I understand that English has a lot of history and lots of weird corner cases come from French or German origins. However, even native English speakers no longer speak nor write identical to Shakespeare style so some change is (accidentally?) occurring over time.

Why is most of that historical stuff not declared as historical and replaced with Current English language? (I know there exists "Old English" and "Modern English" where neither are modern nor current.)

Why is the 'o' in 'woman' still pronounced different to 'o' in 'women'? Wouldn't it be better for everybody to decide either the written or spoken version as definite and fix the mismatch?

Yeah, I get the point that the work You and I have done to learn all those little peculiarities would get lost but I'm thinking about the society in large. Keeping all those historical mishaps does not seem worth it.

Even though this is not exactly about currently written or spoken English, I have to wonder why are there still so many irregular verbs? Why not declare that e.g. speak/speaked/speaked is the current version instead of irregular historical version? I would assume that all native and most non-native speakers could guess from the context what "speaked" might mean so the change would not be so radical.

Disclaimer: I'm not a native speaker. My mother tongue is Finnish which IMHO is overly complex but there's at least some effort to keep the written and spoken versions in sync.

  • 3
    And replacing "speak/spoke/spoken" with "speak/speaked/speaked" would not be an example of replacing old forms with "the current version", since the latter set of forms does not exist in English. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Jun 13 '17 at 15:54
  • 1
    An interesting counter-question is why English is becoming the world's second language, and whether that's a good thing. – Xanne Jun 14 '17 at 19:19
  • 2
    "Why not declare that e.g. speak/speaked/speaked is the current version". Who would declare this? There's no body analogous to L'Academie Francaise that legislates the English language. And even in France, many of their pronouncements are ignored by the common folk. It's really hard to control how people speak. – Barmar Jun 14 '17 at 20:33
  • 1
    There seems to be two directions of this question, one about spelling (woman/women) and one about grammar (speaked/spoke). With regards to grammar, people do mostly already write fairly closely to how they speak (for standard English, especially as written English allows more informalities nowadays). But about spelling, that's just a cultural choice to maintain much older spellings (including old chaotic choices) instead of reflecting the result of regular sound changes. In Finnish, which has one of the closest one-to-one mappings from sound to writing, the cultural choice is to modify writing – Mitch Jun 14 '17 at 20:54
  • 2
    English is constantly updated. The language references, like dictionaries, are continually updated to reflect current usage. There are just various lags in how long it takes for popular usage to be recorded and reflected in different reference materials. Text books are on a longer cycle. School curricula longer. – fixer1234 Jun 14 '17 at 21:00

Remember that Finnish has around five million speakers located in mostly one place; English has around a billion speakers all the world around. Keep that dramatic ratio in mind when you read the rest of this.

The answer to your question is because, as the Wikipedia page on language regulators indicates, nobody "updates English". The very notion makes no sense, given that how English is written and spoken is subject to no law nor treaty. Who would update what, where, and how?

Suppose one of the many nations that have English as its official language were to pass a law requiring that all written English be spelt in this or that way.

For example, suppose the Cook Islands made such a law, with suitable fines and punishments meted out to those using now-illegal spellings. Just how would that work on existing libraries, on imported books, on internet postings?

There can be no "updates" here, for there can be no global enforcement authority. All there can be is general recognition, with acceptance and consensus probably too much to ask for.

But that's good news, not bad. It means that you personally have just as much say in writing the language you please as the rest of us have. Therefore if it pleases you to spell things differently, then by all means go ahead and do that: no lashes shall be levied upon your shoulders for deviation from custom.

But don't expect your personal political statement to gain much traction, either.

Also please think about this: English around the world is not all pronounced the same way. At all. That means that if you chose one dialect’s pronunciation as the canonical spelling for everyone everywhere, then you would be spelling things "wrong" according to many other dialects.

There is no one single "correct" English pronunciation. So you will never be able to spell things the way everyone says them, no matter what, because there is no such standard way that everyone says things in English.

  • This seems to interpret the question as asking about entities prescribing the rules and usage of English. My read is that the question refers to documenting the ongoing changes in the living language. – fixer1234 Jun 15 '17 at 4:40
  • I think this is the best answer for my question. In short, I was looking for an answer to question "Why not fix the spoken or written version to match the other when there is clear mismatch currently?" Basically the answer is "Nobody can do that because so many people are using the language and nobody has the required authority." – Mikko Rantalainen Jun 20 '17 at 18:20

I don't think it's exactly correct to say that in Finnish there is [more] "effort to keep the written and spoken versions in sync".

I don't speak Finnish, but there is an interesting discussion on the blog Languagehat that I think is relevant: Finnish Language Maintenance. You would know better than I to what extent it is true, but my impression from what I have read about Finnish is that there is a situation of moderate diglossia: there is not one spoken version and one written version, but there are different versions of the language for "formal" use and for spontaneous use.

In Finnish, the "formal" version of the language is written, but also pronounced differently from the "spontaneous" versions (which is why standard Finnish has to be "maintained"). In other words, standard Finnish is a rather "artificial" language that speakers don't think of as having to be the same as the language that people naturally grow up speaking. It's easy to say that the spoken version is "in sync" with the written version because neither is expected to be the same as what native speakers use by default.

This is not the case for standard written English! For the most part, English speakers write as they speak, and are accustomed to thinking that they should speak as they write. There is no body that defines "standard" or "current" English language; it's just the most prestigious form that is based on things like the usage of famous writers of the past and powerful, upper-class or influential people of the present. The cultural expectation is that the language used in everyday situations by a native speaker with educated parents is "good" English. It's not just an artificial standard that no one is expected to follow outside of formal or written situations.

The language I'm using in this post is more or less the same as the language I would use speaking to a friend. Writing means that I can think about my words more, and so use more complex sentence structures, but the words and word forms that I'm using are all pretty normal for me in any kind of spoken situation.

Now, this situation exists for me as a relatively "privileged" American. There are certainly people who naturally speak varieties of English that aren't considered standard. However, they aren't just under pressure to use more "standard" forms in writing: they are also expected to speak "good" English in situations like job interviews, at minimum, and a number of people act as if using non-standard forms in any situation is "wrong".

There are some areas of pronunciation and grammar that tend to become simplified in informal contexts.

  • For example, I occasionally do say /wʊmən/ by accident for the plural form of "women", and although I don't think this is very common, I have read anecdotal reports of other people doing this (see New Zealand pronunciation of "women" vs "woman"). This pronunciation of "women" is stigmatized as uneducated. Spelling "wimmen" would also be stigmatized as uneducated. People with a good education are supposed to know unintuitive correspondences like this; if they were more regular, they would be easier to learn with less education.

  • Verbs with distinct past and past participle forms are fairly often simplified to make these the same (see Is the past participle becoming obsolete? (I have went)); particularly for certain classes of verbs, like the ones with i-a-u alternation such as drink, drank, drunk (many speakers use drank as a past participle).

But these kind of situations are not the norm. Most native English speakers don't say "spoke" because they consciously decided to do so: they say it because it's what comes naturally to them. So it makes sense to also write "spoke".

Of course, the letter-by-letter spelling of individual words in English is infamously irregular, but to an English speaker this is expected. To most people, it doesn't seem as artificial as using different inflections or grammar when writing would.

  • 1
    Interesting discussion on Finnish. Something similar happened in Korean in the 80s, and even provoked some social discord between classes and generations. – Cascabel Jun 14 '17 at 20:16
  • As a native speaker I consider Finnish all "dialects" more as more or less lazy pronounciation or even slang. I'm from central Finland and it's common to pronounce e.g. lähdetään (let's go) as lähetään because that word cannot be mixed with any other word due to this mispronounciation and it's easier to pronounce. (The same commonly applies to other words with "hd" combination.) However, if you ask such a speaker which one is the correct pronounciation even most children will give the correct answer. – Mikko Rantalainen Jun 20 '17 at 18:06

It's a very simple reason: Most people already know English phonotactics (word-level sound patters) by the time they learn to read, so the spelling of a word is not telling them how a word is pronounced. The written representation only needs to be detailed enough to remind the reader which word is intended (not how it's pronounced).

  • Yeah, I get that it works this way for the native speakers. However, then you get weird things like "Spelling bee". In Finland, it will be hard to get to the second grade if you have trouble spelling any words. I would expect spelling to be easier to native speakers, too, if written words more closely spoken words. Basically I'm asking why the written version is not fixed to match the spoken version if the spoken version is considered the correct one. – Mikko Rantalainen Jun 20 '17 at 18:16

The English language is constantly updated. See for example Recent updates to the OED. Dictionaries (OED for Britian and Websters for the USA) were created to provide standards for the written language. Language academies were established in many European countries "to codify and normalize all aspects of language. This trend did not catch on in English-speaking lands and there has never been an officially recognized academy for standardization either in Britain or the U.S." 1.

One can say that the English speaking lands let the market (schools and publishers) decide the standards and not the government(s).

  • 1
    Regarding Shakespeare, if you want to see just how much impact he had on the English language, read his contemporaries e.g. Daniel Webster's "The white devil". The language of Shakespeare's contemporaries is very different from Shakespeare's and by today's standard's much harder to understand. – MikeJRamsey56 Jun 15 '17 at 0:17
  • 1
    Also, can you imagine the government managing the Urban dictionary? It would just be painful to watch. :-) – MikeJRamsey56 Jun 15 '17 at 0:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.