There have been numerous attempts to reform spelling over the centuries. It has probably been going on ever since it became fashionable to standardise spelling in the first place. Most of these campaigns have taken enormous effort and had relatively little effect. After all, how many of these worthy campaigners can the average person name? Many of us will be aware of Noah Webster’s successful move to Americanise spelling. This move must have caused much annoyance & mutterings on both sides of the Atlantic as we spot the differences.
There are many reasons why English is so difficult to spell, including:
- The influence of invaders, bringing words following new & exciting patterns. The Vikings brought many words like freckle & dazzle, the Normans brought us the words for beef & bacon.
- Words were imported during trading & empire building activities, including pistachios from Italy & bungalow from India.
- Attempts, mainly in the 1700s, to make our language more like the classical languages of Latin & Greek. It was the fashion to view those languages as more beautiful, so it was a good thing to make English as like them as possible. Words like debt include silent letters linking them to their roots in these languages because of this trend.
When English speakers first became literate, they had the difficult job of adapting an alphabet designed for someone else’s language. That language had fewer sounds, hence the need to combine letters like “th” to fill the gaps. They evolved a way of spelling to reflect the sounds of speech. Then over time, we have all gradually changed the way we speak. Evidence of this can be found in old poetry where lines don’t rhyme when we use our modern pronunciation.
And there is the root of our problem. Spelling would be simple if it reflected the sounds we make. Which assumes none of us have accents, and most of us do. Think of the way people from different cities, say Glasgow, London, New York & Houston, pronounce these words:
Spelling out the result would make communication between these people harder, not easier. Joshua Katz of North Carolina State University has produced some maps showing how speech varies in the USA. I expected the patterns formed by the various features measured to be reasonably similar, but a quick flip through these maps shows reality to be completely different.
David Crystal has monitoring the spelling of rhubarb in a very simple way. Periodically he does a Google search for various spellings of the word & notes the number of items found. He has found that the number of h-less rhubarbs is steadily increasing over time.
Now can anyone remember a heated debate about the spelling of rhubarb?
I think that proves:
- Languages change over time, obviously.
- The changes adopted by large groups of us depend on what is normal in our group. This leads to transatlantic differences such as colour/color & the spread of “program” via the all pervasive influence of IT.
- The changes adopted by each of us depend on:
- what appeals to us. For example I won’t be adopting ugly spellings like “nite”.
- What we find difficult.
The people with “h”less rhubarb will fall into two categories;
- Those who like the “new” spelling.
- Those who do not realise it is a hard word, so they should reach for the dictionary.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the relative size of those groups?
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