In a recent comment, John Hardy (of Laputan Logic) pointed me towards an amusing and amazing essay, “Hou tu pranownse Inglish,” in which the indefatigable Mark Rosenfelder makes about as good a case as can be made for the current English spelling system (which “everybody agrees… is horrible”). He gives 56 ordered rules, which combine to produce a 59% rate of accuracy using his impressive-sounding Sound Change Applier—59%, that is, if you insist on perfect outcomes; if you allow “minor errors,” the accuracy rises to 85%. He suggests “a really useful and minimal spelling reform” based on his rules (“I met a traveller from an anteke land hu sed: Tue vast and trunkless legs of stone…”) and ends with a section of unyielding oddities, the last of which is a word that’s been discussed here:

While we’re at it, could we please fix the word ginkgo, which is not only difficult and irregular, but doesn’t reflect any proper Japanese word? The Japanese characters ([i/gin][cho:/nan/kyo:]) can be read two ways: as icho:, they refer to the tree; as ginnan, to the fruit. The second character can be read kyo: in other words, so someone misread the combination as ginkyo:, and someone else mangled this into ginkgo.

Another such word is geoduck, which is pronounced “gooey duck”; a less violently dissonant, but still unpredictable, spelling is distelfink, which according to Merriam-Webster’s is pronounced DISH-tlfink (it’s from Pennsylvania Dutch dischdelfink ‘goldfinch’), although the AHD gives the normalized DIST-lfink.

I urge everyone to investigate Mark’s labor of love, zompist.com, which features (among many other things) a great deal of material on languages and linguistics (check the right-hand column). The one I use most is probably Numbers from 1 to 10 in Over 4500 Languages, but it’s all educational, fun, or both.


  1. Worry no more. I have the perfect solution. Everyone should learn Pitmans shorthand. It’s phonetic, quick to write and relatively easy to read once you’ve mastered the system, and best of all, does away with nasty English spelling.

  2. But is it supported by HTML?

  3. Now you’re just being awkward.

  4. In various discussions of this I came to the conclusion that with a sufficiently complex system (rules and exceptions), reading might be taught phonetically, but that teaching writing has to be whole-word. EG bare bear Baer, etc. etc.

  5. Everyone should learn Pitmans shorthand. It’s phonetic, quick to write and relatively easy to read once you’ve mastered the system, and best of all, does away with nasty English spelling.
    And we’ll standardize on my pronunciation, right? Or yours?

  6. I’ll be happy to go with yours.

  7. I just want to say that I agree in your high estimation of Zompist.com. Where else can one find an attempt at actually working out a “real” language for Syldavia?

  8. And we’ll standardize on my pronunciation, right? Or yours?
    Ah, but this is the clever bit – you don’t need to worry about that because you don’t include vowels (unless you need to, but they’re separate little symbols so take up more time to write) – the sense is apparent from the consonants and standard pronunciation is used. For example, anyone with a broad Australian, Geordie or Texan accent writes Pitmans outlines in exactly the same way. The way they pronounce them when transcribed differs.

  9. TheloniousZen says

    Zompist.com = Zombo.com?

  10. aldiboronti says

    Interesting essay at the site below on traditional English orthography.
    I note one surprising comment from the piece:
    “Today, spelling problems are almost unique to English.”
    Is this really the case?

  11. kristina says

    Aldiboronti: hardly, I’m afraid. Spelling is a traditional grammar school subject in France (which implies that it’s non-intuitive in French), and periodically there are articles which blame computers for the problems today’s Japanese youth have with writing the wrong character (either visiually similar, or with the same pronunciation), or using more kana than their past conterparts would have, etc. A lot of occasions in Japan used to call for handwriting–traditional sorts of letters and cards–but word processor use for those is becoming increasingly prevalent, and thus acceptable.

  12. Reading S. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, a generalist’s history of the Lewis and Clark westering, and he keeps mentioning the inconsistent spellings, giving examples and all. Not only are words spelled disphonetically, but they’re not even misspelled the same way, by the same writer.
    It seems most of even the more literate in late 18th Cent. America were thus afflicted (and Ambrose finds it most burdensome to read).
    And it’s pretty odd, because you’d think a wrong or misapprehended spelling would be carried along, at least being the same each time, but Clark’s especially are all over the place.
    And then, Eureka, sort of.
    Why not it’s a real-time app?
    The spelling thing. It’s not a bag of words Clark carries and dispenses in a literary sense, it’s a transcription of the spoken word as it’s welling up.
    He’s speaking, even to his own journal, and writing down what he’s speaking.
    So the transliteration has no direct relation to the printed word. Just sounds and their signifiers.
    New each time, sort of.
    He doesn’t have a lexicon for the written word, only for the spoken.
    Because otherwise you have this reasonably intelligent human, perfectly capable of remembering lots of complex things, unable to recall the letters that make up relatively simple common words from one instance to the next. Doesn’t scan, for me.

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