Why English Spelling Reform Is Doomed
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As we saw last week, the main reason that spelling is not a one-to-one correspondence of sound-to-letter is because our writing system was created a long time ago, when English sounded different than it does now. It sounds different now because all human languages, everywhere, are in a constant state of change, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. Over very long periods of time, those changes are what create new languages.
The changes in different areas of language occur at different rates and in different amounts. Sound changes can happen fast, and are often the most noticeable, in that we use most of the sounds in our language almost every time we speak for a few minutes. Word changes—like the addition of new words—happen to individual words, so such changes are not quite as noticeable. Language syntax (word order) changes the slowest. You can see cases of this from Shakespeare’s time, when people said things like “I know not.” Now, we put the not before the verb know, and we add an auxiliary verb do as well. Syntactic changes like this take time.
Let’s talk more about how the actual words we use change a little faster than the order in which we use them, or at least, we can witness some vocabulary changes. In the past few decades or so, we have seen hundreds of words added to our language, as things are invented and discovered, such as GPS, zoodles, and unfriend. We can also notice shifts in meaning, which is when a word that used to mean one thing now means a new thing. For example, gay, which a few decades ago meant “happy.” Another type of meaning shift is when words that had a neutral connotation become more derogatory, like retarded, which is very offensive now but quite recently meant “delayed,” or “slow” (like the music term retard).
Now, the thing about these language changes is that they do more than occur over time: They also exist at a single point in time, across regions and social groups. The English in the United Kingdom sounds very different from American English—few words are pronounced the same. These differences in the way people from different regions sound are so reliable and systematic that actors can “put on” the accents of people from another speech community.
Like sounds, words in a single language vary at a single point in time as well. Just like those slow changes over time, regional vocabulary differences are less noticeable than sound differences. Only a limited number of words are different. For example, a lift in Britain is an elevator in America, and a climbing frame in Britain is a jungle gym in America, and you might not hear any of these words in a five-minute conversation. Even across the U.S., we have multiple words for rubber band (called a gumband in Pittsburgh), milkshake (called a cabinet in Rhode Island), and hundreds more.
Finally, the syntax of one language, as expected, does vary at a single point in time, but it varies the least. One example is that many British speakers say “You could do,” instead of “you could,” and American English speakers do not. For example, if I ask “Should I go home?” in the United States, someone might respond, “Sure, you could,” but in Britain, someone might respond, “Sure, you could do.”