Updating English Spelling? Not so fast, maybe.

For some reason, Joseph Fouche from The Committee On Public Safety found a proposal on revising English Spelling interesting enough to write about.

He lifts this example:

It woz in the ferst dae ov the nue yeer that the anounsment woz maed, aulmoest simultaeneusli from three obzervatoris, that the moeshen ov the planet Neptune, the outermoest ov aul the planets that w(h)eel about the sun, had bekum very eratik. A retardaeshen in its velositi had been suspekted in Desember. Then a faent, remoet spek ov lyt woz diskuverd in the reejen ov the perterbd planet. At ferst this did not cauz eni veri graet eksytment. Syentifik peepl, houever, found the intelijens remarkabl enuf, eeven befor it becaem noen that the nue bodi woz rapidli groeing larjer and bryter, and that the moeshen woz kwyt diferent from the orderli proegres ov the planets…

For some other reason known only to those of us who are social science nerds, I felt the need to respond. Possibly because I am a conservative by nature. Possibly because I understand as an economist, the value of CAPITALIZING just about everything. And that language is a form of capital that can either amplify or discount human beings that use it.

The odd spelling certainly makes the language harder to learn but conveys with it much greater content, and it solves the problem of homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings) and context. Complex spellings approach abstract symbols that reduce the problem of defining context with similar sounds. All those spellings and oddities convey information. That information is useful.

It might be better to see it as an advantage for a very complex language to approach becoming both phonetic and pictographic rather than purely phonetic. (Which is what has happened with english.) Imagine chinese by contrast, which is a very old language, and is constructed of a myraid of homonyms and complex tones. (languages start with clicks in the ancient past and end with tonal songs in the distant future.) There are only 30K images or words. Not the nearly 1M in english. They speak poetically because they can’t be more precise. It’s an old language but a primitive one. English, the germanic indo european languages in particular, are technical languages. They are the languages of craftsmen and soldiers: meant to convey precision.

Try to speak probabalistically in Spanish. Try to speak factually in polish. Try to eliminate emotional experience from Romanian or italian. Try to convey duty in the Slavics. Languages are more than sounds. They are complex constructs that frame and limit as well as amplify, different social ideas. English is wonderful for insulting someone’s intelligence. Eskimo is wonderful for describing weather. Talk about sex or emotional experience in italian or french. See other languages for what they are: vastly primitive.

Another argument might be, that we are rapidly approaching a position where reading and writing, which are very abstract very inexpensive forms of illustration, may be irrelevant to more than half of the population: where the future is most likely constructed of pictograms or videograms – moving illustrations that are constructed by and presented by machines.

The only reason we use letters rather than images is that they are less expensive to produce. Especially for consonantal languages. However, as languages mature (which they are doing rapidly right now) they become lazy and tonal rather than consonantal. And our current symbolic representations of those languages with consonantal symbols that do NOT convey tones is limiting to representing the tonal.

And while the above statement may seem economically impossible, because of the current perception of machines as expensive, we must remember that writing materials were as expensive in the past, during the development of writing, as we consider computers today. Today’s iPad is yesterday’s quill and parchment.

Effectively the author is promoting a pidgin: a language for simple people to hold simple conversations, rather than a language for conveying complex information. As such, he is, like many others, a Luddite. And luddites are searching for a simpler past rather than a complex, safer, and more prosperous future. And we do not need to dumb down our civilization any further. Even if it does make reading easier.

Learning to read a hard language if it conveys greater information increases human capital.


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