Saturday, February 16, 2013

“Ekskyooz Mee, I Haev A Cawf”

Something called the English Spelling Society recently came to my attention. Its existence was in no way a surprise, English is famously difficult to spell and efforts to regularize and simplify English spelling have been on low simmer for hundreds of years, coming occasionally to a boil. The secretary was complaining about the difficulties posed to students of English, both the natives and the newcomers, by the intricacies of English spelling. It made me wonder if there were not more mischief in such an effort than its adherents realize.

There are certainly many languages where the spelling of words, and the treatment of the alphabet in general, are more regular and comforting than they are in English (Spanish and German come to mind), but there are many others where the irregularity and confusion equal or even surpass English (French and Polish). Others still are completely impossible (Chinese). The society suggests that we regularize English spelling? Well, where does one start? Or stop?

Why not clean up all of the other languages too, all at once?  God knows, spelling strange languages in the a/b/c's is not always easy, it's not always a good fit. 

For instance, I had a high school friend named Eddie, and it was always fun to watch adults try to say his family name. I won’t even try to spell it, his name was “kahz-mahs-ski.” The family had been in town for generations, and we all knew how to say it. First time readers would stare at the name though, making a face that looked like they were trying to extract the cube root of a three digit number by mental effort alone. “Kuzah-cheski?” We were all quite amused, we took English spelling for granted by found comedy gold in Polish spelling.

That’s what happens when a language from one linguistic tradition is married to an alphabet from another.  So, are we having fun yet? 

Speaking Of The Alphabet

The alphabet used by English is part of the problem, although I’ve never known of anyone suggesting that it be modified to better suit the purpose. The Phoenician Alphabet (or the Roman, for you cultural imperialists out there) contains only five vowels, unless you count the “y,” which the Romans, and later the Germans, did not. These five vowels are made to represent the twenty or so discrete vowel sounds employed by English, and that’s before you even consider the diphthongs.

One of the things that I like about the Thai alphabet, for instance, is that it has letters for each of the twenty-plus vowel sounds in Thai. The Thai alphabet in general is a less than perfectly reassuring companion, but at least all of the vowel sounds are represented, and at least, let’s face it, there is an alphabet in the first place. I thanked God sincerely for its very existence. Even with its many mysteries, you could internalize it in six weeks or so. Not like that infernal puzzle that is Chinese. Not that Chinese isn’t a beautiful language, ancient traditions of literary and philosophical excellence clearly attest to the fact that it is. But it must be said that learning to read Chinese is a most daunting prospect.

That’s the thing though, we should take languages as we find them. If anyone is suggesting that the Chinese adopt a phonetic alphabet to make it easier to learn Chinese, I haven’t heard about it. And why should they? There are a billion and a half of them, and most of them are already familiar with the 5,000 Kanji.

Why should the Chinese language, or English, take administrative steps to make the languages easier to learn? Tens of millions of people are learning one or the other right now, with great success, so obviously it can be done.

Who Will Be In Charge?

Perhaps the English Spelling Society would like to nominate themselves to be in charge of the effort to improve English spelling. Who would you trust to do it? Isn’t that a good question? Which great minds would be set to this task? How would the committee be composed?

And which of the currently licensed versions of English would serve as the basis of the effort? There are six or more countries in the world in which English is the virtually exclusive native language: The United States; Canada; The Republic of Ireland; Great Britain; Australia; and New Zealand. Am I forgetting somewhere? There are also many countries or regions in which English is spoken widely as either a second native language or a “bridge” language to cover the differences among the speakers of many regional native languages (India and Scandinavia).

Whose English reigns supreme? I think that the Canadians would get my vote as the most neutral and understandable English, actually.

There is already tension in the world’s language learning community about who owns World English, the British or the Americans. The British argument is that they are the English people and that it is the English language after all. The American argument is that American culture is ascendant in all of the far flung corners of the earth, including England. (See “Our Debt To The English,” years ago on this blog.) I’m still going with Canada.

What Should Be Changed?

Just the spelling? Should it be more like the title of this post? To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, "The Tuff Cawfed As He Plaowed The Doh."  If the effort is to make English easier to learn, why stop there?

(Sarcasm Alert!)

Why not change the alphabet, as suggested above? The “a” is clearly insufficient to render the many sounds ascribed to it, as are the other vowels.

Why not change the grammar too while we’re at it? English grammar is a ridiculous imposition on the patience of its students. Most languages take the subject-verb-object approach, and English also follows this pattern. Most such languages, however, hold that a simple subject-verb-object makes a good sentence. Like, “I go market.” Three words. English requires six to do the same thing, “I am going to the market.” English grammar complicates everything. Most languages eliminate articles all together; they keep their reliance on prepositions to a minimum; they keep verb conjugations simple, if they have them at all; most languages value simplicity. Why shouldn’t English follow their lead? It would indisputably make English easier to learn.

Why not simplify the vocabulary too? The vocabulary of English is ridiculously vast. There’s so much duplication, and so many fine variations on similar themes, surely something could be done to lighten the learner’s task. Notice that at some point all of this becomes linguistic fascism, like Newspeak, with its “good; plus-good; double-plus-good.”

Why Not, Indeed?

There is no need to make the proposed changes to English spelling, and even less need than that regarding my hyperbolic suggestions. English is a wonderful and eminently useful language the way that it stands. It is a wonderfully expressive language, lending itself to all manner of artistic applications; it is wonderfully descriptive, lending itself to the purposes of business and science; it is very subtle, making it very practical for political and legal applications.

I believe that English is the most fully formed and useful language in the world. I also believe that, taken as a whole and with reference to the other languages with claims to usefulness, English is relatively easy to learn.

Languages all follow a normative process of development. These processes are ongoing; English is in the midst of its development, probably its development into the pre-eminent language of the world. This is not happening because it is the “American language,” and certainly not because it is the “British language.” I believe that it is happening because it offers the greatest flexibility to its users, the greatest power to explain things, the greatest power to understand. So let English progress on a trajectory of its own choosing, let it develop on its own.

Learners of English, in my experience, are not crying out for mercy regarding English spelling, as are, I would imagine, many students of Chinese. If anything, students of English complain about the grammar. We’ll be keeping that however, grammar helps with the transmission of complex ideas.

So why don’t we just let the whole thing ride? Don’t we have more pressing problems to deal with? Like the nonsense that passes for pizza these days?

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