Monday, December 23, 2013

Standardized Spelling One of the Most Controversial Issues I've Ever Written About

I came to writing in public late.  Very late.  Part of the problem was that I have extremely bad hand writing, something I proudly share with several those members of my family who have had the most extensive educational background.   My most academically accomplished relation, who has a PhD from a prestigious university and whose work is often cited and very well known in her field, has an illegible hand which, even with my practice in reading my writing, I couldn't figure out.

Another was that I have a horrible visual memory for the spelling of words. Gradually I developed the excuse that, as a musician, I depended on aural memory and that is an entirely unreliable means of divining the standard spelling of English words.   As I abandoned the futile exercise in hand writing for typing and, thank God, word processing, the issue shifted to punctuation, especially the myriad rules of using commas.  By that time aging eyes added the complication of not being able to see commas on the screen but, also, in never being able to remember if I've typed one or if I've left one in while editing.  I love being able to edit on the screen.

Being a radical democrat, a leveler in all things, it is intolerable that a combination of tyranny of the "good spellers" and the absurdly complex rules of punctuation is an effective bar to all English speakers having their right to the written form of the language.   I think it's a major reason that our educational system is ineffective, it teaches too many that the way of thinking and reflecting on your thinking that writing provides is not theirs by right.   Here is an old post I wrote on the topic, posted at the blog I used to write for.

A Response To A Gentle Commentator (optional reading)

History of the genitive - you mean it's from the strong masculine OE? Or am I missing yet another fun folk legend?

I hate, hate, hate it when the idea of 'more phonetic English spelling' comes up, because people pronounce English words differently. Whose phonetics get the nod? For a lazy example, do those who say 'pe-pul' speak truer, better English than those who say pe(o-kind-of-like-a-stop)-pl? Or Peepl? And so forth. That's why it hasn't been settled, imho. Too many not-quite-dialects, and since we have a common form, no use screwing with it to the logical benefit of only-some.

That's not even starting on how it could suck to have even one altered Am.Eng. spelling, a British English spelling, a spelling adapted for South Asian Englishes that only fits one really, and so forth... okay, I'll stop.

Of course, as one of those visual-memoried individuals, I never really know what words people want changed in the first place. But then, I probably pronounce at least 96% of the letters I see.

The Gauntlet Picked Up 
ear Painini, taking your concerns out of order. This website is an incomplete list of the many irregularities of Standard English Spelling. The site is impressive, though I know for a fact that there are more ways to spell some of the vowels, having come up with more spellings for long e one insomniac night. It also makes at least two untrue assertions. It hasn’t “been this way for a long time”. It’s been the way it is, in theory, for about two hundred years, with many if not most people using non-standard spellings the whole time. There is also no reason to just accept the absurdity, mastered by only a minority which has been allowed to tyrannize rest of us who use the English language. Even the standard system has variants and has had modifications over the years. “Cooky” is how my first grade speller taught the word. Write it that way now and watch the response. Then show them that spelling in the dictionary and have a bit of innocent fun.

You are concerned that some of today’s variant pronunciations of the English language would get left out of a reformed spelling. This is surprising since all of them are left out of the standard spelling systems now, both the British and the American. The pronunciations that control standard English spelling are those of people who have not uttered a single syllable for centuries, some have been silent for at least a millennium. To serve their long dead words the system is made impossible for the majority of people alive today.

You might notice that I support an attempt to make English spelling, “more nearly phonetic,” as no system of spelling in a natural language is exactly phonetic. I’d be satisfied with things like getting rid of unpronounced consonants, pitching such quaint antiquities as use of combinations such as -ough, -igh, ..., coming up with one standard spelling for roughly each of the long and short vowels and making the addition of grammatical suffixes regular. Putting any silent e as a sign of the long vowel either next to the pronounced vowel OR at the end of the syllable would be an immeasurable improvement. Just make a rule that once a silent e is put there, it stays there when the word goes on through inflection or compounding.

Choosing one, widely used pronunciation, coming up with a rational and phonetic spelling for it without the myriad of variant spellings we have now, would essentially solve the problem. For mercy’s sake, think of the children who have to waste their time and lose self-respect for the sake of of middle-aged, would be, etymologists’ vanity.

The alternative to spelling reform is to get used to the reestablishment of non-standard spelling. Those are the choices in spelling. As time wears on, it’s clear that standard spelling is being over run by the rabble. The choices in spending your time are either to get used to the reality that results when the last two centuries of class-based irrationality runs head long into a computer using population that isn’t going to be silent any longer, or to be continually upset that most people are not following the old religion.

As for your worries concerning my footnote about the use of the apostrophe in the English genitive case being based in “folk legend”, I refer you to page 291 of Albert C. Baugh’s “A History of the English Language,” 2nd edition:*

... Until well into the eighteenth century people were troubled by the illogical consequences of this usage, Dr. Johnson (!) points out that one can hardly believe that the possessive ending is a contraction of his in such expression as a woman’s beauty or a virgin’s delicacy. He, himself seems to have been aware that its true source was the Old English genitive, but the error has left its trace in the apostrophe which we still retain as a graphic convenience to mark the possessive.

The error was thinking that the possessives ending in -s were a contraction of the word “his”. This an example of the foolishness of not simply writing a word as pronounced and attempting to weigh down what should be the helpful mechanics of spelling with an attempt at scholarship, showing off. In this case, as even Johnson managed to notice, the erudition was absolutely absurd, the product of rank ignorance. The results are an absurdity endowed with the force of conventional morality. Sinners who forget to place the erroneous apostrophe or who, in an overweening attempt to get it right, commit the sin of wasting one where the cannons of spelling do not place one, ... such heretics are to be cast out from respectable society.

am grateful for your forcing me to reread my old textbook after so many decades. It’s full of interesting insights into some of the folly of grammarians, would be experts on rhetoric etc. I recommend it if it is read in the spirit of generosity and with an open mind. I forgot that Joseph Priestly delved in the language controversies of his day. Got to get to the library soon.

In perfect seriousness, the written form of the language is one of the most powerful tools for looking at ones thoughts and the thoughts of other people. Which of us haven’t come up with clearer ideas while we look over what we’ve written? To have most English speakers alienated from this tool, rightfully theirs, by the dictate of the aristocrats of orthography, is an offense against democracy. It helps explain how the English Speaking People have put up with so much crap from their ruling classes and how easily some of them are manipulated. You take a kid who doesn’t have the knack of spelling and tell him from the earliest grades that he’s stupid, how do you expect him to think about people who think and write for a living?

*  Page 225 in this pdf edition.

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