The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by Patric Toms.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

6 thoughts on “The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

  1. Mary McCauley

    Sue, thanks for writing such an excellent and entertaining article (and series). It’s great to read such common sense on the subject. Hope we’ll have an opportunity to read even more from you – on a regular basis?

    Reply
    1. Sue Littleford

      Thanks, Mary – that’s very kind of you. I’ve got a couple of ideas bubbling on the backburner, but I need to give them both more thought, then do a spot of research. So perhaps yes, there’ll be more, but at the moment, neither regular nor frequent!

      Reply
  2. David Newmarch

    I’d be a little sorry to lose the h in rhubarb. It seems to me to catch the slight tooth-on-edge perversity of rhubarb flavour (where Firefox, I see, evidently to wishes me lose the u).

    Reply
  3. Noah C. Johnson

    here’s some facts you might not know. English spelling does in fact need reform, and badly. The etymological and historical argument against it contains absurdities and inconsistencies with itself and reality. You do realize that English spelling never treats the earliest form of a word as its spelling, but it is always a later form. If we were to write each word in the oldest form known to the English language, we would spell “lord” as “hlaford”; “woman” as “wifman”; “the” as “þæt” (or “thaet” if we are to use modern character sets) to give three out of thousands of examples. We do not do that. There is not a single case where we do. Invariably some later form of the word is what is written yet at the same time, it is often not how we pronounce it now. Furthermore, the “history” includes a lot of false etymologies. For instance, the “S” in “island”, was inserted in the 1600s, it had previously been “iland”, the people who added it thought it was derived from the Latin word “insula”; only it is not, it is actually a native word, the old English word is “iglund”, which is unrelated to the latin word, so if you wanted to add an etymological letter, it would be a G not an S. there are thousands of examples of “historical spellings” that falsify history for instance the G in both “foreign” and “sovereign”; also reflect etymologies that linguistic scholars know are flat out false. Also, changeless spelling ensures that the future history of words cannot be traced. To etymologists, the changes in the written form of a word are the easiest method of documenting the sound changes that inevitably happen. If sound changes but spelling does not, all future scholars know is that a word like this once existed, and that it has a modern form, but as to how the first one became the second it is hard to know. Often language changes radically, but it rarely changes suddenly; so as a result, the transitional forms can usually provide the answer. However, the transitional forms can only do that if knowledge of them can be obtained. If the spelling keeps up with the pronunciation, scholars can look at the word’s older forms, and say “because it lost this letter in this decade; we think people stopped saying it just before then” and use that to create a record of every transitional form the word has gone through; but if the spelling does not change as the pronunciation does, there is often no record at all of the transitional forms, meaning it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain how the older word turned into its modern form. Should we destroy the method of recording future history in order that people be more aware of past history? Spelling cannot record the entire history of words, only a small and arbitrary selection; If we want our spelling to record the entire history, we should write each word in its earliest form, the in parenthesis place every known stage it has gone through in chronological order, finishing with the present pronunciation in phonetic spelling; for instance, we would have to write “name” as “*no-men (naman; noma; nama; name; naem)”; I probably left out a couple stages, but you should get the idea. I should also add that the history of words, while interesting, (I research it myself quite a bit as a hobby), has little bearing on their current meaning. In English, as in every language about which anything is known about it’s history, there are words where the etymological meaning and the practical meaning are amazingly different. For instance, if I called you “a Villain”; you would not think “so he said I am a person from a rural settlement”; “person from a rural settlement” is the etymological meaning of the word in fact, very different from the modern definition of “Villain”. Most people are not etymologists and tying them to centuries out of date spellings is like chaining a large history book around everyone’s neck while they try to function. I should add that etymologists will know the origin of words anyway, whether the spelling indicates it or not, and in fact will know even if etymological spellings point in the exact wrong direction. Do you seriously think that the Italian etymologist, or even sometimes a simple person who has taken Greek as a foreign language cannot identify the development of “filosofia”; from “φιλοσοφία”; both mean “philosophy”, by the way. Spellings cannot draw a person’s attention to any connection with other languages unless he has knowledge of that language. This can also create false positives, for instance when I was studying Irish Gaelic recently, I noticed that it always pronounces the letter “S” like “SH” is pronounced in english; that initially made me wonder if “sugar” is derived from Irish, the answer is no; so even those who know the language of origin would still have to investigate each word individually. The only people who can decipher the “history” are those who will know the information it purports to give anyway! Most people are already clueless as to the history of words even with current spelling; you probably are too, for instance, please tell me the etymology of “the”, the single most common word in the English language, do you know it’s etymology? Also there are many cases where spelling reform would actually restore simpler older forms of words, for instance “though” would become “tho”, which was Shakespeare’s preferred spelling of the word. Etymological spelling also creates a catch 22. There is absolutely no way a completely illiterate person could ever know the etymology of words. For that reason, systems like Chinese which aim to represent meaning are less convoluted than etymological spelling. An illiterate person, if he knows the spoken language, is aware of the meanings and sounds of at least the everyday words of the language. Etymological spelling makes it so that a person must already know the information he is trying to learn before he can learn it without years of memorization! Spelling reform would help literacy rates, reduce the cost of education while increasing it’s quality, speed up learning to read, and even reduce the production cost of books. we have no spelling rules that even have just a single digit number of exceptions, and some things that are taught as rules actually apply less then half the time (for example, the “I. before E except after C rule” only applies to 47% of the vocabulary). silent letters are everywhere, there is no way to predict which are silent, sometimes letters are pronounced when they are not written (such as the “y” in “el nino”, you hear it, but don’t see it); sometimes letters get randomly pronounced as other letters (for instance the “l” in “Colonel”), some letters are written in the opposite order from the one they are pronounced in, every single letter has multiple possible sounds, yet some sounds can be written multiple ways. every single vowel letter in the English language is used to spell every single vowel sound in at least some words. Some of the silent letters were added for pathetic reasons like typists getting paid by the line and trying to eke out a couple extra cents (that is how the “I” in “friend” got there); literal factual errors (for instance the “s” in island was added by someone thought it was derived from the Latin word “insula”, when in actuality it is not, it is a pure native word, and it’s ancestor in old English was “iglund”, so if you wanted an etymological letter in the word, you should add a g not an s; at least a quarter of the ‘etymological letters’ in English orthography are based on assumed etymologies that linguistic scholars now know are false), literal typos by dictionary writers that have never been corrected, and there is no consistency in what the cutoff date for fixing the spelling of a word is (for example the “B” in “debt” is supposed to reflect its Latin etymology, but English does not get the word debt from Latin directly, the word entered English through French, where it is “dette”, so there is no “b”; on the other hand, hundreds of words that English derives from Latin through French have silent letters that are missing in Latin, but there in French) . if you are in favor of spelling that reflects etymology, you should be the first to call for rectifying those that reflect false etymology. English has around 400 words (including “of”) which do not have a single letter in common with the most common spelling of their sounds. also, English words fail at basic morphological resemblance, for instance why do we have “cat”, and ‘kitten; “high” and “height”; “speak” and “speech”; “deign” and “disdain”; all of them words that come from a common root, and have the same sounds, but those are written differently. every possible rationale to English spelling that one could offer is inconsistently applied. name any purported reason and it does not even take a five minute internet search to find counterexamples involving commonly used words. I should add that you should try German, or Italian, or Finnish. in those languages everything is written exactly as it sounds, so a first grade education is more then enough to spell the most complex words in the language if you know how to say them (with the sole exception of foreign, and in the case of German, some historical, proper nouns). Spanish is very close to that as well, though it does have silent H’s (but that letter is always silent in Spanish, never pronounced), and C and Z are pronounced the same in many dialects. Swedish has inconsistencies that are one way only so in Swedish spelling every sound is made by only one letter, even if the same letter may have 2 or 3 sounds, each of those sounds is made only by that letter, so you can predict the spelling from the pronunciation, but not the pronunciation from the spelling. even some other languages with less obvious spelling are better then English. For instance, Irish, actually has exactly one spelling for each possible syllable, so while the same sound can be spelled multiple ways, only one of them will work in any particular syllable, and it is complicated, but predictable which that is. Even French, the other language with awful and antiquated spelling is consistent enough with its badness that you can actually predict the pronunciation of a word from the spelling, though the reverse is impossible. Reason, logic and analogy are hindrances to ability to spell English correctly. I would love to ask even the best English speller, why particular words are spelled why they are, chances are they will have no clue, if they do answer it correctly, the rationale is probably either factually wrong, or there are many other words it could apply to that are spelled differently. I have not gone over all the inconsistencies with English spelling yet, only a small minority of them. if the spelling has no consistent rationale at all, the form a word is written in might as well be a Chinese character or an Egyptian hieroglyph. actually those might be a little easier for 2 reasons: 1. the words that refer to concrete objects sometimes look a bit like that object, and 2. they are honest about what they are, instead of burdening you with rules that have so many exceptions you wind up having to memorize everything anyway, they just say “yup you have to memorize everything, here’s some simple examples so you can start memorizing”; logographic scripts also give you stuff more interesting to memorize then combinations of the same 26 symbols over and over again. here is a question no one has ever given me a satisfactory answer to “if the purpose of writing a language is not to reflect the sound, why use an alphabet?” I think it may be unanswerable. less then a 5th of the words in English are spelled exactly as they sound. English spelling retards easy learning, obscures pronunciation (can you tell how to pronounce a word you have only encountered in writing before, if so you have made a lucky guess), suggests incorrect morphology (for example, what does “red” have to do with being “ready”? nothing. is “gingerbread” made out of “bread”? nope.) falsifies etymology (the “g” in “foreign” and “sovereign” suggests a connection to “reign” which is etymologically untrue), perverts history (for example the words “rain” and “reign”, both used to be pronounced with a g in front of the n, but they lost it later at different times, only the word that lost the sound of the g first is the one which is still written with a g while the one that kept that sound for longer is the one written without the g!), openly gives the middle finger to consistency, and deadens a person’s sense of logic and reason. the countless problems and hypocrisies in English spelling I have documented above are just a small sampling of them for every single one, I know of dozens more of the same variety of each of them and am certain there are hundreds if not thousands I have not identified specifically. if the spelling has no consistent rationale at all, the form a word is written in might as well be a Chinese character or an Egyptian hieroglyph. actually those might be a little easier for 2 reasons: 1. the words that refer to concrete objects sometimes look a bit like that object, and 2. they are honest about what they are, instead of burdening you with rules that have so many exceptions you wind up having to memorize everything anyway, they just say “yup you have to memorize everything, here’s some simple examples so you can start memorizing”; logographic scripts also give you stuff more interesting to memorize then combinations of the same 26 symbols over and over again. here is a question no one has ever given me a satisfactory answer to “if the purpose of writing a language is not to reflect the sound, why use an alphabet?” I think it may be unanswerable. less then a 5th of the words in English are spelled exactly as they sound. English spelling retards easy learning, obscures pronunciation (can you tell how to pronounce a word you have only encountered in writing before, if so you have made a lucky guess), suggests incorrect morphology (for example, what does “red” have to do with being “ready”? nothing. is “gingerbread” made out of “bread”? nope.) falsifies etymology (the “g” in “foreign” and “sovereign” suggests a connection to “reign” which is etymologically untrue), perverts history (for example the words “rain” and “reign”, both used to be pronounced with a g in front of the n, but they lost it later at different times, only the word that lost the sound of the g first is the one which is still written with a g while the one that kept that sound for longer is the one written without the g!), openly gives the middle finger to consistency, and deadens a person’s sense of logic and reason. the countless problems and hypocrisies in English spelling I have documented above are just a small sampling of them for every single one, I know of dozens more of the same variety of each of them and am certain there are hundreds if not thousands I have not identified specifically. English may be matched only in difficulty by Chinese. if you make a system difficult and complicated, a significantly higher failure rate is inevitable. English speaking countries have much higher rates of dyslexia, and marginal literacy (meaning people who can only read the most common words in the language a

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