Posted by: Jack Henry | October 25, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Spelling

Today, I have a pre-Halloween spell for you…but nothing involving eyes of newt. Here is an article from Richard Lederer that might help make you appreciate the crazy spellings of English words a little bit more. Enjoy!

Must our English language remain under a spell?

Dear Richard Lederer: Why doesn’t the U.S. government do something proactively for once? Millions of people struggle to learn English. Why doesn’t the government commission a team of American English experts to recommend changes to the language to make it easier to understand, learn, teach and promulgate? For starters, all words that rhyme, like hair and dare, should be spelled the same. Second, silent letters should be totally removed for being useless. –Dane Marolt, Rancho Penasquitos

In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defines orthography (spelling) as “the science of spelling by the eye instead of the ear. Advocated with more heat than light by the outmates of every asylum for the insane.” “English spelling,” declares linguist Mario Pei, “is the world’s most awesome mess,” while Edward Rondthaler, the inventor of the Soundspel System, labels spelling “a sort of graphic stutter we’ve tolerated for generations.” My Haverford College classmate David Grambs adds, “Three things you can be sure of in life are death, taxes and misspelling.”

Nowhere is the chasm that stretches between phonology (the way we pronounce words) and orthography (the way we spell them) better illustrated than the demonic letter combination -ough, which can be sounded at least 10 different ways, as in bough (ow), bought (aw), cough (off), dough (oh), hiccough (up), lough (ock), thoroughbred (uh), through (oo), tough (uff) and trough (oth).

If the road to language heaven is paved with good intentions, why haven’t we Americans followed the succession of well-intentioned spelling reforms proposed by the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Roosevelt? Because, as in most matters linguistic, simplified spelling is no simple matter.

For one thing, spelling reform would plunder the richness of homophones in the English language. Rain, rein and reign were once pronounced differently, but time has made them sound alike. Knight was a logical spelling in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, when the k, n and gh were distinctly sounded. Today its pronunciation matches that of night. In John Milton’s time, colonel was spoken with all three syllables. Now it sounds the same as kernel. Thus, the bizarre spellings that the reformers would excise are actually an aid to differentiation in writing. Think, for example, of the chaos that would be wrought by spelling the same-sound antonyms raise and raze identically.

Such transformations raise the specter of losing the rich etymological history that current spelling generally preserves. We cannot deny that seyekaalogee, Wenzdae, nite and troosoe are accurate visualizations of the sounds they represent. But do we really want to banish the Greekness from psychology (from the Greek goddess Psyche), the Scandinavianness from Wednesday (from the Norse god Woden), the Old Englishness from knight and the romantic Frenchness from trousseau?

Another telling fret in the armor of simplified spelling is that even its most ardent adherents acknowledge that many words, such as skejl/skejl, are pronounced differently in the United States and the United Kingdom, necessitating divergent spellings of the same words. Moreover, when we acknowledge the existence of Irish English, Scottish English, Welsh English, Australian English, South African English. West Indian English and all the other world Englishes, we must wonder how many variant spellings we would have to live with.

In the Middle Atlantic states, whence I hail, cot and caught are sounded distinctly as kaat and kaut. In New Hampshire, to which I moved, I often heard kaat for both words. Not far to my south, many Bostonians say kaut for both words. I say gurl, in Brooklyn they say goil (as in the charmingly reversed “The oil bought some earl”), and farther south and west they say gal and gurrel. Because our present system of spelling is as much hieroglyphic as it is phonetic, speakers of English can gaze upon cot, caught and girl and pronounce the words in their richly diverse ways.

Even if our spelling were altered by edict, a feat that has never been accomplished in a predominantly literate country, pronunciation would continue to change. As the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson proclaimed more than 250 ago, “Sounds are too volatile and subtle for legal restraints; to enchain syllables and to lash the wind are equally undertakings of pride.” No surprise, then, that Johnson predicted that spelling reformers would be shaping “a model which is changing while they apply it.” The phoneticizing process of spelling reform would itself have to be reformed again and again.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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