowel than a consonant (but it usually functions more like a consonant). Hmm. Anyway, yes, it’s the some SOUND thing going on it “fir” and “grr.” Your young speller will just have to learn to deal with that, and with many, many other inconsistencies in English spelling!

    Speaking of which, the “silent e.” There is no in those words phonetically. It’s a spelling convention, usually to let us know that how the preceding vowel is to be pronounced. Since we only have 5 vowel LETTERS and 11 vowel SOUNDS, tricks like the silent e help. So it’s “fate” vs. “fat.”

    As for “pen” and “pin,” you wound me to the core! (just kidding.) Certain dialects make no distinction between them and it’s a consistent pattern. Those two vowels BOTH come out as the higher “i” vowel (like in pin) before a nasal consonant. This is a Southern California phenomenon, and isn’t really a matter of “sloppy” enunciation (well, according to linguists; third grade English teachers would disagree *smile*).

    Lastly, your father’s sentence is an example of words which take their meaning from the context. The word “this” has no real-world referent unless you see what he’s holding. Same goes for “here, I, you, me,” etc. These are called “deictics,” if you want the ten-dollar word!

    Have fun teaching your child to read, and I hope you stop by the read and comment again!

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