Spelling Reform

Anatoly Liberman is one of the leading etymologists out there, author of Word Origins and How We Know Them and the Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology. I did not know until recently, however, that he is also an advocate of English spelling reform. Linguist John McWhorter recently interviewed him regarding that subject for Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast.

Now there is no denying that English spelling is a mess. There an S in island for no phonological or etymological reason. Whole and hole are pronounced the same but spelled differently, and even the most skilled writers occasionally slip when it comes to lead / led and principle / principal. It would be nice if we could fix English spelling, but is such a project possible? And even if we could reform it, would it be worth the effort. The answer, to my mind, is no.

Liberman, however, thinks the opposite. He contends that an effort, if it is modest in its goals, has chance to make a real difference. He points to several past efforts at spelling reform that have been successful: the American spelling reform led by Noah Webster in the early nineteenth century, the reformation of the Icelandic spelling later in that century, the post-revolution reform of Russian spelling, and the 1990s spelling reform in German-speaking countries. But only the last of these supports his position, and then only weakly. The American and Russian reforms came in the wake of political revolution and a deep-seated desire to split from the old regime. (Plus, in the case of the Soviet Union, the power of the totalitarian state was invoked to enforce the changes.) Furthermore, the nineteenth-century American reforms took place in a much smaller nation, in both population and area, and it was only partially successful; most of Webster’s proposed reforms never caught on. As for Iceland, one cannot compare that language with English. What can be accomplished with a language spoken by a small, homogeneous population has no bearing on what can be accomplished with a global language like English. None of these situations obtain with the English language today.

On the face of it, though, the German reform would seem to provide a nice model. It was an international effort, including Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Despite some push back and grumbling, the German reform has largely been successful, but its goals were quite modest. The reforms standardized the use of doubled and tripled consonants and the capitalization of nouns, and inserted a space into, splitting, some compound words. Furthermore, it was a multinational, government-led effort, not a grass-roots project such as Liberman is advocating—as with the Russian reforms, you can get a lot done with the power of the government behind you. Liberman takes this as evidence that a modest push for reform can fix some of the most egregious problems with English spelling. But even if he is right, and we can corral the leading English-language publishers, dictionaries, educators, and other authorities around the world and get them to agree on a handful of sensible changes, would it make any discernible difference? English spelling is in such state that it wouldn’t.

The German reform focused on a few systemic problems. Basically, it set a standard in a few areas where there was none. The rest of German spelling is, and always has been, rather regular and predictable—even the inconsistencies were systematic (very German, that). That’s not the situation with English, where there is little rhyme or reason to the inconsistencies. If one focused on a few fixes, there would be scores of others, just as important, left unattended. Then there is the problem of dialect. What spelling standard do we use? British? American? Do we split the difference and go Canadian? What about India, where there are more English speakers than Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined? And let’s not even mention the myriad small, but vibrant and highly idiosyncratic, communities of English in places like Singapore.

And while we would be focusing on fixing a few problems, more would be arising. The language would continue to change. We would be borrowing more words from other languages, with spellings that defy English orthographic conventions.

English spelling is in the mess that it is in for four main reasons.

  • The first is historical. English spelling was standardized with the introduction of printing, but this was also a time when pronunciation was rapidly changing, the so-called Great Vowel Shift. As a result, some words were standardized using the old pronunciation and some the new (hence quirks like similar spellings but different pronunciations for words like police and policy).
  • Another problem is that we don’t have enough letters to represent all the sounds, especially vowels. There are some twenty vowels in British English (slightly fewer in American English), but only five letters that are used to represent them (six if you count Y). The resulting doubling and tripling up of phonemes to letters inevitably leads to problems.
  • Pronunciation changes faster than spelling. For the most part, English spelling was standardized around the London dialect of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. But most English speakers, including modern Londoners, use dialects that don’t pronounce the words in that manner. So global English has multiple pronunciations for the same word, many of which don’t match the spelling.
  • English is a great borrower of words. When it Anglicizes a word, the language usually retains the foreign spelling, which often uses a different scheme for matching pronunciation to spelling.

Finally, this may be the worst time to attempt to standardize and fix English spelling. The primary reason that English spelling is a mess is that the standardization came with printing—the new medium called for a standard. And just as when English spelling was first standardized during the shift from manuscripts to printing, we’re in the midst of another great media revolution, the shift from print to digital. Who knows what the fallout of that will be? If we were to change the rules now, it’s just as likely that the new spellings will be quickly outmoded.

The business world recognizes the concept of switching cost. Often, old and inefficient technologies and products continue to dominate the market because it’s simply too costly to develop an alternative. The QWERTY keyboard is difficult to learn and slow to type on, but since everyone knows how to use it, more efficient competitors can’t get a purchase on the market. Similarly, a competitor to Facebook is unlikely to appear because so many people already use that social media platform. Google Plus is a superior product, but no one uses it because everyone you want to talk to is on Facebook. The same is true with spelling reform. It would be too costly to implement. Liberman is probably right that a handful of modest reforms could be implemented successfully if we tried hard enough, but those few modest reforms won’t make dent in the problem.

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