News 7. [underlined words and letters in the original are here presented as headings or in italics.]
On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 3.
NEWSLETTER. FEBRUARY 1985, part 4.
Section Five.See journal and newsletter articles by David Stark.
LANGUAGE AND SOCIETY.
FROM DAVID STARK.
I am often amazed by the ingenuity of spelling inventors and am confident that a reformed orthography can be perfected to meet almost any given criteria. There has been less time devoted to the problems of introducing a revised orthography to an existing, literate English-speaking World, but I am sure that the problems involved in this can be adequately defined and solved. However, I am less confident that spelling reformers are in a position to convince existing literates that there is a great need for reform, and that there are social benefits to be gained from the troublesome process of conversion from one orthography to another.
The last in-depth discussion I remember hearing on this topic was the paper of Abe Citron, entitled "Spelling Reform As a Redistribution of Power", presented at the Spelling Reform Conference in Edinburgh in 1981. I would like to start to redress the balance with this article.
There will no doubt be many people who will argue that all languages are equally difficult to learn, and that it cannot be advantageous for, say, Spanish and Italian to be more consistently alphabetic than our own, because their cultures, standards of education and political systems do not seem superior to ours. After all, it was English and French speaking peoples who created most of the great imperial and commercial empires of the last two centuries, and English and French have the most complicated of all the alphabetic orthographies in the World. This argument would admit that there will be some people who will fail to master reading and writing, but there will inevitably be failures in life, and anyway, the undoubted increase in poor spelling in recent generations is a good indicator of falling educational standards.
There is certainly a relationship between language and society, but it is more difficult to define this and determine which affects which. Rash claims have been made about peoples and languages, based in reality on social prejudice and subjective judgement. "French is the natural language for love, Italian for opera, and it isn't surprising that Germany should have spawned Fascism with such a hard, gutteral language, ideal for ordering people about."
It is no wonder that most scholars steer clear of such arguments, but with a little more linguistic evidence, the theories become more credible. I remember reading an article in the "Observer" by an English professor which sought an explanation for the lack of a formal form of the second person pronoun in English, a feature which is present in many other European languages. For example, in French one has to distinguish between people distant and intimate in order to know whether one should use "vous" or "tu" when saying YOU.
One can trace the beginnings of the loss of this distinction in English back to the time when the language was almost solely spoken by the peasants, who were all equals, and when the aristocrats and churchmen spoke mainly Norman French. The inclination was established, therefore, for social distinctions not to be applied to English grammar, although the separate, singular and informal forms did make a comeback in the King James bible with the words "thou", "thy" and "thee".
Scholastic research can demonstrate how linguistic features arose, but licence is required to interpret their effects on society today. The author of the article then went on to postulate that if, traditionally, a German businessman has to decide when to start using the familiar form of "you" when addressing new business associates, a first name relationship may take longer to foster, and he will also be less likely to call a more senior colleague by his first name, lest this is taken as a sign of disrespect. The lack of such formality in English grammar, and the consequent aid to social fluidity, should expedite the formation of business relationships among English speaking people. This is an attractive hypothesis (and gratifying if one speaks English), as it appears to be borne out by reality, especially in America.
The domain of spelling reform extends beyond an individual grammatical feature to the more general observation that English orthography is difficult and time-consuming to learn, and that this must have a detrimental effect on English speaking societies and peoples. Again, we can trace the reasons for the state of English spelling today in a fairly certain, scholastic manner. However, the translation of the effects of such a spelling system on contemporary society is more subjective, and anyone committed to spelling reform will start with the premise that traditional orthography is a liability and set out to prove it.
There are about 2 million adults in the UK with serious literacy deficiencies. An easier orthography would surely reduce this number and benefit society. In an attempt to extend literacy and education among their people, some countries have already simplified their spelling systems. China has greatly simplified its "picture" writing symbols with the desire to make its people more skilled and competitive in World labour markets.
China is of course a communist country, and would probably require more dramatic simplification of its orthography to match the levels of literacy and mass education of most western countries, which have alphabetic orthographies. Simplification of English spelling would seek to further extend the levels of literacy in English-speaking countries, thus extending the skills and effective democratic power of individual people.
It is surely no coincidence that Greece was the birthplace of both democracy and alphabetic writing as we know it today. In ancient Greece, if one knew how to pronounce a word correctly, one could also read or write it. The alphabet delivered literacy from highly educated and privileged kings and priests to more numerous merchants and scholars. The spread of knowledge mushroomed thanks to the alphabet.
It is an apparent anomaly, therefore, that English and French, the two languages whose adherents have done most to develop and promote modern democracy, have themselves the most complicated alphabetic orthographies, Perhaps traditional English orthography has been beneficial to democracy as it developed. Explanations must be sought.
All languages are difficult for foreigners to learn. They contain unusual constructions, grammatical irregularities, subtle semantic nuances, and a host of other linguistic complexities which make them memory intensive. Languages cannot be learned by quick formula or straightforward logic.
One has to "live" a language to learn it properly. This gives native speakers an advantage over foreigners who might seek to enter a society from outside and take advantage of its knowledge and institutions.
A language is a key to knowledge, the key only being available to those who have the time or take the time to learn it; and during this time, these people can be inculcated with the standards expected of them when using the language. If this is true of spoken language, it is even more true of written language, especially in a democracy.
It is an absurd notion to expect millions of people to have a say in the way they are governed without experiencing chaos. It is so absurd that only a small number of countries in the World can claim to be true, stable democracies. Freedom of information and freedom of expression are the two main pillars of democracy, and in the fight to obtain and preserve these, the pen is mightier than the sword. Would it be sensible to hand out swords to all and sundry without first ensuring that they could use them responsibly?
If it takes time to teach English literacy, there will be time to instil the rules, standards and laws expected in adulthood. Lots of practice is necessary to learn to read and write, and the establishment controls the subject matter for this. Furthermore, if the British Empire was built on the misery of childhood, what better way to drill children than by learning spelling lists; to discipline them by punishing them for the inevitable-spelling mistakes; and to teach them obediency by encouraging them to accept certain things (like spelling) to be correct and irrefutable, no matter how unreasonable they might seem.
In a democracy, a difficult alphabetic orthography is better than an ideographic one, like Chinese, because it is less complicated to teach. A difficult alphabetic orthography is better than an easy one, like Spanish, because it extends the level of difficulty between reading and writing. Reading, being less precise, is the easier of the two to learn, and English reading is probably not much more difficult to learn for English children than Spanish reading is for Spanish children. However, English spelling is a great deal more complex. This means that English-speaking children will, by comparison, assimilate more information by reading before they will have mastered spelling. In theory, it would be impossible, unlike say Spanish, for someone to conquer literacy after only a few years of education (and indoctrination), and proceed to publish convincing revolutionary and anarchic pamphlets.
To master English spelling has been a major part of the initiation procedure for acceptance into positions of power and influence in society. Spelling mistakes were ridiculed, dampening the confidence of the poor speller. Employers would judge, and still do judge, the educational abilities of potential employees by their spelling correctness.
If spelling reform is to succeed, reformers would have to reassure existing literates that their cherished culture, which is associated with their conception of written language, will not be shattered if spelling is simplified. If my theory about the historical relationship of English orthography and the development of modern democracy is correct, reformers must persuade critics that the democracies in English-speaking countries are now sufficiently robust to allow easier acquisition of literacy, and that the persuasion of the modern media plays a similar stabilising role to the one which an authoritarian educational system once did. Reformers must also argue that easier acquisition of English by foreigners is important in extending the international influence of the English language, which may hold the greatest promise of security for both ourselves and the whole world in advancing international understanding.
I have a "gut feeling" that spelling reform for English would be correct, and am trying to develop and justify the concept. However, I also recognise that many people I speak to have a "gut feeling" that traditional orthography should not be tampered with, a feeling which suggests reasons for objection beyond the obvious ones they cite - inability for future generations to read traditional literature, loss of homonyms, forcing spelling into a dialect straightjacket, etc. The strength of this feeling is such that they seem to defend traditional orthography with the same passion that they would defend the soil on which they were born.
Discussion about cause and effect in society is in the realm of reasoned opinion, not within the confines of strict rules of scientific calculation or research, with which spelling reformers might feel more secure. Reformers cannot restrict themselves to alphabet manipulation and ignore the resultant social engineering which gives reform a reason for existence. They cannot take it for granted that traditional orthography is a failure, and that a reformed spelling will be a success. The social effects of both must be fully defined and explored if hearts as well as minds are to be won.
Comment.I agree with David Stark that spelling should indicate the way to pronounce a word, and that simpl spelling would make for mor literate peopl and that that can lead to an enlightend democracy. But I don't agree that poor spelling indicates a falling of educational standards, it merely indicates that teachers think that other matters ar mor important. If the educational standards had declined, how could it be that since my childhood peopl hav gon to the moon, and to the depth of the sea, have calculated the beginning of life and the cold finish of the earth? It is todays teachers who hav started children on the way to dealing with all that. They should be congratulated! As for the notion that the disiplin of learning our spellings led to the creaton of the empire - that was braut about by discovery and trade and the victory in battle of illiterat soldiers for the Empire was ours befor the Education Act. Learning peculiar spellings produces nothing powerful but a simpler phonetically pronouncable English Spelling miet.
See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology and Bulletin articles by Abe Citron.
Words cut for speed in the "Computer Age"
by Professor Abe Citron.
Readers miet hav fun making sentences of the words and asking someone els to read them.
SPD SPLG 100 Speed Words
Total letters svd per million words is 568,014
"Freq" means frequency per million (variously selected) textual words. "l.s.p.m.w." means letters saved per million textual words. The one and two-letter words of this list (52 wrds) will furnish to a child or an adult over 30 % of the words needed to write and read English at the high school level. The total hundred words, having a frequency of 361,026 furnish 36% of the words needed. They save over 10% of the letters used in writing English.
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On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 3.