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There's been some recent furor over this piece recently. And after composing a rather long reply on the matter, I figured it's time to turn it into a full rant. Yes, I think English needs a spelling reform. No, I do not mean that fine example of, er, jernulizm. I mean a real reform. One that has a snowflake's chance in hell of actually happening.

Of all the various "attempts" to reform English spelling, both the serious and the humorous, all have two fatal flaws. First is that they all try to take things as far as they can possibly go thereby making the spelling resemble current English as little as possible. Second is that none of them are done by linguists who'd know what the hell they're doing. A reasonable reform is a reform that makes as few changes as necessary to reach its goal. That's what reform means. Making drastic changes is called revolution. And for the record, no, I am not the one to devise such a reform, I only know just enough about English phonetics to get by.

There was a site I found a long while back — which, alas, I seem unable to locate presently — which had a simple program. All this program would do is take in a list of spelling-to-pronunciation rules and compare them against a dictionary. The author initially devised the program as a tool for generating fictional languages. He found however that, as memory serves, something like a hundred rules covers over 95% of the English language and all its "irregularities". This would seem to support the intuition that many native speakers who are opposed to a spelling reform have that English spelling is not so forgone as to require twenty years of reform. A reform that I would suggest would not go so far as to try to break those hundred rules down into a much smaller number, but rather would only seek out the rogue 5% and change them to follow the rules, maybe simplifying a few esoteric rules along the way.

The big problem with such a minimalistic reform is that it wouldn't change things (well, that is the point). What I mean is, what they teach as "English" in schools has at best a remote link to the language that is being spoken in ever further corners of the globe. Even if a mere 60 or 80 rules covered every single word in the English language, it is unlikely that English teachers would inform their students of that, or if they taught them at all they'd only teach the first 15. The difficulty of the English language is not so much that it is irregular (though it is), it's that we refuse to teach it to anyone [1].

Most languages seek to primarily encode pronunciation in their spelling systems which is why they have "easier" spelling. When words are borrowed into the language, by the time they're accepted as "part of the language" instead of just being a loan word, their spelling is reformed to match the rules of the language. English however tends to prefer encoding etymology when it has to choose between that and pronunciation. When English is taught it should be required to teach the basic etymological history of the language (i.e. point out Old English, French, Latin, and Greek words). Knowing the origins of words helps a lot for narrowing down the possible spellings. There's no need to unify F and PH if you know when to expect which.

Other than teaching the fact that English really is pattern-full and has an actual history to why things are spelled the way they are, there are two big areas were I think English needs to be reformed. First is to actually admit to the quantity of vowels we have instead of blithely pretending there're only five. (For the curious, there are approximately ten for which cf. the near-complete minimal pairs: heed, hid, heyed, head, had, who'd, HUD, Hod, hawed. There's some contention about whether schwa (which most vowels destress to) and the mid-back-lax vowel should be considered the same or not, and some dialects don't distinguish the mid-back-tense and mid-back-lax vowels, but all the same: Five is a lie.) Having admitted this, the spellings for these vowels should be reformed so it's obvious how to pronounce them. I'm not saying here can be only one spelling for each sound, just that each spelling should have only one pronunciation. The majority of languages have between four and seven vowels— real vowels that is. One of the major obstacles to foreigners learning English is learning to deal with all those extra vowels. That we can't seem to keep the spellings straight only makes it all the harder.

Second, morphological spellings need to be cleaned up. Anecdotally, I think that morphological spelling is the real area that gets people caught up, not spelling of the basic words. One example of what I'm talking about is the subject-substanitive ending on verbs (i.e. verb becomes noun of person who does the verb). Most of the time this is -er, but sometimes it's -or. Another example is the "able" ending. Generally it's -able, but sometimes it's -ible, and sometimes it's -eable. Sure, there's an obscure pattern to which is correct, but it's obscure and not particularly reliable. Rules about doubling consonants when adding suffixes are yet another example; relatively rule driven, but with many senseless exceptions. Perhaps most importantly, few if any of these differences are pronounced any differently in the spoken language. These are the sorts of things that I think need to be cleaned up.

A challenge is that when altering spellings to better conform to pronunciation one must take into account the issue of dialects. Given the full breadth of differences between the Englishes (American, British, Australian, Kiwi,...) a reformed English would need to pick one of them just to narrow the scope enough that an equitable solution could be found. If we picked American, even there the breadth of dialects is amazing. Which is the reason why the reform could only be done by linguists who are quite knowledgeable about English's phonology and dialects. Anyone else would only look at their own pronunciation and come up with some incomprehensible system that would make us weep for the easy days of l33t and gyaru-moji.

[1] An example. "GH" is often cited as a prime example of why English is doomed even though it only appears in a handful of words all from the Old English branch of English's heritage. While not so regular as say K, part of the problem is that people don't tend to look at the broader scope of where GH occurs. Prior to morphological changes GH occurs at the end of usually monosyllabic words which end in -ough, -ought, -aught, -ight, with a few stragglers ending in -igh, -eight, -oughty. (We will ignore noughat. Other than being made up, it's not in my dictionary, so there.)

Of these, -ough is the most irregular with four pronunciations: /uff/ (enough, rough, tough, slough, sough), /off/ (cough, trough), /ou/ (borough, dough, though, thorough), and /au/ (bough, plough, sough). Exception: through. Both -ought and the rarer -aught are pronounced /ot/ (ought, bought, fought, nought, sought, thought, wrought; aught, caught, naught, taught). Exceptions: drought, draught (silly Brits :) And -ight is pronounced /ait/, with the rare -igh being /ai/ (alight, blight, fight, hight, knight, light, might, night, plight, right, sight, tight, wight; sigh). And finally the rare -eight is pronounced /eit/ (eight, freight). Exception: height. And finally, doughty is also a bit odd, both for ending in Y and for being pronounced like -ough /au/ instead of -ought. While I may have missed a few of the GH words, I think that about covers it.

Are there irregularities? sure. Do we need to go through and change them all to "enuff" and "nite" in order to get rid of that irregularity? no. Certainly -ough could do to be cleaned up. The /uff/off/ and /ou/au/ variations may have to do with stress issues (again, I haven't studied English) in which case there are only two pronunciations to distinguish in addition to mentioning stress. If not stress, then perhaps all that's required is changing some of them to -augh (for /off/ and /au/ perhaps) in addition to whatever change is needed for the F vs silent distinction. Maybe change "height" to "hight" (ignoring the uncommon adjective). Those two or three changes leave us with "through", "drought", "draught", and "doughty" to deal with and the rules -ough* = /uff/, -ough = /ou/, -augh* = /off/, -augh = /au/, -ought = /ot/, -aught = /ot/, -igh(t) = /ai(t)/, -eigh(t) = /ei(t)/. Those rules amount more or less to "GH is silent" but they're more specific than that, which means it's more predictable to go from hearing to spelling than just saying it's silent. It also means fewer changes thus "preserving" English.

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June 2017

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