Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Roomy, Rheumy and English Spelling

I seldom write about the English spelling system. When I taught linguistics, I always told my students to never feel guilty about making spelling errors, they are not the writer’s fault. English has an atrocious spelling system.

In fact, it is even worse than Gerald Nolst Trenite demonstrated in his now famous poem, The Chaos. This fact was impressed upon me when I briefly misinterpreted rheumy as roomy when I recently heard it. How can a language that spells words that are pronounced identically like these in two such radically different ways?

Why don’t we do something about it?” many have asked over the past century. The Simplified Spelling Society was established in 1908 and has had no impact over the past century. Over the same period, the orthography of Russian (1918), French (2004), German (1996), and Portuguese (2009), among other languages, have been reformed. Why not English?

Languages whose spelling systems have been updated are generally spoken in a nation with an Academy of Science with a language that oversees the “purity” of the language. Spelling reforms usually originate there, though the governments of these countries also show far more interest in language than those of most English-speaking countries.

English is spoken in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and is an official language of India. Changing the spelling would probably require  the involvement of the governments of at least a half dozen countries.

Governments have to be involved since there is always a backlash from those who prefer the status quo. In fact, most of the reforms mentioned above are today only partially accepted despite laws in some countries attempting to enforce reforms.

English, as readers of our daily Good Word well know, has borrowed most of its words from other languages, languages spoken around the world, wherever the British and Americans asserted their power. A reform that would cover all the various spellings of English sounds from its entire vocabulary—or even a siginificant part of it—would be very difficult, to say the least

All we can do is struggle with the English spelling system as it stands. We all hope our efforts here at alphaDictionary help our readers with that task.

2 Responses to “Roomy, Rheumy and English Spelling”

  1. Daniel Welsch Says:

    I just discovered your blog and I love it!

    I was thinking the other day about what would have to happen for English spelling to be standardized, and I don’t see how you could do it without making almost everybody in the English speaking world mad.

    For one thing, there are such a wide variety of pronunciations in English, that we would have to select one as the “correct” pronunciation for phonetic spelling. Imagine we picked a non-rhotic dialect, and for all us Americans “car” became “ca,” “far” became “fa” etc.

    Not to mention if we expanded the alphabet along the lines of the IPA, it could end up having around 48 letters!

    Not to say that it can’t be done. It would just be difficult.

    Keep up the good work on your blog.

    Daniel Welsch.
    Linguist and ESL teacher in Madrid, Spain.

  2. RobinGoodfellow Says:

    “Over the same period, the orthography of Russian (1918), French (2004), German (1996), and Portuguese (2009), among other languages, have been reformed. Why not English?”

    Change occurs because of the human action model: I am unhappy where I am; I visualize a better place; I see a realistic path from one place to the other.

    Just because some, forgive me, technocrat tells me something new is better doesn’t make it so. It is the same reason we never embraced the metric system–we’re rebels!

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