They want a rational orthography for English.
They're not going to get it, but it's a very nice thought.
The comments at Yahoo, of course, are... well, they're comments at Yahoo. There's a few main threads:
1. We shouldn't "dumb down" things because that's just helping illiterates, and they're just being lazy.
2. We shouldn't "dumb down" things because that's just helping illiterates, and they're just stupid anyway.
3. We shouldn't "dumb down" things because we can't do that with math... or can we? Also, nobody uses algebra or geometry in real life.
4. These people are just lazy teachers and bad spellers and should be shot at dawn.
5. If we did this, nobody would be able to distinguish homophones in writing and the sky would fall!
6. If we did this, English wouldn't have all these connections to other languages and the sky would fall!
7. If we did this, you wouldn't be able to tell the etymology of a word by looking at it, and you'd never know what an unfamiliar word meant! (This is, of course, the previous argument, but it has the benefit of being somewhat coherent.)
8. But what about dialects
Now, I've actually given some thought in the past to how I'd reform English orthography if anybody ever gave me that job. I know I've complained in the past about people saying various words "can't be sounded out" when, in fact, they can
so long as you have a grasp of how phonics works (last time I made this point it was with the word "lightning", which makes perfect sense once you remember that "igh" is one unit), but be that as it may, English orthography is still an unholy mess. In all the ridiculous amount of time we spend teaching kids to read and write, they could ACTUALLY be reading and writing! Or learning anything else, which is bound to be more useful than mastering a skill people with more sensible set-ups figure out in less than half the time.
So let's take these points in turn.
1. My, aren't you kind!
2. My, aren't you kind! Seriously, why is it some people think that nothing is virtuous unless it's difficult?
3. Other languages have reformed their spellings without the sky falling in AND without failing math (indeed, if you can spend less time spelling you can spend more time for math....)
Also, we do SO use geometry and algebra every day! What sort of mathless life do YOU lead?
4. Really? This? This is your argument?
5. Stupid argument. Stupid, stupid, STUPID argument. There are some good arguments for keeping our current system (inertia is a pretty powerful one all on its own), but this isn't one of them and never has been. Obviously, if you can tell the difference between "but" and "butt" in speech you don't actually
need that extra t to distinguish them in writing. No, really
. And every time you make a weak
argument, you weaken your entire position. Strong arguments aren't bolstered by adding a few weak ones to the pile, they're really not.
6. Of course we'd still have those connections to other languages! Why, it wouldn't be English if we didn't have a bajillion words from other languages floating about! They'd just be spelled differently! (And if that's seriously their argument, can we at LEAST get rid of that stupid floating "s" in "island"? It's only there because of false etymology to begin with!)
7. This is the argument those people meant to make. To this I say:
a. It's not like we teach etymology in schools. It'd be great if we did - heck, we could use some of that time freed up from not learning spelling to do so! - but we don't.
b. I agree, the moment when you realize that "two" is of course related to "twin" and "twice", or that "one" has to do with "alone"
is a pretty nifty and inspiring moment... but I'm not sure it's worth ten words a week in penance.
8. This is a good argument! This is their only
good argument, as far as I'm concerned. I have three thoughts about this.
a. Not all spelling reforms have to be massive, sweeping, and radical. We can start by doing something as simple as removing letters which are universally
(or very nearly) considered both silent and meaningless.
Now, every time I say this some smartass goes "what about silent e!?!", which just goes to show that being able to spell doesn't improve your reading comprehension one bit. I said meaningless
. Since these people invariably mean not the silent e in "come" but the one in "home", that letter has a purpose
. That purpose is to "make the vowel say its name". It's an awkward and unwieldy way of distinguishing between long and short vowels, but it works very well indeed. And just getting rid of, say, the b in "thumb" (this IS phonetic - "mb" at the end of the word ALWAYS says "m" - but it's really just as easy to put "m" there instead) or the p in "pneumonia" will save a lot of stress for young students, lazy or otherwise.
This is a spelling change which would have very few problems with dialects. In fact, in my little proto-plan I've divided reforming spelling into different stages, and have tentatively identified "vowels" as the biggest problem. My suggestion would be to ignore all vowels
for a start and concentrate only
on clearing up the problems with consonants.
b. Not all problems with dialects are big ones. The ones people always mention are of the vowel shift variety, though they don't know that.
Here's the thing. You and I may not agree about exactly how
to say the "i" in "time", but we probably do agree that it's the same vowel that's in "tie" or "my" or "bite". We can have a distinct symbol for that, and it won't really *matter* that we say it differently, so long as we're all consistent.
c. The problem they *don't* mention is with things like the "Don-dawn merger" and likewise, where two different people put two different phonemes into the same word. Bad enough with Don and dawn (where one group of people is stuck with two symbols for the same sound, but they can get over it), but it gets downright tragic with or-ange and ah-range! OMG, HOW DO WE PICK WHICH ONE???
I don't know. I mean, I do know, but I don't like the answer more than you do. We do what everybody else does and arbitrarily pick one dialect (or make one up out of whole cloth) to be the standard. And then we teach that.
Truthfully, we already *do* that, when it comes right down to it, but in my ideal world we wouldn't say that the standard is more or less correct than the other dialects, simply that it's convenient for everybody to have one way of writing, and that in order to do that we NEED one way of speaking when we're not talking within our own group. It's no different from learning Latin or Esperanto for the same purpose.
And yes, that would just suck
, but I'm not convinced it sucks more than our current mess. And let's face it - it IS a mess. And we just keep on making it messier. Jalapeno? WTF? There is NO GOOD REASON for us to keep that "j" just because that's how they do it in Spanish.
There is one other problem that ought to come up in these discussions, but that I rarely see, and that's the fact that English has far more sounds than letters. I keep seeing the number "44" put up there, but that probably varies depending on dialect, of course.
Now, this isn't a totally
insurmountable problem. Using my own speech as my personal guide, and allowing as many digraphs as I can reasonably squeeze in, I can get the number of necessary letters down to 32, with the possible inclusion of a hyphen or diaresis to distinguish between diphthongs and non-diphthong strings of vowels. But it's a very tight squeeze, and for it to work some letters have to lose their existing meanings altogether and take on bizarre new ones, which... let's face it, is REALLY never going to happen. A spelling reform may have an impossibly slim chance of occurring, but nobody is going to really let me get away with saying "Well, q is unnecessary when kw can do the job, so let's make it take on both sounds of th instead".
So all told, we have a whole bunch of bad and silly reasons against spelling reform, and three good ones - the dialect problem (we can work around it, but it'd be a real pain in the butt for everybody concerned), the limited letters problem (ditto), and the inertia problem (I can understand that nobody wants to reprint the OED just because of a few upstarts).