Logophily: Spelling Reform


linguistic shenanigans and writing tidbits

~by Joel Patton



English pronunciation surely requires a doughty constitution [1]. Imagine for a moment a world in which English spelling followed simple, logical rules, such that even a nonspeaker could tell at a glance how a word is pronounced.

And keep imagining it, because that shit will not happen.

Here are a few reasons why:

As with the QWERTY keyboard, we’re stuck with an odd system for historical reasons.  It would be hard to fix things now, even if we could all agree on a solution [2] [3]. There are a few historical reasons for these insane and nonsensical variations of pronunciation and spelling.  English spellings were standardized centrally, by late-medieval bureaucrats, more or less by fiat [4].  The influence of French, which has fourteen different ways of spelling no sound at all at the end of a word [5], has continued nearly a thousand years past the Battle of Hastings.  At some point, English stopped anglicizing the spellings of foreign words [6].  The Great Vowel Shift happened [7].

But those historical reasons aren’t much of an impediment to spelling reform. A current factor is much more critical: pronunciation [8].

Different American dialects use different pronunciations [9]. The effects are especially pernicious if you think that you don’t have an accent [10].

Certain Southeastern dialects don’t differentiate between pen and pin. I’ve had friends harangued over this matter [11]. At the same time, those dialects preserve past distinctions that Standard American English [12] has conflated: whales and wales, for example, are pronounced differently in some Southern dialects.

Even if you’re the sort of person who’d just as soon burn the Southeast to the ground in the course of linguistic reform (or just for the hell of it), we’re not in the clear. Various American dialects make a distinction or don’t make a distinction between cot and caught, and between don and dawn. This sort of pattern extends to new words. Let us return [13] to Dr. Seuss for a moment:

There’s a passage from Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? in which watch is rhymed with hawtch. That works fine in my idiolect, but the last time I heard it read aloud, the words didn’t rhyme.

There’s no humane way to solve the problem of our stupid, horrible spelling system. Any solution proposed means that some people would have to change their pronunciations in order to comply, and that’s even less likely than getting everybody to switch to a new spelling system to begin with [15]. Language is usually an illogical mess.

And that’s OK.



1. My favorite example of spelling and pronunciation problems was written by a pre-doctoral Ted Geisel: “The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough.” (I supposed I could add a McCullough to that sentence, but it’d be presumptuous.)

2. Dvorak?  Yeah, good luck.

3. The same goes for SAE units of measurement (more on which later). (Maybe. I mean, I keep saying that, but who knows, really?)

4. I’m a little hazy on my history here, and am prattling on from memory. I suppose I could have researched this history. That’s a thing I could have done.

5. Fauteuil is one of my favorites.  It means armchair and is pronounced sort of like foe-tooey. (But only kind of sort of like that.)

6. Foreign words like foreign.

7. Go look it up.  It’s kind of neat.

8. I’ll stick with American dialects here, since I’m more familiar with those.

9. I’ve tried several phrasings for this sentence, and this one is the least infelicitous. Still pretty damned ugly, though.

10. You do, goddammit. Everybody has an accent.

11. I had a relative-in-law whose name I thought for years was Joe Bin, but no: Joe Ben.

12. SAE is largely imaginary, but the closest real accents are the neutral-sounding ones in the middle of the US.

13. Of course, this is the first mention of him in the body of the essay, but I hope you’ve been reading the footnoes.

14. “None of the Englishes has a governing linguistic body” is a better way to say it, maybe: none of the English-speaking countries has one.

15. Even if someone came up with a solution, nobody could enforce it.  American English doesn’t have a governing linguistic body.  France has the Académie Francaise, but they’re slow: it took them 60 years to put out their first 18,000-word dictionary; their current full edition dates from 1935.  (By contrast, Samuel Johnson singlehandedly wrote the first good English dictionary over nine years.  It contained around 43,000 words. Some of his definitions and examples are still used on modern versions of the Oxford English Dictionary.) And the Académie is conservative: no foreign words, more or less.  Most importantly, they’re ineffectual.  They make lots of pronouncements, but nobody pays too much attention.


*image courtesy of http://xkcd.com/1069/


Joel Patton is a potter in Travelers Rest, SC.