English is a strange language. As a native speaker, I used to think it was completely normal and the natural state for a language, but lately I’ve been seeing the strange parts. There is a huge gap between how words are written and pronounced, with a multitude of silent letters, sounds that can be spelt with more than one letter and letters that can be pronounced more than one way. There’s also irregular verbs that defy any logic and almost look randomly thrown together. While the present and the future is straight forward, the past tense is a complete mess. Eat becomes ate, sit becomes sat, go becomes went and think becomes thought. Where is the sense in that? Why do words completely change like that?
In fact there are over 200 irregular verbs in the English language, the most obvious of which is the verb to be, which becomes am, are, is, was, were. Other examples include blow-blew, give-gave, write-wrote, have-had, find-found. I could go on all day, but you get the picture. Spelling is in an even worse state as most letters can be pronounced more than one way and most sounds can be represented by more than one letter. The word circle has the letter c pronounced two completely different ways. Gaol and jail are pronounced the same, as are right and write, praise, prays and preys and of course, the infamous there, their and they’re. This is to say nothing of though, through, thought, taught, tough, thorough and threw with seems almost deliberately designed to confuse learners.
There are hundreds of English heteronyms (words spelt the same but pronounced differently) such as row which can mean row a boat or have an argument. Lead can rhyme with bed or need. Thus you get silly sentences like “I am not close enough to close the door”, “I am pre-sent to present the present” or “Don’t desert me here in the desert”. A good example of the bizarreness of English is the poem “The Chaos” which contains over 800 examples of the irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. It begins:
Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
This can cause problems even for native speakers. Most speakers simply memorise the pronunciations rather than follow any rule, but this causes problems for new or unknown words. For example, I once got into a surprisingly long argument with a friend over the pronunciation of Lidl (is it Lid-l or Li-dl?). Another time, I worked in a job that involved speaking to a lot of customers over the phone and half the time I had no idea how to pronounce their name. It also makes learning foreign languages harder and my current language teacher can’t understand why I don’t consistently pronounce words or all the letters of a word.
How did English get so strange? Mainly due to its history and the fact that English is an odd jumble of several very different languages. English was originally a Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon tribes who invaded Britain and replaced the Celts after the fall of Roman Empire. In the 9th century the Vikings invaded and conquered a large part of Britain, mixing Norse words with Anglo-Saxon. Then it was the turn of the Normans to invade and their French in turn merged with English. Around this time, English spelling began to be standardised and take the shape it now has today. Unfortunately, pronunciation of words radically changed in what become known as the Great Vowel Shift, so that how words were spoken split from how they were spelt. Furthermore, when the first books were printed (in particular the Bible) this was not done in England, but rather in the Netherlands by printers who didn’t speak English. Their changes and mistakes were then copied even though they didn’t resemble how the language was actually spoken. Latin was highly esteemed so many Latin words were added to English and writers would change words to make them look more like Latin. This all meant that what we call English is a jumble of Germanic, French, Celtic, Latin and Norse languages. This jumbled pronunciation reflects this as words and letters are pronounced one way or the other depending on what their source is.
So why not fix it? Why not make English easier to learn and more efficient to use by removing the irregularities? English is one of the few languages that has more learners than native speakers, so streamlining it would greatly aide people all over the world and make it a more global language. It would also help native children learn the language quicker and at an earlier age. There is no need to continue errors of the past and we frequently abandon traditions that have outlived their purpose. Horses were the standard mode of transport and accepted by everyone as the natural way of doing things until cars were invented. Yet we didn’t cling to horses just because they were natural or cars cost money, it was more efficient, so we switched.
English isn’t the worst of languages and has some advantages over other languages, such as the absence of noun genders or verb cases. The grammar wouldn’t need too much of a change as it’s not too complicated at the moment, the only problem is with the past tense. A simple change would be remove conjugation of verbs and replace them with a tense marker. This is how we form the future tense (by adding the word “will” in front of the verb) so why not do the same with the past tense by using “did”? So this way you would have did eat, eat, will eat, did sit, sit, will sit etc.
Spelling is a bit harder to reform. Some go as far as to propose new letters or even a new alphabet so that each letter has only one sound. Some proposals are to remove the –gh endings from words like through and doughnut to thru and donut. Change the ph to f in words such as photo or phone. Remove the silent b in words like debt and doubt. Remove silent k from knight and knee. One proposal is called Cut Spelling and removes all silent and uneeded words and looks like this:
“Wen readrs first se Cut Spelng, as in this sentnce, they ofn hesitate slytly, but then quikly becom acustmd to th shortnd words and soon find text in Cut Spelng as esy to read as Traditional Orthografy, but it is th riter ho really apreciates th advantajs of Cut Spelng, as many of th most trublsm uncertntis hav been elimnated.”
Another example of a spelling reform is SoundSpel which looks like this:
We mae nowadaes be chairy about uezing the werd “jeenius”, but we stil hav a guud iedeea whut is ment bi it. For exampl, thair ar graet numbers of verry gifted muezishans hoo ar admierd but not calld jeeniuses. But thair ar uthers, manifestly prodijus, performing offen at extraordinerrily erly aejes, a varieety of feets so complex that the muezical laeman cuud hardly imajin, eeven with the moest desperet laebor, accomplishing eny of them, whiel eeven muezishans ar astonisht and we then reech for the guud, handy, vaeg Enlietenment werd and call them jeeniuses. The list incloods Mozart and Mendelssohn; and, despiet all the limiting jujments, it incloods Benjamin Britten.
Most people would take one look at this and reject it as nonsense. With a bit of work it can be read, but it resembles Medieval English or that written by someone who never went to school, neither of which people are likely to imitate. Perhaps if it was introduced gradually, people wouldn’t be so resistant, but many people take language skills seriously and bad spelling is considered by many as a sign of stupidity.
Some people are completely opposed to the idea of linguistic reform on principle, regardless of whether it would work or not. To them, languages are natural and should not be interfered with or tied down. Trying to impose changes on a language is as artificial as a metal flower and just as ugly. If you want a language to change, you have to leave it be, languages always naturally change.
Language reform sounds unlikely but it has been done before. Irish was reformed in 1948 mainly to remove silent letters and make the spelling easier (so Gaedheal became Gael) and to standardise the dialects. Czech and Slovak underwent standardisation in the 19th century, a standard Norwegian was created to unite the dialects (in fact there’s now two main standards), the Chinese alphabet was simplified in the 50s, Turkish even went as far as to change its alphabet to Latin in 1928. An extreme example is Hebrew which was recreated after 2,000 years and significantly changed.
Even English has undergone reforms in the past. Gossip and gospel used to have a silent h (like ghost still does) and were spelt ghossip and ghospel. Music used to be musick and fantasy was phantasy. Some early attempts at language reform in the 17th century were successful, changing warre to war, logique to logic and sinne to sin. In the 19th century, Noah Webster changed the spelling of some of the words in his dictionary, chiefly changing words ending in –our to –or and –re to –er. Even in British English, some of this stuck and errour, inferiour and superiour were replaced with error, inferior and superior. Hence, American English is essentially a slightly reformed version of English, with labor, center, organize, check and airplane instead of labour, centre, organise, cheque and aeroplane.
However, it is unlikely that any reform proposal will ever succeed. While reform is a good idea in theory, it simply isn’t possible in practice. It would effectively require re-teaching everyone to read and write again and runs the risk of making all existing literature and writing unreadable. As English is spoken all over the world, even if some countries reform the languages, others may not, splitting the language and creating new barriers. There are so many different accents of English that’s impossible to create a spelling system that truly reflects the way the language is spoken by everyone. Some words would have to be changed so much that they would be unrecognisable.
The only way reform would work would be if everyone united around a single standard, something which would be impossible without major government action. Otherwise, it would be impossible for change to be accepted. While many agree on the problems of English few agree on the solution and each reform proposal is quite different from the other and aim to fix the problem in very different ways. Some would even create new problems and new words to be confused.
In a sense, the English language is like an old city. It is twisted and confusing, with windy roads that take convoluted routes or dead ends. It would make life much easier for everyone if the roads were straight and clear, but the only way to achieve this would be to tear the city down and start from scratch. So instead, we continue on, knowing our language is a bit crazy and not much can be done about it.