The Case to Leave English as It Is.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this story on my Facebook page.  I’m just getting to it now because I write my blog at least a week in advance (didn’t know THAT did you?).  I read it and have subsequently not been able to completely get over it yet, but this is beyond the whole “Wow, people will demonstrate for absolutely anything these days” stage.  That’s just the initial reaction.  If you look further, you might start to notice that there are more kinds of people in support of this idea than just YouTube commentors.  Oh, and in case you assumed what I did, the organization behind these demonstrations is British, not American.  I think that’s important to know not just because it’s nice to know that Americans aren’t the ones being stupid at first for a change, but that it’s something bigger than just a US sub-sub-sub-set.  Allow me to share a few comments with you from my Facebook posting and from the thousands of comments on the actual story; this is so we set the tone correctly:

“. . . First of all, it’s commonly recognized that english really could use some correcting. […] Chinese has gone thru simplification over the years. […] Furthermore, it’s not all that recent that we have standardized the spelling of words. One of my favorite quotes to illustrate this concept is from Andrew Jackson who said ‘it’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word’…I personally think it is silly that someone would pride themselves on the ‘complexity’ of their language. Please tell me what is useful about complexity?”

“Spelling should be easy. Ex. Kansas is pronounce as spelled, but Arkansas is promounce as Arkansaw. Do that make sense. Of couse not. Ex. Apple the letter ‘A’ sound change when you add a ‘M’ on front of it and remove a p then it change to sound Meiple. Words should be writen as it sound. It will be easier for kids and for me.” (the whole thing is [sic])

” . . . It is not a matter of ‘dumbing down’ but of making the spelling of the English Language more logical and scientific. Most of the world’s languages are spelled phonetically based on universal set rules of pronunciation. Most of the worlds people don’t need to memorize illogical and contradictory word and letter pronunciations. They simply follow universal rules. Based on the point of view [the person to whom I am responding] expressed in [her] comment, German and Russian, to mention just a few, are languages for lazy dumbed down people who want everything easy. Does that make sense to you? What is wrong with spelling a word according to how its pronounced??? It is not ridiculous at all. This may be a reason why English speakers are very poor learners of foreign languages; they can’t handle the logic!!”

Okay, honestly I put that second one there because I found it funny.  But the other two are arguments that are at least informed, even if they’re very misguided.  Let’s go over my main points as to why such an action with the English language could never work.

1. Has anyone stopped to think about the problem with homophones? Ask any person learning English as a 2nd or 3rd or other language what one of the most difficult parts about it is, and they’ll most likely tell you it’s how we use the same words (or words that sound the same) for multiple meanings.  When I was a kid I met many people who learned English as an adult and asked them this; every time I can remember, that was their answer.  Whether vs. weather; there vs. their; wood vs. would, etc.  One of the ways (though not the only way) we determine which is which, is spelling.  Of course context plays the biggest role, but when you start spelling all words that sound the same the same way you’re going to have a mess on your hands trying to establish new rules for determining what means what. Oh, and what about when you change the spelling of one word to be phonetic, and now it’s spelled like another, existing word.  That other word’s spelling has likely changed, too, so now you’ll have to recognize the old spelling as a different word.

2. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that everyone wants the same respelling for different words. And don’t be so naive as to think that when one is chosen over the other, that the people who didn’t support that one will just go along.  One of the largest English-speaking countries is America, and Americans are notoriously entitled individualists.  “I don’t care what’s decided, I will use ‘froot’ because ‘frute’ has a useless ‘e’ at the end.”  Then the other guy says, “But we’ve already determined that ‘oo’ will sound like it does in ‘soot’ and ‘look,’ not ‘loot.'”  The first guy replies, “Well that’s not what I hear when I see a double ‘o!’  I’m spelling it my way, and so will my children!”  Have fun dealing with that one, folks.

3. Whose dialect gets precidence? You might think it’s just the movies, but many Canadians really do say “aboot.”  I pronounce the word “B-A-G” as “bahg,” but many of my Washington-native friends say “behg.”  I gave up on debating that with them years ago.  The English write “realise” whereas Americans write “realize.”  Americans say “yehs” while Flight of the Conchords have taught me that New Zealanders say “yees.”  English is a global language; if you want to phonetically re-write the language in a way that offends as few people as possible,  you’d have to create dozens of entirely new languages for not only different countries, but different regions.  I think most people would agree that, in light of this issue alone, it’s best to just learn how to read and write English as it is.

4. “Modernizing” English would not do anything but give a group of people a victory point. I say that because advocates for this cite illiteracy as a reason for such an action.  That, like everything else, is naive.  English is not the most difficult thing in the world to learn.  Like anything else, you get out what you put in.  Anyone who says they can’t read or write English because of phonetics either has a mental disability or they’re lying to cover up their own incompetence.  And I hold to that.

5.  I have a coworker who lived and worked in Germany for a couple of years.  She is fluent in German and French as well as ” a smattering of other stuff.”  I had a conversation with her this morning on this topic, and she has some very good input on it, especially on the whole “German and Russian have been modernized, so should English!” argument. Here are her comments (I’ve made edits to this instant message conversation for flow purposes):

Braden: So you speak German.  Would you support a movement to restructure the English language to be phonetically consistent?
Coworker: Of course not.  That would ruin the etymological beauty of the English language, the ultimate polyglot language.  It sounds [like a good idea], but part of the reason English is so great is that it’s not pronounced like it sounds, so English is written the same everywhere,except for that dang Daniel Webster, who decided to “fix” spelling “errors.”  German is easy to “fix.”  Their spelling and language was quite internally consistent and the changes they made were going from “Schifffahrt” to “Schiffahrt.”  Not exactly mind-blowingly different.  French, also, is almost completely consistent, very few exceptions.  English, being a mix, is a pain in the butt.  But that’s what makes it English; funny thing is, if you know French and German, you would have no problem with English spelling.  But that  [is kind of] silly when you’re dealing with already illiterate people.  The only reason the German government could manage it is that they did it in GERMANY.  Culturally, I would say it’s virtually impossible in the English speaking world.  You know what the largest English speaking newspaper is?
Braden: USA Today?
Coworker: Nope.
Braden: I tried.
Coworker: India Times out of Mumbai.  So, anyone wanting to change English would have to involve the whole world.  Anyone *wanting* to change English probably wouldn’t be good at that.
Braden: Haha.  Very true.
Coworker: Yeah… German could be “fixed” because the changes were relatively minor.  The big differences were removing “ph”–that all became “f”–they took out all words with three of the same letter in a row, they changed some capitals to lower case for pronouns, and made capitalization of nouns consistent.  It was big, but relatively small compared to the language.  The only comparison for how big [this] change would be is when Korea went to phonetically based language from characters; but they were in a virtual dictatorship at the time, so it wasn’t too hard to impose.
(Back on German,) you can also say that it was an annoying change.  Reading any books printed prior to 1999 or so has the old writing, so it’s confusing to me how to properly spell some words.  If there’s only one spelling, ever, it’s a heckuva lot easier, even if the spelling is weird.

I don’t realistically think that this debate will ever go far beyond a fringe group of people, many of whom only wish to blame their lack of education on something other than themselves.  Yet it’s fast becoming a trend with me that I can’t put an issue to rest until I blog about it.  Well . . . I have, now.   Good night.

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