English Is Messy. Do I Have to Spell It Out?

One of the best things going on around 200 B.C.E. (from this linguist’s point of view, at least) was that a librarian in Alexandria, Aristophanes of Byzantium, invented the first punctuation system that deserved the name — one better than the one we’re used to. A mark up high (“˙”) meant a full stop, like our period; in the middle (“·”) meant a brief pause, a firm but gentle separation, like our comma; and one on the bottom (“.”) meant something in between, a breather of sorts, like our semicolon.

Compare this simple, neat approach to the confusions of our current system: perpetual controversy over the use of the Oxford comma after the penultimate element in a series, despite that an “and” comes afterward, which many take to eliminate the need, in most cases, for a comma. The semicolon is another kettle of fish; often, you follow it with an adverb set off with a comma. (See what I did there?) That’s not intuitive and usually must be taught. In general, the semicolon worries people — many never feel they are using it quite right.

Yet we’re probably stuck with those idiosyncrasies. Tradition dies hard. That’s also true when it comes to spelling, the vexation of which I got to thinking about when looking at a flier for a food truck billing something as “offical” amid a good number of other such flubs. It reminded me of a similar flier I’d once seen, replete with offerings such as chocolate “mouse.” Both were, I’m sure, composed by hard-working entrepreneurs too busy providing good food at affordable prices to be laser-focused on a spelling system that is a big mess of crazy.

We can shrug and chalk up English’s many quirks to tradition. Or we can try to think beyond our own time, as President Theodore Roosevelt tried to when he sent a letter in 1906 to the public printer, Charles Stillings, directing him to use in various official communications the simplified spellings of about 300 words recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board, a group sponsored by Andrew Carnegie that included no less a figure than Mark Twain. The question is whether we’ll proceed until the end of time making do with a woefully goofy spelling system when English is, for better or for worse, the world’s closest thing to a universal language, imposed on millions of innocents who really deserve better.

Consider the word “you,” which can refer to both single and plural addressees. In that case, context drives comprehension. In the word “know,” what’s with the “k”? Couldn’t we write it “no”? That would, yes, create a homophone with the negative “no,” but we deal with countless homophones and the world keeps spinning. Besides, if we must distinguish “know” from “no” with different spellings, must the distinguishing letter be, of all things, a “k”?

There’s an argument that counterintuitive spellings point our attention to relationships between words: If “know” were “no” and “knowledge” were “nalij,” the relationship would be obscured. But that would hardly be a tragedy. People who wrote “no” and “nalij” would still be aware that knowledge is something you know, whether they could see it in the spelling. How urgent is it, after all, that “uncanny” is based on “can” and yet most aren’t aware of that? Don’t even get me started on “acknowledge” — the “k” is silly enough, but what’s with the “c”?

“Comb,” “bomb” and “tomb” don’t rhyme. You might chuckle that in French, the final four letters of “beaux” form the single sound “o,” but then what about the way “laugh” is written in English versus how we pronounce it? Or how as a kid you may never have been sure what pronunciation Charles Schulz was suggesting when his Peanuts characters exclaimed, “Aaugh!” “Cough,” “bough,” “though,” “through,” “enough” — indeed, enough!

The English Spelling Society is one organization that has been pushing the case for a long time that English spelling is abysmal. Its president, the University of Minnesota linguist and etymologist Anatoly Liberman, has long suggested that because change is hard to adjust to, we begin spelling reform with a few words and gradually increase the stock over time. Among the Society’s initial suggestions, he points to “enuff” and “coff.”

Even for readers sympathetic to the idea in the abstract, it may seem jarring to see reformed spellings on the printed page — “enuff” is as phonetic and logical as it gets, but when it’s written down it still seems unfamiliar and, to some, probably, inelegant. For a spell beginning in the 1930s, The Chicago Tribune initiated a “sane” spelling program, where the paper used spellings such as “crum,” “rime,” “missil” and “iland.” The last one was perhaps especially welcome, since likely the only reason we spell “island” with an “s” is that some scribe probably mistakenly thought the English word was related to the French word “isle” when it wasn’t. But The Tribune’s effort never really caught on, and it may seem hard to imagine Anglophones of today adjusting to new spellings, no matter how rational the case for doing so was and is.

One way that change in language can and does happen quickly is when it is connected to matters of social justice: We need only think of how fast so many Americans, particularly younger Americans, have become comfortable with the new usage of “they,” which I wrote about in my newsletter last year. One often hears teens using it with casual fluency, and they are the future. The term “Latinx” in academic and activist circles is a similar example. To a time traveler from just 20 years ago, gender-neutral pronouns and adjectives like these would seem unlikely as keepers. What probably makes the difference is a sense that to adopt these usages is to promote the interests and preferences of people making their desires known from outside of traditional loci of power.

I hope it would help people to unbend somewhat to more intuitive (if odd-looking) spellings if those new spellings were seen as social justice of a kind. Children whose first language is English have to labor longer to learn to read than their counterparts. This crowds out school time that could be used for learning other things. Dyslexia appears to be less prevalent in many other languages because mapping the sounds we utter to the chaos of how they are represented on the page (“cough,” “bough,” “enough”) is so complex and often arbitrary. Anglophone kids are twice as likely to show signs of dyslexia as Italian ones, for example.

Plus, English is notoriously hard to master for the legions of people worldwide required to learn it as a second or third language. However, as languages go, English isn’t especially tough — if you want difficult, try Polish, Lithuanian or Navajo. A good deal of what frustrates English learners is the spellings. To think beyond our time is to imagine English as an international language that welcomes learners with spellings that actually make sense. Finnish spellings do — the sounds you make correspond neatly with the letters on the page. But let’s face it, the likelihood of Finnish as a lingua franca is slim. So why can’t English tidy itself up a bit?

Busy people leading busy lives shouldn’t have to put up with spelling seemingly designed to be difficult, random and frustrating. Think, for example, of just that word, “busy.” Why is its “u” pronounced “ih”? And why is the “y” in that word and at the end of adverbs pronounced “ee”?

I could go awn. We Anglophones wallow in orthographical muck. Attention must be paid.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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