Sunday, January 21, 2007

English as a Spelling NITEmare

A response last week from Dan from Los Angeles on the relative difficulty of learning Spanish vs. English:

There's a good case to be made that from the Martian perspective (someone equally unfamiliar with both languages), English is far more irregular and hence harder to learn. Look at our spelling: tough, bough, cough . . . lotion, ocean . . . lazy, daisy . . . Try explaining that to the Spanish.

Thanks for your insights, Dan. And Language Lady agrees with you and your Martians that, on the whole, Spanish is easier to learn as a foreign language than English, due to the regularity of Spanish spelling and pronunciation. The point I wanted to make last week was specifically about English GRAMMAR, and the verb declensions, which were simplified to accommodate all the various cultures living, conquering, or trying to do business in England hundreds of years ago; beyond that, the spelling, pronunciation, numerous verb tenses, and staggering amount of words alone all make me happy that English is my first language.

Dan’s comment (re tough, bough, cough, etc.) reminds me of a little ditty on the idiosyncrasies of English spelling and pronunciation written by an English author, T.S. Wyatt, in 1954 and often found in linguistics textbooks:


I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble but not you,
On hiccough, though, lough (loch) and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead--it's said like bed, not bead.
For goodness's sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat:
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose--
Just look them up--and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.

A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd mastered it when I was five.

Yes, English spelling is a notorious nightmare (though, as Wyatt pointed out, we do seem to learn it fairly quickly) – with most of our everyday words the orthographic results of some loose decisions made some 600 years ago. It started with a hodge-podge of West Saxon spellings and pronunciations; then post-Norman Conquest medieval monks changed certain spellings to look more like the new prestige language, Anglo-Norman French: for example, “cwen” became “queen;” then, around the 1400s people started pronouncing words differently: “great,” which was originally said, “gray-aht” became “great” as we know it, while “bread” changed from the Old English “bray-at” to Middle English “breed” and then to our current short-e’d “bread.” And those nasty “gh” spellings were trying to convey the gutteral Germanic “ch” sound, as in “Achtung!” But trying to understand the reasons for all English’s spelling conundrums doesn’t make it easier. We just have to accept that English spelling is what happens when conquest happens and no one is really in charge …

George Bernard Shaw, the famous English playwright, once wrote a plea for spelling reform by demonstrating that the way our language stood now, you could spell “fish” as “ghoti:”

“gh” as in “rough”
“o” as in “women”
“ti” as in “nation.”

Spelling reform has been tried at various times, but it just doesn’t work – at this point, there are too many English speakers with different accents and pronunciations. What if they standardized a phonetic spelling so we all pronounced words like Texans? And do you think the British could stand a phonetic alphabet that sounded like standard American? Or vice versa? It’s one thing for American spelling to remove the “u” in the British “honour;” another thing all together to try to force the Brits to say “On-er” instead of “on-ah.”

Which is not to say we won’t ever see any simplification -- advertising and commerce will see to that. The main spelling shifts I’ve seen in my lifetime have come about through just such routes. Take: donut, lite, nite. Triboro and thru. I credit Dunkin’ Donuts (born in the 1950s, part of mass culture by the 1970s) with the popularization of “donut” from the original “doughnut” – a variant sanctioned by the dictionary for over 25 years. “Nite” and “lite” are also listed in the dictionary as informal, simplified spellings of “night” and “light;” even so, the dictionary only recognizes “nite” as a noun -- as in TV’s “Nick at Nite” -- and not as an adjective -- as in Nite Lite, though there are now dozens of products, company names, catalogues, and TV shows with the name, “Nite Lite.” Meanwhile, the dictionary specifies that “lite” is mainly used in advertising to describe something with less substance or fewer calories – as in lite music and lite beer.

The words, “Triboro” and “thru” are also now commonplace, informal substitutes for “Triborough” (as in the bridge spanning three boroughs of New York City) and “through.” “Boro” is not in the dictionary but it may be soon: as part of a name, “boro” can be found in a bike tour group, a bar and grill, a bookstore, and so on; but “borough” is still the more standard --nor are we close to being thru with “through.” Still, perhaps with the speed that technology changes things, it will not be too many years from now that all “gh” words will be obsolete, and the variant forms the new standard ones. Perhaps in the future linguists will refer to the early 21st century as a period of The Great Silent GH Exodus.

For now, the word to watch is “you” (and “yours” and “your”): as text messaging and email are on their way to making this Y-O-U spelling look archaic to anyone under the age of 25; we can start watching to see when the dictionary accepts this second person pronoun’s variant -- the simple, lowercase “u”.

So keep ur eyes peeled! And good nite.

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