Peter Whitmore: Phonetic spellings would help learners of English

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Many primary school children are not achieving government-set writing standards. Photo / Thinkstock
Many primary school children are not achieving government-set writing standards. Photo / Thinkstock

Recent figures released by the Ministry of Education show that many primary school children are not achieving government-set writing standards. This is partly because technology has opened up new options for entertainment and communication, so people typically spend less time reading than they did a generation ago.

But we should not lose sight of the daunting hurdle current English spelling presents to those attempting to become literate. Our writing system is supposed to be phonetic, but in practice a basic sound in the language can often be represented by more than one spelling. And conversely a letter or letter group can often represent more than one sound.

English spelling also presents two other major challenges. First, it is awash with silent letters, such as in the body parts of wrist, thumb, knee, limb and knuckle. And second, there are no reliable rules about when consonants should be doubled.

What this means is that, in order to be able to follow common usage, you have to learn to spell every individual word in English.

Education reformer and author John Holt tells the story of a young girl who thought she was mastering English spelling. Then she came across the word "one" and burst into tears. This is not surprising since only one of its three sounds is discernible from its spelling, but it is a step up on words like quiche and quay which arguably do not clearly convey any of their sounds.

Studies show that languages related to English, but with more phonetic writing systems, are simpler and faster to learn. Italian children can typically read material before they can understand what it means. For children learning English, the understanding often comes first because they take maybe a year or more longer to attain the same reading level.

Phonetic languages also tend to lead to higher levels of adult literacy. Recent surveys show that around one in five working-age New Zealanders have only achieved basic Level 1 literacy skills. This level limits their work opportunities and their ability to contribute to society in other ways. In contrast, in Scandinavian countries, all of which have much more phonetic writing systems, fewer than 1 one in 10 working-age people remain at this level.

Even reasonably educated people struggle to spell English correctly. Studies of posts made to internet news groups show that more than 50 per cent of people misspelled minuscule, millennium and embarrassment. Even the quite common words definitely, preceding and separate were misspelled 20 per cent or more of the time. How did we get into this mess and how can we get out of it?

After the Norman conquest of 1066, Anglo-Saxon spent around 300 years in an awkward tango with Old French. The language which emerged had gained a lot of new words, but also a lot of new spellings.

Since that time English has maintained a voracious appetite for absorbing foreign words, often with minimal or no change to their spelling, such as latte, yacht, borscht, guerrilla and dachshund.

Other languages typically have bodies responsible for regular spelling revisions. English doesn't. Technically in English you cannot even say that a word is misspelled, only that the spelling doesn't follow common usage.

Common usage is defined by dictionaries, which have a history of recording just that, the major exception being Noah Webster's US dictionary first published in 1828, which included a few simplifications that he thought appropriate, like color for colour and jail for gaol.

However some new spellings are slowly creeping in. The Oxford Dictionary lists tho (though), thru (through) and luv (love), but not others like hi (high), lo (low) and helth (health), although these have all had significant usage.

We need to be open to new spellings. Gradually introducing them will make it easier for future learners to become literate. Ideally this should be done systematically and with intelligent guidance.

Those of us who have spent years trying to master English spelling often feel a strong attachment to its current form. Rather than looking at words letter-by-letter, we treat them like ideographs. But we could still do the same if we changed the spelling of, say, yacht to yot, which would be simpler to write and faster to learn.

Language is a tool, not a historic artefact. It is much easier to cut down a tree with a saw than with a stone adze. And it is much easier to work with a phonetic writing system than with one in which spelling and pronunciation are not clearly linked.

Peter Whitmore is a former Auckland publisher and long-time member of the English Spelling Society.

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