For the first time in human history, there is a global language- but writing it is a mind-boggling challenge that taxes the vast majority of its users, hinders education, and promotes illiteracy. Of course, I’m talking about English and its insanely perverse spelling. This is especially problematic for schoolchildren learning to read and write, and the vast majority of what will soon be two billion people who can communicate in English, but use it as a second or third language. I have the solution, and it could ultimately lead to the survival of the language for millennia into the future.
There is a serious disconnect between saying something in English and writing it because written English is phonetic but in a very half-baked way. Languages with alphabets (most if not all Indo-European languages, Korean, Arabic etc) rather than logogram characters (like Chinese or Japanese) represent phonemes, or spoken sounds, when they are written. In most languages, you should be able to write a word you’ve never seen before and get it right. There are some notable exceptions, like French, whose words are full of redundant letters and any vowel sound could be written many ways, usually with consonants included. But no language compares to English for the apparent randomness of spellings. Just consider words ending in ‘ough’- those letters represent at least six different vowel sounds, and in ‘cough’, they even include an F sound!
I started to think about this problem in response to a blog by my friend Joss Bailey, about learning to read vs learning to think. It’s clear that children learning to read in English are handicapped by having to grapple with spelling. Children are demotivated when their mis-spellings are marked down in schoolwork, and that demotivation may spread to reading. Furthermore, research in 2001 at the University of Milan showed that Italian dyslexics do better at reading than their English counterparts, just because Italian words (other than new English imports like ‘bookmaker’) are written in an entirely phonetic Italian system.
English spelling needs big-time reform, but it’s way too late- the language is too geographically spread and embedded in too many diverse areas of activity. The last successful reform of English spelling was by Noah Webster with his 1828 dictionary, so American English at least has dispensed with some unnecessary vowels (in ‘humour’, for example) or French spellings (like ‘centre’). Nowadays, even if, say, the British set up a body to reform spelling, with the power over language that the Academie Française has, it would need to involve the EU, where it is the leading official language, every European education ministry (English is learnt by at least 89% of the EU’s schoolchildren), and a host of bodies from corporations like Nokia and Philips to organisations like CERN or ESA- and all that would cover just a single continent. In any case, the UK has less English speakers than the US, India or Nigeria, so any British claim to special rights over the language would be arrogant jingoism.
The answer to the spelling problem is to drop the idea of correct spelling completely and let anyone spell any word how they wish, as long as it is clear what they mean. Anyone who wants to spell ‘fight’ as ‘zpurjq’ isn’t going to get far because no-one would understand it, but if they wrote ‘fite’, everyone would. And if they want to use ‘2’ for not just ‘two’ but ‘to’ and ‘too’ too, that’s fine, and exactly what’s already happening in txt spk- the English used in text messages- or hip-hop culture, for that matter. Spoken words usually emerge by an informal, undirected process, where they are shared by enough people who understand the same meaning to be useful. There’s no reason why spellings cannot follow the same path, rather than be embalmed in a state of ‘correctness’ adrift from spoken reality.
The trend most likely to emerge would be that spellings over time become more phonetic. That would help everyone.
Here’s how some advice in a university department for undergraduates may appear in the year 2111:
If U r studying kors-units like The Late Sekond-Millennium Rize of Global Kulcha, U may find orijinal English tx difikult 2 reed, even tho most wordz R still in yoos 2day. But we strongly advize reserchers not 2 B yoozing vizual tx filters becoz in chop chop time they will rekognize wordz even but with old spelling or shift in meening. English speekers in C20 experiensd similar problem when they started reading Shakespeare, which woz ritten 400 yeers erlier. But just small effort enabld owa ansestors 2 enjoy full richness ov the great master-riters language and meening, even if they needed partikula wordz or frazez klarified. Go enjoy enhansd understanding ov yr orijinal txz 2, but no worreez- U looz no fais if U need 2 dubl-chek the okaizhonal C20 word!
I’m just guessing at how words unconstrained by ‘correct’ spelling would evolve- it may turn out quite different. It would be the people’s decision, not mine. As for the style, one thing you may have noticed is that I gave a slight Asian flavour to the above. Some have said Chinese will overtake English as the leading language one day, but that’s unlikely on two counts. First, unless written Chinese is spelt in pinyin, which uses the Roman alphabet, few but first-language Chinese will be able to write much of it. Secondly, the official Chinese language, Mandarin, is only one of a family of Chinese languages anyway, and is the mother language of only a minority of Chinese themselves. Rather than replace English, Mandarin Chinese is likely to modify it with simpler grammar and new speech-patterns.
Even before that, Indian English should gain the same international power as American and British English. Global communication and travel is already breaking down differences in regional variations of English and should stop it fragmenting into different languages. The future of English lies not just in London, New York and Hollywood, but equally places like Mumbai, Lagos and Singapore. Other places like Shanghai, Seoul or São Paulo, where at present it has just a toe-hold, will have their contributions to English as well.
Global English is still spreading. No-one can stop it evolving, not even spelling control-freaks. Let it happen- and to help it along, I declare: DETH 2 KORREKT SPELLING!