English spelling: unity over ease of learning

A while back I read a blog on cluborlov in which Dimitry Orlov railed against how English spelling often bears so little relation to the way its words sound that, as a consequence, it made learning to read and write the language far harder than it should be. At the time I would have liked to wade in with some opinions of my own, however, the comments on that post soon proliferated and, since I had no time to read them, and to avoid repeating arguments already given, I never contributed anything at all. However, I do feel that some of the points I would have liked to make may be of interest, and so I shall jot them down here now.

It is true that English orthography could be redesigned to more accurately reflect the language as it is currently spoken – and this would make learning to read and write English far easier. However, this approach does beg the question: which form of the spoken language should we thus choose to transcribe phonetically? English exists in many dialects, and a faithful phonetic transcription of one would look entirely different from another. Thus this process would seem to me to produce a wholly unfortunate result: that English speaking communities that are currently united by a common orthography (there are variations between English and American spelling – but these are not so divergent as to provide readers of either form with any barrier to reading the other) would be divided by the new phonetic orthographies.

I would like to take a diversion that I think is illuminating, to consider the orthography of Chinese. My understanding of how this works – and it is something that seems particularly hard to get a clear answer to – is that Chinese characters, albeit that they encode some phonetic information, can be used to write a great variety of dialects of Chinese. Apparently, a newspaper written in Chinese characters can be read with equal ease by readers who would find their spoken dialects mutually unintelligible. It is as if in Europe we were to devise an orthography that would allow the same copy of a book to be read ‘natively’ by a Portuguese, Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian speaker. (My understanding of the breadth of Chinese dialects suggests that we could include in the readers of such a book speakers of German, English and of many other European languages – presumably other Indo-European languages too, such as Farsi). Imagine what an amazing boon this would be for European integration! Of course such an orthography would be far harder to learn, since it would not be derived from the sound of the words, and would thus have to be learned, by rote, one character at a time. This is of course the challenge that Chinese writers and readers have to overcome, so that, from what I’ve read, some 4000 characters must be learned to allow a Chinese newspaper to be read. To people who found alphabetic orthographies a challenge to learn as children, this jump from around 26 characters to 4000 seems an incredible leap in difficulty. Indeed, there have been several attempts to encourage the Chinese to abandon their characters and to resort to the roman or cyrillic alphabets. It amazes me that the proponents of such a changeover were blind to the advantage of a unifying script for such a vast and diverse linguistic community as are the Chinese. Indeed, in a parallel to the parable of the Tower of Babel, they were urging a community who, through their characters, could communicate perfectly, to fragment into mutually unintelligible groups.

In an analogous way, current English orthography unifies the speakers of all its dialects and, for all its difficulties with spelling, it is hardly as onerous a task to learn as is Chinese. But there is another blessing that the present English orthography confers: historical consistency. With the passing of time languages continually evolve, so that a speaker of English from some hundred years back would find some difficulty in making herself understood today. If we go far enough back, it would be as if she was speaking a wholly foreign language. In the past, English orthography did actually attempt to encode the spoken forms with the result that texts from the past can be hard to read today. Once the spelling scheme was fixed, however, all subsequent texts became, and remain, readable to anyone who had mastered the written language. (Incidentally, my understanding is that Chinese literature from even remote times remains as legible today as if it had just been written – so that Chinese characters not only unify dialectical communities across ‘space’, but also across time. Though the simplified character forms adopted by the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s may have somewhat fractured this unity.)

So, though I acknowledge that the idiosyncrasies of English spelling do make learning to read and write the language more difficult, I feel that this is more than compensated for by the way that this allows speakers to be united into a single literary community across both space and time.

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