Are spelling reforms futile?

Tom   Tuesday, February 03, 2004, 19:39 GMT
I didn't think I'd start a spelling reform topic, but here goes:

In another topic ( I pointed out that there is a tendency in American English to merge vowels. At the same time, spellings remain unchanged. As a result, more and more spellings tend to correspond to a single sound.

This is, of course, a phenomenon that occurs in many languages. In Polish, there used to be a slight difference in the pronunciation of "h" and "ch" (some older people still differentiate between the two). Now the two are pronounced exactly the same; the difference is only in spelling. Because of this, people never know if they should spell a word with "h" or "ch". This is a huge problem for schoolchildren, who have to learn which word is spelled which way.
Of course, if the sounds had remained separate, nobody would have this problem.

I think such mergers make spelling reforms sort of futile. Anything you did would only work until another merger occurred.
Jim   Wednesday, February 04, 2004, 00:11 GMT
... or until another divergence occured whichever comes first. I think you've got a good point. Though you could have a situation wherein spelling just keeps evolving with pronunciation. This would have its own problems: probably more trouble than it's worth.
Jarec   Wednesday, February 04, 2004, 14:47 GMT
I don't get it. How can you merge [h] with [ch]? You mean that Polish youngsters can't pronounce [ch] or [h]?
Russians for example don't have [h]. So instead of hovorit (in Slovak) or hvarit (in Slovak dialect) they have gavarit (to talk).
Czechs and Slovaks have both [h] and [ch].
We Slovaks used to have a vowel "ä" (a with 2 dots above it) wich was something between [a] and [e] - similar to [ae] in English. But as years passed, this vowel dissapeared from the language, but the letter remained. Nowadays it is pronounced [e]. However, only small number of words are written with "ä".
Paul   Wednesday, February 04, 2004, 16:40 GMT

The simple solution is to have a simple phonetic alphabet, that you can type into a word processor (i.e. ASCII, I.P.A., Shavian) with an automatic translation program into Legible English. I would think such a program since it is a phonetic transformation, would have a much easier time of it than all these Spell-checking program, which involves Non-phonetic transformations.

And If you could toggle back between phonetic and regular english spelling, you would have the benefits of both worlds.

Every languange goes through this evolutionary/devolutionary process that you worry about. Look at Latin -> Italian.
When the differences between two words disappear through the simplification and they become homonyms, the popularity of the less common words drops, and people invent or adopt a more recognizable synonym for it.

If this didn't we all probably still be speaking Latin or Plachts Doitch.
Regards, Paul V.
Simon   Wednesday, February 04, 2004, 16:47 GMT
Yes, you would have to keep reforming the spelling. Permanent revolution. lol.

But English is very irregular. H v CH may cause difficulties but as not as tough though as some of the oddities in English.
Jim   Wednesday, February 04, 2004, 23:42 GMT
You could get rid of the "gh" and be pretty confident that the sound that it once represented won't come back to haunt us. Most "gh"-words are very de-"gh"-able the exception is "thorough" because the North Americans say [tho:rOu] whilst the rest of us say [th^r..] so should we have "thoro" or "thurra"?
mjd   Thursday, February 05, 2004, 00:43 GMT
My "thorough" is more [th..rOu]
Tom   Thursday, February 05, 2004, 02:32 GMT
mjd -- Actually, ['the:rOu] (you can't stress the schwa).


Yeah, I love it how Russians turn "h" into "g" -- Shakespeare's "Gamlet" is one of my favorite plays.
However, it's not true that they don't have a "h". E.g. "horosho" (= well).

About h/ch... words which contain "h" or "ch" in spelling are both pronounced with a sound similar to the English [h] (actually harder than the English [h], which is very subtle, but not as guttural as the German [h] in "acht").

Some 70 years ago, "ch" was pronounced with the sound I described above and "h" was the voiced variant of this sound. If Slovak is similar to Czech, you'll know what I'm talking about. English speakers will probably wonder how you can voice [h].
Personally, I can't pronounce the voiced "h" -- few Poles under 70 can.

The "ch" consonant that you probably had in mind, the one which sounds like [tS] (English "chair"), is spelled "cz" in Polish.
A.S.C.M.   Thursday, February 05, 2004, 02:38 GMT
Spelling reforms are futile. Just spell the word as it should be spelt and don't care too much about British/American differences (why not just learn both, use both, and tolerate both?).
Jarec   Thursday, February 05, 2004, 16:54 GMT
If Russians have a [h], why do they have "Gamlet" instead of "Hamlet" then?

The "ch" consonant I had in mind was not [tS] but "ch" in German word "acht" (eight) or "Bach".
Isn't [h] a voiceless consonant? Or does it have a voiced version?

ASCM. Spelling reform aren't futile. Slovak language was reformed several times and it has now easier spelling than for example Czech language. Not to speak about English spelling, which looks like a total mess for us.
English spelling is a nice example of what happens if you don't reform it.
paul   Thursday, February 05, 2004, 17:06 GMT
The Dutch did a good job of fixing their spelling after WWII.
Not impossible.
Need a war to get it acceepted by everyone, tho.
Especially English, the way it's spread out.

Regards, Paul V.
Tom   Friday, February 06, 2004, 00:00 GMT
"Need a war to get it acceepted by everyone, tho"

I hope George W is not reading this forum.
Tom   Friday, February 06, 2004, 00:11 GMT
"If Russians have a [h], why do they have "Gamlet" instead of "Hamlet" then?"

I'm not sure why.

"Isn't [h] a voiceless consonant? Or does it have a voiced version?"

Yeah, [h] is voiceless.
Simon   Friday, February 06, 2004, 11:32 GMT
Mass communication and particularly the internet is doing a lot to unify the various Englishes that exist.
Paul V   Monday, February 09, 2004, 17:55 GMT
I noticed in your discussion of spelling reforms, you have the underlying assumption that people will make use of a more accurate spelling of all English words based on actual pronunciation. This is futile, for 3 or 4 good reasons.
Still there are limited reforms that might prove beneficial.

Most English words have some recognizable relationship to their spelling.
At least some of the letters could be pronounced in a way that is not too different from the actual pronunciation.

But some English words have so many silent letters, or so many variant pronunciations, that they are merely stumbling blocks that need to be thrown out and replaced with some more reasonably spelled Synonym.
These words should be identified, listed and expunged from any literary work. For example, "Gaol" would be replaced by prison.
"Scissors" would be replaced by shears.
Let's look at the spelling of scissors.
Say you heard the word for the first time.
What spelling would you try first. sizzers would probably be the first guess for an educated adult. A 2nd grader would probably guess "siz arz".

I don't know of any English spelling rule that would
allow the reader to think the "SC" diagraph signifies the plain
"S" sound.

It would be very useful from a simplified spelling point
of view, to have a list of words, such as "scissors"
where the spelling has diverged so far from any notion of rational
English spelling that we should shun them and only use synonyms.

Regards, Paul V.

P.S. Just a personal preference, but I would like to hear more about
practical matters, rather than discuss a hypothetical issues which are essentially in answerable in any case.