English Spelling Reform
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08-02-2016, 04:55 PM (This post was last modified: 08-02-2016 05:08 PM by Glossophile.)
English Spelling Reform
In my self-introduction, I mentioned that I am an advocate of radical English spelling reform, and that seems like precisely the sort of fringe movement that could provoke some interesting conversation among members of a forum like this one.

My hope is that some of the same rationalist perspectives used in debates on (a)theism may be brought to bear on the notion of spelling reform as a worthwhile if not ultimately necessary move. I've heard several common arguments so often that I've come to refer to them by particular names. But these are mostly deployed by average Joes and Janes who at least don't explicitly identify as skeptics, rationalists, etc. I would be very interested in hearing the perspectives of those who are more active in the skeptical/rationalist community on this rather obscure topic.

My aim is threefold: to educate interested parties in the issues addressed by spelling reformers, to exercise my explaining/debating chops, and to uncover any flaws in my own reasoning, so please ask questions and/or give your opinions, and hopefully we can all learn something in the course of our discussion/debate.

To start, my contention is that English orthography is far more complex than its function demands and that significant simplification would enable children and non-native English speakers to become functionally literate much faster than they currently do. There are at least a few studies which seem to converge on the suggestion that it takes English-speaking children about three times longer to acquire foundational literacy than it does speakers of many other alphabetic languages. I think this issue is now more relevant than ever due to English's unprecedented role as a global lingua franca. There are now two or three non-native speakers of English for every native, and every one of them has to wrestle with the convolutions of standard English spelling.

The only sacred truth in science is that there are no sacred truths. – Carl Sagan
Sōla vēritās sancta in philosophiā nātūrālī est absentia vēritātum sanctārum.
Ἡ μόνη ἱερᾱ̀ ἀληθείᾱ ἐν φυσικῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ ἐστίν ἡ ἱερῶν ἀληθειῶν σπάνις.
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08-02-2016, 06:08 PM (This post was last modified: 08-02-2016 06:16 PM by Chas.)
RE: English Spelling Reform
(08-02-2016 04:55 PM)Glossophile Wrote:  In my self-introduction, I mentioned that I am an advocate of radical English spelling reform, and that seems like precisely the sort of fringe movement that could provoke some interesting conversation among members of a forum like this one.

My hope is that some of the same rationalist perspectives used in debates on (a)theism may be brought to bear on the notion of spelling reform as a worthwhile if not ultimately necessary move. I've heard several common arguments so often that I've come to refer to them by particular names. But these are mostly deployed by average Joes and Janes who at least don't explicitly identify as skeptics, rationalists, etc. I would be very interested in hearing the perspectives of those who are more active in the skeptical/rationalist community on this rather obscure topic.

My aim is threefold: to educate interested parties in the issues addressed by spelling reformers, to exercise my explaining/debating chops, and to uncover any flaws in my own reasoning, so please ask questions and/or give your opinions, and hopefully we can all learn something in the course of our discussion/debate.

To start, my contention is that English orthography is far more complex than its function demands and that significant simplification would enable children and non-native English speakers to become functionally literate much faster than they currently do. There are at least a few studies which seem to converge on the suggestion that it takes English-speaking children about three times longer to acquire foundational literacy than it does speakers of many other alphabetic languages. I think this issue is now more relevant than ever due to English's unprecedented role as a global lingua franca. There are now two or three non-native speakers of English for every native, and every one of them has to wrestle with the convolutions of standard English spelling.

I don't particularly dispute your claims, just that they are not as important as you believe.

Consider the downside. We lose the etymology of words - why they mean what they mean, how they came to mean what they mean, the connections to other languages.

We would create generations of people illiterate in the written literature, history, and poetry of their past.

And what about words imported from other languages? Will those be homogenized as well? Consider

Every word game would become less interesting, less challenging. Every Scrabble® game and crossword puzzle would be consigned to the rubbish heap. Weeping

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08-02-2016, 06:19 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
(08-02-2016 04:55 PM)Glossophile Wrote:  There are now two or three non-native speakers of English for every native, and every one of them has to wrestle with the convolutions of standard English spelling.

It's a test of their commitment.

#sigh
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08-02-2016, 06:32 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
English has some trouble in that way but I'm not sure a reform of this type could ever effectively be pushed through nor probably should it.

Mainly, when "movements" in language like this are directed or sought out to be done via guidelines and rules, that generally is a poor result. Languages shift and evolve over time.

Plus how would it result in effectiveness. Would you merely change some spelling rules for teaching kids. But when you have a generational divide? Would what you are teaching children confuse more of their parents and older generations to the point that they have a more complicated manner of trying to read/write the same things? In this day and age it's also vastly different. Adults across the English language now read and write things into adulthood. I heard it said recently that really the data showed before the internet/home computers, something like only 10% of adults after highschool/college ever wrote more than a couple paragraphs the rest of their lives. (this being in the late 20th century era, not so sure about say pre wwii) Maybe they would occasionally write a letter or thank you note style things & write out legal forms, but not anything beyond that.

My point is nowadays people across generations and age groups write & read things online. If you changed how you taught things to kids, how does that reverberate. That's why I wonder if this could ever take off successfully.

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08-02-2016, 06:34 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
(08-02-2016 06:32 PM)ClydeLee Wrote:  English has some trouble in that way but I'm not sure a reform of this type could ever effectively be pushed through nor probably should it.

Mainly, when "movements" in language like this are directed or sought out to be done via guidelines and rules, that generally is a poor result. Languages shift and evolve over time.

Plus how would it result in effectiveness. Would you merely change some spelling rules for teaching kids. But when you have a generational divide? Would what you are teaching children confuse more of their parents and older generations to the point that they have a more complicated manner of trying to read/write the same things? In this day and age it's also vastly different. Adults across the English language now read and write things into adulthood. I heard it said recently that really the data showed before the internet/home computers, something like only 10% of adults after highschool/college ever wrote more than a couple paragraphs the rest of their lives. (this being in the late 20th century era, not so sure about say pre wwii) Maybe they would occasionally write a letter or thank you note style things & write out legal forms, but not anything beyond that.

My point is nowadays people across generations and age groups write & read things online. If you changed how you taught things to kids, how does that reverberate. That's why I wonder if this could ever take off successfully.

I suspect its success could almost rival the success of Esperanto. Drinking Beverage

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08-02-2016, 06:43 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
My husband tells me French has recently done something like this. Do you think this is feasible given that English is a more widespread language than French? Who would be the authorities who would be able to change spelling?

It's probably easier to teach a man to catch a ghoti than to spell the same, I'll give you that.
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08-02-2016, 06:45 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
This is how "colour" is spelled. Smile

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08-02-2016, 07:06 PM (This post was last modified: 08-02-2016 07:22 PM by Glossophile.)
RE: English Spelling Reform
Thanks for all your comments and questions, and I look forward to a lively discussion! I hope you don't mind a somewhat verbose response.

It is true that the etymology of words would no longer be reflected in their spellings, but I fail to see why that's really problematic.

First of all, even with all the etymological cues in current spelling, the typical layman's knowledge of word histories is superficial and scattered at best, and few really care to learn more.

Second of all, why should they necessarily care? Don't get me wrong. I personally find etymology/philology fascinating, but I also realize it's not everyone's cup of tea. While literacy is fundamentally useful for everyone (to the point of being indispensable in all but the least developed societies), etymology/philology is a specialized field of study, one whose scholars don't even rely exclusively (if even primarily) on orthographic clues. So why should a tool meant for the masses (especially one as important as reading and writing) cater so disproportionately to the esoteric interests of a relative few?

Thirdly, in my experience studying several foreign languages, I have never encountered another language with anything quite like the English preoccupation with etymology. Only French and maybe Portuguese are even in the ballpark. Are Hispanics or Italians as a group inherently less in touch with their roots simply because their language isn't spelled as if it were still Latin? Many critics seem to cry out that a big chunk of our heritage would be lost if we were to spell as we speak, but other languages with more consistent orthographies and histories that are no less ancient or proud seem to fare just fine with regards to historical pride and consciousness. At the very least, they don't appear any worse off in that department than we are. Honestly, I'm very suspicious that English-speakers' reverence for etymology emerged as a sort of after-the-fact justification for an already inconsistent spelling system. In other words, if history had gone differently and English had been reformed to reflect modern pronunciation more coherently, I doubt English-speakers would be any more concerned about etymology or historical heritage than speakers of Spanish or Italian are.

Now, on the subject of future generations being able to read pre-reform literature, it has always amazed me how often the assumption seems to be made that reform advocates haven't considered this. For most of the reformers that I've met, at least, the transcription of classic literature (as well as more mundane but equally important texts) into the new spelling system plays some part in their proposals. For example, I envision a transitional period of about 50 years or so, during which the old and new orthographies would co-exist and many pre-reform writings would be transcribed en masse with the help of computer software. I also consider it perfectly plausible that a mobile phone app and/or PC program could be developed that would allow traditionally spelled texts to be scanned and transcribed on-demand. Most or all of the raw technology already exists in text-to-speech and handwriting-recognition programs. Since my undergraduate minor was software engineering, I've even managed to use my albeit rusty programming skills to develop a sort of prototype Java application (a rough proof of concept) that can take traditionally spelled text and output the transcription in reformed spelling. If I can do that by myself with virtually no resources, then it's likely to be rudimentary compared to what a whole team of professionals could probably do!

And yes, loan words would be homogenized. For example, in my proposed system, "coup d'état" would become "kúdeita." As for word games and such, I suspect that reformed spelling would create as roughly as many new opportunities for wordplay as it negates old ones. For example, if my scheme were the one adopted, the first letter of a horizontal "kiss" could be used to form a vertical "cop" on a Scrabble board, since they'd be spelled "kis" and "kop."

GirlyMan, trust me, the foreign students have plenty of grammatical hurdles to "test their committment." If you find that hard to believe, I'll be happy to provide some examples.

Julep, as far as any "authorities" go, I imagine a democratically elected international delegation in which all nations with a majority of native English speakers are represented. In addition to choosing and promulgating the initial reform, I also propose that they re-convene every half-century or so to examine evolving trends in pronunciation and revise the standard spellings to make sure they keep pace. The English Spelling Society already has something rather similar in the works (minus the regular re-convening part), though it's unclear how much influence the commission will be able to wield.

The only sacred truth in science is that there are no sacred truths. – Carl Sagan
Sōla vēritās sancta in philosophiā nātūrālī est absentia vēritātum sanctārum.
Ἡ μόνη ἱερᾱ̀ ἀληθείᾱ ἐν φυσικῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ ἐστίν ἡ ἱερῶν ἀληθειῶν σπάνις.
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08-02-2016, 07:08 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
(08-02-2016 06:45 PM)Banjo Wrote:  This is how "colour" is spelled. Smile

Do you pronounce "colour" the same way you pronounce "velour"?

#sigh
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08-02-2016, 07:10 PM
RE: English Spelling Reform
(08-02-2016 07:06 PM)Glossophile Wrote:  And yes, loan words would be homogenized. For example, in my proposed system, "coup d'état" would become "kúdeita."

How about "raison d'être"?

#sigh
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