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Not eager to ride the chimera

The Baltimore Sun

Usually when a reader attacks me over a post, it’s to say that because I have exposed some superstition of usage, I have gone over to the descriptivist, anything-goes crowd. But this week there is a novelty.

Yesterday, writing about people who inflate the significance of ordinary misspellings into concern about the decline of civilization, I remarked that reforming English’s monstrous spelling is a chimera, and that struck a couple of nerves in people who think spelling reform is urgent.

One respondent, writing as peter.d.mare, suggested that I am encouraging people to make spelling errors because I get my bread by correcting them. Evidently he sees me engaged in something like Munchhausen by proxy, making people sick so as to pretend to cure them.

So, for the benefit of Mr. Mare and others, let’s take a quick look at the odds against any meaningful reform of English spelling.

First off, English is not fully phonetic, using the same letter combinations for different sounds: cough, though, through, bough, dough, &c. One expedient would be to alter or restrict the alphabet. But even then, there is the problem that the same word is pronounced differently in the various dialects of English. Furthermore, there appears to be a vowel shift occurring in North America as we speak.

Some limited reforms have succeeded, such as Noah Webster’s trimming the u from colour and the k from critick in American English, and standardizing many spellings through the sale of millions of copies of his Blue Back Speller. But even he was frustrated to see few of his many suggested reforms—soop, tung, steddy, beleev, thum—gain traction.

You’re welcome to consult Google about the multitude of other schemes to reform English spelling, and their failures.

The English Spelling Society was founded in 1908, and in the intervening hundred and seven years has made little headway. In an article in the Guardian in December, Stephen Linstead, chair of the society, calls for an International English Spelling Congress. He wants the newspapers to participate. (Imagine, someone who still thinks that newspapers are influential, bless his heart.) 

And there you have the real barrier. In 1712 Jonathan Swift published his “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” in which he recommended establishing a Royal Academy of English to govern the language. It got nowhere, like all other proposals for an English Academy on the model of the Academie francaise. That was when English was limited to England, with a monarch and Parliament available to set standards.

Today English is a world language. Reforming its spelling would involve the cooperation of the governments and educational establishments of all the nations in which it is the native language, as well as those in which it is widely taught as a second language. Even if there were agreed-upon system of reform—which does not exist—all those countries would have to begin training the children, and they would also have to train the adults to relearn all their spellings.

The nations of the world have to date proved little capable of collectively confronting global warming, an existential threat. You think they are about to take on the reform of English spelling?

For those who prefer regularity, Esperanto is there. English, however, is going its own way, as it always has.

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