Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Is the question of orthography/standardized spelling reform just an education question or a culture question well? Some might argue that reforming English spelling so that it is phonetically consistent will enhance ease of learning and efficiency, and that language is made for man, not man is made for language. Much of the difficulty with learning English is that many sounds can be represented by more than one letter (or combination of letters). (I won't address the question of English grammar here, just spelling.) And a letter can represent more than one sound value.Some may even go so far as to advocate the adoption of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA); I think there is a case to be made for the retention of the Latin alphabet--it is part of our cultural heritage. And many of those who would argue for the retention of current orthography would probably base their argument on this form of cultural conservatism. A language (both in its spoken and written forms) carries the burden of its history, since it is something handed down from one generation to the next, with all of the human factors that can influence such a process.

E. Christian Kopff, in The Devil Knows Latin, writes:

Luckily for the United States, such an easy doctrine did not prevail at the founding. It does, however, prevail today. Sadly, few Americans ever reach that sure mark of maturity, the realization that we are the beneficiaries of the past. To begin with, we did not choose our parents. Neither did we choose our first language. Nor, if that first language is English, did we choose that serious discourse in important disciplines--law, politics, ethics, the physical sciences, and the humanities--is conducted in a vocabulary heavily Latinate and generously peppered with Greek words. The fact of the atter is that we can no more choose our culture and its languages than we can our parents. A trendy academic recently urged his peers to make a careful selection among what he called our 'cultural baggage.' We should not deceive ourselves, however. If our culture and its traditions are baggage, we are not carrying it, or paying academic redcaps to haul it behind us. It is carrying us. (53-4)
There are plenty of words that have been borrowed from other languages, and supplanted "native" words. For example, the word saint, which is borrowed from French and has its origin in the Latin sanctus. We don't use the Germanic word holy (related to the German word heilig). When was the last time you heard of someone speak of Holy Benedict rather than Saint Benedict? Should we consciously return to the use of native English words, preferring them to the words we have from French, Latin, and others?

[Germanic Languages
This page presents a tree of Germanic Languages and capsule descriptions of them.
Characterization of the Germanic Language Family
Yamada Language Center: Germanic Fonts]

Do we need an organization like the Académie française (wiki) to monitor the English language? It seems an impossible task, given the use of English universally as a business language, and its impact on other cultures, as well as the number of different forms of English that exist even here in the United States. Would we not be striving for an artificial (one imposed from above by a central agency) or an ideal purity? If we say that the language of the elites should be adopted by everyone else, should this not be done voluntarily? It's not like the AF has the coercive power of the law to back up its actions.

If we keep the words, should we keep the spelling? The spelling of those words that have been anglicized can perhaps be reformed, but what about words that kept the original spelling, being borrowed directly from the other language? What if the pronunciation of the word has shifted from that of the original language?

Do we risk losing touch with our historical and cultural roots in reforming the spelling of borrowings? Cultural conservatives may argue that it is better to bow to custom and to retain such usages. What about the variety of local accents? The same word can have different pronunciations, according to different local accents. Are sound shifts consistent, that is if the pronunciation of phonemes in certain words are changed, will they be changed in the same way for other similar (or not so similar) words?

What happens if they are not consistent, and the spelling of the word no longer effectively represents its pronunciation (at least in a system that strives to be consistent)? I don't think this is just a byproduct of a certin way of learning how to read, but is a "normal" way some people learn how to read on their own--written words can take on an importance of their own. That is, people learn to recognize words by the combination of letters, not by relating them to the sound(s) it represents.

[wiki: phonics, sight word, reading education, whole language; Whole Language vs. Phonics Reading Instruction; Whole Language vs. Phonetic Reading Instruction; Whole Language Ideology; July 1996 Phyllis Schlafly Report -- Phonics vs. Whole Language; Reading Wars: Phonics vs. Whole Language; Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and ...]

I am sympathetic to the concerns of conservatives, so I don't have any suggestions right now, other than support the adoption of a phonics approach, to facilitate learning how to read and spell.

As for spelling bees, and the success of homeschooled children in those contests--one would think that those who are homeschooled would tend to do better, as they receive more individual attention from teachers (usually their parent(s)), who can devote more time to them. It seems to me that it is easier to get children to read in such an environment. Nonetheless, all it takes for one to win a spelling bee is good memory and an extensive acquaintance with English vocabulary (which one can do "naturally" through reading, or "artificially" through the use of word lists). This does not at all show that a homeschooling education is better than one obtained in a school at preparing a student for the acquisition of scientia or logic.

And then there are the structural changes that take place in the language, changes in grammar and so on, which is part of the historical evolution of a language(?) and can lead to the development of dialects...

Orthography: John H. Fisher - The History of Written English
Traditional English Orthography - History
English Spelling Reform
Spelling reform - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
English Spelling Reform, New Alphabets for English, Systematic ...
The Simplified Spelling Society.
Simplified Spelling Society : Spelling Reform Typology.
The Problem with English Spelling
Fanetik: Thoroughgoing Spelling Reform for English, At Least for ...
Webster Language
Spelling Reform Links
English Spelling Reform
SpecGram--A 21st Century Proposal for English Spelling Reform--H ... JUSTIN RYE ON SPELLING REFORM.
Wells: Accents and spelling reform » Article » Fonetic Eenglish and th speling ...
BBC NEWS UK Magazine Should we simplify spelling?
English Spelling Reform: Why It Makes Sense
Babel--Arguments Against English Spelling Reform--Hermes Trismegistus
Richard Sprague WebLog : English spelling reform

A Word about Southern Orthography - Why Traditional Southrons do ...

English alphabet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Restoring the Alphabet
Modern English Runic alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet--Middle English Consonants

History of English Phonemes
The History of English Phonemes
Phonological history of English vowels - Wikipedia, the free ...
Middle English Phonology
Pronunciation Guide for Middle English

Old English:
Old English Alphabet
Old English Letters
The Old English Alphabet
Manuscript Studies: Paleography: Special Characters in English ...
Old English language - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Labyrinth Library: Old English
Yamada Language Center: Old English Web Guide
Old English at UVA
Modern English to Old English Vocabulary
Old English Dictionary
Old English Aloud
Ye Olde English Sayings
Old English at the University of Calgary
Browse By Language: Old English - Project Gutenberg
old english
old english corpus
Old English Newsletter Online

Middle English:
Middle English - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Middle English Phonology
Middle English Grammar Project
About Middle English Grammar
Notes on translating Middle English
Middle English Texts
Changes in the English Language: a Comparison of Old, Middle, and ...
The Middle English Collection
Labyrinth Library: Middle English
Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (The Middle English Compendium)
Middle English
middle english
Middle English
Middle English Plays [Medieval Drama in England; Theatre History]
Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) - "The Canterbury Tales" (in middle ...
The Chaucer MetaPage Audio Files
Notes on Middle English Romance
Middle English Dictionary
A Concise Dictionary of Middle English by A. L. Mayhew and Walter ...

More on the International Phonetic Alphabet:
International Phonetic Association (Handbook of the International Phonetic Association - Cambridge ...)
The International Phonetic Alphabet Project
The International Phonetic Alphabet
Yamada Language Center: Phonetic Fonts
International Phonetic Alphabet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The sounds of English and the International Phonetic Alphabet ...
French IPA - International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet
The International Phonetic Alphabet - Audio Illustrations
IPA Source - International Phonetic Alphabet Transcriptions and ...
International Phonetic Alphabet (Anders Jacobsen's blog)

More links on whole language:
What is Whole Language?
Learning To Read and Whole Language Ideology
Research about Whole Language
Phonics or Whole Language
Guided Reading, Whole Language Style
Whole Language vs. Phonics
Phonics-Spelling-Whole language
Whole Language Exercise
Whole Language Umbrella
Whole Language Reading Instruction

Random link:
This was interesting: Vietnam or Viet Nam?

1 comment:

Iosue Andreas said...

I'm for retaining our spellings. Otherwise, we lose the relationship between words like "sign" and "signify."

It's kind of like traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters.

The last link was interesting. If I'm not mistaken, during the war, the country's name was spelled "Viet Nam" in the American press. "Vietnam" came later.