Bewildering Stories discusses...
with Bill Kowaleski and Don Webb
Simplest is best but seldom easiest. — BwS motto
“Naitmeirz on Speling Street” appears in issue 727.
[B. K.] A very interesting discussion about English spelling in this week’s issue. My poor students, most of whom are native Spanish speakers, are endlessly amazed by English spelling. Spanish is among the most logically spelled of all languages. Exceptions to phonetic spelling are quite rare, and they even handle the issue of accenting well.
[D. W.] Lucky Spanish! Mark Twain gently discouraged Andrew Carnegie’s attempts to promote spelling reform in English. He sympathized with the problem of spelling different words identically, like “sow” (to cast seed or a “lady hog”) and well as such words as “read” and “lead.”
Mark Twain saw where spelling reform would lead. His short parody of simplified spelling — or one that has, at least, been attributed to him — has become famous and is easy to find on the Net. It proves his point, which is echoed by the simplified spelling at the end of “Naitmeirz.”
The big problem is partly the consonants but mostly the vowels. For them, we’d need an entirely new alphabet. His conclusion is pure Mark Twain: “Simplified spelling is all right but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.” Andrew Carnegie abandoned his spelling reform project in 1915. We shall daintily refrain from inquiring about his chastity.
[B. K.] For example, we can say inVITE or INvite. The first is a verb, the second, a vernacular noun. There are a number of examples of this in English. Spanish handles this with accent marks. Example: compro means ‘I buy’ while compró means ‘he/she bought’. The accent shows the difference in pronunciation between the two words. We could introduce written accents in English and eliminate one source of confusion.
[D. W.] As you say, accented letters work well in Spanish, especially when meaning may depend on which syllable is stressed.
In other languages, an accent mark may distinguish between homophones. In Italian, e, ‘and’ but è, ‘is’. French: ou, ‘or’ but où, ‘where’. Since French has no stress accent, the written accents normally indicate vowel quality, for example: e = [ə]; é = [e]; è and ê = [ɛ].
Stress accent in English is quite complex. It may be primary, secondary, or absent. A stress accent gives a vowel its full value. The only unstressed vowels are [ɪ], as in “snake-bit,” or [ʌ], as in “halibut.”
Is an accent mark really needed for “to invite” and “an invite”? Grammar will distinguish between the verb and the noun. Otherwise, noun phrases are not accentuated the same as nouns, like “a round house” and “a roundhouse.” Context and spelling tell us which syllable or syllables take a primary stress.
Accented vowels make a lot of sense in Spanish, but I don’t see how English could adopt them. What accent marks would we use? Where would we put them? What if the stress accent is optional or depends on your dialect, as with “insurance” vs. “insurance” or “umbrella” vs. “umbrella”? There’d be no end of arguments amounting to: “Aw, c’mon, do you really talk like that?”
[B. K.] The “use-uze” example could be solved simply by always using “z” for the voiced sound and “s” for the unvoiced sound.
[D. W.] You’re right, of course. But I was just joking about “to uze” vs. “a use.” Grammar alone tells us which is the noun and which is the verb, and we say “use” or “uze” accordingly.
[B. K.] The single most egregious example of ridiculous English spelling, the past tense of the verb “to read” could be corrected by spelling it ‘red’.
[D. W.] You do have a point there; “read” is a knotty problem. At least, the verb won’t be confused with the adjective “red,” and the verb is “to redden.”
“To read” belongs to a class of invariable verbs, namely ones in which the principal parts (infinitive, past tense, past participle) are all the same. Here’s at least a partial list:
bet, bid, burst, cast, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, quit, read, rid, set, shed, shut, sit, split, spread, thrust.
In short: the verb class includes some — but by no means all — one-syllable verbs ending in -t or -d. “To read” differs from the others by using vowel alternation to distinguish the infinitive and present tense [ri:d] from the past tense and past participle [rɛd].
I hasten to agree: grammar or context is not always a guide; for example: “Every year, I read ([ri:d] or [rɛd]?) Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (with [ɛ]).” Maybe we could spell the past tense “readd.” Who knows: it might eventually become “readed.” And what will happen to the place name “Reading”? How about “Readding”? An extra “d” might help a little.
[B. K.] Homophones exist in many languages and my vote is to spell them consistently. Thus “loan” and “lone,” for example, would fold into a single spelling that emphasizes sound, not meaning.
[D. W.] Although “a loan” and “alone” are pronounced the same, grammar or meaning normally prevents confusion. However, I foresee that spelling all homophones alike will cause trouble. “Sight” becomes “site”? And remember the old joke: “Pi r squared (π r2)? No, pies are round!” There’s no end to it.
[B. K.] I think sometimes that English considers itself a little like Chinese, where the words become ideograms rather than phonetic representations of speech. We should standardize on the phonetic approach. But of course, it will never happen.
[D. W.] You may well be right on all counts. And there’s always a trade-off:
If you can read Chinese, you have access to forty centuries of literature in more than one language. Of course, the pronunciation and even the words have changed over time, but the ideographs help discern meaning. And, since Chinese is a language family, the same text can be recited in Mandarin, Cantonese or any of the innumerable dialects.
The cost: you need years of schooling to be able to read and write proficiently. And how do you borrow new words into the language?
An alphabet brings the written language to the people. It’s easy to learn, and you can write the way you speak.
The cost: not everybody will have the same pronunciation. During the Great Vowel Shift in the 14th to 18th centuries, grandchildren — or merely people in different localities — began pronouncing words differently. If they had simplified the spelling, it would have become unintelligible. That’s why Modern English has retained spellings from Middle and even Old English.
English has split the difference between spelling and pronunciation while borrowing not only most of its vocabulary from French but also the tradition of spelling homophones etymologically:
Hence “sight” (Germanic) but “site” (French);
and “their” (Old Norse) but “there” (West Germanic).
That puts us right back with the Italian e and è or the French ou and où, where two words sound the same while the spelling makes the meanings clear.
Nonetheless, I have to take our friend Bill Kowaleski’s point. How might one spell “chastely” in a way that wouldn’t confuse students learning English as a second language?
Perhaps “cheistli”? Students would have to learn only the convention that “ei” is pronounced [e:]. But if his students’ first language were German rather than Spanish, the spelling would confuse them by clashing with their own. Az Ai sei, dherz no end tu it...
Mark Twain was right. Streamlining spelling, like chastity, may simplify some things. But only up to a point. It’s best to avoid unintended consequences: if we happen to have progeny, we would like to be able at least to write them notes, even if they can’t understand the way we speak.