Denseman on the Rattis

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog


Relearning how to spell

Lower case a with circumflex
Lower case a with circumflex.
The #JeSuisCirconflexe shitstorm that is currently engulfing France is a reminder of how hard it is to implement an orthographic reform. People who witnessed Denmark’s “mayonnaise war” (when the Danish language academy wanted to change the spelling of mayonnaise to majonæse) or the German spelling reform fights will not be surprised. People who’ve invested many hours in becoming good spellers in order to feel clever and superior simply don’t want any reforms that make them worse at spelling than primary school children.

This is probably the reason why systematic spelling reforms that are really easy to learn often get accepted without too much of a fight. For instance, it’s my impression that the change of “aa” to “å” in Danish in 1948 was implemented without too much pain (albeit slowly because typewriters and typesetters didn’t have access to that letter at first), and the bit of the German spelling reform that changed “ß” to “ss” after a short vowel (but not after a long one) was much less contested than the other changes (such as the change from “radfahren” to “Rad fahren”) that require more of an effort to remember.

I therefore suspect that the French would have been happier with a reform that dropped all the circumflexes rather than the one at hand that removes it in coût and paraître but keeps it in and je croîs (“I grow”). It’s simply too hard to learn the new rules for people who’ve left school already.

What does this mean for the prospects for changing the spelling of the English language? (Let’s just ignore for a moment the fact that there isn’t any language board that could instigate such a reform – it would be relatively easy for the major dictionary publishers of the English-speaking world to get together and create one if there was a demand.)

Some reforms that would seem straightforward in one part of the world are of course impossible because of pronunciation differences. For instance, many Americans use the same vowel in father and hot, but changing the spelling of the former to fother would be a disaster elsewhere. In the same way, people from southern England might want to drop the silent r’s, but of course they’re not silent in Scotland and most of America. Even changes that would be popular in most places would often face steep resistance in small areas – for instance only people from Scotland and Northern Ireland would object strongly to changing the spelling of bird and nerd to burd and nurd, but they really wouldn’t be popular here.

A reform that changed those words that go against all the normal rules – e.g., gaugegaige, debtdet, nightnite – would be eminently sensible, but the experience from other languages makes me think it would face enormous resistance, especially if the new spellings were made obligatory rather than just optional variants.

The only type of reform that would stand a chance would probably be wholesale changes of letters or letter groups, such as changing “ph” to “f(f)” or initial “x” to “z”, but to be honest changes like these wouldn’t make English significantly easier to spell, and what’s the point in that case?

A proper English spelling reform would be marvellous, but I doubt it’ll happen during my lifetime.

One thought on “Relearning how to spell

  • facebook_Michael Westergaard.10153299744026252

    I’ve a feeling you’re pretty wrong about why people oppose spelling reforms. At least in my opinion, a spelling reform should be to adapt to how people actually spell, not ro make arbitrary changes. Not even to make things more consistent.

    Majonæse was not accepted because it was fucking dumb. Nobody ever spelled it like that. Instead it should have been changed to mayonaise because that’s how the majority spells it.

    Same for the French language shitstorm. For many words the accent provides little value, but in a few cases it actually does away with ambiguity. As I understand, the French reform makes all accent circumflex optional; I thought they retained all that were currently allowed/required as allowed. Which is largely a very sane thing to do. Remove it where it is not perceived to add any value and retain it where it does.

    Making languages internally consistent is not necessarily a goal to strive for. Language is of course living and changes over time, but that doesn’t really mean that it should change just to make things “consistent.” Then we’ll all end up speaking IBM computer-Danish anno 1980 or – worse – Swedish. We live in an international world and it makes sense that “consistent” as a concept evolves. It makes sense that loan words retain their original spelling. That’s more consistent in another sense.

    English is already seeing a spelling reform. It comes from Twitter and text messages. It’s not carried out by linguists but by active language users, though. It comes from globalization. And I think it’s better for it.


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