JUSTIN RYE ON SPELLING REFORM.

Justin Rye, whose post on xenolinguistics I wrote about here, also has one on spelling reform:

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.

As I said in the MetaFilter post where I first saw it, “it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on the subject, comprehensive, knowledgeable, and funny.” That was a couple of years ago; I’m not sure why I didn’t blog it then, but thanks to a comment by David Marjanović in this thread, I’m doing so now. Enjoy!

Comments

  1. A very good piece. I really hope some kind of incremental reform project can get going. Our current spelling system is bonkers, but many of the reform proposals go way too fast.
    I’ve also read the Xenolinguistics essay you linked and, as a conlanger who focuses on languages for extraterrestrials (and non-humanoids at that, not just the Klingons) I very much agree on the stupidity of a lot of stuff he mentions, including the universal translators.

  2. RavinDave says:

    The primary problem lies with the bureaucrats tasked to implement such reforms. I wouldn’t trust these people to install parking meters rightside up. I don’t want’em touching the language.

  3. Axel Wijk’s Regularized Inglish is the One True Spelling Reform.

  4. SnowLeopard says:

    Beautiful rhetorical technique to simply take the overwhelmingly compelling nature of your own position for granted, but I’m unpersuaded that making the reform “incremental” (which anyway seems undercut by his premise of “revolution”) would overcome the massive expense and loss of productivity associated with (a) transliterating the entire corpus of English language writings, from historical texts to programming languages, into the modern spelling scheme, or more likely (b) forcing every child who hopes to advance in the world to master both modern and archaic spellings for every word, in school systems that are already struggling. So I trust this is mainly for fun. And I anyway have enough trouble getting people to remember the correct spelling and pronunciation of my 4-letter surname without endorsing a movement that further entrenches American prejudices.

  5. You also linked to his page picking apart esperanto several years ago.

  6. You can’t have incremental spelling reform.

  7. michael farris says:

    I still say (guestimating out of thin air) that some systematic changes to about 10-15 of the wordstock would aliminate about 80-90 % of the problems.
    And this would not make printed materials inaccesible. Anyone who wanted/needed to read them could learn to passively decipher them relatively easily.
    Of course non-linguistic considerations mean all this is moot.

  8. Michael Prytz says:

    … the massive expense and loss of productivity associated with (a) transliterating the entire corpus of English language writings …
    Within a decade, this cost is going drop to near-zero: Google Books, print-on-demand.
    It will be pretty easy to set up an automated transliteration system to convert from the old spelling to the new. The only difficulty I can see would be the rare heteronyms like bow (down) and bow (arrow), but even there errors could be reduced through grammar-checker logic being applied during the transliteration process.

  9. Regarding the article, I think his response to argument #11 is weak. There’s no way you could possibly implement a phonetic spelling system without forsaking the mutual intelligibility of the different English dialects (or forcing people to learn lots of alien pronunciations, which would largely defeat the entire point).
    An objection to spelling reform that the article doesn’t point out is that attempt at introducing major reforms to English spelling would probably just result in people having to learn both the current system and the reformed system. As far as I understand, this is essentially the case in Norway (where they have two systems of spelling) and also in China (where most educated people wind up learning both simplified and traditional characters).
    And, what exactly are the problems with the current system? Most educated native speakers have no real problems with English spelling. Even most educated foreigners that I meet have few problems (to the extent that they have mastered the language in general). Most uneducated people can *read* just fine, and to the extent that they can’t I don’t think it’s a matter of the difficulty of the orthography. As far as writing, automated spellcheck has largely eliminated that problem for digital texts, so the issue is really one of handwriting – and it is really worth the hassle of spelling reform so that uneducated people don’t make mistakes when writing by hand?!

  10. Thanks for the plug!
    Perhaps I can reduce the temperature by pointing people at the
    subtitle, and section 13. I might support “revolutionary” changes
    in principle, but in practice they’d require a world dictator with
    powers of mind-control, so it’s “revisionist” changes or nothing.
    Creeping reform isn’t implausible, it’s already happening to
    UK-standard spellings like “anaesthetised”. It’s just a question of
    whether it’s systematic.

  11. A lot of old literature is “misspelled” already, and often it’s published in spelling-modernized editions.

  12. caffeind says:

    Writing is dominant these days, not speech. We would be better off keeping the spelling and scrapping the current pronunciation(s) in favor of spelling pronunciation.

  13. The post-WW2 reform of Japanese kana spellings is a counterexample to the idea that spelling reform would just result in everybody learning both systems (although inevitably this will be true at the beginning). I’m only a second-language-learner, so I could be mistaken, but as far as I can tell the reformed system is used for all practical purposes. I have a few textbooks from the 70s which describe the historical usage, so it was presumably still likely that a foreigner would encounter it then (25 years or so post-reform), but 60 years on it seems to have almost vanished.
    So it is possible to push through sweeping spelling reforms (and I’m certainly glad they did :-))

  14. Writing is dominant these days, not speech.

    ¿Cómo?

  15. caffeind says:

    I can’t hear you!

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Regarding the article, I think his response to argument #11 is weak. There’s no way you could possibly implement a phonetic spelling system without forsaking the mutual intelligibility of the different English dialects (or forcing people to learn lots of alien pronunciations, which would largely defeat the entire point).

    Erm, firstly, it would be phonemic, not phonetic…
    Secondly, people already learn lots of alien pronunciations. How many millions of Americans pronounce lord and lard the same and have to learn by heart which is spelled which way? How many of them write things like idealogy which sound patently wrong when read with a British accent, but are indistinguishable from the correct spelling in their own accent? If you want to write all standard pronunciations of English in the same way, you have to make more distinctions than any of these accents makes, and indeed the current orthography does that*. It just goes beyond that and adds distinctions that nobody has made for centuries.
    * Only after I had finished school I figured out that there are plenty of Americans who still don’t pronounce w and wh the same.

    As far as I understand, this is essentially the case in Norway (where they have two systems of spelling) and also in China (where most educated people wind up learning both simplified and traditional characters).

    In Norway, those are not just two systems of spelling, they are two different standards of the language. The traditional Chinese characters are still in use in Taiwan and Hongkong — that’s why people in the PRC who want to read stuff from there have to learn the traditional characters.

    And, what exactly are the problems with the current system? Most educated native speakers have no real problems with English spelling.

    After having successfully finished an education that could have been quite a bit shorter (leaving time for other subjects) and could have had a considerably larger success rate, yes, of course.

    Even most educated foreigners that I meet have few problems (to the extent that they have mastered the language in general).

    As I said before: for a large proportion of English words it is easier to learn the spelling first and the pronunciation at the same time or later than to do it the native-speaker way. If an orthography is more difficult for native speakers to learn than for foreign learners, you’re doing something wrong.
    Spellcheckers make a lot of annoying mistakes. Have you noticed how the word “allot” has become so common (and seems to be mainly used by people who probably don’t know that rare word in the first place)? That’s because spellcheckers correct alot to allot instead of to a lot.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    I wrote:

    It just goes beyond that and adds distinctions that nobody has made for centuries.

    And it fails to make certain distinctions that probably everyone has made for at least as long. Someone mentioned bow.
    Hey, English already has ablaut; you don’t need to make the etymological connection that obvious even if you think etymology should be a prime concern of orthography. German: Bogenverbeugen/Verbeugung. And biegen “bend” and so on.

  18. Okay, so I stand by pretty much everything I already wrote:
    - Any new phonetic/phonemic system to be used across all dialects of English would still be quite alien to most speakers (not as different from everyday speech is from the current system, obviously, but kids are still going to be spending a lot of time taking spelling tests).
    - Given that many people will want to read older texts and that it’s unlikely that the entire English-speaking world would want to adopt the reforms (just as the entire Chinese-speaking world didn’t want to accept simplified characters), most educated people will have to learn *both* systems – a major hassle.
    - The current system is not a barrier to learning to *read* the language for anybody. Most people, when looking at a strangely-spelled word in context, will be able to figure out what it is.
    - Your single example aside, spellcheckers largely fix the problem when we’re talking about composing texts on the computer, which is how most things are written these days (and spellcheckers are constantly getting better, so problems of the kind you mention will become scarcer and scarcer).
    So we’d essentially be going through a lengthy, miserable process just to help uneducated people write properly by hand. This is probably why nobody seriously advocates spelling reform.

  19. father christmas says:

    I could not resist.
    The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.
    As part of the negotiations, the British government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).
    In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c”.
    Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replaced with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.
    There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced by “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20 per sent shorter.
    In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go.
    By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by z” and “w” by ” v”.
    During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.
    After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.
    Ze drem vil finali kum tru.

  20. I wish you had resisted. I’ve seen that one so many times before. And it’s kind of racist.

  21. Simplified spelling comes and goes in waves. In 1906, Andrew Carnegie gave $250,000 to establish the Simplified Spelling Board. The Board quickly produced a list 300 words with a simplified spelling alternative (but these were comparatively un-radical suggestions like ax rather than axe, and catalog rather than catalogue).
    Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Board-approved spellings to be adopted by the Government Printing Office. But the movement petered out when the Simplified Spelling Board started calling for spellings like tuf, def, troble, filosofy and others. There’s certainly a case to be made for these spellings. But they do look goofy (or is that gufy?).

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