Here we go again. Four years ago, a body called The Queen’s English Society announced plans for an English Academy, to make rules for our language rather as the Académie Française tries (and fails) to regulate French. Now a body called the English Spelling Society plans an International English Spelling Congress (their capital letters) to reform our spelling.
The English Academy never got off the ground. Indeed the QES’s chairman in 2012 announced that it itself was to close. In the event, it didn’t — perhaps happily: however unneeded its Academy, the society’s basic aim, better English, is a sensible one. So was much of its advice, albeit the grammar of its website’s own English was dubious, its punctuation execrable, and neither fault improved by self-esteem and sneers at non-native speakers.
The would-be spelling reformers are a different story. Far from trying to conserve old habits, they’d love radical change. And any Martian knows they’re right.
English spelling is undeniably absurd. In a better world, it would never have happened, and we’d all be using some near-phonetic spelling, as most Indo-European languages do. Trouble is, it did happen, and we aren’t. Nor do we live on Mars. Born in 1908 as the Simplified Spelling Society, Tess, as it abbreviates its modern name, has made no significant gains in its 106 years.
Nor have umpteen other would-be reformers, from the playwright George Bernard Shaw to the British MP, part of the Pitman shorthand family, who in 1953 introduced a private-member’s bill at Westminster, and got nowhere.
That’s not because — with any language — regional differences of pronunciation defy national phonetics. The heroine of My Fair Lady declared that “the rine in Spine sties minely in the pline”. Many Londoners may believe so (though in fact it falls mainly in Spain’s hilly north-west), but what Scot or Californian or Tamil will agree, if it’s written that way?
That’s not a phoney objection, but it’s trivial compared to the real obstacle: human nature. Greeks, Swedes, Germans, Russians, Dutchmen, Brazilians and more have all seen their spelling reformed in modern times. But those were minor shocks by contrast with the earthquake that would be needed in English. Our spelling was wildly chaotic five centuries ago. Slowly, we put together a single system which, however absurd, with minor variations all the world accepts. Would we all agree to blow it apart again?
Tess wants its international congress, “with expert assistance and after consultation with the wider public”, to produce a new spelling, which “we hope will eventually become the accepted norm”. But not even Tess thinks the whole job could be done in one blow.
I doubt it could be done step-by-step. Anyway, why bother? Tess talks of “enormous potential benefits for the whole English-speaking world”. Really? Sure, learning to read English takes longer than most languages, and its spelling is indeed a hindrance. Yet this was the language of the world’s largest-ever empire, and now of its leading superpower. And it has become the first global language — and is spelt as correctly (more so, in fact) in The Telegraph of Calcutta as in The Times of London. Some hindrance.
Me, I’d take one-26th of a step with Tess. The commonest English vowel sound is that of the second syllable of sofa or father. It’s often used in the, a and an. It has a name, drawn from Hebrew: schwa. And a symbol in the international phonetic alphabet: an upside-down, back-to-front e. Let’s add it to the alphabet.