Friday, June 01, 2007

Maybe enuf is enuf!

Even though Madison had a contestant who made it almost to the championship, I haven't really focused on the National Spelling Bee. It's probably a deep-seated dread of spelling generally, exacerbated by how litttle it has to do with language and linguistics.

But I keep hearing about the Simplified Spelling Society protesting the Bee. (See Wonkette's take, here, where the relevant questions are asked.) I finally got up the nerve to check the Society's website. Besides the picture above, you can find a bunch of press coverage.

I could see protesting the Spelling Bee for the insane amounts of raw memorization it puts these kids through — they aren't learning words or anything — and we could stand spelling reform in English, but this does seem a little weird.

Alienvoord's comment on this post rightly indicates a need for clarification: Our spelling system is a train wreck, and I'd love to see it improved. But the SSS folks seem to overstep maybe just a little. Consider these quotes from their website:
Their aim is to alert parents, educators, politicians, business people, and others concerned about the unacceptable level of illiteracy among English-speakers, to the fact that a prime cause for this is English spelling.

One of the picketers, ALC chair and SSS member, Alan Mole, from Boulder, Colorado, puts it this way: "Our odd spelling retains words like cough, bough, through and though. This increases illiteracy and crime. Fix it and you fix a host of problems. We want to fix it."

[OrganizerElizabeth Kuizenga says] "There is also empirical evidence that children's confidence in their sense of logic is seriously undermined by our illogical spellings, resulting in problems with mathematics skills as well," she says.

"Indeed, many children just give up on school altogether as a result. The prisons are full of people with literacy problems."
Some parts of this are clearly true, like that illiteracy is a huge problem, and I don't doubt that prisons are full of people with literacy problems. But I want to see some kind of evidence connecting English spelling conventions with math difficulties, crime, etc.


alienvoord said...

Well, there might be some evidence that the difficulties of English spelling can lead to dyslexia.

Mr. Verb said...

I'll update the post to clarify the perspective these folks are pursuing. Thanks.

Cassidy Rasmussen said...

There are a few questions that I would need answers to before I could get behind spelling reform:

(1) What do we do with reduced vowels in English? So exactly how would we spell both 'photograph' and 'photography' but not end up having two completely separate words and thus confuse the kids anyway? Let's not even get into how to spell the variation in fortis stops in English...

(2) How can we ensure that the generations that learn a new spelling system does not lose a huge chunk of knowledge from the inability to read the old system? I don't think we want to be delusional and think that all of the previously published 'old spelling' material is going to be magically converted to the new the system overnight. We also have to remember that English is a global language now so we're talking a lot of stuff to convert the spelling of.

(3) How do we deal with dialectal variation? The SSS seem to suggest that a single spelling reform would make English spelling transparent for all speakers of English. I think this is delusional and would probably just exacerbate the discrepancies between children coming to school with a non-standard English dialect who already fall behind in education and the lucky kids who show up with a more standard dialect.

In the end, I think it would be more productive for the SSS to spend their efforts supporting their local school systems, working to get better funding for education and maybe even possibly volunteering to mentor or tutor the kids in our educational system that are having difficulty in learning to read.

Mr. Verb said...

These are very real issues. A lot of languages undergo pretty regular spelling reforms (Dutch is famous for this) and what they usually do is take relatively small steps. There was a wildly controversial effort to reform German spelling a few years ago and they were mostly doing modest clean-up work, not any radical reform.

I assume any effort would have to have modest goals, trimming some really irregular stuff around the edges. It seems like people employ a 'fix the worst first' approach. Stuff like reduced vowels would be unlikely to get touched.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Cassidy made all my points! Point 2 almost inevitably means that we'll have two sets of citizens - those who can read "the old system" and those who can't - which is what we have now, right?

Oh, I forgot - are we just going to pretend that the homophone problem will disappear? Sure, we could spell "There are three toos in English" but is that a gain?

Anonymous said...

Why not just start by mending the worst 5% - 10% of English's broken spellings? Since nobody now pronounces a "k" in "knife" or a "gh" in "laugh," let's start with upgrading these and other patently useless medieval leftovers. The result will alter current spelling less than current spelling alters Chaucer's - which we can still read.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ah, but they're not "useless". In many cases, they prevent homographs (a real problem for English with its woefully inadequate orthographic system. Five vowel letters? Gimme a break) and also point to etymological connections between words. That -gh- in daughter, for instance, lets langauge learners trace the connection with not just German tochter, but also Russian doch.

Okay, of limited use, perhaps, but my students like it.

Anonymous said...

When George Bernard Shaw left money in his will to develop a new alphabet for English, he noted that a new alphabet (and not just reformed spelling using the old) was necessary, because otherwise people would think the new spellings looked like they had been spelled by an uneducated person. Google the 'Shavian' alphabet to see what it looks like. I dunno, seems like more of a jump for me to have brand new letters than "uneducated"-looking spelling. The guy who designed Shavian ended up improving it: Quikscript (sounds like a form of shorthand but it's not).
As for the argument about not being able to read old texts, I admit it would be more difficult, but that's not a valid argument for change. I mean, look at China. They also claim that using a new system would separate them from their old texts, yet I would argue that at least a new system would substantially increase the literacy rate in that country (compare even to Ataturk's changes in Turkey.) Or compare to Germany's switch from Fraktur/Suetterlin to Antiqua/(new cursive, whatever it's called). It might be hard at first, but wouldn't subsequent generations be thankful? To think that the US could have converted to the metric system in the 1970's and spared me the trouble of learning that 5,280 feet are in a mile today!