Bee Season: The annual spelling bee brings out protesters as well as nerds

James Harbeck jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA
Thu May 31 13:34:39 UTC 2007

I had long thought that devising simplified spelling systems for
English was a phase people went through in adolescence. Certainly by
the time I hit university I could see quite clearly that any
programmatic reform was a non-starter. This isn't Norwegian or Dutch
(both of which have had successful orthographical reforms); those are
spoken by a comparatively small population and are the official
languages of a single country, and so a central effort was able to
take effect. English is so broadly distributed, if any one country
were to implement a revised spelling, the main effect would be that
it would ultimately make its citizens nearly illiterate in other
world Englishes and even in their own historic literature -- it would
have effectively created a new language. (On the other hand, at least
people would be less likely to assume they understand what a speaker
from somewhere else is saying when they actually are misunderstanding
words used differently.) And the differences in pronunciation between
different dialects are such that any reform that makes the spelling
more "natural" for one dialect will, in at least some respects, make
it rather less natural for others. If the US were to implement a
reformed spelling system, which dialect would it be based on? Most
likely it would result in a very notable diglossic situation for a
majority of Americans.

I also came to realize that the strange spelling of English is part
of what makes it fun. English is a language with many levels of play.
It's very accessible at the easiest levels, but it has almost
inexhaustible complication for those who want it.

I'm not against the natural simplifications of spelling that come
about, mind you. I kind of prefer the older forms for aesthetic
reasons, but I recognize the merits of making it easier for most
people. (Similarly, I prefer traditional Chinese characters for
aesthetic reasons but recognize the great practical value in the
simplified forms.) But it can't really effectively happen any way
other than organically.

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society -

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