It’s about that time of the week for the NFL to roll back around, the time where between great hail marys and ripping touchdown runs I get to cringe at all the ludicrously misspelled linemen’s names, like Antwoine, Jonathun, etc. This always gets me thinking: as much as I detest horrid spellling blunders, is there any reason we don’t use phonetic spelling? I’d hate to see it come to that but other than an ingrained notion of the English Language I can’t think of any real defense for insisting on spelling words the “European” way.
English spelling is a mess because the Latin alphabet was not designed to represent the sounds of the English language so different combinations of letters were used to represent different English sounds. then you have sounds changing over time and over geography but the spelling not reflecting that and you end up with the present mess. If we spoke Latin instead of English we would not have this problem.
Here in the Northeast, we don’t pronounce some words the same phonetically as someone from Kentucky. Should we spell those words differently?
Austin, you touched on the reason in your OP.
How would someone from the East Coast spell, say, “washer”? Now, how would someone from West Texas spell it?
Phonetic spelling is subjective. Modern spelling isn’t so much “non-phonetic” as it is “standardized across variants.”
And it changes over time. Language always changes, if we spelled phonetically, the spelling would have to change too.
The Latin alphabet worked quite nicely for English spelling, in the 12th century, when English spelling was phonetic. The problem is that English underwent significant sound changes without altering the spelling.
We’re not the worst. Take a look at Gaidhlig or pre-reform Gaeilge for examples of what happens if your spelling gets fixed around AD600 and then the language keeps merrily evolving on up to the 20th century.
Apart from anything else, you don’t spell words the “European” way and haven’t done since the 1820s.
No, would we would have exactly the same problem because Latin would be a living language and would vary in pronunciation in exactly the same way.
Nor have we always had a constant ‘latin’ alphabet. It has also changed in exactly the same way.
Nor did we ever have consistant spelling even to begin with. It has always varied over geography and time in the same way that pronunciation has always varied. So it’s not as if spelling started off 100% phonetically correct has gone astray since then.
This is what happens in living languages, particularly one as widely used as English.
Also, if we were to spell phonetically, we’d need 44 letters in the alphabet to match the phoneme count in standard English.
It’s about that tahm o’ the week foa-uh the ay-IN ay-IF ay-L to roll back ‘round, the tahm way-uh between great hail mary’s an’ rippin’ touchdown runs Ah git to cree-inj at awll the loo-dee-kris misspelt lahnmee-ins nah-eems. Lahk ANtwon, Johnith’n, etc. Thee-is ahlwize gee-its me t’thankin’: as much as Ah DEE-test horrid spellin’ blundahs, is thay-ah eni reason we doan use foanaytic spellin;? Ah’d hate tuh see it come to thay-it, but uthuh thay-en uh IN-grained noshun o’ the Aynglish Language, Ah caint thank of no real DEE-fence foa-ah insistin’ on spellin’ wirds the Uruhpeein’ way.
On second thought, I think things are just fine the way they are.
There’s a lot of history tied up in the development of the English (or for that matter, any) language. “Qu”, came in with the french. Khaki pajamas came about through the Brits fooling around in India. etc, etc.
If spelling was changed we would lose a lot of links to important history – things that we should be aware of.
In any case, change in standardised spelling would take decades to happen and still be incomplete. (Compare NZ, Australian, US, Canadian and English dictionaries in any word processor.) Due to local differences in pronounciation there is no way it could be phonetic for everyone. And for that reason any organised changes are unlikely to be simpler. The current system of slow organic change, local variations in spelling (and word use), variant spellings and new editions of dictionaries published regularly is probably the best way to go.
English is such a mongrel language anyway. It has nearly double the vocabulary of its nearest rival IIRC. No other language has so enthusiastically imported words from other languages. And change is happening faster now than ever before. Standardise spelling?? Forget it.
Aside from what’s been already mentioned, phonetic spelling would obfuscate the little semblance of grammatical regularity English can claim.
The rule about adding an -s to make something plural would have to be changed to “add a -z to make something plural, unless the word ends in an unvoiced consonant, in which case add an -s.” The tacit morphophonological properties of this suffix would be all but lost upon the average Joe. Similar things would happen with the regular past tense verb ending -ed.
Shakespeare is hard enough to read as it is. A generation of kids who grew up spelling phonetically wouldn’t have a prayer trying to read Hamlet in the original.
Identifying etymologically or morphologically related words would become more difficult, as would identifying cognate words in other languages.
I’ll paraphrase Steven Pinker by saying that the point of writing a word is not to know how to pronounce it, but rather to know what the word is. Just ask anyone who grew up with the Chinese language.
Good point Sundog. I hadn’t thought of that.
This will happen anyway in mere century or two, I’d wager. It has already happened with other, even earlier authors.
Not that I support the OP’s spelling reform proposal. I just don’t find the above argument a persuasive one for the status quo. So I hope you don’t mind if I take a few minutes to rip it apart.
In the high school I attended, we students were once assigned to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose English is as opaque to modern readers as German is. Perhaps more so, since modern German has adopted many of the new words (e.g. das Telefon, der Helikopter) that we’ve coined, to describe the exciting toy-filled world we’re living in now. Chaucer’s language on the other hand is archaic and difficult for us non-experts to decipher without help. Therefore, nearly all his humor and social commentary is weakened; it has to be annotated in modern English to make it accessible. By this point, you might as well be reading a translation of the Tales into modern English.
Better yet, I wish we had skipped Chaucer entirely and read a straightforward history of medieval and renaissance England. In addition, maybe we could have read Samuel Pepys’s Diary for a little non-fictional history told to us in the voice of a Londoner who lived it. I certainly would have preferred this.
My particular school system taught me nothing of, for example, the English Civil War — a pretty significant period I later learned when I saw Cromwell (starring Richard Harris and Alec Guiness; check it out sometime). Of course you can blame my particular school for this glaring omission. But you can also blame them for misusing this valuable time to make me memorize Hamlet’s tedious suicidal ramblings, now burned forever and pointlessly into the fabric of my brain. As if he were a real person to care about. As if he were even a believable person. As if his social environment — a 16th Century royal court, with all its rules, hierarchy, traditions, and the choices of action available to its members — remotely resembled the environments anyone operates under today.
So I’ll conclude: English literature classes, before the university level anyway, should spend almost all their time on authors like Dickens, Shaw, Wilde, Woolf, and Orwell — modern authors whose words are still intelligible to us and whose concerns we still share.
Alright, maybe cover one Shakespeare play, just for old time’s sake. But please, please, don’t let it be Hamlet.
Apropos of the OP, I believe Groucho Marx once pointed out that Pepys would be more widely read if people knew how to pronounce his name. “If Peeps, Pipes or Peppies had been smart enough to pick a name like ‘Joe Blow,’ every schoolboy in America would be reading his diaries instead of stealing hubcaps off cars.”
One of the reasons we don’t switch to phonetic spelling has been touched on: it would be different every 40 miles along any given highway. As it is, hundreds of millions of people who wouldn’t recognize a given word if it were spelled phonetically read the same books, newspapers, and websites as everyone else who speaks English, with no translation necessary.
Imagine trying to eke some meaning out of Faulkner’s novels if they were written phonetically from his point of view. I don’t even want to imagine what deep Mississippi accent looks like phonetically. Or Texan. Or Miamian.
How ironic. One of the only dialects of English that has at times spelling done phonetically is the much despised Black Vernacular.
Some of the points you stated, sundog, are not lost on some Black writers and poets. In fact they use phonetics relative to dialect extensively. It is mistaken for incorrect spelling, when it is intended to be read aloud to get the meaning. Some other authors of English write in vernacular phonetics, including Robert Burns and James Joyce.
John mace, very good use of Southern.
Would there be much advantage to a system with purely phonetic spelling? I think Japanese and Korean come closest, but I’m not sure if one could say that all words in the language were phonetically spelled. I guess it might make reading and writing a bit easier, but not significantly so.
While you are correct about Korean, with arguably the most rationally designed alphabets on earth, surely you know that Japanese is written mainly in Kanji (Chinese characters), to which the word “phonetic” has absolutely no meaning. And while Japanese can written in Kana, it isn’t.
No need really to go beyond Spanish to find a phonetically written language. Phonetic in the sense that there is never any doubt how to pronounce a written word (once one knows the rules) although one might not know exactly how to write a word when hearing it spoken.
All kanji can be represented by hiragana, kanji is simply a time-saver because it allows you to skim a sentence and pick up it’s meaning. Don’t confuse that with the idea that kanji is unnecessary or worthless, it’s used everyday, everywhere, but that is it’s primary purpose.