Tuesday, December 11, 2012

airs in spilling & such

Over at a blog called Club Orlov, the proprietor Dmitri is urging all us English speakers to adopt a new alphabet, to correct what he calls "the world's worst orthographic system."

He's right about that, but there's no need to chuck the Roman alphabet. Other languages using the alphabet of classical Latin are models of simplicity, uniformity, and clarity. ¿Habla usted Español?

The problem with the English orthographic system is that it ain't a system, but a hodge podge. The spelling is what seems to drive Orlov nuts, and who can blame him? He grew up in Russia, using a different alphabet (the Cyrillic), writing a language which, like nearly all other languages, changes its spellings as the pronunciation of the language evolves over time.

In fact, English is the only language I know of that has lots and lots of words which are pronounced differently now than they were 400 years ago, but are still spelled the same, or nearly the same, as they were then.

For examples of this, let's look at a few lines from a very old English-language poem, "Twa Corbies." In English, that's "Two Crows."

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’

‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight...

For starters, "alone" and "moan" (lines one and two) did change their spellings as the pronunciation evolved, but note that the two words follow different spellings for producing identical "long O" sounds. Also in the second line, the word signifying the number two is pronounced today just like "too" or "to," so why does it still have a W? "The tane" is "that one," just as "t'other" is "the other."

The rest: "Where shall we go and dine today?
'In behind that old turf dike,
I think there lies a new-slain knight...'

"Gang" means "going" in German, the language modified to produce this kind of English. "Old" is spelled harmoniously with its new pronuciation, and "wot"is gone from the language entirely, but with "knight" we've got a bad one. It used to be pronounced "ka-nikt" and was spelled "knicht," and a whole ton of English words follow this pattern: used to be spelled with a "ch" which was pronounced, now spelled with a "gh" which has either fallen silent, or in some cases may be pronounced as "F"as in enough or laughter.

But the big problem I have with Orlov's suggestion is that it will never happen. Sure, English needs phonemic reform, but no one will ever to get the necessary number of language authorities and cops to agree on a new system.

Besides that, I believe orthographic and phonemic anarchy is a small price to pay for fluency in the language that has far and away the largest vocabulary of any, and endless possibilities for expression.


Joe said...

Dave, I really enjoyed your analysis. The present richness of English expression is valuable.

Dave B, a.k.a. catboxer said...

It used to be even richer, back in the time of Eliabeth I and King James I.

But also kind of murky because it's a mongrel among purebreds.