Saturday, May 17, 2008

English Spelling

Several recent discussions got me thinking about the way language has changed (and no doubt will continue to do so).

English is more complex than most languages. Waves of invasions by different language speakers over centuries as well as input from Britain's colonial past, have created a language that is an amalgam of Greek, Latin, Celtic, Germanic, French, Scandinavian and Hindi to name only a few. In consequence it seems at times quite irrational, particularly in spelling. While this makes it hard even for native speakers, we often don't give any thought to the question of whether we should ignore the history of the language it shows.

Language is dynamic. Humans are lazy in our speech. We contract words and phrases, slur others together and sometimes simply drop part of a word or phrase. We've been known to borrow a word or phrase complete from another language and then mangle its pronunciation or alter its spelling phonetically. This, as well as the need to create new words for new technology and scientific discoveries, means that language is constantly changing. It also means that without some form of standardised spelling our written communications run the risk of being completely indecipherable but the question is how far this should go.

There have been a number of attempts to collate English. We've all heard of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, one of the best known early examples, towering above others of the time in scope, wit, research, precision of definitions and examples of usage and since then there have been many and varied attempts, some more successful than others. The thing that has distinguished them all is that they did what they set out to do. They collected words and meanings in a comprehensible form and put them together as a reference tool.

This brings me back to what started this train of thought. A writer on an LJ was musing about how difficult and complicated life must have been when spelling was phonetic and without any constant form and I agree with this entirely. You only have to read - or try to translate may be a better description - anything written more then a couple of hundred years old to see the problems that arise. My point of disagreement was that standardisation can go too far when it becomes a way of "improving" or "rationalising" spelling. I quoted the "reforms" of Noah Webster, the man who introduced what he saw as improvements, and which resulted in the US form of English spelling in use today. My dislike of his changes has nothing to do with my opinion of Americans and everything to do with the fact that by making these changes Webster ignored the origins of the language. For example when you spell theatre as theater you hide its French origin. This is only a minor example but why change it?

Webster, of course, is not the only one who has tried to rationalise English spelling but he is the only one who has succeeded in changing the language of a nation. Indirectly this is changing the spelling of many other nations too. As I have been typing this I have been seeing red lines indicating spelling errors appearing under my correctly spelled words. US English spelling is the default on this site and I can't change it although it is incorrect usage in Australia. The same thing happens on my emails and word processor but at least I can change from the default on the last one. I am confident enough in my spelling to ignore these errors but many are not.

Anyone who has ever learned another language knows that they all have their idiosyncrasies and many nations have been fighting a battle to preserve the unique quality of their language even to the point of trying to prevent the use of words that don't come from their own language. They see it as a record of the past of those who speak it as their mother tongue as much as a communication tool. I think this is as big a mistake as rationalising away the history of a language. In the future these hybrid words will tell those who study such things something important about what was happening at this time.
It seems to me that we take a severe risk when we "reform" or "rationalise" a language. We might gain simpler spelling but we lose history and that is what has made each of us what we are today. Without our history - good or bad - we cannot know ourselves.


Laura E. Goodin said...

As a side argument, there's always the vexed question of whether dictionaries and grammar texts should be proscriptive, or merely descriptive. As someone who's made her living for decades being very proscriptive indeed (I'm an editor), I must in the interests of professional self-preservation argue in favor of setting rules for language consistency and holding to them. But is this ultimately both foolish and futile? Will the language not sweep all before it? I'm already having to bite my tongue at "preventative," for example: as it is ubiquitous, does that now give it legitimacy? Or are millions and millions of irritatingly lax English speakers just plain WRONG?

Imagine me said...

I know what you mean. I'm an English teacher by profession and rules are mighty handy to have around. On the other hand because language is dynamic and ever-changing, when a word like preventative - one of my peeves too - becomes the common usage maybe it's time to accept defeat.