Four months ago, Kate Gladstone wrote me an interesting letter that deserved a better fate than falling between the cracks of everything else we do around here—but it did. Fortunately, it resurfaced recently and here is the dialogue between Kate and me thus far:
“As you know (and have ably demonstrated to the public), the pronunciation of the English language has dramatically changed over the centuries of the language’s documented existence, creating much of the present bad fit between English spelling and English pronunciation” (see The Chaos).
Since English spelling will foreseeably stay the same while English pronunciation will continue its long history of change, after several more centuries or millennia will there ever come a day when the sounds of English have changed far enough to destroy all useful remnants of a fit between spelling and sound?
In other words, could it ever happen that the English language would eventually get so far out of step with the writing system that hardly any words (or no words at all) had a phonemically transparent spelling, and reading had to rely 99+% (or even100%) on the memorization of words as wholes, even though the alphabet still existed and still putatively represented sounds?“
“After all, imagine what we would face if present-day English had standardized its spelling 1000+ years ago instead of only a few centuries ago: so that the word daily, pronounced /DEY-lee/, still required the ancient spelling “gedaeghwamlice”, and so on because nobody wanted to change the traditional spelling that showed how the word USED to sound a long, long time ago).“
Yours for better letters, Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair and the World Handwriting Contest
Even though this letter fits neatly in the “as-if-we-didn’t-have-enough-to-worry-about” category, it raises an important issue that goes to the very heart of alphaDictionary’s existence, an isssue that was very close to the heart of Bernard Shaw and other literary notables. So, I have to respond.
When I taught writing at Bucknell, I assured all my students that the spelling errors in their writing was not their fault: it was the fault of the English spelling system (orthography) itself and the publishing houses that oppose reform. I still think that is generally a true representation of facts even though I realize opposition to reform lurks in other quarters, too.
I don’t think Kate’s scenario will play out, though, for several reasons. First, the relation between orthography and pronunciation works both ways. Not only does the writing system (mal)adapt to speech, speech adapts itself to the spelling system (cf. the pronunciation of the T in “often”). Once a writing system is in place, phonological change slows down since language change is dependent on speakers never seeing images of words and having no concept of “correct spelling” (= ortho-graphy).
Second, the Web will eventually break the publishers’ control over what we read. In fact, we are probably undergoing spelling change now. If you watch the Web, you will see adaptations galore. Thru already appears over 100 million times on the current web (through 2 billion). Lite is a respectable spelling of light in some contexts. We can only pray that Imglish does not replace the current spelling system (LOL) and that we are not guided by pure frivolity in making changes.
If worse comes to worst, we really don’t need a close correlation between sound and meaning. In Chinese the relation is far looser than in English. Chinese uses pictures that represent meanings more often than sounds and Chinese society is burgeoning. So we can work around even a total disconnect betweeen sound and letter.
I would be much more frenetic in my activities at alphaDictionary.com if I thought my grandchildren would face greater challenges in spelling than I face. Until this problem at least reaches the level of global warming or the war addiction of our federal government, our efforts would best be directed to trying to bring our children’s spelling abilities up to the level of ours, maybe push them a bit beyond. To help in that task is the reason I founded alphaDictionary.com.