Features | War of the words: In defence of deep orthography

Kate McCurdy argues against English language reforms that would force out spellings not logically linked to spoken sounds

Orthography, n. 1.a. Correct or proper spelling; spelling according to accepted usage or convention.

Greek ortho- ‘straight, upright, perpendicular’; ‘correct, right’ –graph ‘that which writes, portrays, or records’

– Oxford English Dictionary

“Benjamin Franklin wants to be your frend.”

This was the amiable message of eight or so protesters, accompanied by world-class Franklin impersonator Ralph Archibald, as they rallied outside the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee last May. Their cardboard placards bore earnest pleas for civility: TAKE THE STING OUT OF SPELLING; LET’S END THE I IN FRIEND. Four years ago, the tone had been much more strident. SPELLING SHUUD BE LOJICAL – ENUF IS ENUF, declared the picket signs of 2004. It appears that the protest’s organizers from the American Literacy Council have since found, in kind words and the avuncular character of Ben Franklin, a “friendlier” voice for their cherished cause.

The protesters sought to draw attention to the various harms – dyslexia, illiteracy, and even crime (“The prisons are full of people with literacy problems,” noted organizer Elizabeth Kuizenga) – that our schizophrenic writing system inflicts on the English-speaking population. They are carrying on an illustrious tradition. Intellectual heavyweights, from Charles Darwin to Mark Twain, including of course the good Mr. Franklin, have backed numerous proposals to overhaul English orthography. With the exception of Noah Webster (whose early 19th-century reforms brought us the labor/labour alternations which today distinguish British, American, and Canadian spellings), none have been successful; English spelling remains, as linguist Bill Poser puts it, a “baroque mess.”

Developmental psychologists draw a critical distinction between writing systems in terms of “depth.” Shallow orthographies exhibit consistent, predictable, and direct correspondences between sound and spelling, while deep orthographies reveal more abstruse aural-written relationships, necessitating the memorization of arbitrary or unusual pronunciations. Dutch, Spanish, and Czech fall in the former category, Hebrew and English in the latter. Consider the letters ou in the words cough, through, bough, dough, and four – these sorts of irregularities pose real burdens to language learners, be they native kindergartners or foreign PhDs. The dizzying complexity that makes the National Spelling Bee possible may have non-negligible impacts on literacy rates. Faced with these facts, what does one do?

Allow me to offer a defence of the indefensible: deep orthography. I do not wish to marginalize or diminish the harms brought to light by advocates of spelling reform, and in all seriousness, I am likely on their side – for the most part. Though simplified spelling may result in higher literacy and lower crime rates, there are at least three reasons – one theoretical, one empirical, and one anecdotal – for the preservation of our problematic system.

Underlying representation

Mark Kroeger, spokesman for the 2004 National Spelling Bee, met protesters’ assertions of illogicality with the alternative logic of history. “For these kids who understand the root words, who understand the etymology, it’s totally logical,” he intoned. And truly, there is a rationale to tradition. Why should you start walking on your hands when your feet have served you well for so long?

Nevertheless, language changes all the time, whether we want it to or not. This is usually a good thing – imagine how impoverished party stories must have been before the word “crunk” was invented. In the case of spelling, though, language change is what created this conundrum to begin with. During the era of Middle English things were different. All those silent e’s on the end of words? They were pronounced, at least in the beginning. But as the language smoothly transitioned through Early Modern English (spoken by Shakespeare) to the Modern English of the present day, the printing press with its standardized typeface arrested many words in their Middle English spelling. We are condemned to travel through history each time we read or write.

Though this affords us the occasional satisfaction of pausing over, say, the word knight and making a Pythonesque remark such as “Huh! They used to say kuh-niggit!” it is hard to motivate impeded mass literacy on the grounds of historical appreciation.

But what if history were somehow more real than what we see in the present?

Enter Noam Chomsky. In 1968, he introduced the notion that for every word in an individual’s lexicon – the mental warehouse in which we store the thousands of words we learn over a lifetime – there is an associated Underlying Representation. The Underlying Representation is essentially a skeletal version of the sounds that make up a given word. For example, the Underlying Representation of quick would be /kwIk/, so every time you hear someone utter that particular combination of sounds, you are able to search through your mental lexicon and recognize it as matching the word quick.

Chomsky’s insight allowed him to see through the idiosyncrasy of English spelling and discern a deeper theoretical truth. It is exactly this sort of vision that has made him the founding father of contemporary generative linguistics. Left to our own devices, we modern folk would never have figured out that in our heads, we all speak Middle English: “[U]nderlying forms are systematically related to conventional orthography…. There has, in other words, been little change in lexical representation since Middle English,” he states in The Sound Pattern of English.

So actually, you’ve been thinking “kuh-niggit” all along. You devil.

While the idea sounds rather outlandish, there are in fact various reasons to take it seriously. One such reason involves the – ghost letters that run rampant in English – letters like the final b in bomb and the inaudible g’s in sign and gnostic. These letters, being silent, would seem to have no place in a speaker’s Underlying Representation of the words. However, in related and derived words, these letters show up in speech as well: bombard, bombastic; signature; agnostic. Chomsky uses examples like these to argue that the silent letters of spelling are really there in your Underlying Representation. That final b just hangs around the end of bomb, waiting for you to stick -astic on the end so it can surface.

The erratic spellings of English words, according to Chomsky’s theory, are not mere historical artifacts. On the contrary, they reflect the psychological reality of Underlying Representations, and are thus authentic at a deeper level than we speakers can consciously access. Take that, Noah Webster.

Word wars and the Czech Republic

My second reason for upholding deep orthography stems from the practical difficulties spelling reform would likely entail. This is no light matter – such revisions have even caused political strife. Take Czech: the language has a shallow orthography that has been the subject of much controversy. Upon achieving statehood following World War I and the demise of the Habsburg Empire, Czechs immediately strove for linguistic purity and the eradication of foreign (read: German) terms. The influential Prague School of linguists championed structuralist and functionalist approaches to language, lending further support to a consistent spelling system.

According to the research of Marketa Caravelos while pursuing her Masters (and then PhD) in Psychology at McGill, Czech children benefit from all this attention to orthographic depth: Czech first-graders tend to have higher spelling and language abilities than their English counterparts. However, the inevitability of language change means that shallow orthographies require maintenance to continue to accurately reflect sound patterns, and this continual reform comes with a price – political instability, for instance.

Among the issues faced by the Czech Republic in 1993, including transition to a post-communist economy and dissolution of the joint state with Slovakia, spelling loomed large in the public eye. As chronicled by Neil Bermel in his 2007 book Linguistic Authority, Language Ideology, and Metaphor: The Czech Orthography Wars, in that year the Czech Language Institute upended the traditional spelling system with a new edition of the Rules of Czech Orthography, setting off waves of rebellion in the media and negative popular opinion. There was heated debate over whether the English loanword president could be legitimately spelled prezident. Accusations of communist influence were levelled at the responsible committee; letters to the editor carried such titles as “The terrorism of directorial canons” and “A slap in the face of Czech culture and tradition;” and, in Bermel’s words, “strangled noises started to waft forth from the Ministry of Education.”

In March 1994, experts convened in an emergency seminar to address the crisis, and resolved to issue an Addendum to the Rules. This Addendum would achieve the critical goal of invalidating many of the rules proposed in the 1993 Rules. Everyone calmed down, until a junior minister announced, while the Minister was on vacation, that the Rules had been abandoned, and the country would revert to the old spellings. Teachers who had been trained in the new system scrambled to find their old lesson plans, and newspapers gave daily updates on the national spelling calamity. A mere week before the school year was to begin, the Minister of Education frantically proclaimed the Rules, with revised Addendum, suitable for teaching.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that the Czech citizenry – a highly literate populace who elected the playwright Vaclav Havel as their first president – worked themselves up over orthography. Nonetheless, their example ought to serve as a cautionary tale to those who would rush to reform.

Spelling just as fast as I can

My third motive for suggesting that we not give up on deep orthography just yet is familiar to anyone who has ever felt a rush upon flipping through channels and discovering that the customary Sweating Muscular Men programming on ESPN had been replaced with distinctly uncomfortable-looking gawky preadolescents in starched shirts.

Spelling bees, a uniquely English language phenomenon, maintain a mysterious appeal to innumerable people who otherwise aren’t all that vocal about their interest in orthography; 14-million such individuals tuned-in to the final battle of the 2006 National Spelling Bee, as Katharine Close deftly fielded Ursprache (definition: proto-language) in round 20 for the win. Granted, in terms of everyday utility, being able to spell Ursprache falls somewhere between knowing how to make balloon animals and appreciating the subtler points of eight-track players.

Nonetheless we persist. Scores of children sullenly endure this type of competition in middle school English class, and those who perform unreasonably well are thrust into the national spotlight each spring to air-write, stutter, and occasionally faint before thousands. For the marginalized youth burdened with freakish orthographic abilities, the National Spelling Bee, despite all the trouble and anxiety, represents a rare moment in the sun.

At least it did for me. In 2001, at the tender age of 13, I won the regional bee and in doing so qualified to join the ranks of hushed, bespectacled contestants in D.C. Upon placing first regionally, I was handed a packet of 32,000 words and informed that any of them might be on round 1; immediately after that, I was handed a dictionary with 460,000 words and informed that any of them might be on rounds 2 and up. Then, inexplicably, I was handed a gigantic potted plant. I still look back on that night in bewilderment.

The adrenaline rush that drove me through words like gobemouche and polydactyly abruptly abandoned me on the last day of competition. In round 4, mere moments before ESPN’s cameras started rolling, I was toppled by malachite – a mineral that will forever suffer my ill will. At the dance later that evening, after nursing my wounded pride, I joined forces with a similarly brash girl and we conspired to get the winner, wunderkind Sean Conley, to dance with us. It was the only competition I won that week. I still remember his panicked, roving eyes traversing the arms-length maximum possible space between us, as I swayed forcefully, consoling myself with the thought that his success was rubbing off on me through proximity and trembling fingertips.

Denouement: D-E-N-O-U . . .

My memory of the Spelling Bee, perhaps, is why, try as I might, I cannot lend my support to the reform efforts of ALC and the protesters outside the Bee. English orthography is an untenable potpourri (melange, gallimaufry, bricolage, olio) borne of historical happenstance, and it does indeed hinder aspects of literacy that would likely make us a happier and more learned populace. But what does deep orthography do for us? It reminds us of the language of the past, a past that, by some theoretical accounts, we are still living in; it affords no opportunity for spelling-related popular unrest, as befell the Czechs; and it allows nerdy kids, like I once was, an opportunity to celebrate that nerdiness in the public eye. Maybe some day in the future we will become sufficiently enlightened to jettison our cumbersome orthography with its murky depths. I, for one, will enjoy it while it lasts.


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