Sunday, June 03, 2007

Spelling reform

The flurry of comments about the last post on spelling reform reminded me that I think I've only read in one modern source about American English spelling reform, namely in this very nice book:
Grammar and Good Taste. Reforming the American Language. By DENNIS E. BARON. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
I don't have a copy of the book, but he's done a couple of recent posts on his blog Web of Language (here). As usual, Baron has a good take on things, focusing on how English spelling is insane but the chances of reform virtually nil.

He also notes that spelling really doesn't matter much. This is true, but it sure hasn't stopped language communities that could devote energies to better pursuits from obsessing over it: With almost every endangered language I know anything about, language specialists have spent a lot of time and effort on spelling, often without particularly good results for it.

But I had forgotten a famous chapter in American spelling: There was an effort that in 1906 got support from a president order, aiming to reform about 300 words, including though > tho and through > thru. These ultimately failed, of course, but you certainly do see them in old documents from that era.


Anonymous said...

Well, there's nothing in the natural world that says spelling has to be consistent, we made that one up. The quote variously attributed to Andrew Jackson and even Mark Twain says it all:

“It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

In the end, there are so many different phonologies of world English that one person's "reform" would be another's pejoration. Lots of people have different vowels in the marry-merry-Mary set, I do not. So I think we are stuck with spelling conventions that are certainly well out of date, but I think it is the fate of any supra-regional standard language that it's spelling conventions will seem weird to very many speakers.

jangari said...

I agree with the anonymous commenter above, perhaps we should just 'lighten up' on the rules a little and go back to the days of varied spellings. In this increasingly transcribed world, spelling informed by one's accent could be beneficial for including such information about a writer's location. It could also allow for more creative word games and rhetoric devices. There must be plenty of puns that work in spoken language that, due to orthographic constraints, don't translate to a written medium.

I also believe that punctuation should be similarly lightened. The purpose of punctuation is to give the reader clues as to the prosodic flow of a text and therefore may be determined more by one's intonation on a given utterance than by rules such as 'place commas between each member of a set except the last two'.

On the issue of literacy, I'd be interested as to the numbers on this. Is there any research on literacy rates in languages with considerably more regular spelling than English, such as Finnish?

Ben Zimmer said...

For a bit more on the aborted 1906 reforms, see this post.

A.S. said...

Languagehat links to this page which disposes beautifully of most standard arguments against spelling reform.