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Fonetic speling iz the dog’z brekfst

Jason Kottke and Slashdot bring to our attention an AP article on “simpler spelling”; an article whose tagline reads:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?


Consider, if you will, a world where all writers of English spell phonetically. Everyone, from the Australians to the Germans to the Scots, spelling things the way they sound. Chaos.

Ignoring for a moment the well-established International Phonetic Alphabet and the time-consuming, onerous task that is phonetic transcription (believe me), I’d probably write “Fourth of July” as “Fawth uv J'li” in this brave new world of spelling… compared to the “Forth ov Jooliy” pronounced by some creole cartoon crocodile or other. Swapping notes with, say, a Scouser bloke, I’d have as much trouble reading something he wrote as I do just listening to him. In fact, I’d probably have to read it out loud, using my brain’s clever Speech Accent Converter (not a real thing) to convert what is incomprehensible on the page (words I’ve never seen before because they’re written in someone else’s accent) into words I’ve maybe heard before.

Therein lies the beauty of a standard spelling system… written words cross international borders with ease, and survive generations intact. Difficult or not, English spelling is a standard like XHTML 1.1 is a standard: if you write in it, anyone versed in that standard will be able to parse your document, now and in the future. If you write in some mish-mash system that relies on the ever-moving target of pronunciation, you’re writing shit.

“But of course,” one might stammer, “we’d all spell things the same way… it’d still be standardized.” “We just want to revise the more difficult words out there so their spelling is more closely aligned to real-world pronunciation”.

Right. So who’s pronunciation gets to be the gold standard? Yours? Mine? The Welsh’s? The South Africans’? Pick one and get back to me, and then tell me how this “easier to learn” spelling system benefits the rest of the world.

The simple fact is —quite unfortunately for Simplified Spelling’s proponents— that the current system is good enough, and orthography has nothing, but nothing, to do with phonetics. This is nowhere more prevalent than in languages with logographic writing systems, but even in English: writing doesn’t capture speech sounds, it captures words. Reading doesn’t instruct pronunciation, it transmits words from a page to ideas in your head. Orthography is a mere formality, an abstraction layer for our thought processes that allows us to record thoughts on paper. Confusing spoken English with written English is like mistaking bar fights for boxing.