Thursday, September 16, 2010

More English spelling reform

Via Johnson via John Wells, I learned of Masha Bell's blog Improving English Spelling covering spelling reform. Some of the best posts are among her earlier ones, in which she makes the case for very modest regularizations of the most common English words to facilitate education and literacy among young well as plenty of posts discussing individual spellings or the weird history of irregularly spelt short u. The sheer pigheadedness behind some of the irregular spellings is always amazing, as when the inkhorns added a "p" to the front of Gaelic "tarmigan" in order to make it look Greek and thus edumacated.

Wells makes a great point, too:
She also compares the ‘redundant’ -e in such words as accurate, adequate, delicate, private, with the ‘phonic reliability’ of words such as accelerate, assassinate, calculate. ...This implies, interestingly, that perhaps we ought to complicate our spelling by introducing a difference between moderate (verb, ˈmɒdəreɪt) and moderat (adjective, ˈmɒd(ə)rət), or separate (verb, ˈsepəreɪt) and separat (adjective, ˈsep(ə)rət) and other similar pairs.

It would certainly, I think, be advantageous to abolish the -e not only in love but also in have and give. These three very basic words immediately undermine the ‘magic e’ rule that reading beginners are taught. It would be nice, too, to be able to distinguish liv (verb, lɪv) from live (adjective, laɪv).

A great idea. Spelling reform has been going nowhere for years, and is generally done in countries more comfortable with language policy, language planning, and more significant government power over elements of popular culture. More recently, it was controversial in Germany.

I suspect the only hope for spelling reform in English is through guerilla and asymmetrical means, such as by endorsement of popular respellings like "nite" for "night". It will happen when writers just begin writing and publishing in reformed spellings, and the spellings that make sense drift from signs and text messages into usage in increasingly formal or prestige contexts.

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