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Archive for February, 2011

English Spelling Reform

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English, perhaps more than any other language is always changing. It is far different from classical languages such as Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, which were well organized, uniform word systems, from a single or limited number of source languages. English words have never been spelled in a consistent way. Early and simple words are especially problematic.

A mixture of a variety of influences
The English language has always been an evolution of different influences. Early contributors included Anglo, and Saxon, influences. Their words were short and primitive. Most common one syllable words are of Anglo-Saxon origin. English borrows freely from other languages, including Latin, French, and Greek, but also including smatterings of Native American, Eskimo, Spanish, Arabic, and just about every language on the planet. However the older and more related to English the word is, the more difficult it is to see logic in the way it is spelled.

No consistency
The English language has never been consistent or systematic like the classical languages. It was always a mix of dialects. There are many problems involving homonyms, poorly designed phonetics and a wide variety of vowel sounds spelled in dozens of inconsistent ways. Especially annoying are letter groupings like “ough” pronounced in half a dozen different ways. This letter combination is very common, but completely nonsensical to pronunciation.

Evolution of English
When reading historic documents it is easy to notice all sorts of changes in English over time. People didn’t know how to check spelling in those days, and often did not have reference materials. Words were misspelled habitually, changing spelling by evolution in some cases. Early documents show a wide range of spelling changes when compared with modern English. Most of these occurred naturally, but some were brought about by deliberate reform.

Previous Reform
There have been two previous periods in history when the way English words are spelled was deliberately changed. Once in the mid 16th century and once in the mid 17th century, there were many publications crying out for consistency in the English language. Proponents of reform include Sir Thomas Smith, John Hart, William Bullokar, Alexander Gill and Charles Butler. These men were teachers, vicars, and scholars. Sir Thomas Smith was Secretary of State in Britain.

While a few changes have been made by this kind of action, most changes in English were evolutions over time. Reform victories include changing logique to logic, warre to war, and sinne to sin. In modern times there is a movement to again address reform.

Modern reasons for Reform
The reasons are compelling in light of the recent devolvement of public education, and the fact that American and British students are falling behind the rest of the world in education. It seems that those students who learn in more logical languages do a bit better in their studies, or at least that is one possible cause for the decline. It is also possible that modern minds, accustomed to being entertained by television and internet, can no longer tolerate the repetitive drilling our ancestors endured to learn the language.

Another reason for changing the English language is to facilitate the rest of the world’s ability to learn English. As it is, it is very difficult to learn English as a second language. Both immigrants and people who do business with the US and Britain need to learn English and it is very hard, due to our nonsensical spelling, based on rules with so many exceptions.

Reasons against Reform
There are also some good reasons not to change the English language. Many of them involve distancing people even further from older English literature, and making those truly old documents like Beowulf, Charles Dickens, and the Constitution even more inaccessible to the average reader. Other reasons involve fear and resistance to change, and concern that it would impact the quality of literature in the future. Some fear it would take the pleasure out of reading for those who already know how. To others it seems invasive, and artificial.

Modern technological means to cause Reform
In the past, efforts to change the English language have failed, mostly because people continued to spell the way they always had. However with the advent of internet spell check, we have a new and unique opportunity to change the way words are spelled uniformly in a universal way. Very few people write extensively in long hand any more. It would be so easy to change the parameters of internet spell check to automatically correct people who still spelled the old fashioned way, and those who learned the old way would eventually get used to the change. It would be easy for all internet and computer users to change and learn how to check spelling online, or perhaps utilize translation technology to fix their writings until they learn the new system.

Regardless of deliberate reform, English perpetually creates new slang words, variations, abbreviations, technological vocabulary and acronyms which eventually get adopted into mainstream English. Though it may make learning the language more complicated, English is forever young, always growing and always thumbing it’s nose at yesterday’s words, in favor of developing tomorrow’s vocabulary. English will doubtlessly change, but we have the opportunity to change it in an organized way if we choose.

Written by admin

February 24th, 2011 at 12:43 pm