Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Literary Outrage

The offender: BBC World Service Radio Broadcast Article

This article so enrages me that the English major in me is going to come out and write a point-by-point retort.

The Question: should we relax English spelling rules?

The Short Answer: no.


Rather than answering this question myself, I am instead going to disassemble—or, perhaps, axe apart—Professor John Wells’ qualms with and “quick fixes” for the English language. I hope this retort proves convincing enough for those of you reading.

  • Problem with Wells’ suggestion #1: Simply removing the final e wouldn’t help a student determine what the vowel sound is; leaving the e there would just help them determine what the vowel sound isn’t. Take the word route as an example. Is this word pronounced boot-rhymes-with-route? Or is it pronounced out-rhymes-with-route? The final e clearly makes no difference, as neither word is pronounced rot, which would be the short o vowel sound.

    There are simply too many vowel sounds to try and fix pronunciation via spelling or, as in this case, make spelling easier by using pronunciation as a guide. The latter, in fact, could easily become more difficult.

  • Problem with Wells’ suggestion #2: Does he intend that double consonants should only appear after the first short vowel sound in the word? Because in the given examples “rivver” and “moddel,” the second vowel sounds are also short (although not quite the same, if you say the words aloud and really listen to yourself). Therefore, according to this rule, the words should be spelled “rivverr” and “moddell.”

    There are going to be an awful lot of letters trooping across our pages, if this rule is implemented. And again, if you think vowel sounds are restricted to Short and Long and can therefore be sorted out through spelling, see Problem #1 above.

  • Concerning suggestion #3 . . . this one looks okay to me. Maybe a keener mind will find the loophole.
  • Problem with Wells’ suggestion #4: Sure, we can add "Americanizations like thru, and then we can prolly add gonna, too, becuz you know the next generation'll be addin' all sorta IM-speak, lol.
  • Problem with Wells’ suggestion #5: It's most certainly a problem to remove the apostrophe from its, because doing so may not confuse the writer’s meaning, but it will certainly trip up the reader.

    Consider this slightly more dramatic but very real-life example: on her paper, one high school student wrote higen for hygiene and beuty for beauty. Now, in the context of her writing, these words were certainly discernable. However, the amount of time necessary to determine what were, exactly, the words she had written and, thus, what was the overall meaning of her prose was considerable.

    The same dilemma applies to interchanging its and it’s. The reader will figure out whether the "its" is actually a possessive pronoun or a singular noun-and-verb contraction, only the process of making this determination will take considerably longer.

    Of course we all know that the longer it takes a reader to determine anything, the more quickly he/she loses interest and puts down the book/magazine/pamphlet. And then we’ve just defeated our own goal of facilitating language, haven’t we?

  • Problem with Wells’ suggestion #6: See above explanation. Wells has clearly not read enough public urban middle school English papers to be perturbed by the interchanging of their, they’re, and there. Or maybe he considers himself liberal enough to see past these spelling differences. But we’ll see how liberal he feels when he starts running into bored, board, and bord, shood, IDK, OMG, and impressition. (Any guesses, for the last one? It’s a pretty easy one--I got it right away.)

Bottom line: leave English Spelling alone. Or, rather, drill your kids and your neighbors kids, and make them keep reading, since the years of published material aren't likely to suddenly be reprinted because spelling standards have changed. Standard English spelling has done the job thus far, as English is the first language of 375 million people and the second language of another estimated 750 million.* If spelling were that much of an issue, wouldn’t everyone have decided to speak a nice, phonetic language like Spanish—excuse me, Espanol—instead?

*(See if you don’t believe me, as I am ever the academic and feel I should cite my sources.)

Final Note: A point of further interest may be to research how Standard English Spelling has developed to the state in which it is currently taught/used. Questions to consider: has it evolved due to widespread usage by the masses, or have spelling "rules" been implemented by figures of authority and then slowly been passed between generations until old rules are phased out?

I admit, the academic in me may never die.


rome said...

oh allison, be careful. i read and listen to what was said and end up on the fence. a lot of what you said was very warranted, but as was some of his arguments. for example, live(liv) and live. why not take off the silent "e" of the former to differentiate between the two. and "have" what's the point of the "e"?
ok. i operate under a different conduct of "law"(being that i'm a communication major), but i don't see the problem in certain words.
i'm not going to debate otherwise because i know it could become like politics(one become strong left wing and the other strong right)

Allison said...

His point was not to differentiate live and (liv) by taking off the e, he was making a rule of is. My point was that such a rule--e.g. (giv)--would not work on a grand scale. For purposes of differentiation, it could work, but what about wind and wind? There are no e's there, so would we add e's, too? (winde)

And then there's the matter of the "silent" h. We may not pronounce the h in the word white or the word which, but go to other countries--Singapore is a good place to start--and you'll realize that the h IS necessary for pronunciation, because they DO pronounce it. So then it comes down to "who speaks English 'properly'"?

I guess I'm on the side of the slippery slope with this one.