Saturday, February 02, 2008

"sensible" spelling

Enough is enough. I have read one too many silly letters to our local newspaper about how the world would be a better place if English was spelt "sensibly". Here is my rant, err, response - Why English Is Just Fine How It Is.

1) Having a worldwide standard written English is a BIG bonus, especially as English becomes more and more global. It is worth preserving. Second language learners, although they may not believe it, are benefited by this, not crippled by the idiosyncrasies of the language.

2) There is no such thing as a standard spoken English. There never has been and there never will be. We all speak dialects - even the Queen. :) So - if everyone decided English is silly the way it is and decided to create a new universal spelling, it's more than likely that spelling changes would be dominated by American or British dialects. So where does that leave me? I don't speak English the same way people in the States speak it. People from the south of England itself speak a totally different dialect to people from the north. In the end I'd still be spelling English in a way that is a little or a lot different to how I speak it - not so "sensible" an option, really, is it? The only other option is that every dialect group has their own standard English - and that is totally impractical in the global village. It's already annoying enough having the few spelling differences between American English and everyone else's.

3) Sensible spelling advocates trot out phonetic pronunciation as the ideal thing. What they don't realise is that their concept of spelling is so ingrained that even when they pretend to spell "sensibly" they hold onto non-phonetic techniques of spelling. For example - unless you're from Scotland or somewhere similar, you don't actually pronounce the "r" in hurt. But "sensible spellers" leave it in because they don't know how to write that sound phonetically; it would look strange to them if they tried.

4) English has a huge amount of vowel sounds compared to other languages. When doing Linguistics I was taught about fifteen basic vowel sounds that appear in English. But there are only five vowel letters, or symbols, in written English - so how can we simplify English spelling but still maintain these differences? As in the last point, the presence of the silent "r" in some words is really important, or we would read hurt as hut, or burn as bun. Even silent "e"s are important, or how else could we tell the difference between, for example, bate and bat? They seem to be a pet peeve of sensible spellers but actually perform an important function.

5) People who write in "sensible" spelling as an example of the better way to do it, like I saw in today's newspaper, think they've done it in the most obvious and reasonable way. In fact their writing is littered with inconsistencies in spelling. Every single person says things in a slightly different way, however tiny the difference, and it would be incredibly annoying to have to decipher everything you read according to someone else's dialectal oddities.

6) Every seemingly random thing about English spelling actually came about for a very good reason. For example: words like money and love are spelt with 'o' instead of 'u' because it was seen in the early modern period that with cursive writing, letters like m u n are difficult to read in a row. The English language has a fascinating and rich history; why should we drop that? I don't want a plastic committee-created language that has a "sensible" reason for everything. Besides, with so many borrowed words, it is incredibly useful when learning other languages like French or German to be able to easily recognise brother-words, or guess at their spelling.

7) It is actually a very practical and important thing in the modern world to have to spell things correctly and in one particular way. If you spell someone's email address wrong, or type in a URL incorrectly - you're not going to get to the right destination.

8) Finally - it just looks MESSY and is LAZY. I make spelling mistakes now and then and I'm certainly not going to scoff at genuine mistakes or typos, especially in a non-professional environment. Neither do I mind if English undergoes natural change; that's the mark of a healthy and living language. But! Laziness is not an adequate reason to change the entire language just to suit you. Because if you got exactly what you wanted, you can depend upon it that it wouldn't suit anyone else.

Okay. I've worn myself out. Sorry about all the quotation marks around the word "sensible". I'll be impressed if you've read all this. For a reward, I direct you to a slightly more funny response to the sensible spelling debate, which is here.


Th. said...


You are, of course, absolutely correct.

JenKneeBee said...

I think you're completely right, but I'm also intrigued by the fact that people don't say the r in burn and hurt. I didn't know any dialect didn't pronounce it. In a future post will you teach us all to speak with a New Zealander accent? I'm completely fascinated now...

Sarakastic said...

Ohh what jen said.

ellesappelle said...

Oops I completely forgot it's not just the Scottish who pronounce their "r"s. Sure thing - future blog post on NZ accent coming right up!