In his second guest post on this blog, Dave Cosby thinks about forcing changes on languages and considers the sound-spelling relationships apparent in English. Above all, he admonishes, just
Say what you see…
Here in Portugal the language is undergoing a change. The new orthography is slowly being introduced and new spellings enforced by public bodies, taught in schools and universities and the older, more Latinate spellings are being phased out. The agreement between the Portuguese speaking nations was made with the best of intentions, mainly to keep the link between the spoken and written languages, and my Portuguese students tell me that it does, mostly have that effect. They have removed silent letters, such as the p from excepto, but I can’t help thinking that it’s sad to remove the link with the existing corpus of literature, and the link between Portuguese and other Latinate languages.
As an outsider though, this is not really a huge concern. What is perhaps worrying is that a petition of more than a hundred thousand people in Portugal, complaining of the new rules, was ignored by the government of the day who pushed the law through. You might think that a hundred thousand isn’t that many, but remember that this country only has a population of ten millions or so, so we’re talking about proportionally a fair number of people.
Another couple of points strike me. As a native English speaker it feels odd that language could be imposed top down like this from a government. The English speaking world muddles along without any bodies such as the Académie française, the guardians of the French language, and seems to do alright with the informal musings of the Oxford English Dictionary and Websters.
It also seems a little bizarre that the changes were necessary at all. Portuguese, or perhaps Old Portuguese as it should now be called, is an incredibly phonetic language. Much more so than English and even French, though to be fair the main raison d’etre of the Académie these days seems to be to prevent Anglicisms creeping in such as those dangerous phrases, le weekend and le computer.
On the flip side, perhaps we in the English speaking world should take a leaf out of the Portuguese book (though using what organ I know not) and repair some of the tatty edges of our tongue. The Americans have done away with a superfluous ‘u’ here and there, as well as the simply awful ‘ough’ when a ‘w’ works much better. Even so, by ridding itself of odd spellings the Portuguese have instead landed themselves with a few more homographs. I was reminded of this old chestnut:I take it you already know Of tough and bough and cough and dough? Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt). A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
Just try reading that aloud quickly… or if you’re feeling malicious get a cocky FCE/CAE/CPE student to have a crack. It might bring them down a peg or two (until they respond with a totally incomprehensible local tongue twister).
Perhaps we should reform English after all. Here’s another tract that seems to have existed as long as the internet, but perhaps there’s one or two readers out there who haven’t come across it.
The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German which was the other possibility.
As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five year phase-in plan that would be known as “Euro-English”.
In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of the “k”. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have 1 less letter.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be ekspekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent “e”s in the language is disgraseful, and they should go away.
By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.
After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru! And zen world!
We often take the link between written and spoken language for granted. We should not. I came across this excellent article by David Moser on ‘Why Chinese is so Damn Hard!’, so here’s a link to remind you why its so important.
Like the great Mr Roy Walker used to say, ‘ Just say what you see’.