Why Our Spelling System Is Garbage And Always Will Be
Good. Now pronounce this one: caught.
Excellent. How about this: bought.
OK, now pronounce this: bough.
Sweet. Next: tough.
You’re special. Two more: though.
Good work. Last one: through.
Everyone who reads our language notices spelling similarities between things that are pronounced differently, and spelling differences between things that sound the same. So I don’t think I have to go on and on about how seemingly random our … ah, screw it, look at this mess: drought, trout, doubt, kraut.
Here’s the problem: Instead of writing things the way they’re actually pronounced, English frequently keeps the original spellings – for words we took from other languages (“faux pas,” for example) or items we used to pronounce differently when we started writing them down in the Middle Ages (e.g., “fight”). This creates deep and detailed problems because these various geographical and historical mementos have been piling up thickly for a thousand years. Middle English was born to a marriage of Old German and Old French. We’ve built new words out of Latin and Greek, then borrowed more from the Spanish, Dutch, Indians, Klingons and whoever else we’ve envied or fought. And we iced it by sending our first Bibles – the basis of our spelling during the formative 16th century – to be printed in foreign countries1.
It’s probably going to stay that way, too. For one thing, by laying down the law this way, we guarantee that spellings remain consistent even as pronunciations shift over time and space. A man in nineteenth century New Zealand and a woman in 21st century South Dakota can both spell “daffodil” exactly the same way, no matter how differently they say it. The bigger issue, though, is that true spelling reforms can never be anything but too little or too much.
An example of too little: In August 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt adopted a list of 300 new spellings for the Government Printing Office. Although Congress stomped on even this modest effort, most of the changes ultimately caught on nationwide. (Actually, about half of them already had2.) Now you can use “thru” instead “through” and “catalog” instead of catalogue” if you really want. “Anemia” weakened “anaemia,” and American humor mocked English humour. But "sithe" still hasn’t cut down scythe, "surprize" is no surprise, a “kissed” is not a “kist,” Spell-Check doesn’t think “dulness" is “dullness” (in fact, my computer keeps trying to correct it); and even if these changes ever do take hold someday, fixing a couple of hundred glitches in English is like putting all the nickels from petty cash into neat rolls and claiming it’ll save Enron.
Our system cries out for fully consistent spelling – and such a thing can be done. Maybe you’ve heard of “Spanish,” the preferred idiom of 400 million otherwise perfectly reasonable people. When Spanish takes words from other languages, it conforms them to a predictable system. Here are a few examples that are commonly misspelled in their English translations:
You know how many letters in those words are silent? None of them! If you see a letter in Spanish, you pronounce it – and you say it the same way in every word that has it. If not, the Real Academia Española – the authority behind this arrangement – smashes into your home and kicks you in the stomach in front of your kids. In language, rules mean enforcement.
Unfortunately, if we tried this kind of thing with English, it’d cause chaos and Civil War. I’m serious.
For instance, read this passage of “reformed spelling” from “A Breef History Ov Inglish Speling,” by the Simplified Speling Sosiëty (1904)3:
For one thing, we’d have to redo everything we’ve ever written – from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Roger Ebert’s latest Twitter post. As pointed out by a Wikipedia editor named Ehrenkater, this includes new ‘pronunciation spellings’ for obscure technical words that get spoken out loud so rarely, even people who use them don’t know how to say them4.
Second of all, to hew to pronunciation, we’d have to spell things differently in different parts of the country. The state of Mississippi would change “another” into “anudha,” while California would insist it’s “nnudher” – yeah, with two n’s. Then we’d have to pick one of these variants for our national standard, and war would break out. California would threaten to break from the union, but never actually do it. Mississippi would secede from America – while calling everyone else un-American. The Boston Herald would find itself writing about one border conflict after “inadha.”
Third, the only vowel sounds we really pronounce clearly in English are in stressed syllables. Unstressed vowels generally get a generic “uh” sound, represented in the dictionary with a schwa – an upside-down ‘e.’ In any honest English spelling system, schwas would take up half the page.
So our spelling changes go back to being too little – or, in some cases, worse than nothing. Our most active reform right now seems to be the creative spellings on text messages. Already, LOL and IMHO have made it into the Random House Dictionary. Sure, they still count as slang. But many initials have turned into standard English words – radar, scuba, laser, AWOL, fubar. Give it time.
No, the problem isn’t that these modern additions to language are somehow stupider than those of previous generations. It’s that, in the end, this will just add yet another spelling system onto the pile. Someday, The New York Times will unironically quote our president saying, “We’ve got to be str8 with North Korea.” Weather forecasters will predict that, “Temperatures will drop as a kewl front moves down from Canada.” And these will just be more irregularities for English students to learn. “So ‘faux’ is spelled with an x, ‘2moro’ is spelled with a numeral, and all our prayers begin with ‘OMG’ – and no, that doesn’t stand for something in Latin. It’s just how we say things. Memorize it.”