June 06, 2004

More on Spelling Reform

There's an interesting new blog called Via de Argilla, whose author states his or her intentions thus:

In iste blog, io intende de scriber super linguas, de traducer novas super linguas in interlingua, o de contar altere cosas varie que me sembla interessante.
[In this blog, I intend to write about languages, to translate news about languages into Interlingua, and to talk about various other things that seem interesting to me.]
The main language of the blog is Interlingua though most if not all of it is also available in Dutch. I've never studied Interlingua, but I find that I have no difficulty reading it. It's an artificial Romance language, like Esperanto, but seems to me rather like Italian. The author doesn't care for Esperanto though; at the top of the current page you'll find the author's argument for the superiority of Interlingua over Esperanto. Among other things, he says:
The raison d'être of Esperanto is stubborn ideology.
The raison d'être of Interlngua is living language.

What brought me to Via de Argilla was the discussion of spelling reform, which among other things links to my recent post. There are also links to Onze Taal (Our Language), an interesting Dutch website (in Dutch), an article about resistance to German spelling reform (in German), an article about a protest at the US national spelling bee entitled Protesters decry English language's illogical spelling and the author's previous piece on spelling reform.

The author doesn't much care for spelling reform. His comment on the protest at the US national spelling bee is:

Funny that people often claim that something is illogical although they really mean that they are not intelligent enough to understand its logic.
Its true that people sometimes criticize aspects of the writing system that do in fact make sense, but I also have to say that there are things that make sense that are nonetheless undesirable. For instance, it is much easier to write if any given sound is written only one way. There are factors that may counterbalance this, but other things being equal, its desirable. So it was a good thing to eliminate the historical spelling of some [o:]s in Japanese as [amu]. When such historical spellings were in use, you couldn't tell how to write [o:] just from the sound. You had to know how that sound was spelled in particular words and grammatical forms. That made it more work to learn to write. Similarly, writing knight with a k and night without one requires extra memorization in modern English since they have the same pronounciation. Historical spellings in both Japanese and English do indeed have a logic to them, but it is the logic of history. The fact is that such spellings impose a considerable extra burden on those learning to read and write, and other things being equal, it is best to reduce that burden.

Via de Argilla's argument against spelling reform begins with the claim that reformers have a false view of languages, namely that writing is simply a means of recording speech. This is true to an extent. Written language is often a special register, distinct from most styles of speech, and the information conveyed by writing and by speech is not identical. He mentions, for instance, that writing does not convey intonation, which is generally true, though some writing systems have devices that convey some aspects of intonation. Writing may also convey information not present in speech. In English, for example, the words knight and night are distinguished in writing but not in speech. Similarly, in Mandarin Chinese he, she, and it are distinguished in writing but not in speech. At the same time, all known written languages are based on spoken languages, and although there are little distinctions like those mentioned, basically it is true that when people write they are trying to record, albeit in slightly modified form, what they have to say. Via de Argilla is right that written language often preserves etymological and morphological facts about the vocabulary that are lost in pronounciation. The question is, is it worth doing this if it makes it difficult for people to write? If you're trying to promote mass literacy, you want to minimize the unnecessary differences between spoken and written language. The history of the language is an additional, less important segment of knowledge, one that can perfectly well be taught separately from literacy. Indeed, historical spelling only contains a fraction of the information one needs in order to understand linguistic history. Rather than tormenting beginning readers and writers with historicizing spellings, it would be better to let them learn to read and write easily and at a later point in their education teach them some real historical linguistics.

Via de Argilla's other argument is that historical spelling alleviates the effects of linguistic variation. If writing closely reflects pronounciation, and if pronounciation varies, we either have to get everyone to use a single standard as the written form, or we will have many different written forms. This is true, up to a point. Historical spellings do sometimes provide a common spelling that can be given a different pronounciation in different dialects. The error in this argument is that only certain kinds of linguistic changes, and therefore only certain differences among dialects of a language, work this way. Where dialects differ in what words they use, it doesn't do any good to use a historical spelling. soda, pop, and coke would not be written the same way in the spelling of any stage of English. Similarly, no choice of spelling can eliminate differences in word-formation or in syntax. Indeed, only certain differences in pronounciation can be glossed over by historical spelling.

It is also important to note that some historical spellings do not serve to unify dialects. For instance, there is to my knowledge no variety of English that preserves [k] in word-initial [kn] clusters. Providing a unified spelling for English dialects therefore does not motivate writing an initial k in knight.

It's true that spelling reform requires care and that creating a good writing system is not as simple as choosing one letter per sound, but the English spelling system is such a baroque mess that it creates real problems for those learning to read and write. Functional illiteracy is a major problem in the United States and other English-speaking countries. This is due in part to the idiotic methods used to teach reading and writing, but the task is made much more difficult by the spelling system.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 6, 2004 08:50 PM