Saturday, 11 September 2010

Making the English Language More Logical

The use of the English language is something I have reflected on before, see:  However, my thoughts have been stirred again adding new aspects to some of the comments I made last year.  The new input came from me recently reading a surprisingly good collection of science fiction stories, first published in 1952.  In it I came across what is really an article, slightly humorous in tone, rather than a short story.  It is entitled 'Meihem in ce Klasrum' [pronounced as 'Mayhem in the Classroom'], was written by Dolton Edwards and was first published in 1946.  It is available all over the internet but I have included it in full here as it makes it a lot easier to comment on than sending you back and forth to other websites.  My comments follow the article:

Meihem In Ce Klasrum
by Dolton Edwards

Because we are still bearing some of the scars of our brief skirmish with II-B English, it is natural that we should be enchanted by Mr. George Bernard Shaw's current campaign for a simplified alphabet.

Obviously, as Mr. Shaw points out, English spelling is in much need of a general overhauling and streamlining. However, our own resistance to any changes requiring a large expenditure of mental effort in the near future would cause us to view with some apprehension the possibility of some day receiving a morning paper printed in-to us-Greek.

Our own plan would achieve the same end as the legislation proposed by Mr. Shaw, but in a less shocking manner, as it consists merely of an acceleration of the normal processes by which the language is continually modernized.

As a catalytic agent, we would suggest that a National Easy Language Week be proclaimed, which the President would inaugurate, outlining some short cut to concentrate on during the week, and to be adopted during the ensuing year. All school children would be given a holiday, the lost time being the equivalent of that gained by the spelling short cut.

In 1946, for example, we would urge the elimination of the soft c, for which we would substitute "s." Sertainly, such an improvement would be selebrated in all sivic-minded sircles as being suffisiently worth the trouble, and students in all sities in the land would be reseptive to- ward any change eliminating the nesessity of learning the differense be- tween the two letters.

In 1947, sinse only the hard "c" would be left, it would be possible to substitute "k" for it, both letters being pronounsed identikally. Imagine how greatly only two years of this prosess would klarify the konfusion in the minds of students. Already we would have eliminated an entire letter from the alphabet. Typewriters and linotypes, kould all be built with one less letter, and a11 the manpower and materials previously devoted to making "c's" kould be turned toward raising the national standard of living.

In the fase of so many notable improvements, it is easy to foresee that by 1948, "National Easy Language Week" would be a pronounsed sukses. All skhool tshildren would be looking forward with konsiderable exsitement to the holiday, and in a blaze of national publisity it would be announsed that the double konsonant "ph" no longer existed, and that the sound would henseforth be written "f" in all words, This would make sutsh words as "fonograf" twenty persent shorter in print.

By 1949, public interest in a fonetik alfabet kan be expekted to have inkreased to the point where a more radikal step forward kan be taken without fear of undue kritisism. We would therefore urge the elimination, at that time of al unesesary double leters, whitsh, although quite harmles, have always ben a nuisanse in the language and a desided deterent to akurate speling. Try it yourself in the next leter you write, and se if both writing and reading are not fasilitated.

With so mutsh progres already made, it might be posible in 1950 to delve further into the posibilities of fonetik speling. After due konsideration of the reseption aforded the previous steps, it should be expedient by this time to spel al difthongs fonetikaly. Most students do not realize that the long "i" and "y," as in "time" and "by," are aktualy the difthong "ai," as it is writen in "aisle" and that the long "a" in "fate," is in reality the difthong "ei" as in "rein." Although perhaps not imediately aparent, the saving in taime and efort wil be tremendous when we leiter elimineite the sailent "e," as meide posible bai this last tsheinge.

For, as is wel known, the horible mes of "e's' apearing in our writen language is kaused prinsipaly bai the present nesesity of indikeiting whether a vowel is long or short. Therefore, in 1951 we kould simply elimineit al sailent "e's," and kontinu to read and wrait merily along as though we wer in an atomik ag of edukation.

In 1951 we would urg a greit step forward. Sins bai this taim it would have ben four years sins anywun had usd the leter "c," we would sugest that the "National Easy Languag Wek" for 1951 be devoted to substitution of "c" for "Th." To be sur it would be som taim befor peopl would bekom akustomd to reading ceir newspapers and buks wic sutsh sentenses in cem as "Ceodor caught he had cre cousand cistls crust crough ce cik of his cumb.''

In ce seim maner, bai meiking eatsh leter hav its own sound and cat sound only, we kould shorten ce language stil mor. In 1952 we would elimineit ce "y"; cen in 1953 we kould us ce leter to indikeit ce "sh" sound, cerbai klarifaiing words laik yugar and yur, as wel as redusing bai wun mor leter al words laik "yut," "yore" and so forc. Cink, cen, of al ce benefits to be geind bai ce distinktion whitsh wil cen be meid between words laik:

ocean now writen oyean
machine "     "      mayin
racial     "     "      reiyial

Al sutsh divers weis of wraiting wun sound would no longer exist. and whenever wun kaim akros a "y" sound he would know exaktli what to wrait.
Kontinuing cis proses, year after year, we would eventuali hav a reali sensibl writen langug. By 1975, wi ventyur tu sei, cer wud bi no mor uv ces teribli trublsum difikultis, wic no tu leters usd to indikeit ce seim nois, and laikwais no tu noises riten wic ce seim leter. Even Mr. Yaw, wi beliv, wud be hapi in ce noleg cat his drims fainili keim tru.

The key problem for English is that it is such a mish-mash of different families of languages.  The problem really came with the Norman Conquest of 1066 which brought far more Latin-based words into English which up until that stage after absorbing Roman words in previous centuries and having this maintained by the Church's use of Latin, had been evolving into a Scandinavian language which by now would probably have been like Danish or Dutch; as it is, much is close to the Freisian language.  Having the Normans who, ironically, three generations earlier had been Scandinavians, invade brought Romance-based French words into the language.  As the Normans were the rulers and the Anglo-Saxon-British population the ruled, the application of these words was uneven, the classic case being that for livestock Scandinavian style words are used, e.g. cow, like ko in Danish or ku in Norwegian and kuh German, whereas when the meat is cooked it becomes French in style, e.g. beef like the French word boeuf.  Consequently English has a mixture of ways of writing the same sounds because some come from the Romance base and some from the Scandinavian.  In addition, being a colonial power, Britain drew in words from across its empire and notably words such as bungalow and jodphur come from Hindi.  We also have anomalies such as the regular use of 'ph' from Greek pronunciation when other northern European states would use 'f'. 

One of the issues that Edwards touches on is the common use of 'th' in English which is a legacy of the Scandinavian input.  There are already a symbol for that:of ð and more commonly from King Alfred's time: þ which appear when you look at Viking or some Old English names or failing that, the Greek symbol: θ which was actually used in Old English writing before the other two symbols came along.  Of course, the re-introduction of that would need modification of keyboards and using 'c' instead saves that.  One thing Edwards neglects to explain is the sudden move to 'tsh' for 'ch'.  I know he has to end the soft c, but the adoption of 'ts' is not detailed.  Unfortunately the Greek letter for that looks too much like 'X' especially when in capital; 'ts' is a rendering of 'tʃ' using a phonetic symbol.  It works but does not decrease the use of letters as Edwards is aiming for. The symbol 'ʃ' actually is for 'sh', but its use would again mean introducing a new symbol on English keyboards hence Edwards recommending using the redundant 'y'.  This would make 'ch' rendered as 'ty' and 'church' would become 'tyurty' almost looking Welsh.  This assumes no replacement of 'ur' with another combination such as 'er' which is the more familiar rendering of that sound in English spelling, so 'tyerty' maybe more accurate.

Edwards does address one key difficulty in English which marks it out from modern neighbouring European languages.  One is how different pairs of vowels are sounded in different contexts.  In German 'ie' and 'ei' always sound the same no matter the word, and they sound different from each other.  However, in English the words 'pier' and 'weir' are pronounced the same, as are 'seer', 'near' and 'kir'.  However, 'near' and 'bear' are pronounced differently but 'bare' and 'bear' are pronounced the same.  As for 'though', 'cough' and 'bough' each is pronounced differently, and to add confusion you have 'ugh' to give you the 'f' sound.  Spelling is poor in Britain anyway, but it is not helped when children are told to 'look for and use common spelling patterns', there is no such thing in English, as Edwards article points out.

The use of what used to be called in my school days 'fairy e' to change a vowel to its long version is sensibly tackled by Edwards.  Why is it bar/bare, car/care, far/fare, star/stare, par/pare (the latter pronounced the same as pair), war/ware, fir/fire, bit/bite, quit/quite, cur/cure, cut/cute and so on.  It would make it far clearer as Edwards does to write bit/beit, quit/queit, bar/baer (though 'bear' would be written the same way) and far/faer (and again 'fair' would be written that way, showing once more the problem with words that sound the same but are very different in meaning in English).  Some spellings just seem unnecessarily complex, why 'to', 'too' and 'two'?  I can accept different spellings to show the different meanings, but why then pronounce them all the same?  Why does 'u' have to accompany 'q'.  Though Edwards does not say it, with a little imagination, 'kw' and 'k' can stand in: 'kween' for 'queen'; 'enkwiere' for 'enquiry' and 'chek' for 'cheque' and so on.  I think 'ia' should be used for sounds like 'fear', 'beer' and so on which almost have 'y' sound in them.  It is not one Edwards suggests.

One challenge in Britain which I guess would be the same with regional dialects in the USA is around the length of vowels.  In Britain this is most apparent with words like 'bath' and 'path'.  In southern England we pronounce  them with a long 'a' almost as if they were 'barth' and 'parth'; in conrast in northern England is it far shorter almost like 'ba'th' or 'pa'th'.  Some southern English even take this as far as 'orf' for 'off'.  I guess in Edwards world, 'of' would become 'ov' allowing the elimination of the double 'f' so current 'off' would simply become 'of' as many people write it anyway.

The greatest revolution in English of the past twenty years has come from the public.  Of course there is text speak which in itself takes some steps down Edwards path such as 'luv' for 'love', but others are just about speeding up the typing of words, as in 'w8' for 'wait', '2' for 'to', '4' for 'for' and 'soz' for 'sorry'.  The use of 'u' for 'you' makes it identical to Dutch; 'ur' for 'your' is not in fact a phonetic rendering simply an extension from 'u'.  Another common step is eliminating all capital letters, though this does seem to inadvertently denigrate yourself when you use 'i' constantly instead of 'I'; apparently the submissive partner in a dominant/submissive sexual relationship would describe themselves this way, but now it is the general populus who sees themselves so, though simply for convenience.

Beyond the use of mobile phones, the misuse of the apostrophe has made the greatest changes, and has often been commented on.  However, it does not seem to add anything to clarity.  When I was a boy we would write "Those are my friend's dogs."  Nowadays it would be more typically rendered as "Those are my friends dog's."  The apostrophe (and I have even seen this on a government document) now designates the plural most as in "orange's", even "car's" rather than the possessive which is generally shown by simply adding an 's' as in "peoples job's", "brothers house's" and so on.  Of course, this causes real problem when you are looking at plural possessive.  I cannot be clear if "the girls work" refers to the work produced by one girl or a group of them, whereas, thirty years ago, "the girl's work" and "the girls' work" would be clearly distinguished.  The greatest switch has been with "its" and "it's".  Of course, "its" was the possessive of "it" as in "the dog brought its leash" but now like all contractions like "cudnt" for "couldn't" (the replacement of 'oul' with 'u' I imagine Edwards would favour) and "cant" for "can't" mean that if you read "its" you have to assume it means "it's" i.e. it is.  In the meantime the use of apostrophes for plurals seems to have got confused as "it's" now means "its", which in some way you can see makes sense to people who are told that "John's" means it belongs to John even if they no longer write it that way.

So, British English is evolving in a way which makes it even less accessible not only to foreigners but older people and comprehension between the different generations is becoming harder.  People who try to keep the traditional approaches are criticised as being pedantic.  British English never seems to be reviewed in the way that certainly French, German and Portuguese have been in recent decades.  It is only done for humorous purposes, usually to suggest that English would end up looking pretty much like German which is something it is assumed no Briton would accept, though if it had not been for the result at the Battle of Hastings, it is likely the two languages would be very similar by now, though hopefully without having to move the verb all over the place as in German.  Linguistic authorities do meet to discuss German language and I remember discussion over the possibility of 'sss' in the middle of a German word and the extent to which 'ß' for 'ss' should be used.  Portugal reduced the number of letters in Portuguese in 1990, eliminating many accented ones.  In France, the government often gives direction on what things should be called in French to avoid over Anglicisation.  The USA has looked at spelling in its form of English with Noah Webster in 1828 in 'An American Dictionary of the English Language', for example the elimination of 'u' from words like harbour and colour; the use of more Anglo-phonetic approaches rather than French influenced spelling in centre/center, metre/meter (though meter is also a word in British English it means something different), manoeuvre/maneuver.

One thing which is interesting is that Edwards in 1946 was pushing for the elimination of double consonants in words, though in fact in American English that already often seems to be the case.  The British write of a 'traveller'; the Americans of a 'traveler'; the British have 'channelling', the Americans 'channeling' (though I image Edwards would want ''chaneling'); 'skillful' and 'skilful' and so on.  The grammatical differences are very varied and there seems to be no greater simplicity in the American approach than in the British.

I think that the challenge for English in becoming a global language is that it makes it very hard for both its own children and learners from overseas to grasp.  If there was one pair of letters for each sound in the middle of words and the double-use of 'c' was removed people could engage with English with more confidence far more quickly.  I think the persistence of tough spelling in English is somewhat an elitist approach, something like the testing of people by how they pronounce Beauchamp ('Beecham') or Mainwaring ('Mannering') to show that they have appropriate social standing to admitted to the circles that you are in.  In the same way insisting they know four or five ways to make words rhyming with 'ear' is similarly a way to shut them out.  However, in doing that, for the bulk of the people using English it reduces their ability to have people understand them clearly.  Accuracy of spelling would increase immediately if there was a greater, and vitally, a consistent match, between how a word is said and how it is written.  British is rare among European languages in not permitting that.  There is no need for us to move to Esperanto, just to have a committee of the kind that the German language has had, to reduce the unnecessary complexity of English, which despite its so widespread usage, is a nightmare language to use, or, should I say: 'a naitmeir langwij to yews' or would you prefer 'mare lang 2 use'?

1 comment:

Rooksmoor said...

Like many people, I received the passage below as part of one of those emails which is circulated. It seems to have originated in the USA and many of the comments in the latter part of the message are more American in focus. However, I felt these 20 examples helped to sum up the challenges that children learning English as their mother tongue as well as people learning it as a second language face.

1) The bandage was wound around the wound.

2) The farm was used to produce produce.

3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.

4) We must polish the Polish furniture.

5) If he could get the lead out of his leg he could lead out.

6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.

7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.

8) A bass was painted on the base of the bass drum.

9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.

10) I did not object to the object.

11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.

13) They were too close to the door to close it.

14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.

15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.

16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.

17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.

18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.

19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?