Anthros, Indians, and more anthros

This story has been sittting in an obscure comment on an obscure blog for more than a decade, and it's about time I published it here.

Long and long and long ago, my children, before the days of AIM and the repurposing of the word indigenous, there was a young anthropology student. And the young man was interviewing an Indian chief, and not merely a chief, but the eldest of his tribe, the only one who remembered the ways of his people now lost in the mists of time, replaced by Keds and Elvis and Coca-Cola, to say nothing of other and less innocent things.

And the young man saw that the chief was sometimes faltering, sometimes doubtful in his answers, a little hesitant in his recall of the dead past. And betimes the chief could not answer the young man's question at all, and would repair to the inside of his house; for the chief, like the others of his people, had long since abandoned the Old Way of shelter in favor of the white man's houses, though to be sure not particularly good ones. And when the chief returned therefrom, his answers were fluid and unhesitating, detailed, complex, and most excellent in quality.

And the young anthro began to wonder. "Perhaps there is a yet older chief within the house", he thought; "more knowledgeable, more wise — perhaps bedridden?" And so the young man broke the frame, and asked the chief wherefore he would go into his house and return with such wonderful answers.

And the chief made no reply, but went into his house, thinking to himself, "This young man is very ignorant. He wishes to learn the ancient ways of my people." And the chief returned carrying a battered old book, and he was thinking, "By great good fortune, I have a book which tells of them. The ignorant young man does not, alas, possess this book. I will tell him what it says."

With horror, the young man saw that the book which the chief held in his ancient hand was neither more nor less than the relevant volume of the Handbook of American Indians issued by the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology in the generation preceding. And the young anthro returned to his home, a sadder but a wiser man he.


Response to Anatoly Liberman on simplified spelling

This is a response to Anatoly Liberman's Oxford Etymologist post "Spelling reform: not a 'lafing' matter".

My general principle is that words with consistent spellings should be left alone, and words with inconsistent spellings should be changed. The idea is to make English about as hard as French: given a written word, we can reliably determine its pronunciation in our own accent, but not always vice versa. (A few double pronunciations, as for long and short single vowels and for stop and fricative "c", are in my view too deeply embedded to change.)

In particular, initial kn is always /n/, so it can and should be left alone. Likewise, c before a back vowel should be left alone when it is /k/; there is no more need to change scan to skan or cesspool to sesspool than there is to change car to kar. On the other hand, I would actually go further than you with giraffe and write jiraf, except that this would render it unrecognizable to speakers of other languages.

For syllable-final gh, I think it should remain where it is written today but be absolutely silent, not changing in any way the usual pronunciation of the preceding vowel. Thus since au/aw is a usual way of writing /ɔ/, let us keep caught, change thought to thaught, and change bough to bow. (The weapon, but not the gesture, becomes boe.) When the sound is /f/, write ff finally and f when a consonant follows or in a few international words like clef (musical). Thus for laugh I would write laff (already in jocular use), and likewise laffing for laughing (because lafing would suggest a long vowel pronunciation /eɪ/. The spelling larf, also in jocular use, I would reject because it is very misleading to Americans, Scots, and Irish people.

Masha Bell: I agree with the spellings frend, sed, ruff, blud, munny (not muny, which would rhyme with puny). However, changing any is more problematic. It must be replaced, for as written it appears to rhyme with zany, but to what? England and most of America would be well-served with enny, but the American South says inny due to a regular sound change, and Ireland says anny (and for them any is only slightly irregular). I think the majority must rule here, and I recommend enny.

In short and with a few caveats (I see no need for dh or aa) I would follow Axel Wijk's Regularized English. This is a scanned and OCRed PDF, but with some pages unfortunately out of order. It's rather a big book, but it serves not only as a simplified-spelling proposal but a detailed analysis of every letter, digraph, trigraph, and tetragraph in English and how they are used today. As such, it is invaluable to anyone interested in spelling reform of any sort. (It deals only with RP and General American, but one certenly can't/caan't hav evrything.)