Thursday, October 25, 2007

Does English need a spelling reform?

Recently two incidents have left me wondering about this one.

Earlier this week I received back a copy of a thesis chapter from my supervisor and amongst the howlers in it he pointed out that I'd used the spelling "practice" when it should be "practise" for the verb. Since the noun uses the latter form, and Americans use both (and Microsoft's "UK English" spellchecker doesn't flag it as an error), it's an easy mistake to make. But both spellings are pronounced the same, are derived from the same root and so forth. Why exactly they're spelt differently is a mystery.

Another point came in reading a few pieces about the current general election in Australia where I was reminded that the Australian Labor Party uses that spelling despite ~our spellings being standard in Australia (including for "labour") because nearly a century ago one of the leading Labor politicians was an advocate of spelling who opted to "modernise" the name, only for the great spelling reform to not happen. (See Wikipedia: Australian Labor Party#History and King O'Malley.)

Spelling reform seeks to make a language easier to spell, removing irregular spellings and making spelling phonetic (now why isn't that word spelt the way it's pronounced?). Is this a pointless goal or could it bring greater benefits? Could it really reduce levels of dyslexia (another difficult to spell word) as some of its advocates claim?

In one area spelling reform happens all the time. As foreign words get incorporated into English very often they lose accents (e.g. rôle becoming role or élite becoming elite) even when there already conventions for how to type them without accents (e.g. without an umlaut "Führer" should be rendered "Fuehrer" and strictly not "Fuhrer"). Another change, although one that frequently provokes howls of pedants and protests, is when the English rules of pluralisation are followed - so it's "forums" not "fora" and "referendums" nor "referenda" (and the Blogspot spellcheck has just flagged the latter as an unfamiliar word). I have never understood why the Latin rules of pluralisation should be adhered to for words used in English, unless it's because some people want to show off that they know the language.

But overall English is a very complicated language to understand, and the international variations compound the problem further. Now as time goes on it's possible that some of the spellings will start to regularise naturally, but it would take millenniums to occur. Would a concerted effort help? And would it be possible to implement? (Just look at how much resistance to metrication in the UK, and the US is even worse on that one.) The German spelling reform of 1996 has been particularly controversial, but it's not yet possible to see if it has helped literacy rates.

Still we can at least try to ensure that only English plurals are used.

1 comment:

Manfarang said...

Another Australian Labor politician is an advocate of spelling reform.Doug N Everingham was Minister for Helth 1972-1975.
A bill to reform spelling in Britain received a second reading during the 1950s.
Take a look at the Simplified Spelling Society website for more information.


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