Thursday, May 31, 2007

'Simplified Spelling' Is A Bad 'Eyedihr'

Members of the 'Simplified Spelling Society' are currently in the news for picketing outside the ongoing US National Spelling Bee competition in Washington, holding up placards which read: 'Let's end the 'i' in friend'. The society claims that current English spelling worsens dyslexia and delays children's literacy by several years. However I disagree with the idea of simplified spelling for the following reasons:

1. Which pronunciation would we use to spell words like: tomato, aunt, status, tuna, amen? What about words with varying numbers of syllables depending on how you pronounce them, such as: athlete, every and chocolate?

2. How would sound-based spellings distinguish between homonyms (homographs) such as: weigh/way/whey, i/eye/aye, to/too/two, rite/write/right/wright and air/e'er/ere/err/heir?

3. Foreign languages with words found in English would be harder to learn. Currently easily recognisable French words such as conversation, succès, triomphe and idée would become something like: 'konvuhrsayshun', 'sahrkses', 'treyeahmph' and 'eyedihr' in 'simplified' English.

4. The spelling of many words in English tells us something of their history and origins. That would be lost under a system of simplified spelling.

5. Being a lover of words, I think there is a strong aesthetic case to be made for the present English spelling of words as compared to the equivalent 'simplified' spellings.

6. Finally, I dislike the implication in the idea of 'simplified spelling' that the best way to educate people is by lowering the bar. We should instead be focusing on the most effective ways to teach the hugely important skills of spelling, reading and writing.


Anonymous Robin said...

English spelling is a mess. You have to learn the pronunciation and the spelling of many words by heart, because there's no rule without exception. Just try to read this poem (good luck):

"idea" would certainly not be spelled "eyedihr", more like "aydia", which is not far off.

4:10 PM  
Blogger urbster said...

I strongly agree that English spelling should remain the same. Of course, our language is bound to evolve over time as always, but in my opinion the strongest reason to keep spelling words the same way is the fourth reason you mentioned, which is that it is important etymologically. Just think about future linguists who would be reading documents from this era if we implemented some kind of "simplified spelling." What would they think?

4:39 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Hi Robin,

I disagree that English spelling is a 'mess'. And what's wrong with having to learn things 'by heart'?

And your disagreement over how to simplify the spelling for 'idea' is a perfect example of how flawed the whole 'aydia' of simplified spelling for English is.

By the way is the 'ay' in 'aydia' the same as in 'day' and the 'dia' the same as in 'diamond'? How is the enlightened reader supposed to know otherwise?

4:43 PM  
Blogger Gezzius Christ said...

Hi Daniel, I've been wanting to subscribe to this blog since I saw you on TV a while back - now I finally have. Great blog btw.

GB Shaw said we are "Two countries divided by a common language" - is this the type of thing he was meaning?

Anyway, I don't like the idea of Americans trying to bastardiSe the English language - it's perfectly fine as it is, its full of lovely peculiarities that make it a joy to learn. My first language was swahili but I lost it all to English within about 3 months at the age of 6! I remember one of the first words that taught me to expect the unexpected in English was the word "yacht" - how do you explain the pronunciation of this word to a 6 year old?!?!? We were told that's just how it is...

I agree some words are just aesthetically and aurally pleasing (one of my personal favourites is moist).

To change the spelling of these words takes away the rich imagery that some words can just conjure through the way they are spelt. By standardising spelling, words would all "look" the same - which is pretty boring, in my opinion!

4:48 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Previous comment highlights another problem with "simple" spelling - there is more than one way to spell a given sound. One would have to use a more rigorous method, such as IPA, but the learning curve would be prohibitive. I agree with Daniel that one of the interesting things about English spelling is the historical etymology of the word. Also, "simple" spelling advocates may underestimate how well our brains perform pattern recognition; once you learn a word you can recognize it at a glance without having to 'spell-it-out' laboriously in your head.

4:50 PM  
Blogger jPucci said...

Great response to Robin Daniel.

There's nothing wrong with knowing things by heart. In fact it's a lost value in the US.

I do some volunteer tutoring for the public school system through my employer. All of my math kids have passed their high school proficiency exams. I work on their arithmetic which is invariably atrocious and I believe that has a big effect. When I get them, the students know concepts and can't multiply. The school board is overcoming this issue by allowing calculators to be used on standardized test (which illustrates to me that they know what the problem is but won't address it in a meaningful way).

Similarly, while tutoring a third grader in reading I realized that his vocabulary was horrible. I asked the administrators to focus the effort on word recognition instead of comprehension but that idea was rejected. They sighted test scores. For example my student scored 77% on word rec. but 45% on comprehension.

While 77% percent sounds OK, for something like word recognition that is horrible! How can a kid comprehend what he is reading if he can’t recognize every fourth word? Needless to say I worked with my student on vocabulary and his comprehension has improved.

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Michael Ditto said...

I agree with keeping our spelling the way it is. It's hardly simplified to make people learn a whole new vocabulary.

But it's interesting looking at some of the spellings you included. They remind me a little of early English. Maybe Chaucer crossed with Beowulf. Interesting.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Have you read the poem? Please try to read it. But ok, how about calling it a "chaos" instead of a mess :).

Anyone who had to learn English as a second language will agree that the spelling is inconsistent and unnecessarily complicated. Even Mark Twain writes in The Awful German Language that the English spelling is hard.

No, you can't compare a "simplified" word with a "normal" one. The whole point of simplifying is that the spelling is consistent, so many words would have to be changed. Day could be spelled "dey" (much like they) and diamond "daymend".

6:58 PM  
Blogger Rehan Qayoom said...

I Agree. Such protestations are nothing but a total waste. As a scholar, I know that current English spelling does not worsen dyslexia. An understanding of this illness will no doubt reveal that the percentage of dyslexics in society will not decrease because a word is spelt differently. Besides such a proposal is impractical as you have demonstrated. Instead, these people should concentrate on getting more of our children to read books. A cultural trait that is dying out in the UK and has no doubt already become a thing of the past in the US.

7:48 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Hi Robin,

I have to disagree with you again: English spelling is neither a mess nor chaotic. It's complex, but learnable just the same.

By the way, English isn't the only language that doesn't always write words how they are pronounced: the Icelandic word 'vatnsmelóna' (watermelon) is pronounced something like: 'vahs-meh-loh-na', missing out the 'tn' in 'vatn' (water) completely. But once you learn this rule, it's no problem: 'vatnsglas' (glass of water) is pronounced: 'vahs-glas' and so on.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Daniel, I'm glad you agree that it's complex. But just because it's learnable, doesn't mean it's good.

I'm confident that the spelling will change for the better someday - maybe it will take time, but it will happen.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sylvia From NC said:
That anyone would even consider changing the spelling of the English language to make things “simpler” seems completely absurd to me. The English Language is beautiful. Its little “quirks” (such as the spelling of the word yacht) add to that beauty. The word conversation is pleasant. The simplified word konvuhrsayshun is… Well, just look at it. Isn’t it the most hideous word that you have ever seen?
We should just let English change on its own. It took a lot of time for it to change from

Ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned
geong in geardum, þone God sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat,
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile; him þæs Liffrea,
wuldres Wealdend woroldare forgeaf,
Beowulf wæs breme --- blæd wide sprang---
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in. (part of the Prologue of Beowolf)


Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke. (Part of Prologue of Canterbury Tales)

To the language in this blog.

Why mess with it now? We’d just be hiding the traces of its heritage seen the above selctions. It seems a shame to do that. (If you want to hear the old English from the Prologue of Beowolf check out Beowulf.Readings/wave/beo01p.wav).
(Although the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales looks similar to English it doesn’t sound like English. I couldn’t find a website for you to listen to this one on. My Dad taught it to me, and it is the coolest piece that I have learned to recite. My favorite words are droghte and nyght because you have to use that nifty guttural sound that they use in German. Nyght sounds like an n sound followed by hiss. That’s quite different from night. :) ).

9:28 PM  
Blogger bill said...

I concur with your point number 4! Bravo! The more we observe a language, the more we see everything in relation to it. Language is inherently linked to cultures. If we dumbed down English in the way such parties propose, we would be catering to the dissolution of our culture. The answer I feel would be more efforts by English speakers to learn more about language, first their own and then others. The quest for simple English coupled with the crusade of the 'personal library' advocates brings to mind this quote:

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

~Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Many thanks for your fine blog!

~Bill in Tampa

8:29 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...


Americans want the bar raised, not lowered. Please, do not let the low class media charge you with erronious feelings and thoughts on that point. The media are mindless sensationalists. They profess to know any and all American feelings and trends and next week will claim the feelings to be the exact opposite should it suit them and a juicy bit of extremist footage they have on hand. I can neither spell nor punctuate myself and want only the bar to be raised. We all can't be great at everything but we can darn well try and expect the future generations to Master these things. Am I right?

9:28 PM  
Blogger kalliope said...

Well, I also strongly recommend against "simplifying" the spelling. I learned English as a third language, rather quickly, and I can write comprehensively (and around 80% correct, at least in formal texts or letters, where you don't mess up with punctuation or stupid keyboard layouts. However. Over here they have reformed the language a few times, with the same reasoning. What happened? You cannot spell the words the way you feel they are spelled (which, once you get it, is very reliable) but always have to look it up. The rate of dyslexia did not go down, instead the amount of spelling mistakes in primary school went up quite a bit.
And while it is easy to get pronunciation of certain words from their spelling (apart from quite a few English city names and stuff like worm-dorm or so where it is useful to know the etymology of the word (wyvern - wyrm - worm for example), it took me quite a bit to recognise "eyedihr" - or "aydia" as well - as idea.
As to knowing things by heart: in my opinion having the ability to learn things by heart helps you a lot to get a feeling for various things - multiplication, spelling, whatever.

Whatever you are doing, the normal human being learns fast and very efficiently by
1. learn the basic things (principles, constructions, etc) by heart to get the gist of what the structure might be like and
2. through this develop the feeling for that element. It is the case with everything - like driving a car.

At least that's what my own learning experience and that through my teaching (teaching some eastern martial arts for all age groups as well as private tutoring for pupils with or w/o special needs) told me.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Comrade Smack said...

This really bugs me a lot. Honestly, the English language isn't that difficult to pronounce to begin with. I really don't think lowering the bar for everyone is the answer. This really won't go far. And how is it that overhauling the whole language is the "easiest" step. That ought to make it difficult for /everyone/ instead of just those who'd have difficulty anyway.

Education is a very solid answer to a great deal of problems.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. My native language is Spanish where most words are already "simplified" but still we need spelling for a lot of words. "Simplifying" English would be a failure and would make it loose its beauty. I also think that spelling helps children develop memory and skills. Kids just need to study harder (or ultimately run a spell check on their homework LOL). Greetings from the US.

4:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think simplifying the spelling will help dyslexics, that is a ludicrous idea! I agree it would be a loss etymologically. I think the idea that simplified spelling would bring benefits to education or language learning is a myth. For me this suggested simplification sounds more like language vandalism!

9:59 AM  
Blogger kalliope said...

on a different note, i know it is not quite about simplified spelling...
but does anyone of you sometimes get the feeling that words just look - or in other cases sound - wrong? I get that for example with the German word for bathtub (and some others), I simply cannot look at it directly, it looks wrong wrong wrong and should look different. Although I cant quite tell why it's like that, i think it is because of the fact it consists of pretty much only fat letters...


9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To kalliope question. Yes, I experience this too - often on words with the length of 6 - don't know the german word for bathtub ;) - but it's really wierd.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Kjersten Cregger said...

Something I believe you failed to mention, Daniel, is pronunciation. In British English, "idea" would be phonetically spelt "eyedihr", but American English speakers pronounce it "eyedia" or "eyedeea", so one set of children or another would still be at a disadvantage, because words such as those would not be phonetic to them.
Also, if we were to spell things phonetically, we would lose subtle sounds. The word "aesthetic", for instance, is spelt that way for a reason. The "ae" sound would be lost, because to the untrained ear, that sound can just be "eh", turning the word into "ehsthetik", which I agree is not aesthetically pleasing at all. [Actually, words with the "ae" spelling in them, especially "aesthetic" are some of my favourite words.]

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely. The spelling conventions of English are not the most logical, but that is what makes it English. It is, I feel, one of the more interesting unique languages of the world for that very reason - the are situations in which pronunciations and spellings are not perfectly clear cut. It makes the language interesting.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Elias said...

Hi Daniel,
I once did a research on the alphabet and other writing systems like syllabaries and ideograms.
During that research, I came across a project that Bernard Shaw had conceived. One that would accurately symbolize each phoneme of the English language with a single grapheme. For example, the word "thought" would be written using only three characters. It was from this project that the Shavian Alphabet was created, unfortunately long after Shaw's death. It has around 48 symbols that represent the different sounds heard in the English language. It's usefulness lies in the assumption that guessing the spelling of a certain word by someone without the knowledge of grammar would be easy just by hearing it and writing down the symbols for every sound that the word is comprised of.

I agree with the idea that such a simplification is destroying the history that lies in the spelling of each word. The spelling includes so much info on one's culture and it's unforgivable to just delete it by doing away with the writing of a difficult pronounciation. Furthermore, the human brain, when reading, is viewing the word as a whole and synthesizes only new words from the letters they are written. It's something that will happen no matter how the word is spelled, be it "idea" or "eyedihr".

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Stefaan Eeckels said...

Don't forget that the whole body of English literature and science writing would either have to be transliterated into the new spelling, or become inaccessible to the users of "simplified" English. Do we really want to make access to historical texts the privilege of a handful of scholars? A people that loses its history loses its future.

I've found no particular advantages to the more phonetic spelling of Dutch or Spanish when it comes to learning the written language. There are no fewer dyslexics amongst the speakers of these languages, the condition is caused by the inability to group letters, not the perceived correlation between the spoken and the written word.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Stefaan Eeckels said...

Mark Twain got it quite right (as usual):

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling
by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Steve in Maine said...

Here here! I mean, hear hear!

6:36 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

One of the most amazing things about the English language is it's ability to assimiliate and embrace new words or words born from different cultures.
This is only possible because of its rich heritage, a product of .....
assimiliation and embrace. If you try to simplify it, you remove its ability to expand and grow, and at this point of our history, this ability has never been more important.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous K. Wyse said...

I find it amusing that I was having a discussion with friends on the state of English spelling in schools only the other day, and am now contributing a comment to a similar discussion.

My background: I am of Chinese heritage and I learnt English as my second language when I was seven. Due to my love of reading and the fact that my studies require me to have above-average literacy skills (essays, etc.), my English is more fluent than my Chinese.

My views: I can understand the idea of wanting to simplify the English language in order for more people to become literate. However, such a solution does not address the core root of poor literacy.

One gains proficiency in any language by repeatedly using the words and sentence/grammar constructs correctly. One teacher of mine used to say: practise does not make perfect - practise makes permanent. To simplify the language does not remove the need for people to read and write often.

The way I see it, along with a decrease in children reading, inadequate teaching methods and bastardisation of English on the internet all contribute to poor literacy.

Phonetic spelling, while a good idea in theory, is a bit backwards. It teaches children to spell according to the sound of the word. This introduces a minefield of confusion especially when one has an interesting accent. From the spelling you can easily learn how to pronounce a word, and yes there are exceptions, and two similar words may belong to two different patterns of enunciation, but the patterns exist nevertheless. To learn to spell from the sounds (as opposed to learning to make the sounds from the spelling), is a bit like throwing a dart in the right direction but with a blindfold on. I wish there was more discipline and rote learning of spelling in combination with useful phonetic spelling. Nothing supercedes repetitive memorisation.

Which brings me to my next point. If constantly using the language is the easiest way to learn it, then repetitively using it wrong results in poor spelling. It's like some feedback loop that feeds into itself over and over again. If you have children who cannot spell, and they're communicating with other children using poor spelling and grammar (in e-mails, etc.) - the dialogue between them encourages and reinforces bad habits and poor literacy. Add to that a lack of input of proper English, these kids are at a huge disadvantage. Simplifying the language will not change this, because you'll be structuring a new set of rules that they must abide by i.e. a new set of rules they must learn and use, which they may not follow in their personal communications - and this is where they use the language the most.

Coming from a language that has a simplified version. Let me tell you that it makes not one iota of difference. Not only do I have to learn the simplified version, but I also end up memorising the traditional "difficult" version, because printed media still use it, and because it is not impossibly difficult. The human mind is an amazing thing.

I can truly sympathise with the good-intentions of the protesters. Being unable to spell and/or read is embarrassing and humiliating, and I'd hate for a child to grow up feeling like they were stupid. However, simplifying the English language is not the solution.


10:12 PM  
Blogger andrew said...

If you simplified the spelling, all joy of that poem would be lost. It amused me greatly.

My other argument against simplifying spelling is this:

How often have you looked a word up in a dictionary to try and find out how it is pronounced? Just about every dictionary I've ever seen has offered a phonetic spelling for each word, although i personally find it more convoluted (a beautiful word) than the actual words themselves

7:22 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'm glad to see you weigh in on this issue (even if I have come to it a bit late). I just read your book and greatly respect your opinion on matters of language.

I also want to take this opportunity to bring something to your attention, something I hope you may find interesting. I am a doctoral psychology student, and your autism-spectrum condition is intrinsically interesting to me. But even more, your description of your experiences growing up made me think of a review paper I recently wrote on the human "mirror neuron system."
If you've never heard of this system before and you're interested in possible neurological explanations for autism-spectrum features, I strongly encourage you to give it a look. Reading your description of having difficulty learning to tie your shoe laces instantly made me think "mirror neurons!"
You've done so much and been so generous in helping us to understand you and your gifts, that I wanted to share this information with you so that you may better understand yourself.
If you'd like to read the paper to get a crash-course on mirror neurons, feel free to email me at and I'll be happy to provide it.

Scott M.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Davinia said...

I agree with you Daniel. I have heard that there are people who want the English spelling simplified and it makes me very upset. I was raised bilingual. I learnt to speak English and Maltese at the same time (I am from Malta). My experience with learning the two languages was different for each. Since living in Malta would make me more exposed to Maltese, I learned the language primarily through the aural dimension, therefore the language has a musicality to it, for me at least. However, learning English was and still is something extraordinary for me. Although I was exposed to spoken English, I owe my fluency to my being such a bookworm. I have always been very good at spelling, especially with English (which would be deemed more difficult than Maltese as the latter has concrete rules, and very few exceptions). When I read, or am asked to spell a word, the letters, which all have different moods and colours to me to begin with, all take on a different position until the result is a blend of colours/light. I am mostly able to spell English words I've never encountered in life or reading because of this. Taking the example of 'idea': this word to me starts and ends in bright white, with moderate tones of a bright and a pinkish red, and a green undertone (that's the 'e'). To me that feels like the correct spelling, or mood even, for the concept of an idea. On the other hand, 'eyedihr' is a jumble of colours which do not make any kind of sense together. The green is very prominent as both 'e' and 'r' are on the green part of the spectrum, but then there are violent yellows and oranges which do not make sense at all, especially as the word 'idea' is linked to similar words in Latin which have the same colour tones. I give here a very subjective experience of spelling, and though long-winded, my point is that the spelling the English language has adopted was not arbitrary. It derives from words from other parent languages and makes cohesive sense in that way. Simplifying the spelling because some people may be too lazy to try and learn the proper spelling is to me a bastardization of the language, and a shame. I hope they scrap this idea altogether.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I agree that English in particular is harder to learn than most other languages, espcially for childred with learning disabilities. I'm currently tutoring a third-grader in reading and she has difficulties with C's. I understand the need some people would have in changing the way our language works, but I think it would undermind all of us who speak and understand our language and the history of a language spoke throughout the world.

10:01 PM  
OpenID rhythmunbroken said...

Wow! What amazes me is that this group for Simplified Spelling thinks they are helping people with dyslexia. Understandably, learning written language is hard for people with dyslexia but it is still do-able. I have dyslexia and if they went and changed everything to this "simple" method, I'd be illiterate. I learned to read and write through memorizing and making up patterns about words and spellings in my mind. Probably not unlike some of the ways you/Daniel perceives the world. I couldn't explain why that works for me but it does. Changing the rules would destroy the gains so many of us literate dyslexics have made. There is no way on this earth I could relearn language.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Annie Mehlhoff said...

I'm torn on this subject. As a writer and lover of the English language I think it's barbaric to rip it up all for the sake of "simplification." It's like seeing good friends be brutally mocked. I fail to see how it simplifies things when all it does is contorts words into mere phonemes. A word is a word not solely because of how it's pronounced, but how it looks. Writers, and particularly poets like myself, use words as physical representations of how we'd like to convey emotions. An idea has to be conveyed not only through auditory means, but by how the words look. Sometimes while writing I'll choose a word solely because of its appearance. With this simplification that would be impossible and the art of poetry would be considerably injured.

Besides, their argument is ridiculous! How would "simplifying" spelling in any way help people with hearing problems? They seem to be focusing only on phonetics, not actually simplifying spelling. It promotes laziness and a lack of respect for English. Does this mean that students can't study early English literature because of their lack of "simplified spelling?" What is really at stake here?

But as a behavioral therapist of children with autism, I can see how it would be helpful. Emphasizing phonetics definitely helps with comprehension, but then again, so does identifying a word solely based on the way it looks in print. Hmmm...

I suppose I find it atrocious and somewhat amusing at the same time. Picketing a national spelling bee is by far the funniest thing I've heard. What's next? Picketing a geography bee because really we all live on the same land and the idea of countries/nations is so antiquated?

Of course I feel ashamed for being American. We seem to ruin most things, especially language.

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Alex Kozlovsky said...

First of all, thanks for posting these comments Daniel. Raising public awareness about how wrong the idea of simplifying a languge is, is important :) Althoug it may not be at the top of the list of humanity's most vital concerns. I support all your points against the simplification - the 'technical' problem of distinguishing similarly pronounced words from each other, the asthetic feel of the language, etc., but I'd emphasize one that seems most important to me.

It is luring at first sight, but has a huge pitfall. A language, whether English, or ony other, is almost literally a mirror of the culture of a community, a nation, or an ethnic group. How word is constructed, what it looks like, represents its origin, which is the key to its meaning. To understand a word we need to know where it comes from, and that we can do by its 'DNA' - its spelling. Chopping words down to a 'simpler' version is like cutting off parts of a people's History. It's like disposing off, say, the original Mona Lisa in favour of a contoured drawing of it to make it easier for fine arts students to reproduce it in class. It's nice to have an easy language to use, but language is not an iron or a lawn moaner, its value is not just in its convenience and functionality. The meanings of the words, embedded in the way they are spelled, lie deeply in our collective and individual subconscience (never spelled this word correctly though :)), at the very bottom of our brains, and define, among other things, the way we percieve and comprehend our world and ourselves. Our language makes us who we are. We wouldn't want to get rid of parts of our mind just cause we don't see a point to carry it around at the moment, cause it's no use or whatever, would we?..
The whole idea just seems monstrously stupid to me.

Simplified language, by the way, is an effective tool to manipulate people's consciousness, get them stupid in the way the manipulator needs them to be. Once you've taken out an 'old' sense of reality from a human mind, you can stuff it with anything you want. Which was 'successfully' implemented in totalitarian societies, in communist contries for example. (Take "Novoyaz" - "The New Language" in the Soviet Russia for one, with its comprehensive trend to abbreviate everything)...

7:51 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Touché for Daniel. Sure, English spelling has its quirks, but it is a fascinating language because of that. All languages are interesting for their quirks, in fact! I say, keep the quirks! Let language evolve naturally - the way it will evolve anyway! After all, for years people, even the ancient Greeks, have complained about their particular language quirks. I saw we should enjoy them!

7:35 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

Hi Daniel,

I'm visiting your blog after reading your memoir for the second time. It's a book I hold dear.

If you haven't read it already, here's a rather humorous and human look at the Simplified Spelling debate (from The Believer):


We might discuss endlessly the beauty of the English language, but that is purely aesthetic and subjective, in my opinion. It is an inconsistent and heavily idiomatic language, sure, but I think you make in your original post a concise and solid argument against the (highly unrealistic) notion of simplified spelling. Bravo! I'm glad you touched on this topic.

Kudos to your readers for the thoughtful and compelling comments.

Carl in New Orleans

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also agree that the English language should remain the way it is, and particularly with Daniel's point about how the spelling of words tells us something of their history and origins. The spelling of words also shed light on their meanings- take the words verify, verisimilitude and verification. They all originate from the Latin veritas (meaning truth), and their meanings all relate to the concept of truth. Therefore, if I come across a word with veri- or verit- in it, I can have a guess at its meaning.
Wouldn't destroying these meanings from roots make English harder to understand?

10:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I am in Panamá, where they speak a form of English called guari-guari. Nobody learns to speak it in school, so they never learn how to spell it. So, when someone actually knows how to spell and tries to spell something, they do it phonetically. Clearly this is not a better way and illustrates the confusion that would result. Example - a sign near where I live says "naitofón" - any guesses? Well, you have to say it out loud to yourself. It is "night of fun"! So, how would you ever look that "one" word up in the dictionary!?

6:33 PM  
Anonymous David Harmon said...

Daniel, I agree with you on all points... Schoolboy's complaints aside, English spelling isn't even close to arbitrary -- it carries a great deal of information about the origins and relations of words. But the "simplification" proposals would be arbitrary, and would maim the language. I'd say that anyone who demands rigidly consistent spelling should go learn Esperanto,and quit bothering us English-speakers! ;-)

And I see someone already brought up Mark Twain's smackdown of the the idea. Funny how some bad ideas just refuse to die....

12:58 AM  
Anonymous David Harmon said...

P.S: I just finished your book, and loved it. I'm only "half an Aspie" myself (Non-verbal Learning Disorder), but I could certainly empathize with your difficulties growing up and coping with various stresses.

1:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never knew how to describe what I felt about spelling errors until I saw you in that documentary.
"How could they do that to such a beautiful number?!?"
It's wrong! It's just wrong!

2:25 AM  

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