The future of written English

asierra mx 멕시코

Years ago I read an article by Isaac Asimov about how in a future the written English will be simplified. Words like "light" will be written as "lite" and so on. Just a few minutes ago I wrote "rithm" in a post in this forum. Later I found that the correct spelling is "rhythm". To my minimalistic taste, this overcomplicated spelling, which certainly doesn't help for the pronunciation, doesn't make much sense. What do you think?

April 2008
  • 관리자
    mark ca 캐나다

    Good question, Alejandro. We'll try and discuss this in a future podcast.

    May 2008
  • umadevi in 인도

    hello

    May 2008
  • [rjtrudel] aw 아루바

    Looks like Asimov was correct, at least based on how my nieces text each other back and forth, in what could be considered shortened English. It's such a bad habit they have. These kids can not spell for the life of them. It may not "make sense" to spell "rhythm" like "rhythm" but that's how it's spelled. I think languages in general with their complicated grammar do not make sense. Let's throw them all out and start over with Esperanto!!!

    December 2009
  • [will72694-001] aw 아루바

    I do not agree with that, but I can see it coming. In my opinion, a reformed, or rather, dumbed-down, spelling violates the heritage of English. The word light, for example, used to be pronounced as {liçt}. Its modern pronunciation obviously does not agree with that, but you can determine by its spelling that it is of an Old English/Germanic ancestry.

    I am a bit of a word nerd, so I like to know stuff like this. It's not exactly practical - and certainly not to the learner of English - but it is interesting. If we need to reform the spelling of English, why not just learn a separate language, like Esperanto as Rjtrudel suggests? What about French? Most French words are not pronounced like they are written, but you will never hear people suggesting an orthographic reform for the language

    Anyway, that was a long rant! It may happen, it may not. I hope it doesn't, however.

    December 2009
  • 모더레이터
    Yutaka jp 일본

    I suppose that simplified spelling might be both easier to pronounce and easier to write. But "overcomplicated spelling" is easier to "read," and is more suitable for fast reading.

    December 2009
  • 모더레이터
    SanneT gb 영국

    I don't mind gradual change as a language evolves, not only teenagers will always bring new expressions to a language and these words will later enter into everyday speech. A few years ago it appeared the Germans couldn't cope with their language anymore and it was decided to simplify the orthographic system. It may now be easier for foreigners to learn German, but from my point of view such a drastic approach is a loss. Enforced 'Volksverdummung'?

    December 2009
  • 모더레이터
    Yutaka jp 일본

    If you spell all English words using International Phonetic Alphabet(IPA), they are easy to pronounce and write, but ...

    December 2009
  • EnglishFishWish gb 영국

    One of the other issues with altering the spelling of words, is it affects our success with technology i.e. search engines. Say you want to find information about elephants. You search for: ellifints, or elefants, or ellyfints. But other people are searching for: elephants. We would miss out on results. The same effect may occur with corpuses and concordancers. Sure, technology can be programmed to include many varied spellings, but it also means more time wasted as we sift through the ones we think are useful or not.

    Second language speakers of English outnumber native speakers. However, second language speakers are made up of different nationalities/people with different native languages, accents etc.

    I don't see people agreeing easily. I wonder how and when the USA introduced its spellings which are quite different to UK, SA, NZ and Aus spellings? As far as I know the aforementioned countries all use traditional UK-origin spelling?

    July 2017
    • Maria2 gb 영국

      As you've resurrected a thread from 2008 and mention success with technology, specifically search engines, I can offer you information on your example relating to "elephants." Google is a very powerful player and its search engine will produce hits you are expecting if you use: "elephant", "elephants" or "big animal with trunk" as keywords. If on the other hand you use "ellifints" as you suggest, you will find that that you are linked to a region in France (following a suggested spelling correction), or if you use "ellyfints" as you suggest, you will get a variety of links which you may, or may not, find satisfactory.

      Google usually suggests the correction spelling of the keyword or keywords you submit to the search engine, and more importantly, rarely, if ever, includes spelling mistakes in the keywords identified when getting keywords of commercial sites translated.

      As for English Google requires when translating the keywords of a European company with a European based website, unless otherwise specified, is as it happens, American English. Only to be expected I guess :)

      July 2017
      • EnglishFishWish gb 영국

        I don't take much notice of the dates at all. Is it bad to resurrect threads?

        Not all people use Google though. I sometimes use startpage, or other search engines. The other issue is when people misspell a word, only to have it be a real word, just not the one they intended e.g. hare instead of hair. It's not a great example, but bear with me! :D People would get results that had nothing to do with their topic. I find this same issue arises when reading online or writing using software e.g. MS Word etc. i.e. software isn't smart enough to comprehend meaning, only the set sentences or phrases it may have been programmed to learn. For example, I could write sentences like the following, and the silly technology currently doesn't see an issue with it: How are bath of you doing?. I brought a new cup from the shop for £10. I've often encountered fellow Brits saying 'brought' instead of 'bought'. Probably not the end of the world!

        No matter what simplifications are made, there will probably still be difficulties with words to some level. I see patterns in our words in English, in terms of their spelling. Maybe teachers aren't bringing that to their students' attention....I know when I was learning French I was trying to find patterns, and my teacher didn't mention them. I had to ask the teacher specifically. Not all students may do this. I have to say, it was annoying! Also, many of our words have roots that are Greek or Latin, and the roots are important for explaining the meaning of the word. I do wish I had been taught more about these!

        This is a really interesting topic. Imagine if they did alter spellings, in some form. Would people conform though? Sometimes people do get very emotional about changes to language e.g. slangs, text speak, new words. Would road names change if they're named using awkward words? Would the tech giant 'Apple' have to change its name to 'Appil'? 'Google' to 'Googil'? 'Hewlett Packard' to 'Hewlit Packard'? Would we need to change the spellings of surnames?

        Ultimately though, I do wonder about our ability to think and learn, to adapt, if everything is made very very easy? Maybe we could all just have linguistic freedom to speak and write however we wish. We could all use different grammars and spellings too. How would this affect our thinking and behaviour when it comes to having to conform in other ways?

        On another note...

        In broad terms regarding this topic, I am a native speaker. I may view this entire issue very differently from a learner. Someone said in this thread, that we read the shape of a word, not the actual letters, which is true enough. However, it's easily done after years of practice, and especially as a native speaker. As a novice to a language, and someone who has to write tests, take exams and so on, then it's quite a different matter... then every letter DOES count.

        We have to learn rubbish at school that we will never ever use in real life, once we are adults and working. But we do it, because currently the system is set up so that you have to jump through certain hurdles to obtain certain achievements.

        July 2017
  • LILingquist us United States

    Things maybe could turn out that way as Western civilization as a whole decays. Whole sections of the population will yield to ignorance, and their mistakes and/or ignorance will become less stigmatized because "everybody" does it. However, it won't become the new "right" way to do something. For example, people may be more forgiving toward someone who doesn't know how to spell rhythm, just as they are more forgiving of teenage girls who get pregnant, but like single parenthood, "rithm" will never be regarded as the correct way of doing things.

    As technology progress, and it becomes easier to become more knowledgeable and more educated, people should spell and live better.

    July 2017
    • WinterShaker gb 영국

      Thing is, our writing system was intended to represent the way we actually speak. Spoken languages change over time, and if the spelling doesn't change as well, then the written language gets worse and worse at doing what it is actually supposed to do - represent the spoken language. If the internet is correct, the worst language* for this is reckoned to be Tibetan, which last had a spelling reform in eight hundred and something, and whose written form is insanely unrepresentative of the way modern Tibetan is spoken.

      We can make that choice if we want - I understand that when Thai writing was invented, they deliberately included letters for sounds that didn't exist in Thai, but that did exist in Pali or Sanskrit, just so that they could transcribe words from Buddhist texts in a way that would allow you to work out how they were written in the original, even though that made the Thai script more complicated than it needed to be to represent spoken Thai - but we shouldn't pretend that the old spellings which represent an obsolete pronunciation are somehow objectively correct just because they are old. They are only 'correct' because we in the Anglosphere have made the collective choice** not to update our spelling to reflect current pronunciation.

      *(of languages that actually use some sort of alphabet. Chinese seems to manage fine with ideograms, but that's a whole other kettle of fish)

      **(a choice which is admittedly more difficult for English because as khardy points out, there is no Pope of English spelling to issue a ruling)

      July 2017
  • khardy us United States

    We do not read phonetically. It has been shown that we quickly learn to recognize the entire written word as a unit and don't look at the individual letters. So when reading at speed we actually read spelled words in the same manner as Chinese et al. read their languages' logograms.

    "Rationalizing" all spelling abruptly would have a number of side effects:

    1. For some time reading would be much slower and more difficult because we'd have to sound out each word that no longer appears in its long-recognized form.

    2. We'd argue over which pronunciation, exactly, should drive the spelling. Is my camp bed spelled "kaht" or "kawt"? Is the executive's assistant a "sekretary" or a "sekatry"? If your answer is for each to spell as he pronounces, then we'd be stuck at #1 forever. In addition to wide variations in current pronunciation, pronunciation continues to change.

    3.The rich heritage of existing writings of all sorts would to a large extent become inaccessible to generations who would only learn the new orthography.

    4. Kids of south-Asian heritage could lose their advantage in spelling bees. ;-)

    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Scripps_National_Spelling_Bee_champions)

    A challenge to the acceptance of any systematic orthographic changes to English is the fact that, unlike a number of languages, there is no "national academy" or such group invested with defining an official version. There are some influential groups, and we regularly learn about a neologism become a "real word" when some dictionary or another decides to include it. But the only real change in English usage and orthography occurs organically over time -- those semi-official bodies such as the OED follow the language, they don't create or change it.

    As for how the slightly simplified American spelling diverged from British spelling, there is a brief but interesting discussion at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_spelling_differences

    July 2017
  • EnglishFishWish gb 영국

    Here's a very funny BBC article. A campaigner for spelling reform challenges a linguist who has no issue with current spellings. I was always fine with spelling, I didn't struggle much. What I DO find these days, is that the dominance of American English spellings online seems to confuse me at times. Sometimes I do have a momentary lapse where I can't remember the spelling of certain words, but a quick check in a BE dictionary and I'm good to go. :D

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6250184.stm

    The spelling-reform campaigner is confusing to me. I'm sure I've read that British children have difficulties in many subjects, not just reading/literacy? Isn't there a larger problem at hand? Or is it that she is cherrypicking to suit her argument? She uses phonetic spellings in many of her answers. In one of them she spells 'only' as: onely. I read that as the number 'one' with an 'ly' stuck to it. So phonetically for me, that was: wunlee. :( 'Onely' isn't phonetic at all! LOL! If I were to say that phonetically, rather than use my previous learning, it really should be pronounced as: oneelee. Or is she using a silent 'e'? The same silent 'e' she dislikes at the end of words?

    It seems that UK schools use 'synthetic phonics' (??) which if I understand correctly, is solely about phonemes. It excludes grasping the written message using context. Heck, children's books have gigantic pictures in them, surely we want children to learn that they ought to put 2 and 2 together? When we teach teens and adults English as a second language we most certainly do encourage them to read for context too! Language is about meaning. We can convey meaning using actions, facial expressions, intonation, emotion, and of course, words. Even when we read and speak sentences, we expect to see and say chunks. There are some approaches to teaching ESL that use chunking. We learn to recognise these chunks because they are repetitive and often customary in our social or work interactions.

    If we have autocorrect, why can't we have autocorrect for Standard British English? Most people use computers to write with, rather than pen and paper these days. I don't see the problem really. Also we have the IPA version of every word in a dictionary; isn't that enough?

    Truth be told, why don't people who want spelling reform use software that changes all conventional spelling to the version they prefer, because there will be different versions depending on accent or preference? Likewise, they can write in their own personal version of spellings, and the software can simply translate it into conventional spelling? This way, everyone can have it their way, without all the hassle and disagreements! :)

    July 2017
  • SilverWisdom pt 포르투갈

    Lit and lite are both already words. You can't and shouldn't be replacing 'light' with words which already have a meaning.The fact that most people are unaware does not eliminate their existence from the dictionary and vocabulary of the English language.

    How would you suppose we write about poetry, political or scientific matters? With emoji and abbreviations?

    Lets also not forget that simplification of English is the result of illiteracy. Why you would desire the continuation of this dystopian trend is unfathomable. It completely removes the richness of a language and the deeper ideas/meanings behind the carefully chosen words of an author.

    July 2017
    • EnglishFishWish gb 영국

      I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I know who you are addressing? I wanted to be sure that it wasn't me? Thank you.

      July 2017
    • WinterShaker gb 영국

      I think you're being a bit overly dramatic here. English is already full of homonyms - pairs of words that have both the same spelling and the same pronunciation but completely unrelated meaning, such as 'kind' = generous / 'kind' = type, 'duck' = crouch / 'duck' = waterfowl, 'box' = container / 'box' = fighting sport etc (wikipedia has a long list here - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_true_homonyms )

      We manage just fine with these. Ok, they will be a bit confusing to learners, but the spoken versions (the real language is of course the spoken language; writing is just an attempt to represent the spoken language) will be confusing anyway since they are the same sounds.

      Now, I agree that it is probably more trouble than it's worth to have a spelling reform to make English as phonetic as, say, Portuguese or Finnish - the upside is that written English will be much easier to learn, for native-speaker children and for non-native learners alike; the downside is that the vast corpus of existing literature will become less legible for everyone who learns the new system, but it is not totally crazy to have a spelling reform - for example Brazil and Portugal now cooperate to keep their spelling systems for Portuguese at least somewhat sensible - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reforms_of_Portuguese_orthography .

      If we take seriously your argument, that changing English spellings in a manner that would make the spellings more phonetic at the expense of creating more homonyms would "remove the richness of a language and the deeper ideas/meanings behind the carefully chosen words of an author", then that suggests that homonyms are destructive to the richness of a language generally, in which case, we ought to be seriously considering having a spelling reform to change the spellings of one of a pair of existing homonyms. Perhaps we could still put things in a cardboard 'box', but 'bocks' at an amateur level; talk about how 'kind' your neighbours are, and ask them what 'kynde' of tea they want, have to 'duck' to avoid hitting your head on the bridge over the river where a colourful 'doughque' is swimming, etc.

      TL;DR, there are sensible reasons why English spelling reform would be more trouble than it's worth, but no good reason to think that that it would be 'dystopian' or inherently degrading to the English language.

      By the way, what *is* the existing meaning of 'lite' that you are talking about? All I can find is the 'low-calorie / low sugar version of a food or drink' sense, and that clearly *is* a spelling simplification of 'light', not an unrelated meaning.

      July 2017
      • SilverWisdom pt 포르투갈

        I don't intend to have a lengthy debate.

        It's just not a necessary change and would create more issues with the language. It's already one of the more simple languages and to say it needs to be simplified further instead of focusing on the real issue of illiteracy and bad education standards would be a mistake.

        July 2017