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.)

1 comment:

David Marjanović said...

this would render it unrecognizable to speakers of other languages