Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WNW: Spelling Protesters. Really.

I'll be the first to admit that English is a conglomeration of funky ways to spell things. That's largely because so many languages have contributed to English. We have "rules" . . . and then a thousand exceptions to each one. It's almost a surprise that any of us ever learn to read.

Let's take a quick look at a language where spelling is a piece of cake: In Finnish, spelling is the ONE easy thing. The language has an insane number of cases, all of which I had to learn at one point in grammar class.

Bragging rights: I outscored my friend Marjo on one such test, and she was annoyed because I wasn't even a Finn . . . but I'd studied. Don't ask me to do it now. Totally couldn't.

But spelling? Piece of cake. It's nice that there's something not mind-numbingly difficult about Finnish.

See, everything is phonetic. If you learn what sound each letter makes, you can read anything in Finnish. (Caveat: a few letters make difficult sounds. Point still stands.)

Hence, my little sister, who was eight when we arrived in Finland, could read aloud in class flawlessly . . . without a clue as to what any of it meant.

English, however . . . yeah, well, there's a reason spelling bees exist in the States.

And it turns out that some people don't like English having odd rules. More, they don't get that language is a living thing and that you cannot force change onto it.

(That should totally be a Word Nerd post of its own. Taking mental notes . . . although I kind of talked about it in this post.)

As a result of our funky English non-rules, we have spelling bee protesters. Seriously.

This Yahoo! article describes how protesters came to a national spelling bee in D. C. (some even dressed in BLACK AND YELLOW. Bees, get it? Haha.) to protest that English should change its spelling.

Their posters sported the following:
Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much.
Cute.

They claim that "heifer" (as in the cow) should be written as "hefer."

When I saw that, my brain went back to my childhood days of watching The Electric Company (totally dating myself) where I learned that double consonants make the vowel short, while single consonants make the vowel long.

To show the concept, they had this great skit with SUPPER MAN, who needed a P taken off his name so he could be a true super hero, a SUPER MAN. They showed the same rule applying with dinner/diner and other word pairs, adding and subtracting consonants.

(Obviously, the rule has stuck with me more than three decades later, so the show did something right. Yay for educational television! Kids, go watch more TV!)

Based on that simple idea, if we're changing the cow's name and trying to use standard, easy-to-remember rules, shouldn't the spelling protesters have suggested HEFFER?

Because yo, protesters, how do you propose we get long vowels? What if we wanted hiefer to be pronounced as HEE-fer? How would you spell that?

Then you get the Spelling Society of London, founded in 1908. I'm with them on promoting literacy and getting word out about the crazy rules, but a quick look at their site didn't clarify whether they're trying to change things. (If so, good luck, folks. 100 years hasn't done much for ya.)

Now, just for laughs (but also something that will just encourage spelling protesters, alas), something that shows just how crazy English can be.

Here is a proposed spelling of the word FISH (naturally, courtesy Dr. Oaks and his awesome teachingness):

GHOTI

How could that be, you ask?

Take these words:
ENOUGH
WOMEN
EMOTION

GH in ENOUGH creates the F sound.

The O in WOMEN is often pronounced like a short I. (Really, no one really says women with a short O. Say it aloud. No O, right? It's closer to a short I, although some dialects could argue an "oo" as in BOOK sound.)

And finally, we get SH from the TI in EMOTION.

Put them together, and those spelling protesters could argue that, based on the "rules," GHOTI is a reasonable way of spelling FISH.

Spelling has always been my weakest area of language, but I'm not about to bend to black-and-yellow costumed protesters.

English is also a beautiful language with a rich history. And like I said before, it's alive. Hence, by extrapolation, it's, oh, not dead. Therefore, you can't prescribe this or that to suddenly change it.

Whine all you want, but speakers will still speak and write the language like they have for years. Changes will happen, but they take time, and you can't insist on what they'll be.

English will continue evolve on its own, just as it has for centuries.

I just hope that texting language doesn't win out in the end. 'Cause that would be gr8.

16 comments:

Jordan (Jordun? Jordn? Phoneticists disagree...) said...

My big problem with a lot of spelling reform ideas is that it will actually make it more difficult to understand words and their relationships. I mean, phonetic spelling makes it look like these words have nothing to do with one another. (Or, as they say in Spanish nothing to "see" with one another.)

taip
tipikul

diplimat
diplomasi

foto
fotugraf
fotahgrufi

And is it tumayto or tumahto?

So in some ways, phonetic spelling in a "non-phonetic" language adds levels of complexity to the language. We'd have to standardize pronunciation before we could standardize spelling.

DeNae said...

Far be it from me to correct the WN guru, but isn't "heifer" spelled "heifer", not "hiefer"?

Of course, I prefer the spelling "T-bone", but I'm open minded that way.

Kristina P. said...

I am going to be right back, as I grab my popcorn, to watch the DeNae/Annette smackdown. :)

Meggen said...

Annette, sometimes you really make me laugh! Great post! Love the humor you see in everything!

Happy Mom said...

Love WNW!

My brother went to Finland on his mission and taught me to pronounce it when he got back. I could read his Finnish comic books. I had no clue what I was saying, but he could totally understand it.

T said...

I learned the Ghoti spelling from Tough Women Nation... but same difference right? (ugh, let's not go there... I KNOW that "same difference" makes no sense!)

I remember receiving a letter once addressed to Tawnjia - which I suppose COULD be how someone spelled my name, but I'll stick with the simplest way, thanks ever so much!

Having taught spelling this year at the 4th grade level (and yes, I showed them the Ghoti thing) I just want to groan... Geordynn up there (haha, just had to have my own way to spell it) has a point with the nonstandard pronunciation of words - too many kids can't spell "you are" without resorting to Text Lingo (double groan)

Sadie said...

I love that you always make me laugh... or go Hmmmmmmm
I left you a little award on my recipe site.
www.sadieskitchen.blogspot.com

Melanie J said...

I'm a total descriptivist.

Amie McCracken said...

Kill the text speech!

Anyways, German is also a pheonetic language and fairly simple to read. They just changed some spelling rules in Germany a few years ago and it's throwing people off. My friend turned in a paper and was graded harshly because it didn't follow the current spelling rules. Change is hard on a language, but it happens naturally so just let it be!

LisAway said...

First, in "black and yellow costumed protesters" I read it like "custom-ed" and didn't get what you meant. Seriously.

Next, I guess desert and dessert is one of those exceptions (compared with supper and super etc.).

Also, Polish is the same. Seven cases (more in Finnish, I'm sure) but suuuuuper easy to read (minus the difficult sounds).

Annette Lyon said...

Jordan, GREAT point!

DeNae, My spelling isn't the best--you're right, and it's fixed.

So no smack down--sorry, Kristina!

Amanda said...

Annette, I have worked hard my entire life to be a good speller (I fail from time to time, but in general, I insist on spelling correctly). When I decided to homeschool I was not sure how to teach spelling to my kids because I never learned many rules for spelling in school. Then I found a great program called "All About Spelling" and we're loving it!

My 7 year old can correctly read almost any word you put in front of him from using the rules from the program. For example, C says "s" before the letter i, e or y. I recently had a chance to use this rule when I was spelling the name of a new kid in primary. The name was Ciarrocchi, BTW. And this was probably way more info than you ever needed in your comment box...sorry for taking over here.

No text speech, please! I can't understand it myself (mostly because I've never sent texts).

Sarah M Eden said...

In one of my favorite episodes of "I Love Lucy," Lucy is worried about Ricky's inability to correctly pronounce English and the impact it will have on their not-yet-born baby. She has him read a passage out loud from a book and in those couple sentences he encounters every possible pronunciation of -ough (rough, though, bough, etc.) and, of course, mispronounces them every time. It's hilarious!
Gotta love our crazy language!!

Blondie said...

When my daughter was born I jokingly told someone we were going to spell her name "Ceightee", which I thought was just hilarious, until I recently came across someone who in fact spells her name that way!
When people have the latitude to invent spelling you never know what you're going to get!

Michelle said...

CLASSIC. I love this post.

Helena said...

You know those little fish emblems that you can get for your car, like the Christian fish, the Darwin fish, and all the variations? I totally want to get a ghoti fish.

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