For some years now I've been amusing myself by planning exactly
what I would try in the way of
spelling reform if I woke up
one morning and found that the Revolutionary
Stalinist–Linguist Party had mounted a coup and appointed me
as World Dictator. Details of my proposal for a Revolting
Orthography (modestly entitled
Romanised English) are
unlikely ever to become available; for now I want to get it clearly
established exactly how mad this scheme is. The problems with
our current system are sufficiently well known that I feel no need
to rehearse them all here; and people have been protesting about
the situation for centuries. So just what is wrong with the
idea of switching to something better? Anti-reformists come
in thirteen basic flavours, with arguments summarisable as follows.
|01)||THE STATUS QUO FAN|
|02)||THE FONETICS PHREAK|
|04)||THE REMINGTON SALESMAN|
|05)||THE CULTURE VULTURE|
|08)||THE FRENCH TEACHER|
|09)||THE BON-MOT AFICIONADO|
|10)||THE ETYMOLOGICAL DETERMINIST|
|11)||THE COCKNEY PATRIOT|
Throughout this essay, example spellings, pronunciation guides, and so forth are marked out as follows…
|English words, letters etc.:||angle-bracketed||like this|
|Foreign words, letters etc.:||ditto, italicised||comme ceci|
|Proposed revised spellings:||double-bracketed||layk dhis|
|Rough pronunciation guides:||capitalised in quotes||
|Phonemic transcriptions:||IPA in slant-brackets||lɑɪk ðɪs|
See also my
Phonemic Transcription Key for
(If you're wondering where the brackets are, sorry: it'll be because your browser doesn't support CSS…)
The existing spelling system is traditional; if it was good enough for my grandparents then it's good enough for everybody! I refuse to learn any new system, whatever its supposed merits!
The normal reply by your run-of-the-mill wimpish gradualist reformer tends to be something along the lines of: Oh dear! I'll have to try to persuade you it's a good thing. Well, er, look; the old style gives GH well over a dozen possible pronunciations: BridGHam, CallaGHan, doGHouse, drouGHt, EdinburGH, eiGHth, GHost, ginGHam, hiccouGH, houGH, HuGH, KeiGHley, lonGHand, louGH, ouGHt, siGHt, touGH! The new version is quicker, easier, more elegantly logical, and less cruel to small children (or indeed the billions of adults apparently doomed to learn English as a world language). Please try to be a bit more open-minded!
I on the other hand prefer the kind of reply that goes: Eat leaden death, loathsome bourgeois counter-revolutionary running-dogs! (Did I say giving me Absolute Power would necessarily be a good thing?)
Giving English a phonetic writing system, with one symbol for each sound, would produce a range of ridiculous ill-effects, such as the following:
- Compound sounds likeJ(which is phoneticallyD+ZH) would have to be clumsily spelled out in full (so jay becomes dzhey).
- Trivial phonetic distinctions, as between the two kinds ofTinTEA-STRAINER, or ofAinHATBANDwould require distinct spellings; and subtle dialectal vowel distinctions – as between Glaswegian and Bronx versions ofCAT– would further confuse matters.
- Do you want to?would have to be spelt the way it's pronounced – as one word, dzhawonnuh?
The correct response to this argument, overlooked surprisingly
often by supposed experts, is: You
[%¤¶Ø]wit! Who said anything about a
phonetic system? All we need is one that's roughly
one reading per grapheme) and preferably
one spelling per phoneme) and/or
one spelling per morpheme).
[Terminological intermission – if you don't see what the -eme words mean… well, you probably shouldn't be here, but here's a quick summary:
compoundof several sounds – chow for instance may be analysed as just two phonemes, the affricate ch =
T + SHand the diphthong ow =
AH + OO.
derivation, e.g. follow + –er = follower) or just to modify them to suit their role in the sentence (
inflection, e.g. follow + –ed = followed).
Got that? Well, never mind; time to read on.]
In such a system,
If we spelled words as they're pronounced, confusion would reign (or rain) since homophones like fisher/fissure, minor/miner, two/to, and session/cession would become indistinguishable.
Reply: These words already are indistinguishable when spoken, but when did this fact last cause you any significant inconvenience in a conversation? People naturally avoid ambiguities in speech unless they're trying to contrive a pun, so if you write as you would speak homophones are no problem. Contrariwise, ambiguous spellings like bow, close, does, dove, lead, live, minute, number, read, use, wind, wound currently are a problem; and such misleading homographs (or do I mean heterophones?) could be sorted out by the most moderate of spelling reforms.
Besides, there will be plenty of slack in the system to distinguish between fisher and fisyur, maynor and mayner; and as for cession… what does it mean, anyway? I'm not making these examples up, you know.
Other major world languages faced with the homophony problem have found solutions such as the following:
morning) is a noun and morgen (
tomorrow) isn't. English word-classes are a bit chaotic for this, though it might help for pronouns (to distinguish I versus eye, you versus yew and so on).
him/herself), but the homophonous word for
I knowis treated as more significant, and thus
stressedas sé. Compulsory diacritics like this would probably be unpopular in English, but we might allow for them as an optional extra (no versus nó)…
Any phonemic script would need to provide distinct graphemes for each of the forty or so phonemes of English, which means seriously expanded typewriters! We'll need either ugly diacritics or entirely novel letters – for instance, show (two phonemes, ʃ + oʊ) will have to become something like šō!
Answer: At present almost every letter of the alphabet is severely
overstrained – it's
EY as in beAuty,
BEE as in numB,
SEE as in musCle,
DEE as in hanDkerchief,
EE as in
EFF as in oF,
JEE as in
AITCH as in Hour,
EYE as in
GEY as in Jaeger,
CAY as in
ELL as in couLd,
EM as in
EN as in damN,
OWE as in
PEE as in Pneumonic,
KEW as in
AHR as in dossieR,
ESS as in
TEE as in husTle,
YOO as in
VEE as in Volkslied,
as in Wry,
ECKS as in rouX,
WIGH as in
ZED as in capercailZie! But in a
reform, what's to stop us using two-letter graphemes (as in
sh‐ow)? That way there are more than enough
possibilities; we can even retire Q, X, and our
existing ugly diacritic, the apostrophe! One new vowel symbol
would be handy; I'd go for Scandinavian-style slashed O as
But by the way, while we're addressing hypothetical typewriter manufacturers, I'd better warn them that the old QWERTY keyboard will be declared ungoodthinkful too. Its deliberately unergonomic layout, designed to slow down common sequences on early manual typewriters, is a thoroughly pointless legacy once we're typing different common sequences on unjammable palmtop keypads.
This revised spelling scheme looks completely alien to English orthographic traditions. If schoolchildren are taught only the new version, we'll lose touch with our literature; our cultural heritage will be lost unless kids can read Shakespeare in the original!
Normal reformers' reply: Aren't you overreacting a bit? We'll phase it in slowly, so there's plenty of time to reprint the classics – most of the editing required is simple search-and-replace work. Compare the gradual process of metrication. Other languages manage spelling reforms once a generation; and the Japanese seem to be perfectly happy using several very different writing systems in parallel!
My additional remarks: First – if, as is here conceded,
the old orthography looks so very unlike a reasonable one…
why stick with it? People complained about the jarring
novelty of electric lights, but I don't hear anyone these days
campaigning for a change back. Second – anyone
caught using pecks and bushels after the tenth anniversary of my
glorious rule will be branded on the forehead with the word
idiot. And third – trying to read
in the original is futile. As originally
composed, it was…
Henry VI Part 3(III 91–92): I am a ſubieƈt ﬁt to ieaﬅ withall, / But farre vnﬁt to be a Soueraigne. And remember, he never once spelt his name Shakespeare!
OY AHM UH SOOBJEK FIT TOE JAIST WI-THAAL, BOOT FAR-ROONFIT TOE BEE UH SAWVA-RAYN. Anything else ruins it as poetry! To contemporary listeners pass made a good rhyme for was, and departure for shorter; the author's name was more like
wherefore art thou Romeo?means
Why are you (named) Romeo?;
liue thou, I liuemeans
if you should live, I will live; and
knocke me at this gatemeans
knock on the door for me. On the other hand,
It's being left on its ownwould have sounded utterly ungrammatical to Shakespeare.
In other words, the whole thing is unintelligible without either an annotated translation, which might as well be in a reformed spelling, or weeks of specialised training, which would be no more worthwhile than teaching every child how to pilot a biplane.
Adult readers recognise whole words by their overall silhouettes, not by decomposing them into the sounds. What's the point of improving the correspondence of sounds and symbols? It'll only mean we have to relearn the silhouettes! (And then of course we'll have to go through the whole thing all over again the next time the language changes…)
Reply: Actually, there are three skills involved in fluent reading…
The upshot is that spelling reform might be briefly awkward for word-recognisers, but would eventually be an advantage even for them – if only because it allows more hieroglyphs to fit on a page! For children (and many, many adults), it would be an enormous, immediate, and permanent improvement. Or at least, as good as permanent; if the orthodox system can outlive its best-before date by half a millennium, we can leave the next reform for Buck Rogers to worry about.
What about a spelling reform's incidental effects on word‐games, abbreviations, and so on? If the dictionary contains more Ks and Zs than Ds and Hs, the scrabble‐players are going to riot!
Reply: Ah, yes, a much more intelligent point. (Okay, I admit
it, this one's a plant; I've never seen it considered anywhere
else, but I thought it deserved an airing.) Scrabble-players
will have to decide whether to play
recalibrated Scrabble; the rest of us will just have to get
used to the idea that the E.U. is the Y(uropian)
Y(union), K.O.s are N(ok)‐A(wt)z, the
C.I.A. is the S(entral) I(ntelijens) E(yjensi), and
a G.H.Q. is a J(eneral)
H(ed)‐K(worterz)! A.I.D.S. may still be
A.I.D.S., but this is no longer the same as the word
eydz; and since any serious reform would also change the
names of the letters, even the unaltered initialisms may be
hard to recognise in speech: A.I. for instance becomes
AH EE. If you think that's confusing, count yourself
lucky I'm not reforming the Phoenician-derived alphabetical order!
Come to think of it, I.D., O.K., and many others
(especially tradenames) are already anomalies, not standing for
any particular real series of English words; and acronyms such as
laser, quango, or ufo are effectively
independent of their original forms too. Do we make it
aydi, leyzer or I.D., L.A.S.I.R.? And as
for G.N.U. (
GNU's Not Unix)… I don't
particularly care what happens in these cases; but the marketing
director of I.C.I. might.
The orthodox system, which spells qualifications, joints, and changes exactly as French does, is very useful for those who know French and want to learn English, or vice versa. Changing the spellings to, say, kwolifikeysyonz, joyntz, ceynjiz will make polyglottism even rarer!
Reply: True, our Norman-influenced orthography is a bridge between English and French. But why force everyone to learn it as the only spelling system for English? Most Asian (or even Scandinavian) learners of English care little for French; and Texans would be better off with a bridge towards Spanish. Personally, I would have been happy to learn a bit about Anglo-Norman during my years as a French student, but nobody wanted to tell me anything about it then!
There are three main problems with spelling English as Anglo-Norman:
QUA-LEAFY-CATSY-ONS, DZHO-INTS, TSHAN-DZHES), but nowadays they're barely recognisable (
KALI-FEEKASS-YAWNG, ZHWENG, SHAHNGZH). French could do with a new broom of its own – I'd suggest kalifikasionz, jwentz, xanjhz!
EH EE EYE OWE EWE(as in no other writing system on the planet), rather than approximately
AH EH EE OH OO(as in Old English, Finnish, Latin, Indonesian, Swahili… etc.). The first hurdle for language teachers is usually to persuade pupils that (e.g.) dei is
DEE-EYE; a spelling reform that made English less insular would be a great help here.
Soft Cin Cell. Germanic
Ks didn't soften like this. Result, confusions such as Celt, sCeptic, Coelacanth, maCintosh!
Soft Gin Gin. Again, English
Gsounds never obeyed this rule; hence the inconsistencies in Give, Gaol, judGment, marGarine.
KW-sound in QUeen (the Anglo-Saxons had preferred to write cwene).
Vwritten V in VerVe (with a pointless final E, as usual).
DHwritten TH in THe (hopelessly mixed up with the
Zwritten S in uSerS (leaving idle the more appropriate Z).
ZHwritten S in viSion (never properly recognised as a distinct sound).
All in all, we're better off without our Anglo-Norman heritage!
English is full of vocabulary items borrowed from other languages – some fully naturalised, some just temporary visitors. This is largely because its anything‐goes attitude to spelling places no restrictions on words like cinquecento, Fraulein, or connoisseur. If we reform these their sources will become unrecognisable! Besides, what are we going to do with names like Einstein, Munich, or Caesar (and come to that, Rye)?
Reply: English is hospitable to immigrant words because it has simple morphology, rich phonology, and a cosmopolitan tradition. Spelling is irrelevant – witness the words fatwa, glasnost, and futon, taken from languages that don't even spell them in the same writing system as we do! My policy on imports would be:
FRAWLEEN. They may not be able to guess how it is pronounced, but that problem will if anything be reduced by the reform.
anglicisedpronunciations. These are genuinely problematic; should they be respelt (Juwlius Siyzar), or even repronounced (
YULI-OOS KY-SAR)? And come to that, the Shakespearean play was The Tragedie of Ivlivs Cæſar, originally pronounced
JOOH-LEE-OOS SAY-ZAR! Fortunately, some shortcuts can be taken; archaisms can be treated as foreignisms.
Well, okay, it's pronounced FANSHAW but it's spelt Featherstonehaughshould switch. I for one would be perfectly happy to become a romanised Ray.
Spelling wrestling as we do is a useful guide to the word's provenance. In its Old English form the word was indeed pronounced with an audibleW,T, andG. If we change our spelling we'll lose all these clues!
Reply: If etymology is a sufficiently important subject that primary school children are forced to master a Mediaeval Reenactment writing system on this basis, why are those children never actually taught even the basics of linguistic history? Surely any kid who has gone to the trouble of learning an etymological spelling for wrestling (etc.) should be entitled to go on and take the subject at GCSE level! But somehow I suspect that most people find etymology supremely unimportant in their lives… If anyone ever needs to know the origin of the word reslinh, there will still be dictionaries about. Come to that, they will be easier to use (you can find the word under R) and have more room for etymologies (as they need less room for pronunciation guides)!
Besides, why stop at Old English? Why not write everything in Proto-Indo-European? English spelling is much less help as a guide to lexical history than it would be if anyone cared, featuring as it does…
REAGAN. However, a millennium or so ago, reign was a Latinate word pronounced
G); rain was a Germanic word pronounced
REGHN(with a definite
improvementsby incompetent etymologists.
I'm not saying we should necessarily wipe out such etymological traces as the specific unstressed vowels in interadministrative or even the Greek PHs in philosopher (which can all convey useful morphological information); just that etymology isn't one of an orthography's main concerns.
The trouble with a more phonologically representative spelling system is that it would reveal the nonstandard ways dialect speakers interpret the graphemes of written English. Tutor for instance isTOODURto a Nebraskan,TEWTRRto an Aberdonian, andCHOO'AHto a Cockney; woe betide any speaker of BBC English who tries to impose some lah‐di‐dahstandard spelling dialecton the inhabitants of the East End!
Reply: At last we're getting to the non-trivial arguments! Yes, there's an important problem here that the system has to deal with carefully. But its nature is still obscured by several layers of misunderstanding, which I'll try to handle quickly:
dialect policeto arrest persistent aitch-droppers? This is a spelling reform, not a speaking reform! Besides, if it's only the pronunciation we're talking about (rather than grammar), the approved linguistics jargon is
standard spelling accentthat has been dead for centuries. At least becoming bilingual in Cockney and BBC English might be useful…
Highest Common Factorarchi-phonology everyone could agree on.
There are four basic ways in which accents can vary:
realisational) variation. Trifling but obvious features like the way Cockneys pronounce bay almost as
BUY(while buy becomes more like
BOYand boy like
BOOY). Cockneys have no trouble distinguishing them and lining them up correctly with the written forms, so this is irrelevant to the orthography.
systemic) variation. Added or lost distinctions, such as between
F(Cockneys pronounce thin the same as fin). If the spelling system makes more distinctions than you do, you can ignore them while reading, and your difficulties in learning to write will be nothing new or serious (
Hmm, is it spelled theft or feft?). On the other hand if it makes fewer distinctions you'll have serious trouble reading (
Hmm, does it mean THREE or FREE?). The lesson I draw from this is that the spelling system should make all the available phonemic distinctions – and not just the ones the Queen makes.
distributional) variation. This is variation dependent on the phonetic context, like the way Cockneys – and in fact the English generally – drop any
Rsound that isn't followed by a vowel (so that
LADA). Again, the orthography should side with those who keep the distinctions clear, which in this case means spelling a lot of words with an R omitted by BBC newsreaders.
selectional) variation. Disputed idiomatic cases such as
DOSSLE/DOHCYLE. Where these are real regional standards rather than merely outbreaks of
KUBBERD), they have as much right to be tolerated as alternative spellings as they have to be tolerated as alternative pronunciations. Obviously, you ought to be consistent, but if your recipes refer to tomeyto they will communicate at least as effectively as if you
standardisedit to tomahto.
In summary, then… as long as people understand the ways accents vary (a body of knowledge which will clearly be one of the main influences on the system's rules, but which any Cockney already needs for communication with non-Cockneys), there is no reason to imagine that there are any insurmountable problems here – how many of the people who claim that creating a pandialectal scheme is impossible have ever even tried?
A purely phonemic system (obeying the principle of One Spelling Per Phoneme) would often mean giving divergent spellings to different forms of a single morpheme, concealing relationships between words in contexts such as…
- cats and dogs, which would have to become katS and dogZ, with two different plural markers;
- stress‐shifting PHOtograph – phoTOGrapher – photoGRAPHic (or less dramatically, REal – reALity);
- softeningcritic/critiCism, analogue/analoGy, fuse/fuSion etc.;
- vowel‐shifted sanity/sAne, obscenity/obscEne, divinity/divIne, conical/cOne, punish/pUnitive etc.
One of the few merits of the old style is that it makes obvious the connection between nation and national, which will be disguised if they're respelt neyshn and nashønal.
Reply: Absolutely – the morphemic principle (One Spelling Per Morpheme) conflicts with the phonemic system and is worth making concessions over. Affixes that still work as productive processes, like plural ‐s or past tense ‐ed, should be given consistent single spellings wherever possible (including words such as pianos/potatoEs, publicly/cyclicALly, wiry/fiEry where the conventional spellings are flagrant breaches of this principle). Likewise, compromises can be found for the stress-shift and consonant-softening cases, though there is room for debate about how far it should be allowed to complicate things…
nationis cenedl, but
in a nationis yng nghenedl!
schwasound is treated as a phoneme in its own right needing to be uniformly represented with a special unique symbol. But accents vary widely in where they use schwas – for instance mine keeps the
I-sounds in bIzarre, pidgIn distinct from the schwa-sounds of bAzaar, pidgeOn (a distinction rarely allowed for in US spelling reform proposals). It makes more sense to write unstressed syllables with the normal range of vowel symbols, and rely on the reader to apply appropriate schwaing rules.
softeningC and G. Are they really live phonological processes? The suffix ‐ic hardly deserves a special spelling rule of its own to cover
short IHis often related to
long EYE. It would be a step forward if English-speakers recognised this explicitly, rather than just vaguely taking the two sounds to be
the same thing.
All this talk is pointless. The anglophone nations are too lazy, ignorant, and superstitious; even if you were world dictator, you'd never get them to cooperate on a project that involved this much work and was this insulting to all their ludicrous national traditions. Americans think any attack on their honor is un‐American, Brits are still stuck in the Middle Ages, and Australians of course think literacy's for poofs… Besides, none of them can think straight about phonological issues, largely because their brains are hopelessly clogged with Anglo‐Norman delusions.
Reply: Well, I'm certainly glad I didn't say that…
In case you're wondering, no, I don't believe that this sort of wholesale spelling reform would be a workable proposition, but I'm so sick of watching Aunt Sally reform proposals being pelted with ridiculously inadequate arguments that I thought it would make a nice change if I wrote something equally biassed and unfair in the other direction… So don't expect me to provide a Mailbox like the one on my anti-Esperanto page! The flaws of the standard orthography are indefensible – but it has an extensive Installed User Base, and can thus afford to ignore criticism in exactly the same manner as Fahrenheit thermometers, QWERTY keyboards, and certain software packages, which can all rely on conformism, short-termism, and sheer laziness for their continued survival.