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Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

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Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?
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GlossophilePosts: 12Joined: Fri Aug 14, 2015 6:57 pmLocation: Florida, USA Gender: Male

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

I arrived at the English/Chinese comparison independently, but although I must admit to not being able to track it down, I'm pretty sure I stumbled upon another person making a similar remark in my research a couple of years ago. In trying to locate the original third-party comment, I did find another one making similar statements (scroll down to "Words in General") .

Of course, the above linked version states that it mainly applies to experienced readers rather than young novices, and I agree with that. However, I would also argue that English orthography compels children to make the shift earlier and more completely than they would otherwise have to or risk falling behind. I summarized my reasoning here in the unabridged version of a published paper of mine (a "logography" is what you call a "pictography"):

~~~

Any code, however alphabetic in its underlying construction, will ultimately come to function as an effective logography in the minds of well-read literates. The holistic visual form of a word, regardless of the smaller units comprising it, eventually becomes a shortcut to recognition. Nevertheless, reaching this advanced stage will be greatly facilitated and catalyzed through the use of a system that builds words from sequentially arranged symbols with predictable sound values. This is why I prefer to give those who are still acquiring English literacy mild or even moderate priority over those who have already acquired it…While still developing holistic word-shape recognition, the young reader/writer raised with something like [my proposed system] would always have the more readily-acquired rules of individual sound-symbol correspondences on which to fall back, hence rendering him/her a bit slow at times but never as helpless as a comparable student of traditional spelling. With functional literacy no longer so contingent upon mastery of the logographic stage, most people would then spend a smaller proportion of their lives marred in illiteracy.

~~~

Anyway, the claim is not that English words function exactly like Chinese morphograms, merely that they drift more in that direction than most people think. This is because, in many cases, the phonic route to recognition is so unreliable that it's actually more efficient overall to just memorize the visual shape of the word as a whole. I suspect that the notability of the "whole-word" or "whole-language" movement in English literacy pedagogy testifies to this fact.

Of course, educational success is determined by a complex of variables, but I'm convinced that, although it is by no means the sole cause, the excessive complexity of English spelling is one of the most prominent ones and therefore no less worthy of being the first line of attack than any other. If you want to improve our success at teaching something and know that most of the difficulties trace back to a relative few (though still multiple) factors, one of which is that the system being taught is itself far more complicated than its function demands, doesn't that seem like as good of a candidate for a first strike as any other (if not better)?

What resources do you think spelling reform might make unavailable, and for what presumably more effective strategy?
The only sacred truth in science is that there are no sacred truths. – Carl Sagan
Sōla vēritās sancta in philosophiā nātūrālī est absentia vēritātum sanctārum.
Ἡ μόνη ἱερᾱ̀ ἀληθείᾱ ἐν φυσικῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ ἐστίν ἡ ἱερῶν ἀληθειῶν σπάνις.
Thu Jan 07, 2016 12:39 am
WarKChat ModeratorUser avatarPosts: 1176Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 9:59 am Gender: Tree

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

Hi Glossophile,

I got curious. Do you think that there is a language or languages that do spelling right? Or at least could be set as an example for English to try to mimic?
Also, what other languages get it as wrong as English?

Cheers
Did you see that ludicrous display last night?
Thu Jan 07, 2016 7:46 pm
GlossophilePosts: 12Joined: Fri Aug 14, 2015 6:57 pmLocation: Florida, USA Gender: Male

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

WarK, that's an excellent question! Two languages that immediately spring to mind are Spanish and Italian. German is also pretty regular, and Finnish seems even more so.

There is, however, a distinction which must be made between what I call "phonemicity," which is the degree to which any written word can be reliably pronounced, and what I call "graphemicity," which is the degree to which any spoken word can be reliably spelled. Spanish and Italian are both nearly perfect in terms of phonemicity, but in terms of graphemicity, they become less impressive. I think Finnish fares significantly better on the latter measure.

For example, both Spanish and Italian use 'h' as a silent letter. When seeing the spellings hilo and ironía, a novice can instantly know exactly how to pronounce both words, but when hearing the pronunciations of the same words /ˈi.lo/ and /i.ɾoˈni.a/, he/she cannot know whether to write hilo or ilo or ironía or hironía except by resorting to rote memory. In other words, the regular rules of Spanish spelling allow both forms of each word based on how they are pronounced, and it is only by conventional fiat that one or the other becomes "incorrect." Similarly, since 'g' is pronounced identically to 'j' before 'e' or 'i,' I know right away how to pronounce jefe, but I don't know just from hearing the same word aloud whether I should write gefe or jefe. I must have the correct form memorized rather than simply deriving it in a rule-based way from what I hear.

Greek is perhaps the best example of the fact that phonemicity and graphemicity don't always match. Greek is highly phonemic, but it uses several different letters for the same /i/-sound, which means that seeing any one of those letters automatically signals the reader to say /i/, but hearing the same sound presents the writer with an unpredictable choice between, for instance, ' ι,' 'η,' 'υ,' 'ει,' and 'οι.'

Most spelling reform advocates aim at least for higher phonemicity, with some also aiming for higher graphemicity as well. My personal stance is that both phonemicity and graphemicity should be at or very near 100%. What this would mean is that, using only a concise set of rules and no case-by-case rote memorization, no unique written form would have more than one possible pronunciation and no unique spoken form would have more than one possible spelling.
The only sacred truth in science is that there are no sacred truths. – Carl Sagan
Sōla vēritās sancta in philosophiā nātūrālī est absentia vēritātum sanctārum.
Ἡ μόνη ἱερᾱ̀ ἀληθείᾱ ἐν φυσικῇ φιλοσοφίᾳ ἐστίν ἡ ἱερῶν ἀληθειῶν σπάνις.
Last edited by Glossophile on Thu Jan 14, 2016 7:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.
Sat Jan 09, 2016 9:50 pm
WarKChat ModeratorUser avatarPosts: 1176Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 9:59 am Gender: Tree

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

Thank You for answering my question.

I had German at school and it was far easier to get the pronunciation just by seeing how a word was spelled than in English. Both German and Finnish seem grammatically more complex than English but I suppose this is outside of this topic.
Did you see that ludicrous display last night?
Sat Jan 09, 2016 10:32 pm
VisakiUser avatarPosts: 721Joined: Fri Nov 12, 2010 12:26 pmLocation: Helsinki, Finland Gender: Male

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

For Wark, an oldie but goldie:



That's not even made up, but proper finnish grammar. Yes, I know, finnish is an awesome language.

P.S. Sorry for the derail.
Mon Jan 11, 2016 12:53 pm
WarKChat ModeratorUser avatarPosts: 1176Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 9:59 am Gender: Tree

Post Re: Skeptical Perspectives on English Spelling Reform?

Visaki wrote:For Wark, an oldie but goldie:



That's not even made up, but proper finnish grammar. Yes, I know, finnish is an awesome language.

P.S. Sorry for the derail.

:lol:
Did you see that ludicrous display last night?
Tue Jan 12, 2016 6:43 pm
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