As you know from a recent post, I’d hate to see English lose its more complex tenses and moods or vast array of adjectives and adverbs. But when it comes to spelling reform, I’d be all for it.
Just take a look at a few samples of how the same spelling is pronounced so differently—and how different spellings can be pronounced the same way. And these are simple words.
Historically, using multiple spellings for a single word was considered the mark of a well-educated person. Consistency originally was not an important component of spelling. This didn’t really matter when literacy was confined to the wealthy, noble, and priestly classes.
With mass printing and public education, however, attempts have been made to standardize spelling. And while some creative spellings have disappeared, many still remain to confuse everyone who learns the language.
Some of the spelling inconsistencies also can be attributed to shifts in pronunciation through time. My own family name is an excellent example of this (and creative spelling). The Colonial spellings for the “Mc” part of the name were Mc, Mac, Mack and M’. The most common spellings for the “Dowell” part were Duel, Duell, Dewel, and Dewell. “Dowell” was rare.
The name would have been pronounced more like “Mc Doo ull,” which was very close to the “MacDougall” from which it derived. But somewhere along the line, the more common pronunciation became the “ow” sound as in cow—not the “ow” as in the bow used to loose an arrow. Is anyone confused yet? At least the spelling did change to something more like the new version of the name. The same can’t be said for many other words. Does anyone pronounce the “k” in knife?
The myriad ways to spell the same sounds in English is staggering. Some of that stems from our ready acceptance of words (and their native spellings) from other languages. And there are some great examples to illustrate them. I believe I read about this particular example years ago in Peter Farb’s Word Play, originally published in 1974. Given the fluidity of English spelling, a common word could be spelled as:
Any guesses? Without cheating and looking at Google?
How would you pronounce it?
How many syllables would there be in your pronunciation?
Did you come up with this?
Yes, the word is “fish.” The “gh” is the “f” of rough. The “o” is as pronounced in women. And the “ti” is the “sh” of nation. Obvious, isn’t it?
I wonder how much reading speeds would increase if we had simple, consistent spelling for all our words….
Anyway, time is a bit short this week, and many American readers are gearing up for the Thanksgiving holiday and the preparations for Christmas. So we’ll keep this post short. For those of you celebrating on Thursday, I hope you have a wonderful holiday with friends and family. And may everyone have a great week!