I just finished reading the question asked by Bobnix, in which RegDwight referred to another question with an interesting answer by Kosmonaut. Kosmonaut refers to the great number of pictograms (Kanji or Hanzi) available in Japanese and Chinese, and mentions that the task of memorizing our weirdo spellings pales in comparison to learning vocabulary in one of those languages.

That got me to thinking. When I first started studying Japanese, I first learned the two written versions of the syllabary, hiragana and katakana. And when faced with the formidable task of memorizing thousands of characters and their various readings, I wondered why, given the phonetic language, Japanese still stuck with all those originally Chinese characters. Were they just masochists?

But I dug in, and as I learned more and more kanji a strange thing happened. I realized it was actually easier to read the language with the kanji than without them, because so many Japanese words sound alike (or at least their parts do) and to render them in hiragana would force me to slow down and try to figure out which ほう (hou) they meant: 保, 俸, 倣, 剖, 報, 方, 法 or any of the others. Learning the more complicated writing method actually let me read faster, and to understand words almost pre-apprehensively. By that I mean something a little like looking at the hands of an analog clock and understanding the time without relating it to a numerical equivalent.

Now for English. We have sound-alike words like to, two, and too (or even tu, if you count Shakespeare's imagining of Julius Caesar's dying line). If we went to a strict phonetic spelling system, all those would be spelled the same. I think there are cases where such a thing would actually slow us down. And it may be that the more difficult and idiosyncratic the spelling is, the more likely we are (as Kosmonaut said) to remember it. Further, having remembered it may mean we are more likely to recognize it more easily. Or something like that.

This is just a supposition on my part. It has plausibility and feels right to me, but that doesn't mean it is right. I'd be interested if anyone knows of any information or research done on either side of this argument.

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    An abrupt change of current English to anything else would probably make it more difficult to read just out of habit. Non-uniform spelling has allowed different pronunciations not only for short letter sequences but for entire words (e.g. all the how do you pronounce x? questions). On the other hand, a language like Spanish has a strong correlation between spelling and correct pronunciation (as defined by the Royal Spanish Academy). I wonder if romaji would make Japanese reading easier to someone with little exposure to the Latin alphabet or the Japanese spoken language. – Jaime Soto Dec 10 '10 at 23:19
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    Very interesting question. Clearly, quirky spelling is not a necessary nor sufficient condition to easy reading, else phonetically-spelled languages would be considered impossible to read. I think it comes down to the fact that experienced readers of any language recognize entire words/phrases instead of sounding them out. If a writing system makes it hard to recognize words, then it is hard to read, no matter how simple or logical it might be in theory. – Marthaª Dec 11 '10 at 0:44
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    "And it may be that the more difficult and idiosyncratic the spelling is, the more likely we are (as Kosmonaut said) to remember it." I didn't say that being more idiosyncratic means we are more likely to remember it. If the spelling of a given word is idiosyncratic, we have no choice but to memorize it. That doesn't mean it is easier to do things that way. – Kosmonaut Dec 13 '10 at 21:06
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    @Robusto: You said that your idea about irregular spelling and ability to memorize were just supposition. Keeping with that, I don't think we can assume that it is easier to recall irregularly spelled words; my intuition is that it would be the opposite. So that is why I made my clarifying point. I don't think it is minor; I think it is central. For regularly spelled words, we can still memorize the more frequent ones (e.g. we can recognize hand as a unit without sounding it out) but we ALSO have the phonetically consistent spelling that reinforces the word further. – Kosmonaut Dec 14 '10 at 1:18
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    Yesterday's Language Log entry: Is a bad writing system a Good Thing? – RegDwigнt May 20 '11 at 10:52
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Your assumption is correct. Natural languages are extremely redundant and compressible in sound as well as in orthography, and this has significant and obvious benefits: you can understand obscured speech, read obscured text, and, yes, get the sense of a word based on a quick visual hook rather than relying on a purely phonetic transcription.

English orthography reflects its countless generations of development. The spelling of a word may not correspond perfectly to its pronunciation, but to select a spelling that does correspond to a specific pronunciation naturally excludes some others. I've heard native speakers, for instance, who have different pronunciations for all of "to", "too", and "two".

Further, since the orthography often reflects the etymology, you can often make an educated guess about the meaning of a word you don't know based on the union of its visual and phonological components. If they were collapsed into one, you'd lose that extra information. This is just like how in hanzi there's often a phonetic component as well as a semantic component, and this does carry over somewhat to kanji even though the pronunciation is adapted to Japanese phonology.

These are all reasons why English spelling reform has never caught on, and likely will never do so. It's too widespread, and there are simply too many factors to take into account. Every language has its idiosyncracies, and to see them as flaws or try to fight them is sheer folly.

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    Very nice answer! Do you know any good technical references to get more details about this? (Though I’m not quite convinced by your last paragraph; all these reasons would also suggest that spelling reform shouldn’t have caught on in e.g. German or Russian either, so I tend to go along with the theory that it’s more matters of politics and geography that have kept English unreformed.) – PLL Dec 11 '10 at 0:04
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    @PLL: I'll see what I can find. I know I've seen some interesting articles I might be able to dredge up. You're right that the political situation of English, especially its role as lingua franca in technical professions and business, are important barriers to reform. German spelling reform in the 90s was relatively modest in scope, and it was still met with protest. Russian reform campaigns throughout history were broader, and incited greater response. To truly regularise English would by no means take a small change, and the backlash would be, I think, still greater. – Jon Purdy Dec 11 '10 at 1:57
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    How does irregular spelling contribute to understanding obscured speech? If we can understand obscured speech, couldn't we just as easily understand obscured writing, even if the spelling was regular? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 14 '10 at 14:10
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    @Mr. Shiny and New: But how do you regularise the spelling? A one-for-one phonetic transcription of one dialect or accent might be totally wrong for another. The spelling would be necessarily somewhat irregular or else not universal. And the more compromises you make, the more simplifications you introduce to bring the language closer to a standardisable ideal, the farther from the language the orthography becomes. Arguably that's what got us into this mess in the first place, when printing was exclusively for formal, liturgical language, and the language of the people kept on evolving. – Jon Purdy Dec 15 '10 at 16:16
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    I think part of the problem with reforming English spelling is that you'd either have to do it with received English pronunciation or standard American pronunciation (or some compromise, say British, but keep the r's after vowels). Then, you'd have the problem that either Americans or Brits (or both, if you compromised) would find quite a bit of the spelling completely arbitrary ... is it pahth or path? – Peter Shor Mar 25 '11 at 15:26

We have sound-alike words like to, two, and too (or even tu, if you count Shakespeare's imagining of Julius Caesar's dying line). If we went to a strict phonetic spelling system, all those would be spelled the same. I think there are cases where such a thing would actually slow us down.

This seems like a red herring to me, for several reasons.

First, most of the bizarre spelling in English is not that useful for disambiguating homophones.

Second, even if your point stands, does it really argue that spelling irregularity is good? Or does it argue that homophones/homographs are bad?

Third, I very seriously doubt that English homophones and homographs are really all that inconvenient in the first place. Note that to already has two apparently unrelated meanings: 1) the infinitive-marking to in to err is human; and 2) the preposition to in to the store. You used both senses in your question. How much do you think that slowed readers down? I don’t think it slowed me down at all. I seem to have disambiguated each one subconsciously and instantaneously. It is hard to imagine what could have gone smoother.

By contrast, irregular spelling is a clear and present pain in the butt. It happens that my kids are learning to spell right now, so I am biased, but I think English spelling carries a lot of historical baggage that really serves no purpose whatsoever.

A comparison. In Spanish, to pluralize a noun, you add an s at the end. In English, it’s exactly the same... unless the singular ends with a consonant followed by y, in which case you drop the y and add ies, or it ends with s, x, z, sh, or ch, in which case you add es (unless the ch does not actually make a sibilant sound, as in stomach or loch, in which case just s will do), or it ends with a consonant followed by o, like potato, in which case you also add es (unless it is Italian or Spanish in origin, like piano or flamingo, or it just happens to be one of those words like bozo or banjo, in which case just s will do), or it’s irregular, like child, in which case you just have to know it. Your position, as far as I can tell, is that maybe people therefore have an easier time reading English plurals than Spanish ones. That makes no sense to me.

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    In Spanish, you also need to add "es" to the end of a word that ends in a consonant. – Joe Z. Feb 22 '14 at 6:29

There are a couple of points to consider in this question. You mention Japanese in your question; I'm familiar with Chinese so I'll use that but the parallels are the same.

First, "easier to read" has to consider what is meant by "easier", and who is supposed to benefit from the increased ease. An expert might be really proficient with a more complex system, but a novice might be less proficient than normal. Is there overall benefit? The computer analogy would be writing HTML code by hand, or saving a Word document in HTML format. Anyone who can type can do the latter, but an expert with HTML can do much more with the former. Should all language users be experts? My Spanish-speaking friend complains to me that English spelling is very complicated. Given that so many native speakers have problems with it, I'd have to agree.

There are some things that can be accomplished when spelling is not the same as pronunciation. You can use words with less context (in Chinese, this is often the case when they use short forms or classical forms; one character might be used to represent a meaning which in spoken always takes two or more characters). You can combine words or re-spell words in a way that gives new meaning to old sounds. For example, if you switch the words "sun" and "son" in a word, you can inject new meaning. "Rising sun" -> "Rising son". This juxtaposes the old sense and the new sense. This sort of thing isn't possible if there's only one way to spell those sounds.

Second, it is a fallacy that the Hanzi or Kanji are needed for meaning. Otherwise, people speaking the language wouldn't be able to understand each other. What I've found, and what is probably happening with you, is that my learning of Chinese is incomplete, and this is why Hanzi are sometimes helpful. When I am reading Hanzi, I can recognize certain characters because I don't recognize them, or because this particular character is unique to me, and thus I can read it without having to remember how it sounds. However, when listening, I can hear new vocabulary words and understand them without remembering how they are written. However, once I have fully internalized certain vocabulary words, I find that when I come across them in a Pinyin sentence I have no problem at all reading them.

Third, it's a matter of training to be able to read a language in any given alphabet. The Chinese people I know often can't read Pinyin at all. Even if they understand the system but are completely befuddled by a simple sentence on a page and they have to sound it out loud to be able to make sense of it. Yet anyone who practices can easily become proficient in it in a short time. It's similar to how children use Pig Latin or other code languages; with a bit of practice they can speak and listen very quickly, while to others their speech is gibberish, even though it's based on English.

For a Western linguist's take on the Chinese-character debate, see Homographobia by John DeFrancis.

Anyway, to sum it up, spelling variations cause confusion for novices but allow experts a bit of freedom to do things that can't be explained in oral language.

  • That "Homographophobia" argument is rather [polite word for "stupid"]. The crux of the argument is "We, and other languages, already deal with homographic sets of words, and people don't fear existing ones". But why would one fear what's already there? The argument ignores how much more convenient it may have been if these sets didn't exist. And of course, just because we already can put up with some inconvenience doesn't mean there's we ought to put up with more. :-) Without actual statistical measurement of speed at proficiency and time to reach it, all such speculation is pointless. – ShreevatsaR Dec 13 '10 at 19:00
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    @ShreevatsaR: I think you misunderstood DeFrancis's argument. The Chinese are extremely enamoured with their Hanzi to a degree that seems irrational to unbiased linguists who have studied the issue. Given the immense drawbacks of Hanzi, one has to wonder why the Chinese don't switch to something more rational and easy to learn. The reasons: cost, tradition, and homographobia. However given the Chinese government's disregard for costs of linguistic changes (see Simplified Hanzi), only tradition and fear remain. And other Asian countries (esp Korea) have done just fine without Hanzi. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 14 '10 at 14:07
  • I understand his argument; I just find it flawed. If one wants to argue for a new system (which one has parochially labelled "more rational"), one needs to argue objectively about its benefits and its costs. There is always some cost; one cannot claim that it's zero. Just because Korea manages with the new system doesn't mean it has done so at zero cost. (To me, the homographies in English—like the ten meanings for can*—**do* cause inconvenience.) That's what I meant about objectively/statistically measuring the effect, rather than claiming it's small through rhetoric and analogy alone. – ShreevatsaR Dec 15 '10 at 5:52
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    @ShreevatsaR: Nobody said a switch to phonetic spelling would be without cost. But to call the argument [polite word for "stupid"] calls into question the success of the Koreans (among others), who HAVE demonstrated a successful switch to a phonetic spelling. There is a cost, but the benefits are so high. Chinese writing is so impenetrable that even educated native speakers have a hard time with it, while the same cannot be said of any alphabetic language. Can you give an example of a use of "can" that is confusing or ambiguous due to the homonyms? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 15 '10 at 14:25
  • I don't disagree with the conclusion, just the structure of the argument. :-) To say that Korean and Vietnamese have managed to switch to a phonetic spelling so Chinese probably can too, is a direct argument and a rather convincing one. Instead, what he seems to be saying is that "Korean/Vietnamese switched to phonetic => homographs are a non-issue => Chinese can switch too", and I'm pointing out that the first implication does not follow. You can conclude only that the cost of homographs wasn't immensely greater than the benefits, not that the cost was low or that there's nothing to fear. – ShreevatsaR Dec 17 '10 at 5:44

I find this very interesting. Great question (+1).

You might find this interesting. It is a satirical proposal by Mark Twain for a spelling reform to remove these inconsistencies and supposedly make reading English easier.

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

While this is meant to be humourous, I think you can see that the English language, while it may seem complicated to new learners, could not really survive a standardisation through orthographical spellings.

We have so many rule-breakers in our spelling patterns largely because of different origins. Words that came to English from French, German, Latin, etc. will each observe different rules.

This also results in us having several different words with the same meaning. Likewise, it would seem silly to enforce the removal of synonyms just because they create a chance for confusion (many second language learners are amazed by the number of synonyms we have in our language and do indeed find it confusing).

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    Not to mention that writers--in particular, poets and lyricists--love having many words to choose from. It's easier to stick with exact rhymes and strict meters when the language you're working with has such a rich vocabulary. Love that Twain quote, BTW. – Neil Fein May 1 '11 at 2:53
  • Thanks for the comment @NeilFein and thanks for the edit but I did actually mean what I said. I find the discussion that has developed around this question very interesting, meaning the answers and the ensuing comments. – Karl May 1 '11 at 16:03
  • Is it just me, but I did not really have a hard time reading xe iear 20 pat – mplungjan May 1 '11 at 16:23
  • Okay, I made the edit I did because Stack Exchange is not a discussion board or a forum. Great answer otherwise! – Neil Fein May 1 '11 at 20:15
  • Hi again, @NeilFein. Ok, I see your point now. I think I shall acquiesce by simply removing the term. Thanks for your support for the answer. – Karl May 3 '11 at 2:36

In theory you might save space by keeping different spelling for homophones since you could omit some parts of the sentence that in oral form might be needed. But in practice I don't think it does save much space. And if the writing system is detailed enough (including stress and tonal differences etc.) only homophones that are truly homophones would be spelled the same, and since it works when spoken it should work just as well when written phonetically.

Another argument for keeping silent letters and other archaic spellings, is that keeping it would help understand the etymology, but this really only of interest for linguists (which would be able to see the relations anyway), and of no use for a novice trying to learn to read and write.

One of the big problems of proposing either minor or radical spelling reforms for English, is that it's no longer "one" language, but it still uses the same spelling (mostly) for the different flavors of English. If we tried to make it more phonetic it would end up as different languages (or at least very different dialects). I actually think that would be a good thing, if the English speaking countries could cooperate in making a phonetic spelling system for the different sounds, different English variants would still be about as mutually understandable as it is in the spoken form, although looking very different.

  • "since it works when spoken it should work just as well when written phonetically" — Yes, but perhaps it's working even better with the current non-phonetic system. :-) It is conceivable that unlike the current situation of reading speed being much higher than speaking speed, with a purely phonetic system they would be about the same. (It sometimes feels that way when I'm reading Hindi, say, which is written phonetically, but that may just be my lower proficiency.) – ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 15:20
  • This chart, particularly the leftmost column in the vowel table, seems like an attempt to make a phonetic spelling system for English that works across all the major dialects. The vowel symbols simply make slightly different sounds in different dialects. – Jason Orendorff Mar 25 '11 at 15:05
  • In other words, spelling could theoretically be phonemic rather than strictly phonetic. Spanish is this way: there are systematic differences in how words are pronounced in Spain vs. in Puerto Rico. (I'm thinking of the Castilian lisp and the Puerto Rican /dʒ/ sound in yo.) Speakers in both places find the spelling to be phonetic: the letters just represent slightly different sounds in different dialects. – Jason Orendorff Mar 29 '11 at 17:56
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    @JasonOrendorff There is no such thing as a “Castilian lisp”. – tchrist Oct 21 '12 at 20:52
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    I can’t correct it now, but just pretend I said “Castilian ceceo”. It is of course a real phenomenon, and my point (which had nothing to do with speech impediments or 14th-century kings) stands. – Jason Orendorff Mar 6 '13 at 14:26

protected by RegDwigнt Apr 12 '12 at 14:08

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