Sunday, March 1, 2009

English spelling reform & alternate orthographies

For years, decades, and centuries, writers and such have been complaining about the ridiculousness or unreasonableness of English spelling and writing. The Latin alphabet was adapted to English over a thousand years ago, and wrote it pretty well at the time, with the addition of a number of Germanic runes and Irish letters to represent sounds not found in Latin. Later, these letters (such as thorn, eth, and the ligature of ae) were dropped, and English went through a series of sound changes and vowel shifts. so that now the individual letters used to represent a word bear small relationship to the sounds they are intended to represent. It is a parody of an ostensibly phonemic, alphabetic system.

Spanish has five vowels. It is well served by the Latin alphabet, which has five letters to represent vowels. English has more than a dozen vowels, dipthongs, and two dozen or more consonants, depending on dialect. However, the Latin alphabet only has 26 letters. These days, a vowel-letter can represent nearly any English vowel-sound, in the right context. The letter "A," for example, represents different vowel sounds in "what," "cat," and "father." How is it that the first vowel letter of "women" rhymes with the first vowel letter of "linen," but not with the first vowel letter of "woman"? Why does the spell-checker insist that "correspondance" is incorrect, while "correspondence" is great...does it really matter which letter represents that unstressed vowel, when the sounds that letters represent vary so greatly?

The consonants are bad enough. "Q" has no job that couldn't be done by "K": it's a completely superfluous letter. "C" sometimes sounds like "K," and sometimes sounds like "S." The only sound that is unambiguously represented by "C" uses the digraph "CH," as in "cheese," but which often also substitutes for the sound of "K." Why not just have "K" do its job, "S" do its job, and let "C" represent the consonant at the beginning of the word "cheese"?

The digraph "GH" among the most infamous, since it used to represent a phoneme barely present in modern English. It is said to represent the sound we associate with "F" at the end of words. as in "cough." It represents a "hard G" at the beginning of words such as "ghost." In the word "through," the digraph is silent; the alternate spelling "thru" is unambiguous, understood by everyone, simpler, and almost universally regarded as incorrent for some reason. The tetragraph "ough" is great fun in general.

The guidelines for deriving the sounds of spoken English from the patterns of the letters are of infernal complexity. Here is a list of 56 rules for deciding how to pronounce words based on their spelling, which correctly pronounces about 85% of them; it has trouble with more than one word in 10. The popularly simplified form of "night" is not "nit" or "nait," but "nite." The relationship between letters and sounds is not arbitrary; but perhaps it is more accurate to say that groups of letters correspond to groups of sounds, with numerous, significant exceptions.

Some of these irregularities are a consequence of English's plunder of the world's vocabulary, but many of them have terrible justification. "Island" was originally written as Anglo-Saxon "iland," but an "S" was added just to make it look more like the French word "isle," derived from the etymylogically seperate Latin word "insula." There is no good reason for the "P" in "ptarmigan;" someone tacked a "P" onto the beginning of a Scottish Gaelic word to make it look Greek, and for some reason it stuck as the "correct" spelling. We'd do just as well or better without it.

While it is true that Enlish orthography represents the etymology of and lexical relationships between words well, it is an extraordinarily complex written language that is difficult to learn proficiently. People often regard Asian ideographic characters as extremely difficult because there are thousands of individual glyphs compised of several strokes, each of which ideally represents a discrete idea. But is not English orthography, composing individual words as a unique but seemingly arbitrary sequence of letters, similarly complicated?

Attempts at a more phonemic writing began long ago. In the mid-17th century, Frances Lodwick developed an abugida to write the languages of western Europe, including the vowels of English, French, and Dutch, as a "universal alphabet" in the intellectual currents of the time. Benjamin Franklin, a printer by trade, proposed a reformed alphabet in 1768. But the biggest advance for reformed English spelling came after Isaac Pitman published his system of shorthand in 1837. Quick, legible, and attractive handwriting was very important in the 19th century, after literacy and printing became widespread, but before everyone had a typewriter or computer. Shorthand, which allowed the quick transcription of speech, was developed much earlier, but Pitman's shorthand was phonemic rather than relying on a system of symbols to represent common words. Shorthand became popular among many authors of the time, who, recognizing the advantages of phonemic handwriting, became advocates of phonemic orthography and simplified spelling more broadly. Mark Twain praised Pitman's "phonography" in his 1899 essay "A Simplified Alphabet."

Nineteenth-century spelling reformers such as Alexander J. Ellis took great delight in the absurdity of English writing: "fish" written as "ghoti" is the most famous example, but he described comical respellings of "scissors" as "schiesourrhce," "favorite" as "phaighpheawraibt," and "orthography" as "eolotthowghrhroighway." Or, you write potato, I write ghoughpteighbteau. "Ghoti" is often criticized by the apologists for conventional orthography, but "phoche" illustrates much of the same point.

For many of the 19th-century reformers, the chief cited benefit of phonemic writing is reducing handwriting. They meticulously count the number of strokes needed to write a selected passage and compare it to the number of strokes needed in some preferred system. These arguments seem unconvincing these days, since most of the writing contemporary people do is on a keyboard (also organized in a confusing way to slow down writing). But some research shows it takes children twice as long to learn to read English as it takes children to learn to read other European languages. Partly this is because English syllables are complicated; but this complicated language is written in a very complicated way.

People learn to read by sounding out the sounds of words, and this learning is hampered by the opaque, complicated relationship between letter and sound in English. Fast adult readers have become proficient in quickly sounding out the word in their head. But how can we blame bad spellers, when any particular sound sequence could be written any number of different ways?

As Hieratic and Demotic originated as shorthand for Egyptian hieroglyphics, Cicero's secretary recorded his speeches in the Notae Tironianae, the Japanese syllabary began as simplified phonemic glyphs for the ideographic Chinese characters, and the lower-case Latin letters started as cursive versions of the Roman capitals, shorthand systems can yield important innovation in writing standards. Pitman's shorthand inspired the Deseret alphabet created by Mormons at the University of Deseret in the 1850s.

Another 19th-century advocate of shorthand and phonemic writing was Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote his plays in shorthand and had them transcribed by his secretary. A Fabian and socialist, Shaw saw how class discrimination on the basis of sociolect inhibited the advancement of working peoples, portraying the abandonment of (rich, historic, and interesting) dialects as desirable in his preface to "Pygmalion"

In his will, Shaw stipulated that a sum of money be set aside to fund the creation of a new alphabet for English, but following his death in 1950, this aim became delayed. After several years, a contest held for the design of the alphabet was won by amateur typographer Ronald Kingsley Read in 1958, and Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion" became the only book published in the Shavian alphabet. Eight years later, Read distributed a reform of the Shavian alphabet, aimed to make the script easier to handwrite and create connected, cursive forms. This script became known as Quikscript or the Read alphabet. The PDF of the Quikscript manual is the place to start; the Read Alphabet Yahoo Group has many invaluable resources.

I started learning Quikscript about a year and a half ago; here's a sample, a near-pangram of my idiolect (missing one dipthong). It says: "With pleasure, the fox is baiting the dog with more chow: a juicy dough of fish oil and hair."

Other alternate orthographies for English include the Pitman Initial Teaching Alphabet , Unifon, and Visible Speech.

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