March 16, 2003

A Column by Byron McAllister


There used to be a movement among English speakers called "Simplified Spelling." I seem to recall that it was pushed by one of the Deweys, and I think G. B. Shaw was deep into it. The proponents had noticed that we don't always spell words the way they are pronounced, and they thought that it would be better to replace, for example, "through" with "thru," "night" with "nite," and maybe "love" with "luv." Supposedly, the reason Simplified Spelling didn't win the field is that too many of us are far too conservative in our spelling habits to accept any kind of reform. Well, maybe that was the reason--it explains our reluctance to "go metric," for example. But for spelling reform, I think that's only a tiny bit of the explanation.

I think the main reason Simplified Spelling didn't sweep the English-speaking world was that it wanted us to spell things the way we pronounce them, and we don't all pronounce them the same. You want examples? Boy, have I got 'em! We only have space here for a few hundred, and may have to settle for less, but how about starting with the letter "r." Here in the Rockies, every "r" in every word is faithfully pronounced. It's what might be called our accent--if, of course, we had an accent. (Like others who have an accent, we deny the fact.) On the other hand, in many parts of the US--much of the deep south and all over New England--to say nothing of such foreign locations as England and Australia, "r"'s are diminished nearly--or all the way--to extinction. Meantime, in Scotland, an "r" is likely to be emphasized by a distinct trill. So if we're using simplified spelling, we'd have to spell words differently, depending on where we live. In the Mountain West we'd have to put the "r"'s right where we put them today, but in lots of other places they'd have to leave at least some of the "r"'s out altogether, as in "It is a fa, fa betta thing I do than I have eva done befo." I suppose the Scots would want to double them.

Come to think of it, it's more complicated than that: initial "r"'s are pronounced even in regions where terminal "r"'s are not and I have no idea what rules may apply to internal "r"'s, as in "internal." (I think that word must become "in tunnel" for some folks.)

The "r" problem showed up in what, to me, is an amusing way recently. I was reading a phrasebook for travelers in some region where English is not everybody's at-least-second language, and it used "er" to represent the so-called schwa sound we most often represent by "e" alone. Or sometimes by "a," or some other vowel. The phrasebook compilers simply assumed that English speakers don't ever pronounce a terminal "r," so that we would all recognize that "er as in mother" comes out what we r-pronouncers might try to describe as "uh in mothuh."

The letter "r" is far from being the sole stumbling block. Take for another example, the "wh" combination, which, where I live, is pronounced as if it were written "hw," but in the big cities of the east is likely to be turned into plain "w." I know of no region where it's pronounced the way it's written, i.e. with a "w" sound followed by an "h" sound, even though that sonic sequence can be accomplished. (I admit that doing so requires effort and practice). Meantime, who should win, the "hw" sayers, or the "w" sayers, or--if we can find any--the "w-h" sayers? Or are we each supposed to simplified-spell things in our own individual way?

All that's just the beginning. Did the Simplified Spelling folks ever listen to the way people pronounce vowels in various large-or-small English-speaking area? Even just in America? When I first wanted to study Russian, the little booklet I picked up assured me that the Russian "a" is pronounce as if it were written "ah," i.e. like the "a" in "father," whereas the Russian "o" is pronounced as if it were written "aw," i.e. like the aw in "saw." For most of my readers, that may be clear, but in the region where I learned my phonemes, "ah" and "aw" sound alike. I have reason to believe that the coalescence derives from Irish English, since James Joyce refers to some general or other riding on his harse, rather than on his horse. In the little southern Utah town where I my own mode of speaking first developed, simplified spelling would suggest writing that somebody "rode his harse through the carn-fields and into the farest." Locals there could probably read it, but could the folks in Boston? They'd think they'd discovered a whole community of "mute, inglorious Miltons." Oops, I mean of "Joyces."

It would be fair to say that trying to spell words as they are pronounced is like shooting at a target that is constantly on the move, and is often not clearly identifiable anyway.

So English-speakers have gone on as before, spelling words one way, and pronouncing them another. At least, unlike Chaucer and Shakespeare, we now have firm conventions as to what that one spelling is supposed to be, though to say that "we pronounce them another" is the height of understatement. We pronounce many of them in quite a multiplicity of other ways.

Now, anybody knows that the deviation between spelling and pronunciation can be an inconvenience. That's what got the Simplified Spelling movement going in the first place. So, is there a reasonable substitute for that movement?

There is, and I'm amazed that nobody has been pushing for it. It's "SIMPLIFIED PRONUNCIATION," of course. We must begin pronouncing words exactly the way they are spelled. True, there is not yet any firm convention as to how that would require us to pronounce, say, the "ough" in "cough," "through," "tough," "thought," etc., but we can deal with that by arguing that the "gh" (let the "ou" go, for now) wasn't just inserted arbitrarily into those words to make them harder to spell, but rather has historic roots, going back to a time when it was pronounced, more or less like the Scots pronounce the "ch" in "Loch Ness." Professional linguists can settle whether the sound was "voiced," or "unvoiced." The point is that any of the many people who regularly argue that "the old ways are the best ways" knows intuitively that there was once a "correct" pronunciation of that combination of letters, and all we have to do is determine what that "correct pronunciation" should be--along with all similar points of confusion--and Simplified Pronunciation will be off and running.

"But how," you may ask, "are we going to persuade people to adopt Simplified Pronunciation? People are conservative, and they won't want to change."

Right you are, and I already conceded that conservatism played a role in the failure of Simplified Spelling. However, this time we have two great advantages. First of all, spelling has been formalized, so that there is a perfectly standard way to spell all our words. In other words, the "target" is not, in this case, moving nor otherwise elusive. People who can read at all will know what we are all aiming for, and we can all achieve the goal if we try.

"But, will people try?" you may ask. Well, our second advantage allows us to deal with that. Remember, we will be restoring the old ways. People will have to try, because thousands if not millions of people will volunteer to become Pronunciation Police. That volunteers can be found in great numbers who are willing to force their neighbors to restore old (and therefore true) ways has been proved repeatedly, in numerous foreign countries, and often in this one also. Fine examples have been set all over the world in the fields of religion and politics, and there is no reason to think that conservatism (in the form of restoring what is believed to have gone before--whether it really did so or not) has no grip on the public outside the bounds of those fields.

In fact, my only hesitation in suggesting Simplified Pronunciation lies in the fact that, though I'm doing so with tongue in cheek, there are bound to be people who pick up on it and try to ram the idea down all our throats. The Pronunciation Police Force is as good as established. Shortly it will actually be against the law to pronounce "espresso" as if there were an "x" in it, or to say "Calvary" when you mean "cavalry." Beware! The PPF may already be watching!