Over at Kitchen Table Math, Catherine Johnson has recently written in favor of simplifying English spelling. She asks:
Suppose you simplified spelling so that written English became a perfectly transparent writing system like Spanish. It would be obvious to one and all that written English is a code, that spelling means encoding the sounds of the English language, and that reading means decoding the sounds of the English language.
Would schools use phonics to teach children how to read?
To which the obvious answer is “No.” People so determinedly wrong-headed as those in ed schools would just find some other excuse to miseducate prospective teachers. Math is, after all, perfectly transparent, and they’ve got that entirely wrong.
Anyway, I disagreed, and in the comments I said:
“Simplified spelling” is a false hope. There are reasons why linguists (that is, people with actual credentials in the study of language — I was a grad student in linguistics) are generally unconvinced it’s a good idea.
First: You have to decide whose spoken English is encoded into this mythical “perfectly transparent” writing system. London? Boston? New Orleans? For that matter, why not Calcutta or Shanghai?
Which is more transparent, Burma or Myanmar? Cambodia or Kampuchea?
We actually do have a perfectly transparent way of transcribing spoken language, called the International Phonetic Alphabet. Do people use that to teach reading? (I understand the answer in China is sometimes “yes.”)
Second, “simplified spelling” erases the historical and logical relations between words whose pronunciation has shifted over centuries, making it harder to learn new vocabulary beyond the words children know.
An example: English plurals are spelled with “s.” Most English speakers are blithely unaware that the “s” is pronounced like the phoneme /s/ after unvoiced consonants, e.g. /t/, and like /z/ after voiced consonants and vowels.
Or at least they were until “Boyz” hit their consciousness. And now we have “Bratz.”
Thus perfectly illustrating the problem; “Bratz” is wrong. That’s an /s/, but nobody noticed.
Would it be easier to learn English plurals, or possessives, or third-person singular verbs, if children had to distinguish cats from dogz?
Third, we’d lose most of written literature. If you grew up with a simplified-spelling version of English, Shakespeare would be as remote as Chaucer, and only the relative handful of books that were translated from historical originals would be accessible to you.
The People’s Republic of China adopted simplified spelling, in the form of simplified characters, in the name of improved literacy, but the political purpose was to obliterate access to written history that did not conform to the party’s vision.
And as long as I’ve mentioned Chinese, character languages are a lot further from phonetically transparent than any alphabetic language, yet Japan, Korea and Taiwan have literacy rates that NAEP should envy. Spelling is not the problem.