fake letters

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

english has the most unnecessarily-complex spelling system of any modern language. while spelling is not necessarily-simple in many european languages, it is usually complex for a reason — mostly because the words are actually that long or have that many phoneme-groups in them. the letters usually represent how the word sounds. english, however, has a unique problem.

it’s not the evolutionary child of an ancient language with some other influences thrown in. it’s the child of two languages with competing spelling systems in approximately-equal quantities.

let’s think about where english came from.

english is the result of the language of the people (sort-of old german) being different form the language of the aristocratic and ruling class (close enough to old-french we can think of it that way). as these two pseudo-languages merged to create a new dialect, eventually a whole new language, they became less and less similar to the languages they derived from and closer and closer to what we now know of as english — a language that has no functional gender, german-influenced grammar and predominantly-french vocabulary — with many exceptions to these rules, of course.

in many cases, english has four words for the same thing — one each from french, german, latin and greek. almost everything has at least two, the french and german roots shifted to english. what this has done is created the largest language of borrowed-words that’s ever existed. nearly 100% of words in english aren’t just etymologically-related to words in other languages. they’re taken either completely or slightly-modified from their original forms.

what this has meant is that english didn’t create its own spelling or writing systems. it took those that already existed in german and french, the french being derived from latin but german having its own decidedly-unlatin version.

this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if english had simply chosen one and used that, modifying words borrowed from other languages to fit its single writing-system. but it didn’t. it incorporated the french letters for french-derived words and most coming from latin and other romance languages. it used the german spelling-system for words from german, most of what came from greek and almost all eastern-language-derived words. the result is the mess we now call written-english.

let’s take a look at a few examples before we talk about it in more general terms so you can see the scope of the problem.

  • knock
  • muscle
  • design
  • column
  • whistle
  • knowledge

these words are pronounced, if you don’t already know…

  • nohk
  • mus-l
  • duh-sin
  • kawl-uhm
  • uis-l

so what are we actually seeing here? k can be pronounced or not. c can be pronounced or not, sometimes as s and sometimes as sh, other times as k. w is sometimes a composite vowel, other times completely absent from the pronunciation. n can have a sound or be ignored, as can g.

the problem is not trivial. when trying to go from written english to speaking, how can a learner tell if the g in design is pronounced like the g in good or the g in high (as in, not pronounced at all). how can they know if the c in muscle sounds like the c in pick, car, church or scene (where it doesn’t actually appear on-scene at all, auditorily-speaking).

the process in the other direction is even more confusing. why is “column” not spelled “kolum” or “design” not spelled “desain”, “muscle” not “musl” and “knock” not “nok”? it’s not a logical answer — it’s simply tradition, linguistic history and an unwillingness to change — all, sadly, hallmarks of an english-speaking society. actually, spelling-reform and standardization is a huge part of the history of english. at the time of shakespeare, a massive spelling-modernization program made english a more-easily-written and somewhat-easily-read language compared to what it had been in the past, eliminating some of the historically-curious letters. but it’s never really had another organized reform since. compare that to french were government-backed spelling shifts have happened many times, the most recent being just thirty years ago. in german, an even-more-recent systematic reorganization of the language happened in 1996, making things far simpler for german students in the twenty-first century. english, though, hasn’t had a comprehensive reflection on its spelling in more than four-hundred years and it shows.

while the obvious answer is to scrap the outdated latin alphabet and shift to a featural writing system (i suggest a phoneme-supplemented version of hangul because it would be easier to adopt something that already exists — which english already did with the latin alphabet that had been around for millennia by the time english began to be written — than to create something completely new), an interim step might be easier for people to accept, especially the notoriously-uneducated english-language-native-speakers — this isn’t an opinion — english speakers speak their language less-precisely than any other native-speakers of modern languages. take your pick of the dozens of studies — whether this is simply disinterest (i suspect this is the majority of the reason) or because english-language schools actually don’t teach grammar as a general rule like schools teaching german, spanish, french, korean or chinese, focusing only on grammar in foreign-language-study courses and completely ignoring english, it’s hard to say and it’s likely a combination of these with other reasons.

so what can be done to simplify english.

first, the shift must be from “traditional” or “historic” spelling to standardize on phonemic spelling. what does that actually mean? words should be spelled how they sound, not as a reflection of their history or etymology. the word “scene”, for example, that we have just seen, has an extra “c” in it and a silent “e” at the end. english typically uses “ee” to represent “i” as a sound and that’s not nearly as much of a problem. but where does the “c” come from? it’s obviously not important because the same sound is represented by the word “seen”, the past of “see”. it comes from the older word “skene” (greek) that passed through latin as “scena” — by the time it reached latin, the c was already arcane and no longer pronounced. another example from our selected words that demonstrates it clearly is “design” — it comes from the latin “designare” whose root is “signum” — sign, as in something that demonstrates a meaning. in latin, the “g” is pronounced. by the time the word entered french as “désigner”, the g was irrelevant and “draw” in french adopted the same root and is spelled “dessiner” — no “g” at all. in english, the word would be just as comprehensible as “desin” without the “g” at all.

second, we must eliminate the unnecessary letters and ensure we have sensible patterns for composite sounds. “i” is used in english to signify neutral “ih”, pure “i” and grouped “ai” (among other things but these are the three main ones) — this can be seen in the words “sin”, “semi” and “sign”, just to use three simple and similar-looking examples. the problem in the other direction can be seen in the use of multiple letters to represent the same sound — “car” but “kit”, for example.

a more sensible set of constants doesn’t need to differentiate “c” from “k” or “s” — we simply need to decide which letter represents which sound and use it only for that. in this way, transcribing spoken english always has a single answer. the letters used are the only ones that make those sounds. and reading english is easy as every letter has a specific sound without exception.

once this has been done, shifting to a featural writing system is actually fairly simple because it involves no more than transliteration from one way of representing sound to another. while english persists in using many possible letters to represent each sound and many possible sounds to speak each letter, this transition to a modern writing-system is hopelessly complex and has to be done at the word-by-word level rather than simply running a series of letters through a basic algorithm.

taking some examples everyone already knows — “to”, “too” and “two”, “see” and “sea” or “there”, “their” and “they’re” — clearly demonstrates the potential confusion present in a language with flexible spelling that could be completely eliminated, removing a stumbling block for those who are trying to learn the language — but, as is very clear in the sheer volume of complaints about people misspelling words on the internet and the decibel-level of the hatred expressed in both directions, this isn’t just about students and most english-speakers simply can’t spell, either. it’s not because they’re stupid. it’s because the spelling is.

english learners, whether children or those learning as adults, have incredible difficulty with spelling yet it’s not just a question of education. this is an issue of social justice, too. we judge people for their ability to speak and write english clearly and correctly. if someone makes a spelling mistake, especially in an employment context, they are chastised and judged, often seen as unintelligent, despite the fact that spelling in english has nothing to do with logic or intelligence and everything to do with a history most minorities have been only on the receiving end of — particularly from a violence and discrimination standpoint.

keeping the current spelling system intact is simply an act of white-supremacy and maintenance of the status quo. inclusion doesn’t just mean encouraging equality in the workplace. it means removing the barriers created by unnecessary shame linked to things like education. while it is certainly important for everyone to be educated regardless of background or race, a society that judges people’s intelligence not on how well they can solve problems or complete tasks but the way they write words is decidedly-problematic. this is not about communication. there is a huge difference between judging someone for saying “i ain’t got nowheres to eat ma lunchtimes” (which is, admittedly, an awful assault on a language that is already painful to listen to) and “you sea, i got their just as the to others left hour table”. this sentence, while using the wrong spelling in several places, is completely comprehensible and has no structural or grammatical errors once the words are standardized to their common-spelling versions. if this person spoke an identical sentence, it would result in no shame — writing it, however, would likely result in judgment and an assumption of being both uneducated and unintelligent.

so english spelling is difficult and cumbersome, complex and arcane. it is all these things because it has simply not modernized and these historical anachronisms do nothing except stand in the way of those learning english or those not coming from a white-european background. don’t you think four-hundred years is a bit long for english to go without correcting these obvious and simply-repaired issues? thanks for taking a walk with me through the garden of metamorphic letters. may you have a day full of peaceful words.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.