Do we need spelling reform?

Every NAPLAN season there are complaints about English spelling complexity, calls for one-letter-for-each-sound spelling reform, and people wondering why we still bother with spelling, now we all have a spelling chequer that came with our pea sea.

Switching to a one-letter-for-each-sound system would mean huge changes, such as adding an extra 18 letters to our alphabet's 26 letters representing 44 sounds. Simplifying spelling would also mean losing the rich source of information about word meanings and origins embedded in our current spelling system.

Give Samuel Johnson a break

Famous smartperson Samuel Johnson published the first major English dictionary in 1755, thus stamping out the spelling rapscallionship of the likes of Shakespeare, who routinely spelt the same word two or three different ways in one sonnet, and his own surname 14 different ways.

Unfortunately Johnson didn’t then write another book explaining the logic behind his system, but it’s extremely well and carefully done, and deserves more understanding and appreciation. Or at least not quite so much slagging off.

Linking related words

For example, it seems crazy to have lots of words with “ea” for a sound that’s ordinarily just an “e”, like bread, breakfast, feather, weather and dead. Let’s change them to “bred”, “brekfast”, “fether”, “wether” and “ded”, and write “sez” instead of “says”, like rappers do.

This would destroy the written connection between "say" and "says", and disconnect the two “reads” (as in “I’ll read Shakespeare when I retire ” versus “I have smugly read it”) as well as “mean-meant”, “deal-dealt”, “dream-dreamt”, “heal-health”, “leap-leapt” and “steal-stealth”. It would remove the "south" from "southern", and the "Christ" from "Christmas".

These days, only toffs pronounce the “t” in the word “soften”, but losing it would weaken its connection to “soft”. The word “sign” doesn’t seem need a “g”, till you consider "signal", “signature” and “insignia”. The same goes for “malign-malignant”, autumn-autumnal”, “solemn-solemnity”, “phlegm-phlegmatic”, “diaphragm-diaphragmatic”, “crumb-crumble” and “limb-limber”.

It’s not true of “bomb-bomber” or “plumb-plumber”, but pronunciations change over time – consider how many Australians (quelle horreur) pronounce “picture” and “pitcher” as homophones.

The Romans had plumbers, poisoning everyone with lead pipes, and Guy Fawkes died in 1606, so bombers aren’t new. Perhaps in Johnson’s day they said the “b” out loud.

When someone cracks time travel, my hand’s up to go back and have a listen. By then, Indian English will probably have achieved world domination, and we’ll all be saying the “b” again anyway.

C is nesessary and rekwired

Why do we need a letter “c” when we have “s” and “k”? Well, for starters, it connects words like “electric-electricity”, “critic-criticism” and “politics-politician”.

If we got rid of “ti” and just used “sh”, we’d disconnect “act-action”, “direct-direction” and “opt-option”. The same goes for “si” in “precise-precision” and “ssi” in “aggressive-aggression”.

The language’s historical roots are reflected in “dental”, “moist” and “sculpt” and in “denture”, “moisture” and “sculpture”. Do we really want to trash that and write “dencha”, “moischa” and “sculpcha”?

Root words can tell us a lot about meaning. When farmers first heard of “fracking” they knew from “fracture”, “infraction” and “fractious” it was breaking, but probably not good, news.

Diverse dialects

Standardising English spelling meant taking into account a variety of dialects, and our spelling system is flexible enough to accommodate such variation.

Geordie and American kids can file the “a” in the words “grass”, “pass” and “last” in their heads alongside “cat”, “bag” and “fan”, while Londoners and Aussies can put it with “father”,  “spa” and “drama”.

The Scottish “put” goes with “flu”, “hula” and “tutu”, in Australia it goes with “bully”, “Muslim” and “octopus”. “New” sounds like in “coo” in the US, and like “cue” across the Atlantic, but its spelling stays the same.

You say “neither” (as in ceiling, protein and Sheila) and I say “neither” (as in eiderdown, kaleidoscope and seismic) and nobody feels compelled to call the whole thing off.

Language of origin

Dr Johnson retained many word origins in spellings, so we have a Greek “ch” in “school”, “chemist” and “mechanic”, a Greek “y” in “gym”, “cryptic” and “symptom”, a Greek “ph” in “phone”, “graph” and  “sphincter”, and a Greek beginning “x” in “xylophone”, “Xerox” and “Xena the Warrior Princess”.

“Ch” in “chef”, “brochure” and “parachute” comes from French, “th” in “birth”, “they” and “feather” from Old Norse, courtesy of the Vikings, “x” in “box”, “fax” and “sexting” from either/both Germanic and Latin. Don't forget the tribes of Europe were invading each other and nicking each other’s words for milliennia, so it’s often hard to work out who said it first.

Lots of spellings come from French, thanks to 1066 and all that – the “é” in “café”, “paté” and “resumé”, the “ee” in “fiancée”, “melée” and “matinée”, the “t” in “ballet”, “parfait” and “rapport”, the “oi” in “croissant”, “soiree” and “noisette”, and the “tte” in “baguette”, “laundrette” and “cigarette”.  Johnson wisely chose not to ditch spellings from the language spoken just across what Kiwis would call the dutch.

Words with vowels like “cat”, “bet”, “din”, “rob” and “duck” tend to be Germanic/Old English, whereas vowels like “cape”, “grebe”, “dine”, “robe” and “duke” tend to be later borrowings from French/Latin. Each invasion and migration brings new words –  “schmooze” and “schlock” are from Yiddish, “galah” and “coolibah” from Yuwaaliyaay, “gunyah and “waratah” from Dharuk.

Separating homophones

Having multiple spellings for most sounds also allows us to more readily differentiate in print between English’s many homophones – “by-buy-bye”, “plane-plain”, “doe-dough” and Homeric “d’oh”, “Pulitzer Prize” and “pullet surprise”.

Why do we make spelling a bore and a chore?

If we all understood spelling better, perhaps we’d stop wanting to dumb it down, start enjoying and celebrating its diversity, flexibility and deep historical roots, and put an end to the practice of “doing spelling” in schools by getting children to memorise lists of words with unrelated spellings.

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