Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
Here are links to previous posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.
What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
- Babies, Names, and Snobs
We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
- Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
This post’s subtitle is a quote from the book’s Chapter 8, which considers 2 versions of the question. How did English spelling become such a mess? Why is it still such a mess, despite various reform efforts? A major insight into why reform is extremely difficult is also applicable to a wide range of otherwise very different activities (digging in rocky soil; making software run faster; philosophizing; …), so I will devote this post to it. That devotion will make this post a little off-topic for the project, but the general insight is worth the detour and the length. If U trust me about the wide range, U can skim or skip some examples to make it a much shorter read.
There is a tweetable (but crude and cryptic) way to formulate the general insight:
The word [the] is the most misleading word in English.
Huh? My tweetable formulation uses the word [the] twice, with a mention of it in between. The first use (in “The word”) is OK. The second use (in “the most misleading”) is extremely misleading because it presupposes that there is a single word more misleading than any of the other words. Be alert for bullshit whenever U see [the] followed by a superlative. Sadly, the same kind of bullshit lurks in many phrases that start with [the] but have no superlative to raise a red flag. A lot of effort can be wasted on questions of the form [What is the … ?] that cannot be answered at all well w/o refuting an implicit uniqueness assumption smuggled in by [the].
In particular, consider the ultimate goal of spelling reform:
The way we spell a word should match the way we pronounce it.
Oops. Aiming at “the” way we pronounce a word is aiming at multiple moving targets, as Lynch notes. As the author of the play Pygmalion (and thus the godfather of the musical My Fair Lady), spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw was aware that various pronunciations were out there. But he lived at a time when educated Brits like Henry Higgins could be proud of their own pronunciations, disparage those of uneducated Brits like Eliza Doolittle, and ignore those of educated Yanks.
Now that Brittania no longer rules the waves but English has become a global language that plays roles formerly played by Latin and then French, the multiplicity of pronunciations is a bigger obstacle than it was in Shaw’s time (and a much bigger obstacle than it seemed to him).
Isn’t it obvious that multiplicity of pronunciations is a major obstacle to spelling reform? It is now that Lynch has made it item #2 in his list of 7 obstacles. Unless U can rattle off most them w/o peeking at pages 180 to 184 (hardcover edition), please do not dismiss the insight as obvious.
While organized efforts at sweeping reform are unlikely to succeed, minor word-by-word improvements in spelling do happen spontaneously now and then. Lynch notes a few that have already happened. In the examples to follow, I will note a few more that may be happening now. I will also give examples of the wide scope of the insight about the perils of [the].
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Example 4.1: Realizing That Superfluous Letters Can Be Dropped
There are other minor improvements that do not presuppose mastery of the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, words whose last 2 sounds are like [eyes] can be spelled somewhat more phonetically with [z] rather than [s], as in [realize] vs [realise]. It is no surprize that prigs will object in some cases, as in [surprize] vs [surprise]. I have stopped caring about which version of each such word is more common on which side of The Pond. Some of the wavy red underlines from spell-checkers can be ignored w/o harming readability.
Example 4.2: Common Shortcuts
While many of the shortcuts used in texting and tweeting are puzzling to outsiders like me, others are self-explanatory, improve the fit with pronunciation, and saw some use before 140 became a magic number. Wish I could be as confident that civilization will persist for another century as I am that (assuming it does persist) spelling changes like
[you] —> [U] & [through] —> [thru] & [though] —> [tho]
will spread to formal prose. W/o making a big fuss about it, I do my part in promoting these changes.
Example 4.3: Digging in Rocky Soil
Suppose we need to dig a hole in rocky soil with hand tools. A pick and a shovel are in the tool shed. Which is “the” better tool for the job? A few minutes of digging experience reveals that neither is much good w/o the other. Using one creates an opportunity to use the other. Tho often debased as a euphemism for layoffs in announcements of corporate mergers, [synergy] is an honorable word for the way a pick and shovel complement each other. Similar synergies are important elsewhere, as the next example sketches.
Example 4.4: Making Software Run Faster
The instructions followed directly by a computer are mincing little steps for tiny little feet. Writing out the long sequence of steps needed to do anything interesting is a tedious and error-prone job, so computer software is usually written in artificial “high-level” languages that are closer to how people would tell each other about an algorithm to compute whatever needs to be computed. The computer programs that translate software from the relatively intelligible high-level languages down to the mincing little “low-level” steps are called “compilers” (despite the fact that compiling is not what they do).
Early compilers had a bigger problem than a misleading name. They produced code (sequences of low-level instructions) that ran much slower than the code skilled people could eventually produce, after agonies of debugging. How do we build compilers that can translate an algorithm written in a high-level language into correct code that runs roughly as fast as hand-crafted code for the same algorithm? That was among the hot topics when I started my career in computer science.
Very broadly, the strategy for producing fast code was (and still is) to start with slow code that is presumed to be correct because it is a straightforward translation of a high-level algorithm to low-level code, w/o trying to be clever. (Whether the algorithm itself is correct and whether there are better algorithms were also hot topics. They still are.) The slow code is tweaked here and there, so as to do whatever it has been doing but do it a little faster. While no single tweak accomplishes much, there are many places to tweak. A tweak here can reveal a previously hidden opportunity for another tweak there. Synergy!
Alas, the opportunities for synergy struck me as so obvious that I never figured out how to persuade other compiler researchers. There was a subculture working on one bag of tricks and a subculture working on another bag of tricks. The debates over which bag was “the” one to use struck me as more like medieval theology than science, and I was explicit about the “Pick and Shovel Principle” in a few of the papers I wrote. Did not help. Cutting classes in the school of hard knocks is harder than ignoring sometimes tactless writing by the brash new guy, so the lesson was eventually learned the hard way.
Example 4.5: Philosophizing
Some philosophers have shown that it is possible to write serious thoughts about deep stuff in a way that is also clear and good-humored. Really. (As other philosophers have shown, it does not just happen.) To keep it short, I will point to just one well-written book (by D.C. Dennett):
Apart from the clunky title, Dennett’s book can be highly recommended, for both what it says and how it says it. Indeed, some of the 77 chapters deserve to be required reading in any college curriculum. Having been a young nerd who was hassled by his elders about getting a “well-rounded liberal education” supposedly obtainable before any serious study of STEM, I do not use the phrase [required reading] lightly.
Dennett’s chapter 43 is among those that deserve to be required. It starts with a variant of a familiar infinite regress:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
A careful look at what is flaky about trying to identify “the first mammal” leads to a thoughtful objection to the Socratic quest to nail down things like “the essence” of virtue.
While not so requirement-worthy as chapter 43, Dennett’s chapter 30 provides another good read about [the]. Pick any problem U like and consider the phrase [the solution]. Depending on which problem U pick, there are many possibilities. Maybe there are no solutions at all. Maybe there is a unique solution. (Both provably-none and provably-just-one do happen in pure math.) Maybe there is just one known solution and so many constraints that looking for another is a bad bet. Maybe there are 2 or more known solutions and fretting about which is “the” real solution would be silly. Dennett concocts an amusing quibble-proof example of this last possibility. With a lot less trouble, the way English imports words from other languages provides a quibble-resistant example.
As a word in English, [concerto] has 2 plurals. A minute with Google shows that both [concerti] and [concertos] are widely used by people who know what a concerto is. Asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an Italian word makes sense; asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an English word imported from Italian does not. Be wary of [the]!