Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Royal Pain in the Ass

For the past couple of weeks I've been living in a strange, faraway land, far from the hurricane-flooded shores where some of the world's most feckless politicians are arguing over the best way to bail out a swimming pool of red ink using teaspoons, and where my boat is moored waiting for me. It is a land where it snows a lot, and where, right now, people can't wait for the hard freeze, at which point the skies clear, the air dries out, and the scene turns into a permanent winter wonderland—until the spring melt comes some months later. (The snow is not plowed but removed, and there are never any “snow days” for school or work.)
It is a land renowned for its awesome bureaucracy, where each citizen is expected to be able to complete multiple lengthy forms that resemble essay tests, in cursive longhand, which the fearsome bureaucrats refuse to accept if they contain as much as a single correction, deletion or error in grammar, orthography or punctuation. And it doesn't stop with the bureaucrats: nobody wants to make an error in speaking, for fear that children will point and laugh at them. Speaking of the children, they go from reading level 0 to reading level 99 rather swiftly and unnoticeably. It starts with them learning the letters on letter blocks and sounding them out in exchange for lollies and such (in this language, you see, all the letters but two make specific speech sounds). Then they learn to put these letters/sounds together to pronounce syllables. Then the penny drops and they start reading—the whole language, every word of it, more or less correctly. They learn new words either by hearing them or by reading them—it doesn't matter which. In their world, the terms “reading level” and “functional illiteracy” are unheard of, and the term “illiteracy” is mostly used metaphorically, as a synonym for “inadequacy,” as in “You stacked that firewood illiterately.” The catalogue copy for their 3rd grade text book reads: “Mother Tongue, Third Grade features works by classic and contemporary native and foreign writers. Familiarity with these works will connect the child to the world of literature, teach him to love and understand the book, expand his horizons...” By the time they are 12 they are done being trained in the cursive longhand, the grammar, the orthography and the punctuation. It works: my favorite reading when I was 10 was The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov; when I was 12 it was War and Peace by Tolstoy. By then I had already devoured Le Comte de Monte Christo by Dumas and lots of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, who are all considered children's authors. This is not to brag; I was something of a laggard compared to many.

Back in that faraway exotic land where my boat is bobbing listlessly waiting for its owner, things are not so happy with regard to basic literacy. According to a recent report, “high school students today are reading books intended for children with reading levels far below those appropriate for teens.” A compilation of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3—barely above the fifth grade. I couldn't find a handy definition of fifth-grade reading level, but a desultory scan of the paltry offerings did not turn up anything War and Peace-like. “A fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship,” writes Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The unenviable conclusion is that American high schools produce functional illiterates.

But, you know, so what? If they can't read, then maybe they can just play video games instead. After all, if they do learn to read, they may end up in college, and then end up mired in debt, still with no good job prospects. (Of course I am being facetious.) But it gets worse. It turns out that functional illiterates constitute 70% of the prisoners in state and federal prisons (that's 70% of the world's largest per capita prison population, larger even than the population of the Soviet Gulags at the height of Stalin's purges). It turns out that 85% of juvenile offenders are classified as functionally or marginally illiterate, that 43% of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and that over 42 million American adults can’t read at all. Beyond the mere inability to read and write lies the vast wasteland of psychological damage littered with dysfunctional coping mechanisms that spontaneously develop as a result of living in a society that requires literacy but is unable to provide for it.

What is the difference? Why is it that Russian children, even the lazier ones, breeze along from letter blocks to War and Peace without having to sacrifice any valuable snowball-tossing time, while American children, and their teachers, struggle mightily but fail to succeed? The answer is obvious: it is the fault of the fucking English! Not the long-suffering English people, mind you, but of the aristocratic ponces and twits who have lorded over them for centuries, and who are responsible for contriving and perpetuating the ridiculous thing called the English “spelling system.” I put it in quotes, because, although spells have something to do with it—evil ones, cast long ago, yet to be broken—it is definitely not any sort of system. It cannot be taught as a system (it has over 91 major patterns, 80 of which are undermined by numerous exceptions) and in practice it cannot be learned except through rote memorization, which takes something like ten years. And that is just too damn long!

Thus, this is not an American problem; the situation is much the same throughout the English-speaking world. There are at least two million functionally illiterate adults in England and Wales alone. “In my opinion, the irrationality of the English spelling system is an important factor, among a great number, contributing to the high level of reading failure and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. I am very concerned at the lack of recognition of this fact in educational circles... if our spelling were reformed so that all words were spelt according to a regular system, reasonably phonetic in character, anyone, child or adult, could become completely literate, able to spell correctly as well as to read, within a few months. Compare this with the years it now takes.” writes Marjorie Chaplin who spent a career teaching English literacy skills.

How did this situation come about? Back to the British upper-class ponces and twits: they never intended hoi polloi to be literate, and especially not the part of hoi polloi that do not even know what hoi polloi stands for (it doesn't matter what it stands for, really). Literacy was for the upper classes, the ones with the free time and the money to put their children into special schools where useless Greek and useless Latin were drummed into their heads, after which useless English spelling probably seemed like a walk in the park. These are the people who thought it unwise to teach sailors navigation, since they might then find it more perspicacious to mutiny than to take orders from ponces and twits. The same attitudes carried over to the Colonies, where it was forbidden to teach Negroes how to read and write, or to use Arabic numerals and arithmetic (Roman numerals were considered safe, since they are almost impossible to calculate with, but allowed slave carpenters to scribe numbers on planks for ease of assembly). The English spelling non-system was not designed for universal literacy; it was contrived specifically to make universal literacy impossible. We are now struggling along with something that was intended to be taught to Little Lord Fauntleroy by his personal governess while strolling about the manicured gardens, not something that can be imparted quickly and efficiently to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is, to put it simply, just wrong.

When the Russians embraced the concept of universal literacy (in the wake of the revolution of 1917) they yanked five redundant letters from the Russian alphabet and decreed that Russian be written more or less the way it's spoken, without references to Latin, Greek or that bane of Russian schoolchildren up to that point, the horrible artificial language called Old Church Slavonic. And they did achieve universal literacy in spite of many of the previously literate people (aristocratic ponces and twits included) going into exile or getting killed, a civil war, a world war and a few other accidents and complications.

In the meantime, English orthography has remained the haphazard, nonsensical, idiosyncratic waste of everyone's time it has always been. But it is quite possible to write English phonetically and so the problem of putting the entirety of the English spelling system to a well-deserved death is strictly a political issue whose solution would be especially applauded by the many millions of people who have to learn English as a second or third or fourth language. While English spelling continues to reign, forcing millions of people to endure years of rote memorization, it produces the additional side-effect of inadvertent acculturation to specifically English ways of thinking: because of the time it takes to learn, students of English learn not only the language but also subliminally absorb its cultural clichés, many of which have barely shifted since the days when English was the imperial tongue. Perhaps it is time to invent a new English writing system, which has exactly one symbol to represent each psychologically significant, lexically differentiating phoneme (there are, it turns out, only 32 of them, across all the major dialects). English is, after all, a simple little language that just happens to have a big dictionary. The two reasons it caught on so well as the lingua franca across the world are its extreme grammatical, phonological and morphological simplicity compared to all of its international competitors, and its international vocabulary. With 80% of its vocabulary specifically French, and quite a bit of the rest international, it is really just “French made simple.” It's a sort of baby-babble, great for scat singing (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah!”) that comes with a fat dictionary full of big foreign words nobody seems to know how to write or to pronounce, never mind figure out quite what they mean. Yes, it has the strange retroflex approximant ‘r’ (the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for which is [ɻ], its queer shape a testament to its strangeness) but that too can be taken to be a charming little infantile speech impediment. Yes, it has some of the world's most fearsome consonant clusters (the word “strengths” is one syllable—but that too is just the sound of a baby spitting up).

Beyond that, most of the trouble with English comes from its lingering post-imperial smell and its refusal to let go of the abominable spelling non-system in favor of something that a linguist might design on a day off and that can be learned fully while attending a single adult education course at a neighborhood community center. It is highly recommended that this alternative English orthography start out by not flouting the alphabetic principle, according to which exactly one symbol (letter) unambiguously represents exactly one sound (phoneme) of the language. The current English orthography flouts the alphabetic principle for arbitrarily large values of “flout”: for about a century now a debate has been raging in the US as to whether students should be taught that letters represent sounds—or not! If that isn't sad, what is? In other parts of the English-speaking world, “phonics” has been accepted as the superior approach, but even there adult functional illiteracy rates are the shame of the developed world.

While at it, let's give up on the Latin alphabet; it's the 21st century, and Latin is still dead. The medieval monks who preserved it for posterity, and tried to apply it to English, clearly didn't know what they were doing. The Latin alphabet is missing 10 letters that English needs (two vowels and eight consonants). Other European languages have since upgraded their alphabets, but English is still proudly muddling along with Latin 1.0 Beta. Plus, those monks laid a trap for dyslexics; to see what I mean, stand on your head and try to read this: “bdbpdpqbqdpdpqbdbdq. Even the mildest case dyslexia is further exacerbated by English spelling. One letter stands for multiple phonemes and multiple letters stand for one phoneme, what is phonologically the same word can be written in different ways (“ewe,” “yew” and “you” are indistinguishable in speech but, as with any homonym, would conjure up different images even if all three were written identically). Different words can be written identically (“moped” vs “moped” and “tear” vs. “tear,” depending on whether there are wheels or liquids involved—and this does in fact cause damage to comprehension). Same letter combinations can represent many different sounds—“enough,” “plough,” “though”, “through”—and that is, technically speaking, just a bug.

Now that all text is electronic and the question of how to render it on the screen or on the printed page is strictly a question of software, somebody really ought to do something about it: “break the spell,” as it were, and leave the evil old spelling system in the dust. For those who will need to decipher a passage from an obscure old book, a smartphone app can be provided: snap a picture of a page full of Crazy Old Gibberish, and a second or so later a perfectly legible version flashes up on the screen. At the very least, start providing English spelling with legible, sensibly written subtitles, as an accessibility requirement. We take care of the deaf, the blind and the wheelchair-bound; why not the dyslexics? The lack of a sensible, phonologically accurate English orthography is, in software terms, just a missing feature.

Of all the big problems we face, the problem of impossible-to-write language is one we can strike off the list—literally, with a stroke of a pen.

Update: A reader sent this in, and it sums things up very nicely. It echoes what Nabokov once said: that nothing breaks the human spirit better than consistently bad treatment. Having to submit to English spelling is just such treatment.

Thank you for taking a hunch I've had for a long time—that some property of the English language brings domination and inequality to follow wherever it goes—and putting some flesh on it. I would add that the extensive time spent learning and consistently obeying a set of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules conditions a mind to more easily accept sets of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules outside of language, and, further, makes that mind seemingly less able to deal in principles, cause-and-effect relationships, especially higher-order ones, and ambiguity.

Update: From a Scottish reader: recite this! Don't think about it, go as quickly as you can and see how many times you trip up. It's your native language, your birthright, isn't it?


JimK said...

The King of Korea pulled it off a few hundred years ago, with very good success. Such a deliberate reformation is indeed possible!

BruceH said...

And while we're at at, when are we going to ditch the "QWERTY" keyboard? It was designed to keep frequently used typewriter keys from jamming together. How many people still own a typewriter?

Sixbears said...

Great! Good job. Now fix the Bible.

GHung said...

At least English lends itself well to poetry and song. Try translating "Yeah, you got cocaine eyes!..." into Russian and selling a million copies. I suppose it could work ;-)

vera said...

Among us Czechs, we reformed things in the 15th century. It's worked really well. I was reading Kipling and Twain by third grade.

Listen to the crazy Russian, Englishers! You got nothing to lose but your chains! :-)

Anonymous said...

I am learning Russian now using the following book:


It is so that Russian is an agglutinative language so that one basic root with a lot of different pre- and suffixes makes for hundreds of words which is very convenient indeed for accelerating the learning process and picking up new words.

As a native English speaker my French learning went quicker and I can agree that it is an easy learn compared to my Russian but now that I am catching on to the Russian roots system (like in latin or Greek) I can guess the meanings of words desopite never having seen them before. I suspect English problems stem from it being an immigrant language. Angle, Jutes, Saxons and later Normans jkept moving around and the language basics were so difficult that the structure had to be simplified (declinations, "sex" of nouns gone away, etc.). So when I use the above book and read the Englich translation of words which in Russian look very much the same, in English they can come from several different languages and have nothing to do with one another. It is a historical problem. Russian sturcture with it six cases seems complicated but thanks to its isolation from other languages it has grown vocabulary organically and simply. English on the other hand is a hodgepodge is a nightmare. I suppose it will pick up lots of Chinese, Hindu, Thai and various African dialects next, depending on immigration patterns to English speaking regions and whetehr foreing spoken English in India and Africa comes to dominate it in the end.

Renovator said...

Going through the American school system myself, I was astonished when I finally came across standard international units in Physics and Chemistry. Base 10!! What a concept!!

The U.S. "tried" to convert from the medieval inches/feet/miles in the 1970's but it fell flat. The impetus for such a conversion seemed "UnAmerican" to TPTB.

I would love to see an English language conversion, but alas, I can't hold my breath that long...All the more reason for the "anarchic" approach you have been writing about as of late.

Outdoor Dog's Blog said...

Well, you may have a point there, but way to take the romance out of it. Sorry if you find that answer uncomprehesible. Perhaps you'll understand if you take some time to think about it. Food for thought, eh? Love you, Mr. Orlov!
Thank you for your work.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Let's Cyrillize English: Лэтс цайрилайз инглиш!

But in all honesty, there are other factors at work.
Consider the Chinese, whose brain-damaged writing system easily puts English or even French to shame. They have a very Soviet degree of literacy, children included. Why?
An important clue: just when did the U.S. schooling system drop to its present level of brain damage? If you look at a "McGuffey's Reader" from the 1950s, it was a much more Soviet (read: literate) experience. Schoolchildren read Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. Note exactly when the transition from Dickens to Sesame Street happened, and what other American cultural changes it coincided with. That's as much as I dare to say on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Such a delightful rant! My German teacher advocated a similar reform... 30 years ago. Perhaps you can start by writing your blog in 'reformed' English?

Ronald Langereis said...

Change will come, Dmitri, after the big Kladderadatsch, when a new (world) order will ensue from chaos.
But please, explain to me why it was that the British Empire reached its zenith when most of its people were still functional illiterates and why decline set in in parallel with general education? Only joking, of course.

Good nite.

Stephanie Whiting said...

I consider myself a pretty literate person. I read constantly as a child and continue to do so in my adulthood, but I had an embarrassing encounter with the English language durring my first week at a new job. When asked to read aloud from the training manual, I repeatedly said "rapport" exactly the way it sounds phonetically, and was later humiliated when I heard my boss repeat the word using a very different pronunciation. I felt quite stupid.

Rote memorization, indeed.

kevin said...

I failed 2nd grade despite my 130 IQ. I'm a logical thinker, but English is completely illogical. I lost at least a year of education wrestling with English. I still rely heavily on spell-checkers.

Benjamin Franklin tried to reform English by creating his phonetic alphabet. I suppose it didn't stick. (Notice the redundant c or k at the end of stick, and double meaning of the word?)

forrest said...

George Bernard Shaw left much of his money to fund the creation of a phonetic English alphabet, which was completed some years after his death, the winning attempt used to transliterate 'Androcles and the Lion' in at least one edition.

Cyrillic isn't too bad for rendering English (although what it renders it into does get ghastly with some words because the sounds are truly different.)

What Gabor Mate has to say about 'ADD' is also relevant. [can read some of his book here: http://www.scatteredminds.com/about.htm ]

That is, if the emotionally closest parent is stressed out during critical periods in brain development, it throws a glitch into the process that leads to delays (at best) and a whole wide assortment of different impairments both in reading and thinking, potentially life-long.

The USian system of child-raising seems uniquely suited to maximize stress and emotional disconnection between parent & child. Between the mandatory two-income family and 'workfare'; everybody in the hoi polloi (and yes, I think it is significant, where that phrase comes from!) gets it bad. Throw in tv as babysitter & parental recombobulation device, and you can just about guarantee that everyone will be too stressed to think straight -- but not so stressed that they can't see what a precarious future is being dangled before them (if they can only do everything just as the system demands, perhaps) and adsorb the Message: "It's all too scary and boring and besides you couldn't possibly figure it out."

Wiglaf said...

Your "strictly a question of software" betrays a misconception. In fact, it would have been much easier to reform the alphabet before the advent of electronic text. New typefaces could be forged. But ASCII telegraphy is the only thing that every computer ever made is guaranteed to understand, and that looks unlikely to change. In computer science, low-level legacy standards are basically impossible to get rid of.

Also I'm surprised that, with your praise of anarchy, you hate English orthography so much and call for its abolishment. For one thing, the settling of a new standard would necessarily be an immense, centralized, dictatorial undertaking.

English spelling is the epitome of anarchy. Word forms generally refect their etymology, their geneology. They have not been deracinated.

boneman said...

Dmitri's great on a lot of topics, which is why I check in every Tues., but history of language (especially English)apparently isn't one of them. English spelling simply reflects its evolution, as does French (much harder to spell relative to sound), and any other language that has been written for a long enough time that vowel and consonant shifts have outpaced spelling changes -- and has avoided a dictatorially decreed spelling regime.

While it is true that English literacy was historically deliberately restricted (and one might argue that it continues to be), it doesn't follow that the spelling system was designed for that purpose. (Sounds a bit like Intelligent Design, no?).

And while it is also true that English spelling could be simplified and indexed to pronunciation, I wouldn't want to be on the committee that tries to decide which dialect sets the standard. There would necessarily be a built-in elitism, and thus the political problem remains.

Finally, it seems extremely odd that Dmitri would have us rely on a smartphone app in order to access the wisdom of the past. If I read his writings correctly, there ain't gonna be no stinkin' iphones in the energy restricted future. And when that future arrives, we'll need to be able to read all those hard-copy books on farming, sailing, etc. that will allow us to survive the collapse.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Stanislav -

Actually Chinese is, if not exactly logical, learnable. It is a pictographic language with phonetic elements that work by analogy. I wouldn't call it a mess. Japanese is a bit more of a mess. The only language with an orthography as messed up as English, I understand, is Irish, but even the Irish government admits that it's dying (again).

Logan -

You are behind the times. All contemporary computer systems are "UTF-8 clean" and use Unicode, not ASCII; look it up.

boneman -

You bring up "historical reasons" ("hysterical raisins" is what people in software call them). Wherever you see them pop up, also look for vested interests that resist change for their own reasons having nothing to do with the common cause. I tell you about millions of lives ruined by this thing, and you tell me "no, that's just some raisins being hysterical". That's f'ed up, no?

Everybody -

I was not seriously advocating spelling reform. In fact, I am dead set against it: the last thing I want is some sort of horrible design by international committee. But quite another approach is to come up with a workable alternative, in the form of a piece of online software, that makes sense of gibberish for anyone who wants to use it. Call it the anarchist approach.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...


If you're serious about the software idea, it could be pulled off almost trivially by swapping the back end in one of the existing open source "text to speech" engines to produce a phonetic "Inglish" (or Cyrillic, if you choose) instead of the usual phoneme wave patches.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Stanislav -

It's almost that simple. There is a good open-source electronic pronouncing dictionary, CMUDICT from Carnegie-Mellon that follows GA (General American) phonetics. It's pretty close to what's needed, but not quite. That's just a set of phonetic transriptions that uses allphones specific to a given dialect. It is different from the underlying phonemes that are general to (ideally) all English dialects. Across all dialects there are simply too many vowels with in completely overlapping distributions. However, at this point all English speakers can understand Hollywood movies without subtitles, and some of the finer distinctions can be relegated to the phonetic level (which can be as idiosyncratic as you like) and not be reflected in the orthography. Then there is the additional problem with vowel reduction; the underlying non-reduced phoneme has to be expressed wherever it is discoverable through a different word variant. Finally, there has to be a syntactic parser that can determine lexical stress (difference between áddress and addréss) and the rendering of homographs (lead-metal versus lead-verb or lead-rope). So, not "almost trivially" but still doable.

Biasedpenguin said...

As forrest mentions, George Bernard Shaw tried to support phonetic spelling of English via his will. However, most of the (potentially large) bequest was diverted to other causes).

Andrew Carnegie was also an advocate of phonetic English, and used it himself.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...


I'm OK with "BBC English" as a target for the phonemes, but it is likely that the "reformed" language will sound a little weird and Slavonic to purists. Let them suffer, I say.

As for the context-dependent bits, the current state of the art in text analysis leaves a lot to be desired. So the "лед / лид" and "áddress / addréss" problem will have to be solved by flagging and manual correction. Anyone who wants to make the job of "cyrillise.it" (grab the domain?) easier ought to start by adding diacritical marks to their "Imperial Age English" blog posts right now. As you pointed out, Unicode makes this kind of thing considerably easier, and the inconvenience to readers who prefer Imperial English will be minimal.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Nice, but we can't even get around to using the metric system like the rest of planet earth.

Surely you've heard the old joke about how to spell "fish?": GHOTI

gh, as in tough;
o, as in women; and
ti, as in nation.

Or, the entire word could be silent if you prefer:

gh as in though;
o as in people;
t as in ballet; and
i as in business

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoti. Click through to get to link on English spelling reform. In short: it's been tried.

English is also made difficult by the Great vowel Shift of the Middle Ages.

And from this article, I note the following:

"Languages with highly phonemic orthographies often lack a word corresponding to the verb "to spell", or rarely use such a term, because the act of spelling out words is rarely needed (careful pronunciation of a word is generally sufficient to convey its spelling)."

I wonder what literacy rates are in Latin America; I found Spanish very easy to learn both in grammar and spelling (I understand there is no such thing as a "spelling bee" in Spanish).

On a lighter note, here's a short history of English: http://youtu.be/H3r9bOkYW9s

Now can we just use logical punctuation and the Dvorak keyboard?

P.S. sorry for any typos

Niffiwan said...

@GHung, English certainly does NOT lend itself to poetry and song. You might ask why the English have been so eager to stop using rhymes in their poetry, while in Russian there are still contemporary popular examples of the rhymed novel (see: The Tale of Fedot the Strelets). Compared to Russian, English has more kinds of word endings and fewer words that end in those endings - it's generally much harder to find good rhymes in English, which is why writers so often have to cheat.

What English does lend itself to extremely well is being roundabout, indirect, and more complex than needed. It's an excellent language for obfuscating your true meaning. Writers like Stephen Leacock and Terry Pratchett have used this to great effect.

And perhaps that is the biggest flaw with this proposal: making something more complex than it needs to be is a proud part of English culture, not simply part of the spelling system, so this is not a change that will be easily made.

Also, have you heard some of the accents that you get on the British Isles? For many of the vowel sounds, there would simply be no consistency at all with a proposed phonetic writing system.

Dr. Doom said...

I've often said and written that English is my second language. I have no first language.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Good comments, all.

Shaw's phonetic alphabet, Shavian, although well-intentioned, is a non-starter. It's another system designed to trigger dyslexia in otherwise normal people. Squiggle-squiggle-squiggle-doodle-squiggle, etc.

Here are things the alternative way to write English cannot possibly be because it won't work:

1. Something that looks like English misspelled (i.e., other ways to use the basic Latin alphabet)

2. Something that looks foreign (i.e., uses lots of diacritics)

3. Something that relies on official sanction, recognition, programme of reform, etc.

4. Something that doesn't directly map to the allophones of the major dialects, which are: GA (General American); Southern England, Australia/NZ/SA, Scotland and Ireland. Of these, GA is closest to the common ancestor, which was rhotic (/r/ sounded everywhere) but some subtle vowel distinctions (those with the smallest numbers of minimal pairs that are commonly contrasted in usage) can be dispensed with.

5. Something that takes a long time to learn, requires superior penmanship, or triggers dyslexia by using same shapes in different orientations to mean different things.

6. Something that requires manual tagging of text rather than running a script (which can be long and complicated).

Here are the things it can definitely be:

1. Something that looks totally badass and would look good stenciled on the side of an alien spaceship in a space video game, in a graffiti or a tattoo.

2. Something whose full description fits on both sides of a laminated index card.

3. Something that drunk people at a bar would enjoy figuring out and explaining to each other because it's so damned easy you have to be a 'tard not to get it.

4. Something spat out by a free computer program or online tool when it is fed any English text. Upload your text in any number of formats, get back the result formatted the same way.

5. Something that is a browser plug in or a smartphone app that allows you to surf the net reading English phonetically.

This is just for starters. I'll have more to say on this later.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Erse Gaeilge is indeed as nightmarish in its spelling as English; arguably worse. And that's after some 'simplifications' were done recently.

The two languages that I know which are know which are pretty well wysiwys in their current spelling forms are Turkish, which switched to its current form at the time of Ataturk, and -- tara!! -- my country's ancient national language: Yr hen iaith: Cymraeg. Here too, what you see is what you say, pretty well completely, as soon as you master our use of the Western alphabet, and one or two sounds that English-speakers find unfamiliar.

Italian's not bad like that too.

Professor Diabolical said...

Having translated American to phonetic, I can vouch for how it's generally impossible. There are too many different possibilities, and even standardized down, there are too many fluctuations in pronounciation. Should it be "reely" like in Jersey, "rah-leigh" as in London, "rully" like California, or "really" like in the home of true accents, the midwest?
Just try to phonetically write on a school chalkboard and you'll quickly find that readers actually cannot understand the words when written phonetically. This goes to the heart of what English is, and why it's worldwide: it's the language of borrowers. Each word, or peculiar spelling captures in amber the point of its assumption to the language. Thus I can know "ballet" is a french word (silent last letter, 't'), "phenome" is greek (using 'ph' as 'f') and shillelagh is gaelic ('gh' and because you can't understand the spelling whatsoever). This gives the vibrancy to the language, the imagery, the history of using new or old word choice and from what location in time and space you wish to evoke.

Warning: the other reason English is a language of the world empires is that it's the language of pathological liars. You cannot speak straight in English, nor half the time think straight. The word for crow in Mohawk is "Gaw! Gaw!" and goose is "ker-honk!" Place names would be such things as "crooked place in the river" and "beautiful lake": inherently clear. Nearly impossible to lie in effectively. In English, on the other hand, you can use an enormous variety of words that supposedly, but not quite, mean the same thing. This give a unique ability to say one thing and mean another, but more importantly think two opposite things at the same time, an ability we have transformed into a spiritual art, the very foundation of pan-Anglo existence. We also like, for this reason or another, the gizmodic, over-complex, Victorian, Rube Goldberg clockwork contraptions even if they don't do anything, or do it badly. Perhaps our language is an expression of that nonsense of just tinkering around for no good reason. And that's the good and bad of us.

It would explain a lot.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Professor -

Your view of English is rather Anglo-centric. You native speakers are after all, but a small piece of the puzzle. Nobody particularly has the patience for your little dialects; your language is being used by Estonians to talk to Brazilians and by the Turkih to talk to the Chinese. They need straight-forward simplicity. Then there are all those who cannot learn, or be taught, the existing form of written English, for a wide variety of reasons.

You are right, English cannot be transcribed phonetically and still be understood across dialects. That is the case for most languages. That's why it's a brain-dead idea. But English, just as any language, can be written down phonologically, to follow a few simple orthographic rules with exactly zero exceptions. This is just a bit of work for a trained linguist, but NOT for someone who clearly doesn't knows the difference between a phoneme and an allphone. So put down that chalk and back away from that blackboard!

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...


It would like to see this effort succeed, but the "hysterical raisins" seem to win every time anyone tries a linguistic reform. Even the comparatively-light task of reforming a programming language! Old habits die hard, especially ones where the afflicted believe their skill in the memorization of trivia to be proof of intellectual superiority.

Dmitry Orlov said...

'"hysterical raisins" seem to win every time anyone tries a linguistic reform' - not true. Look at the history of Korean, or Russian, or Turkish, or German (most recent orthographic reform of German was just a few years ago). People yell and scream and then go with the superior system that saves them time and money. "Even the comparatively-light task of reforming a programming language!" - that's much harder, in fact, because the solution has to be upgradeable or bugward-compatible. "Old habits die hard" - well, I am not going to be the one killing them. All I want to do is provide another option.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...


These are all good examples of language reform by royal decree - but I don't know of one that could be called a "grass roots" effort. But don't let this discourage you.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Who said anything about "reform"? Didn't I say several times right here that I have no interest in reform, and am dead-set against reforming English spelling? Seriously, I give up!

Anonymous said...


Thank you for taking a hunch I've had for a long time -- that some property of the English language brings domination and inequality to follow wherever it goes -- and putting some flesh on it. I would add that the extensive time spent learning and consistently obeying a system of arbitrary, sometimes inconsistent set of rules conditions a mind to more easily accept systems of arbitrary, sometimes inconsistent sets of rules outside of language, and further makes that mind seemingly less able to deal in principles, cause-and-effect, especially higher-order effects, and ambiguity.

There's plenty of equipment out there that you could squint hard and call "infrastructure", from boot loaders to industrial controllers to road signs, which more probably will be nursed along than replaced, especially when industrial products are scarce. Which, I suppose, makes for a more comfortable dotage for us computer whisperers who can speak Old Modern English while the rest of the world is pushing icons around. :)

I do question whether, in this age of endemic corruption and discounting of the future and with a language that has evolved to privilege the privileged, a sane, impartial, fair-dealing committee can be assembled ad-hoc for any egalitarian, forward-looking purpose at all. But the natural approach to English language simplification has resulted in not only functional illiteracy but smaller vocabularies and terribly narrow horizons, as you noted in the second paragraph. Are there any examples of top-down language reformation that you would consider unsuccessful?

Thanks again for your astute observations and for presenting them with just enough tongue in cheek. Cheers!

Robin Datta said...

No question, English spelling is screwed up: not just because of the incursions of yore (a wave of invasion/occupation becomes an immigration when they try to fight back the next wave). More recent contributors are the flotsam and jetsam wafted in from Empires relinquished - Londonistan, Little Saigons et cetera.

Pantalones Frescos said...

Maybe I've missed something, but I'm just reading between the lines here. You've added a family member and upgraded to a bigger boat. Now you're in some cold bureaucratic location contemplating child english literacy.
Are you adopting a Russian child?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Jonathan -

Looks you got my number, sort of. We are in our home town, where almost all of our family lives, a big metropolis on the Gulf of Finland. Yes on the bureaucracy, yes on the blowing, drifting snow. And, yes, we have a son, but he is our own flesh and blood. And, yes, I am thinking forward to teaching him English spelling, and thinking that it would be some kind of child abuse, especially since I am now more than halfway convinced that I can avoid the problem by doing some automated surgery on CMUDICT and then running a script on any text he would want to read to bring the orthography in line with the phonology.

spoorsnyer said...

Read Feersum Endjinn - Iain M Banks
From WikiP;

A quarter of the book is told by Bascule the Teller and is written phonetically in the first person. This is explained by Bascule's dyslexia. The fourth chapter of the book's Part One opens with:

Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.

Kristiina said...

Ah, thank you for the post, and also the one before, on the practice of anarchy. I hail from the other side of Gulf of Finland - the Finnish side. I have had periods when I have simply stopped using english exactly for the reasons you bring up. Made for lying, innerly corrupt language. I've always thought this is my own dark secret - the tiny attempts I've made with native English-speakers to bring up anything in this vein have brought forth a storm of denials. So I thought it my personal flaw that this is what I think of this language. But as you bring this up, I am starting to see the real dark pattern here: the cognitive patterning a language will produce in its user. That is the nasty part: the prison inside one's head. And it is surprisingly robust: learning new languages seems to get extremely difficult after 30 - if one has had only one language up to that age. Being multilingual from an early age would probably contribute to a more flexible cognitive wiring in the head.

On practical anarchy - thank you for the hint on how to contribute. A long, long time ago, at the tender age of 16 I wrote an essay for the school on anarchism, and recently found it as I was moving. Reading it again: It was impressive, got top marks for it and I felt I have only come downwards after that. But the theories are terribly aristocratic, so your practical approach bridges the gulf that theory and practice have.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Kristina -

This is something that takes people a long time to realize, and I am glad that you have. Hypocrisy is hard-wired right into the English language. That's why the British look back in disbelief when told of all the countries they have ruined, mostly for personal monetary gain. Americans caught the same disease, and both now take their own craven, rapacious nature for some sort of law of nature. But here we have a Russian and a Finn communicating in their language. It's about time it stopped being theirs alone and became ours as well. And a good trick to use is to make it illegible for the (unconverted) native speakers.

Dredd said...

I thought your introduction was going to lead to "I am talking about the U.N. Conference in Doha, Qatar" but alas it did not!

They are trying to save 100 million people from dying by 2030 because of global warming.

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

They say French is just the surviving form of Latin as it is spoken today. I also hear that a language with such dominant usage, a "lingua franca", is characteristically efficient for military communication. It is from this that makes English dominant, so turks can talk to brazilians, etc. So languages that have the potential to make for economic transition have decreasing usage.

The number of languages spoken by human species falls to lower number every year. Of celtic languages irish survives with close to 70,000 native speakers, who live on the westernmost shores furthest from britain. I know irish and its orthography does look like bad compromise. Irish is nuanced, literary language like german, but in celtic languages lenition and eclipsis are grammatical cues. I did not know welsh orthography was effective, maybe it looks good on the side of a spaceship!

forrest said...

I expect the main problem with educating people isn't the difficulty of the writing system -- Consider Chinese, and how many people were learning to read/write it just to get into the Civil Service. Likewise the example of nice, phonetic Spanish, as someone else mentioned here.

If education is needed for a credible, livable career, people will work through the difficulties. If that career stops looking desirable or available for most of the educatees -- You end up with something like the USian education system: workable in locales where most of the population expects to come out employable & employed, unworkable everywhere else. & for the many people suffering emotional stress that renders them too erratic, that disrupts their concentration too much of the time, this certainly makes most potentially desirable careers pretty inaccessible. Corruption in the system -- consider the student loan & charter school & textbook rackets, the dishonesty of most 'reform' efforts -- just makes education, for most people, even less likely to happen.

I don't speak "texting" -- but all sorts of people are learning to read/write it, with no help or hindrance from the System. Is it suitable for conveying any useful information? -- Anyone here know?

Unknown said...

Since this a problem invented by our long-ago rulers, it seems unlikely to be solved by our modern-day rulers. What an opportunity to put collective anarchy into practice! One of the smartest guys I've ever met recently discussed such a scenario. I suppose the initial kick-off would take leadership from someone inspired to actually devise and release the new spelling system. Hopefully that guy's a linguist itching to do something useful with his arcane knowledge. The leader would of course lead by example, not dictate. The new concept would have to go viral and be adopted by consensus. It would slowly gain structure, translation apps, etc. until it eventually is the natural and accepted paradigm.

deb98126 said...

Congratulations to you and your wife, Dmitry, on the pending/recent birth of your son. And thanks for an excellent article. It speaks to my own challenges with the English language as an American-born Black person. Well written and objective!

DeVaul said...

I thought a child was involved.

It was how I related to this article so well. I learned English as my mother language, and I remember no rules regarding pronunciation other than "i before e except after c", which is actually more of a writing rule. We did sentence diagrams in Louisiana every night. It was all about grammer and memorization of weird letter combinations.

I learnd German with relative ease, but I also concentrated on their unusual (by our standards) grammer and syntax. I never thought much about how easy it was to pronounce a German word just by looking at it.

Which brings me to English. The first word I tried to teach my wife after we arrived home from Thailand was "cramp". She was signing to me that she had developed a cramp in her leg from the long flight, and then wanted to know the English word for it. I had no idea Thais viewed consonants as some kind of necessary evil in life, and that clusters of them are generally burned at the stake.

However, if you suffer from dyslexia, do not even attempt to learn or read Thai script. It is barely readable to those who do not suffer this problem. It makes my eyes go cross-eyed. It is written so small and contains exact characters with only tiny adjustments that cannot be read or understood without a magnifying glass.

Still, like all languages, I hope it does not die out. It would truly be a boring world with only one language and nothing to belittle or satarize about it.

Teaching my daughter and wife English has revealed how utterly impossible our spelling system is to understand. There are no rules. It just has to be memorized. No other way, really.

Congrats on your new son!

Teach him Thai instead of English!

(He'll thank you later -- maybe.)

Karey said...

In support of Stanislav Datskovskiy that there are other factors at work, I suggest you read the review of Rudolph Flesch’s book published in 1955, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It, for an alternative explanation. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/primaryeducation/9568193/Johnny-can-read-if-only-hes-given-a-chance.html
Flesch demonstrated that the massive failure of reading education in the US started when it adopted Look and Say teaching methods in 1925 (followed by the UK in the 1950s and Australia somewhere between then and the 1960s). Flesch showed that contrary to the claims about the total irregularity of English in the article above, it is in fact 95% regular. Whereas children require one year to master the basics of phonically regular languages like Italian, it takes just one more year of systematic phonics instruction in reading English for children to reach the same level. Kids in schools in poor areas taught systematic phonics quickly outperform kids in rich areas taught by Look and Say or supplementary phonics.
Either this book or his next one includes detailed instructions for parents on what the phonics rules of English spelling are, and how to teach them, including the variations. It is all quite simple, and I used his lessons to teach my children to immunise them from the Look and Say nonsense being taught in schools.
It was Look and Say instruction methods that turned learning to read in English into a memorisation process that leads to massive levels of illiteracy. The book publishers profit from it, because schools are tied into buying their textbooks, instead of children being able to read any book they pick up. Faculties of education have become tied into promoting this teaching method, and pay only lip service to teaching phonics. As Gibb’s says ‘the evidence is overwhelming that the early teaching of reading through systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective approach’, but ideology is preventing it being adopted.
PS there is a replacement for the querty keyboard in the works, and I suspect that this or something like it will soon displace it. http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-12261_7-57432257-10356022/snapkeys-calls-for-the-death-of-the-qwerty-keyboard/

Dmitry Orlov said...


I am familiar with Fleisch. I am also a trained linguist, so I draw my own conclusions. The claim that English spelling is 95% regular is 95% bullshit. The cognitive overhead of reading and writing English is the most extreme of any language. As I said, it does not qualify as a system and cannot be taught as such. It is, in fact, a fossil: a long list of spelling mistakes made by Dutch printers that were frozen in amber in mid-17th century. Phonics or not, the level of functional illiteracy in the English-speaking countries is much higher than anywhere else, and is the direct result of the irregularity of English spelling and the need for years of rote memorization. That English educationalists would also be apologists for English spelling is just an example of psychology of previous investment and the work of vested interests. "Works for me!" Well, that's not good enough for the rest of us.

Karey said...

Hi kollapsnik, I am not apologising for the confusing jumble that constitutes English. It is simply the empirical reality that we have to deal with. Like galacticsurfer said, the complexity of English ‘stem[s] from it being an immigrant language’, and for that matter, a language of colonial expansion, that incorporates bits and pieces of lots of languages. The spelling reflects that muddle.
But that doesn’t mean it is arbitrary. There are patterns of spelling the most important of which can be taught in 6 months, and most of the rest can be learnt in a couple of years. The trouble is that Look and Say does not teach these rules (or heuristics) and there is too much complexity for more than a minority of children to inductively work them out without assistance. Once the rules and patterns are explicitly taught two years of instruction reduces illiteracy rates to comparable levels of other more regular languages.
I teach cognitive linguistics at tertiary level, so my expertise is at least comparable to kollapsnik. The adoption of Look and Say rote learning methods in English was initially the result of misinterpretation of psychology experiments in which it was found that competent adult readers did not sound out words but scanned whole lines and recognised words as wholes. Contrary to the conclusions of teacher educators, this did not support the conclusion that children would learn to read faster and better by learning the meaning of words as a whole as if they were Chinese logograms.
The empirical evidence does not support the claim that English has to be taught by rote memorisation. In fact it is the Look and Say attempt to do just this that brought about the dramatic decline in literacy rates. If illiteracy was the result of the structure of English then changing how it is taught would not have such a big impact on results. There are empirical comparative studies that demonstrate the overwhelming difference between systemic phonics instruction in English and Look and Say methods. Claims that English is too arbitrary to teach phonics have long been used by apologists for Look and Say as an excuse for not adopting demonstrably more effective methods of teaching English.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Karey -

You may be marginally correct, although, for starters, a writing system is not empirical reality, it is arbitrary social convention, and, in the case of English, an example of systemic, objective violence. For another, the spelling system was frozen in mid-17th century, with all the mistakes, and colonial expansion has little to do with it. Phonics is used in the UK and Australia, and they do get slightly better results. But you are responding to a post that is definitely not about a better way to teach English spelling, because literacy rates will be low no matter how you teach it. It is about why English spelling should be passed over in favor of a better system, which is just not that hard to create. Simply put, perfectly reasonable people refuse to devote years of their lives to learning such a ridiculous thing, and they do so in greater and greater numbers. This is not a trend that will be reversed; time for another strategy.

cmaukonen said...

Hi Kollapsnik,

Interesting discussion. TEXTING is used a lot by young people these days even in emails and posts. So that it and of it self shows the language is evolving, like it or not.

Another thing, I am a Ham Radio operator and believe it or not good old morse code is still used by us. Primarily to communicate with those who do not speak English. In fact it is still considered a highly prized ability. Especially in other countries. So much so they have yearly competitions in the ability to send and receive morse and a high rate of speed and with great accuracy.

It is said the a foreign operator may not speak English but will likely understand morse code.

Karey said...

Part 2 of reply to kollapsnik:

Exhaustive government inquiries in both Australia and the UK support the conclusion that early systemic/synthetic phonics instruction produces far higher literacy performance, that increase and accumulate over time to those who have been taught phonics. Moreover, taught using systemic phonics it does not take ‘years of their lives’ for children to learn, but only five or six months (http://www.improve-education.org/id58.html , ). In first year primary school my children baulked at reading activities based on rote memorisation of words. As soon as I introduced them to phonics principles they happily embraced it because it offered a relatively small number of rules to learn (as opposed to tens of thousands of individual words), and despite being punished for a year or two by their teachers for ‘sounding out’ their words, they soon became the best readers in their class.
The evidence that the whole word approach to teaching spelling is the main problem is shown by the fact illiteracy increases whatever the language of instruction: ‘both Cuba and Israel discovered they had high illiteracy rates after using whole language methods. Both solved their problem by returning to intensive phonics.’ http://www.halcyon.org/wholelan.html
Sure English is more complicated, and it may ‘not [be] that hard to CREATE’ a simpler alternative. However the prospects of implementing any such new system across a multitude of democratic countries is vanishingly small at best. Adoption of change is more likely to be piecemeal – like the US elimination of some variations, and simply add to the global complexity.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Karey -

The fact that there is even an argument over where a phonologically motivated approach to English spelling is better or worse than rote memorization shows just what a hopeless mess it is. But it's a moot point; since the spelling of a great many words is not discoverable by listening to spoken English, rote memorization of written forms, separately from acquiring the spoken language, is required for a great many words in any case.

"[T]he prospects of implementing any such new system across a multitude of democratic countries is vanishingly small at best."—considering the rapidly accelerating failure rate of nation-states everywhere, and the fact that many of the will no longer be habitable due to global warming, the prospect of these countries continuing to exist for an extended period of time in their current form is even smaller, so the political argument is a moot point. Given more than one choice, the system that survives is likely to be the simpler one (if one exists). But written English in its current form, which requires a great deal of schooling for its propagation, doesn't stand a chance, so the choice is between a simpler system grounded in phonology or loss of literacy. Having traveled around the US quite a lot, I think that this loss of literacy is well underway already.

It doesn't help matters that even Linguists seem to treat English spelling as if it were an act of God. English is a phonologically shallow language with a common phonological, psychologically valid representation, which is what makes different dialects mutually intelligible. But, in spite of all the money wasted on attempts to achieve basic literacy, devising a phonologically shallow orthography is not even considered as a worthwhile experiment. Why is that? (Don't bother answering that; I've been in the academia, and I know the answer. It's always "more research is needed" and "give us more grant money." The work would have to be done by those outside it.)

David said...

The reason American kids are illiterate is simple. Their parents are a bunch of peasants who have no respect for learning or the intellectual life, and spend their time nose to the grindstone for their corporate masters or obsessing about sports and really stupid TV shows. If you have parent who don't read and have no respect for reading, learning, science, or much of anything beyond making a buck, then you end up with kids that don't read.

Dmitry Orlov said...

David -

Thank you for providing yet another bona fide example of blaming the victim.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

'The Chaos' is in a British English that was still current in my childhood; it was mostly how the genteel classes spoke; not necessarily amongst the proletariat; and in England only.

It now contains obsolescent pronuciations no longer much used by anyone. Very funny though, and painfully true.

DeVaul said...

Well, I guess I am forced to leave a second comment. I am quite upset, even angered, by the institutional tripe offered by Karey, which, as a member of the Deaf community, has been dumped on me for half my life.

I believe the same "exhaustive government studies" showed Alexander Graham Bell and the Convention of Milan that sign language should be outlawed in every school, dorm, and public space on the face of the earth, and so it was. (Never mind that Alex was selling hearing aids, which he was inventing for his mother and hoped to patent and sell some day.)

A hundred years later we are still listening to the experts tell us how best to communicate, even though those experts (government and private) need an interpreter in order to just speak to us. At least they don't beat our hands numb with sticks or dunk our heads in water when we use our hands to communicate anymore, but that only ended about 40 years ago. (I don't know if any government studies were involved, but I sincerely doubt it.)

Also, I would like to thank David for showing us the way forward. If our children are smart enough, they might "succeed" in life and become engineers and computer programmers and such, who will then produce the next generation of stupid gadgets that prevent anyone from actually having a face-to-face converstation with antoher human being.

The price of success in America is steep. My generation was raised to be "successful" (invent and sell stuff), and so we were, but now we must eat that success as we watch our children zone out in front of the latest electrical gadget (which only smart, successful people can make, you know).

If we ask them to do something more constructive with their time, they ask in turn: then why did we make all these fancy gizmos for them? The answer, of course, cannot be spoken.

Finally, I would like to ask all the experts out there pushing their latest "system" or "theory" this: how did children learn language before the advent of schools, colleges, universities, governments, and empires? How did they develop writing systems that made sense to them (as opposed to keeping everyone employed)?

I guess the idea of parents imparting language directly to their own children is just too primitive a topic for experts to deal with. Plus, you cannot really sell it, which I believe is the "real" problem in America.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thank you, DeVaul! That is exactly my point: your native language is your birthright; it does not belong the people who wrote it down (incompetently) several centuries ago and have been oppressing us with it ever since.

I haven't received this much institutional hate mail since I ran a series on catastrophic climate change a few years ago. I guess I must be doing it right.

What I am trying to do is provide accessibility: for the deaf, the blind, the dyslexic, and those with not enough time to go to school for years just to learn to read and write their native language—something that, for a simple language like English, should take weeks, not years.

jim burke said...


interesting post. A couple comments; first, my understanding is that English is one of the easiest languages to get the basics down, and one of the most difficult to master. If the spelling could be simplified, it would be wonderful.

Also, if one looks at sets of instructions or whatnot that are printed in multiple languages, English is invariably the most compact.

Surely such simplified spelling systems as you describe have already been designed, have they not? Perhaps you might introduce us to them in the future?

Lance M. Foster said...

There is a system already, one that not only allows consistency in English, but a system that can be applied uniformly across all human languages. I learned it in a few weeks in my linguistics class as an undergrad in anthropology. It's called the International Phonetics Alphabet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet

The only problem is that it reflects language as it is actually spoken rather than how it ought to be spoken, so dialects can throw a wrench in things, even differences in American English which has several regional dialects (though television has been flattening those out for decades).

Dmitry Orlov said...


IPA is a start, but reflects allphones rather than the underlying phonemes, and the result is, as you point out, dialect-specific. Also, IPA is very hard to write and quite hard to read. I don't know anyone who can fluently read text transcribed using IPA. It's a scientific tool that is very far from optimal for everyday use. It's OK as a language tool, for lack of anything better. Since it shares many characters with the regular Latin alphabet, there are cognitive interference effects between transcribed words and words spelled out. I'll explain in detail in this Tuesday's post.

Glenn said...

I'm not sure what all the heat is about here. My children and I had no trouble learning to read and write English, and we are West Coast citizens of the United States.

I went to grade school starting in 1963, my son in 1993, my elder daughter in 1995 and my youngest in 2005.

Of course, it is exceedingly dangerous for any of us to use ACME products, or to pursue Roadrunners.

Marrowstone Island

Lance M. Foster said...

The question I have for you then, Dmitry, is that yes, although I understand allophones, etc. and you are making a point about phonemes being the direction to go in...well I see your point. There's a good exchange about the number of phonemes (and some diagreements) in the English language here: http://www.antimoon.com/forum/2005/6356.htm

Maybe there really is no perfect solution, but there can be a better way. Although it sounds to me like what you really are looking for (I could be wrong) is a set of nonLatin forms for English phonemes. Some of the American Indian languages developed scripts, notably Cherokee and Cree, though those are syllabaries rather than alphabets. But they do look cool and maybe if you can settle on the English phonemic set, these syllabaries can inspire a phonemic alphabet :-)

Cherokee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_syllabary


It would be a matter of ironic justice if Native American languages helped overturn the invaders' linguistic comfort zone ;-)

Dmitry Orlov said...

Glenn -

I'll put you in the "Works for me!" camp along with millions of others. This is not about you, this is about all the millions of people that it doesn't work for.


Sorry if this is too terse; I will explain in detail later.

I don't believe dipthongs and schwa are phonemes. A dipthong is two vowels, and a schwa is a reduced allophone of some vowel. So-called r-colored vowels are not phonemes either; there's just the one syllabic /r/ ('fur'/'fir'), along with a syllabic /n/ ('button') a syllabic /l/ ('little'). There are two /i/ phonemes ('shit'/'sheet'). There is just one /o/ between law and low which sounds different depending on whether it stands alone or as part of a dipthong. (British English has an extra /o/ allphone but no minimal pairs for it.) There is the /æ/ in 'cat'. There is just one /a/ between 'butter' and 'father' - lack of minimal pairs (plus some ambiguity from British English, which pronounces 'bath', etc., with an [a] instead of an [æ]). There are two /u/-type phonemes - 'pull' vs. 'pool'. That's just 35 in all, everything else is produced via unconsciously generated phonological rules which depend on dialect. Many people have more than one set of such rules; many Bostonians go from rhotic at work to non-rhotic at a bar where they want to blend in. The non-rhotic (r-swallowing) dialects like British RP are more ambiguous (no distinction between father and farther) but such induced ambiguity does not a minimal pair make, any more than does a lisp, a twang or a drawl, and furthermore since all the various dialects are mutually intelligible to non-literate persons, the underlying phonological form is identical or at least very similar.

As far as choice of graphical form for the 35 phonemes, there are lots of requirements, but the main two are that it can't look like Latin (because of interference effects with English spelling) and it can't look like any other foreign language (for other valid psychological reasons). Plus it has to look really cool and give graphic designers lots to play with.

Glenn said...


My remark, though true, was ironic humour. Perhaps too subtle; the phrase "Wile E. Coyote, Super-Genius" may assist.

Anyway, it's not just literacy in our native tongue that's not being taught effectively in the U.S.; math, history, geography and most sciences (especially those that rely on math) aren't being taught well either. This is a change from the past, all these things used to be taught well in our schools. It reflects a fundamental change in society, the various powers that be no longer think a well educated citizenry to be a good idea. The rich will simply hire foreign engineers and manufacture in foreign factories. When the last Walmart implodes the remaining economy will serve only the rich.

For what it's worth, both of my older children griped about public school, especially their unmotivated fellow students. My youngest is mostly home-schooled, but participates in an alternative program through the public school system three days a week. She's also been writing poetry since before she could read well.

Yes, I did marry smart women both times. But environment has as much to do with learning as genetics. It helps to be surrounded by well educated people who take a keen interest in your learning and have high standards.

As an aside, Tolkien's Tengwar is very pretty, but I suspect would be cruel to the dyslexic.

Unknown said...

If you want everything in language to be straightforward, then we should all speak Esperanto. But there are good reasons we dont do that. While they may not be especially useful for conveying data, the idiosyncracies and complexities of a language are what carry its poetic and historical resonances. Spelling is one place that english carries these resonances, others do it with piles of irregular verbs and so on.

Anonymous said...


Note exactly when the transition from Dickens to Sesame Street happened, and what other American cultural changes it coincided with. That's as much as I dare to say on the subject.

Yeah, you want to blame the hippies, but unfortunately for this theory hippies don't actually decide anything about the curricula (they were a tiny counterculture, much less than 1% of the US population) and the patterns of changes you're talking about long predate the 60's. When you cite a publication from the 50's for its literacy you miss the point that those readers had learned to read decades before it was published.

Here's a (libertarian) right wing conspiracy theorist's take on it. Surprisingly, he doesn't blame the hippies. Quite the opposite, really.


Anonymous said...

Here is a good paper on why US kids can't read. Britain is returning to the use of synthetic phonics to teach reading, a method used since 1655, according to the article in the link below. We taught our daughter to read before she went to school, using the phonics method, with great success. According to UN studies, Canadian schools are doing a better job than American ones by a long shot. Having worked in the United States and Canada, I agree with the comments here about many US adults being illiterate or borderline illiterate. Sadly, I have met well paid American executives who could not string a sentence together on paper, and had considerable problems with vocabulary and business reading, unlike their Canadian counterparts. If you have young children, teach them using the phonics method. And then there's the mathematics teaching method popular today; leaves one cross-eyed! has anyone tried to help their child with their maths homework lately?


Niffiwan said...

DeVaul: the reason we have schools in the first place is so that everyone in a society has a common language & background with which to talk to each other. If every parent creates their own spelling rules, nobody will be able to understand what anyone else has written. How is this a good thing?

Kollapsnik: I am intrigued by your idea of doing this in software. It could be a neat idea to write a bit of software into which one could type in English words in standard spelling, and have them come out as phonemes, which can then be further processed into whatever writing system you like.

That way, potentially, anything written in standard English could be easily turned into your proposed phonetic writing system (or Cyrillic, or anything else) and vice-versa. It could even be turned into a browser plug-in - imagine if your internet browser could automatically translate any online text into whatever writing system you wanted, and back.

Be careful about avoiding the Latin script, though. It will be easier for people to learn if there is a lot of overlap with established letters/sounds (like the phonetic Russian keyboard layout, for example, which largely overlaps with the English QWERTY layout).

Pavel said...

Very interesting analysis, I agree completely! I especially appreciate the insight into the class based origins of the inanity. I come from Lithuania and our education while I was in school was still very much based on the Soviet system – it was very effective at teaching me Lithuanian and my native Russian grammar, but the English classes were always a pain – primarily due to the writing system, although the whole language is very difficult and has too many rules and exceptions. I had exceptional English exclusively due to intuition – from watching quite a lot of American entertainment channels on the television. In my experience living in England, Englishmen don’t have a good grasp on the rules themselves and rely on intuition as well. I wonder if a lot of native English speakers themselves lose hope in their education if their school can’t even teach them their own language.

I think I can see your point about language purism being a tool of the upper class in Lithuania, where after the independence language purists took over the educational system and Russian became phased out of city life. Russian neologisms got carefully removed from textbooks and Russian loanwords began being called “parasitisms” and “barbarisms” while English loanwords just “loanwords”. About a third of Lithuanians speak Russian fluently, but it was just too dangerous for the newly created Lithuanian elite. Russian schools are underfunded and reorganized into Lithuanian schools whenever opportunity arises. Russian speakers are essentially forced to integrate or face a lot of discrimination on lingual grounds. It’s a very effective tool to keep a significant minority away from any power, as well as a semblance of normal multicultural community life.

Anonymous said...

I was just watching My Fair Lady, and was reminded then of your comments about the English language and class distinctions. For a little diversion, I recommend the first song at 10:15 minutes: