Rational Spelling

by on September 6, 2008 at 12:52 pm in Science | Permalink

Here’s a great, little video from Ed Rondthaler former president of the American Literacy Council and author of The Dictionary
of Simplified American Spelling
.  Loyal readers will know that simplified spelling or what I call rational spelling holds a special place in my heart.

I worry that the tyranny of spell checkers impedes evolution towards rational spelling.

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

Dennis Tuchler September 6, 2008 at 12:59 pm

If spelling becomes truly rational, won’t that make much of American/English literature illegible to those taught rational spelling in grade school?

Cyrus September 6, 2008 at 1:24 pm

@Dennis: when Maoist China did orthography reform, that was regarded as a feature, not a bug.

Anonymous September 6, 2008 at 2:04 pm

1. Simplified spelling might someday evolve out of texting. Seems unlikely, but any other path is far more unlikely.

2. What about divergent pronunciation (cot/caught, marry/merry/Mary, Korea/career)? What is the benefit of brand new “phonetic” spellings that you will have to relearn and memorize anyway because they don’t match your expectations?

3. The word “country” has arguably survived in its current form only because it is not phonetically spelled.

4. Transitioning to a new mandatory simplified spelling system would incur severe economic costs: prolific readers would find their reading speed slashed, probably permanently. Anyone whose job depends on doing lots of reading (financial analysts, policy wonks, etc) would be significantly impaired, as would anyone who depends on being widely read. The blogosphere would grind to a halt. Just like a credit crunch or an oil crunch, the textual parts of the attention economy would face a long and crippling attention crunch, with very real economic consequences.

5. The rise of Amazon Kindle and websites and electronic ink vs. printed paper might suggest a way to transition to a simplified spelling: transform any given text at the touch of a button. But we have long had the ability to transform keyboards to Dvorak at the touch of a button, and few bother. And there will still be road signs, billboards, and anything else that is meant to be read by more than one person at a time, which will have to pick one spelling and stick to it. This will only be workable if we transition to augmented reality, where things like road signs will be virtually imaged in every person’s heads-up visor goggles, much like the yellow first-down line in American football appears in every TV set and doesn’t actually physically exist on the football field. In this case, the road sign text could be adjusted to each person’s preferences: foreign visitors could even read them in their own preferred language.

6. Even with technological means to assist any transition, you’d probably end up with a BokmÃ¥l/Nynorsk fiasco, two eternally competing standards.

Yancey Ward September 6, 2008 at 2:14 pm

Shouldn’t that be “rashanull” spelling?

improbable September 6, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Isn’t spelling reform a bit like linguistic inflation? It steals from those who have a lot saved up, to give to those with without. In the former category go not only those of us who can already write, but all our libraries, archives, literature. In the latter go children who already speak but don’t write.

I’m not in favour, because I don’t think the burden of learning is unreasonable high, and the benefit of being able to easily read books from a century ago is huge.

The burden of learning to read classical Chinese was, I believe, much bigger than English. And making old texts unreadable was one of the goals of the reformers, which I’m told they mostly achieved.

As Paludicola points out, phonetic spelling requires you to choose a standard pronunciation. If my spelling is going to store extra information beyond my choice of words, I’d prefer it to remember which languages the words were borrowed from than to encode how some 20th century American who can’t tell a writing instrument from a sewing tool spoke.

improbable September 6, 2008 at 3:15 pm

That’s interesting, wugong. I didn’t know there were two changes, ‘spelling’ and vernacular, to chinese in the 20th century.

Do you have any good articles or books on this which you could recommend?

wugong September 6, 2008 at 4:10 pm

Improbable– An older book is Nationalism and Language Reform in China by John DeFrancis. It should give a good overview. Any history of modern China (Spence is a popular one), will have a section or more on the vernacular movement and other aspects of language reform in the 20th century.

NJH September 6, 2008 at 5:06 pm

There are many so problems with English spelling that act as unnecessary hurdles for early learners. These hurdles account for disillusioning many of the 25% who fail to achieve their literacy milestones by age 11. The links between high illiteracy and difficult-to-teach spelling systems is incontrovertible. Many other writing systems don’t have these early obstacles to learning to read.

However, one might think that the areas that are addressable are, firstly the double consonant rule (ferry berry merry but very; common but comic; muddy but study etc). This rule is only followed 50% of the time. And then there are the many silent letters that pepper the language (dumb-rum, receipt-deceit, debt-met).
There are other niggling inconsistencies: a promise/ to promise, a service/to service but a practice/to practise – comes to mind.

See: http://www.englishspellingproblems.co.uk/index.html

None of this has anything much to do with pronunciation. Also the etymology argument is something of a red herring once you accept that words change and there is no “absolutely proper” convention of spelling a word: Chaucer wrote “lern” “iland” “hadde”: Victorians wrote “shew” (show) “musick” “comick” etc.

If we are talking about an evolutionary & generation change it is unlikely that fixing this would slow down reading speeds. The grammar system underwent a simplification in mediaeval times; we also simplified our number system from Roman to Arabic and our currency system from LSD to decimal. We saw the back of these “dumb” systems and introduced things that are fit for purpose. As good spelling & literacy are immensely important it is time we thought about upgrading the spelling system for the benefit of learners.

Hei Lun Chan September 6, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Chaucer wrote “lern” “iland” “hadde”

Yes, but the spellings evolved organically, not by fiat. Imagine if everything you read is as difficult to read as, say, the Canterbury Tales. That will be what it will be like for the old generation reading new texts and the new generation reading old texts. Are schools going to have to stop using any old texts before the change?

And it’s not just spelling that evolves, pronunciations evolve too. We can change the spellings of all words to some standard, but in 50 years people are going to pronounce them in a different way. Do we then have to change the spellings again?

To me it all seems like a solution in search of a problem.

wugong September 6, 2008 at 10:55 pm

Nick– I still maintain that the switch from classical to vernacular as the standard for the written language had a FAR great effect than the switch to “simplified” versions for some characters. You may think that the vernacular language movement was a bad idea for this reason, but there is no doubt that it contributed to massive increases in literacy in the Chinese speaking (and reading and writing) world. In fact, since the literacy rate is so monumentally higher than it was in, say, 1870, one could argue that far more people in the PRC can read “traditional” characters now than before the language reforms. Would you object to the use of the written Romance languages because it’s led to people being less able to read Latin?

As for “then the Chinese destroyed the old books, so that problem became less relevant,” what a completely absurd statement! That’s like saying “The Europeans destroyed the books written by Jews” because the Nazis burned some books. Sure, some books were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution by a tiny minority of Chinese people, but even the PRC continued to put out massive typeset editions of essentially all the classical works throughout most of the Maoist period. And I’m pretty sure almost none of the books in any of main national libraries suffered any harm.

As for calligraphy, many of the simplified characters are derived from cursive calligraphic forms and any students truly interested in calligraphy would have no trouble learning traditional forms. Hell, I did, and I’m not a native speaker!

J. Cuttance September 7, 2008 at 6:38 am

English speakers, like people in any literary culture, do not sound out a written word’s individual phonetic components. Each word is read very much like a Chinese character, as a whole symbolic piece. Words retain historical baggage by virtue of their spelling, but that spelling should not be discarded lightly. When encountering a new word, native English speakers pick up on a dozen different signals, which, in context, teach them the meaning of that word.

Ronald Brak September 7, 2008 at 8:18 pm

I’ll just point out that the United States already went though a period of rational spelling, thank goodness. Written English would be much more of a mess if it hadn’t. Unfortunately English speaking nations outside of North America have been slow to adopt the US rationalizations, but there is hope they are slowly coming around. Another round of rationalisation seems called for but there is no need to do it quickly. We can just pick one of the worst problems, fix it and if problems somehow arise we can hold off on further improvements. Of course simplifying spelling is only likely to work if major media organizations get on board. But simplified spelling will help children learn and make English more attractive as a second language, and so could have significant economic benefits in the long run.

John Cowan September 7, 2008 at 9:52 pm

I quite agree with NJH. There is no reason why Inglish spelling coodn’t be at least no wurse than French. The rules of French spelling are certenly complicated, but thare are aulmost no wurds hoose spelling is completely irregular and unpredictable. Wunce you have lerned the system, you can pronounce eny wurd at sight.

French has a bunch of silent letters at the ends of wurds, but in Inglish the silent letters (I doan’t mean silent final ‘e’) doan’t serve eny purpos at aul, offen not even historical: thare never wos a “b” in “dett” (in Old French it wos “dette”). In the cases whare different accents pronounce wurds differently (like pronouncing “bath” like “bahth” in RP, or pronouncing “cloth” like “clawth” in most American accents), traditional orthography usually is sutable for breaking ties.

In eny case, it shood be obvious that the spelling I am using here is not such a radical break with the past that it wood make reading eether/ither old or new texts very difficult at aul, but *wood* make lerning to read much easier (lerning to spell wood still be hard, but not *as* hard by eny means). Lerners wood not hav to suffer thrue lerning to read the 15% or so of wurds hoose spelling is plain silly.

As for Japanese literacy, it’s very overrated: aulthough it’s true that most Japanese people lern to read and rite the aulmost 2000 characters needed, reserch shows that they forget meny of them before very long. Fortunately, Japanese computers let you type in Roman letters and automatically convert to Japanese writing.

Ronald Brak September 9, 2008 at 8:26 pm

Jib, I’ll definately go along with that. The US lieutenant sounds like a timelord in a toilet.

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