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Should English be Fixed?

by Bill Lauritzen

Singularity Clarity: The Hype, The Hope

by Bill Lauritzen

Recent articles by Paul Graham, “Founders’ Accents,” and Salvatore Sanfilippo, “Silicon Valley’s Language Problem Isn’t Foreign Accents, It’s English,” have stimulated some discussion about English. Since I have been teaching Spoken English in China for three years, I am intimately aware of the problems. I have some students who can read English at the university level, yet when they speak it, I cannot understand what they say. I think Salvatore is right to say that English is broken. However, I think it might be fixable, especially with the help of modern computer processing, the Internet, and the resources of Silicon Valley.

The problem is really part of a larger problem: what I call the knowledge infrastructure. The concrete infrastructure of a society includes its roads, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, Internet, etc. The knowledge infrastructure rarely gets noticed or mentioned, and it is assumed by most people to be unchangeable. This infrastructure includes such things as the number system, the spoken language, the writing system (including spelling), and the time and calendar systems. This abstract infrastructure may be more important than the concrete infrastructure, as it carries the thinking and communication with which to build the factories, bridges, electrical grids, etc. So a simple definition of a concrete infrastructure would be: a basic physical framework needed for an economy to function, whereas a simple definition of a knowledge infrastructure would be: a basic mental framework needed for thinking and communication.

I think a good abstract infrastructure can provide “high bandwidth throughput” in the thinking and communication of a culture, and I think a society with a good abstract infrastructure will tend to survive quite well in the long term. However, just as physical infrastructures have to be constantly maintained, so too must the abstract infrastructures. Also, these abstract infrastructures can sometimes be completely revised.

What is a good abstract infrastructure? Quite broadly, it is one which is easy to learn and use. There are many historical examples.

If English had a good match between the spelling and the pronunciation of words, it would have a "highly phonemic orthography," or “regular spelling.” Such languages as Finnish, Italian, and Turkish have a nearly regular spelling. Others, have deviations from regular spelling lesser to greater): Italian, French, German, Hungarian, Portuguese, and of course, English are examples.

Although English has a large deviation, Chinese Mandarin could be considered to have an even greater deviation, since Mandarin Chinese is a logographic language like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Alphabets are based on sound, whereas logographs are based on meaning. So, whereas children and foreigners learning English at least get some indication of how to pronounce words, children in China learning to read Mandarin use characters that give little indication of how to pronounce them. Hence, the introduction of the Roman pinyin alphabet in 1982.

Some consider alphabets a great invention which gave increased precision and flexibility and also gave the common person access to writing for the first time. How? Almost everyone learns to speak effortlessly, as speaking seems to be genetically hardwired into the brain. (People learn to speak by just being around the tribe, whereas they learn to read English only with a great amount of instruction.) So, with the invention of an alphabet, based on sound, theoretically, almost everyone knew how to read and write. For the first time people didn’t have to memorize 3,000 (or many thousands more) characters. They just had to learn about 26 letters, or symbols for sounds.

However, “ease of reading” was the original intent of logographic writing systems also. One could “read” simply by looking at pictures that might convey something like, “Man use arrow to kill deer.” Meaning is important, and with logographs it can be independent of a specific language. Everyone knows the logographs for “Men” and “Women” on restrooms, or “Walk” or “Don’t Walk” at a traffic light. However, just as English pronunciation has drifted away from its original spelling, so has Chinese Mandarin drifted away from its original images on turtle shells and bones.

So, with the invention of alphabets, no longer could someone look at an image and guess its meaning. They had to know its meaning already from their speaking vocabulary, or have access to a dictionary to look it up.

Along these lines, it is of interest to note that my biggest problem in teaching in the inner city of Los Angeles was students who knew how to pronounce English words but did not know their meaning, while in China my biggest problem is students who know the meaning of English words but do not know how to pronounce them. Are Chinese students more focused on meaning because of their logographic background in Mandarin? I don’t know, but it is possible.

Comparing only alphabetic languages, children obviously learn to read much faster in those alphabets that have highly phonemic orthography. Unsurprisingly, according to this Wikipedia article, some of these languages with regular spelling lack the verb “to spell.”

On the other hand, an irregular spelling, as in English, can sometimes give a hint as to a word’s origin and meaning. For example in the word, "doubt,"we do not pronounce the "b," but the "b" gives a hint, at least to some people, of the Latin origin, dubius.

Perhaps there is more stability and tradition in a society that never changes its writing to match its spoken sounds. And perhaps an innovative society would more willingly reform its spelling. There are certainly benefits to both tradition and innovation, and I think a balance should be maintained between the two.

However, it seems clear from the many complaints that English is due for some reform. And dictionaries nowadays are ubiquitous. One usually just has to click on the word to see a definition, and in the future, people will have access to photos or even videos that explain the meaning of each word. (Likewise, for Chinese Mandarin, a student could just click on the character to hear its pronunciation or see a video of the correct pronunciation.)

Some people might say, “Why argue with success?” English has become the language of choice for science, politics, and international trade. Maybe we should leave it alone? However, this is the kind of complacent attitude that usually precedes a defeat. Other countries are apparently tweaking and even revamping their abstract language infrastructures, and English is not. Although there have been some attempts at reformed English spelling systems:

SR1 or Spelling Reform 1, developed by a linguist, is one. Some of its suggestions: 1. The e in bet could always be spelled with an E: said > sed, friend > frend, guess > gess 2. Drop useless Es: are > ar, were > wer, give > giv, have > hav 3. Change “ph” to “f” when necessary: photo > foto, telephone > telefone, physical > fysical

Several high profile figures have also proposed reforms. Ben Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet was an early proposal. Also, George Bernard Shaw left money in his will for the development of a new alphabet that should be at least 40 letters and as “phonetic” as possible.

In another fascinating piece of English spelling history, in 1906 Andrew Carnegie funded a Simplified Spelling Board with $15,000 ($350,000 in 2010 dollars) per year, for five years. On the committee were a supreme court justice, the President of Columbia University, Dr. Dewey (inventor of the Dewey Decimal system), publisher Henry Holt, author Mark Twain, and other distinguished gentleman.

They eventually published "The Handbook of Simplified Spelling." However, Carnegie disagreed with their top-down recommendations. He felt the people should decide what should be accepted or rejected. Carnegie wrote a letter to the president of the board, “A more useless body of men never came into association, judging from the effects they produce ... Instead of taking twelve words and urging their adoption, they undertook radical changes from the start. Carnegie added, using his own spelling preferences, “I think I hav been patient long enuf... I hav much better use for twenty thousand dollars a year.”

So language reform (from the top down) may be difficult to implement. However, as mentioned, Noah Webster managed to change the spelling of some words all by himself.

And Silicon Valley has shown us, and is showing us, how technology can solve problems: accounting, telecommunications, newspapers, transportation, government accountability, education, space travel, etc. Why not tackle one of the biggest problems of the world: the English language? Software could be developed that would allow English to be more phonetic--just a few words or many words, according to the user's preference.

English users could switch between the traditional knowledge infrastructure and a newer knowledge infrastructure with one click, or by hovering over the word. Eventually, large groups within the society could be using entirely different spellings. This would allow variation, competition, and eventually selection of the best system.

English uses an alphabet. Why not make it a good one?

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