Sunday, September 7, 2008


How do you say the title of this post? I presume you thought "boyng" (with an almost silent g). According to the rules that I was taught in elementary school, we should pronounce this word "bowing".

The Spelling Society ((amongst other groups) advocates all sorts of spelling reform. On their main page they decry the fact that the words comb, tomb and bomb do not rhyme but that weigh, say and they do. In addition, they spell rhyme "rime" and now I'm slightly confused as to the real spelling.

There's all sorts of ideas floating around about what to do about English's quirky spelling "problems". Personally, I hope these so-called problems never get solved, for I love them.

I find the fact that bomb, tomb and comb don't rhyme to be downright fun. They'd make good clues or answers to a word puzzle. Their non-rhyming makes me want to look the words up and find out their origins.

One of the reasons English has so many quirks is that it is derived from many different sources. By analyzing a word, we can learn a bit of history. I'd hate to see the language become so modified that a mere encounter with a confusing word doesn't hold the possibility of investigating it further.

But, I am what they call in school (skool), a "good reader". I think spelling bees, crossword puzzle and Scrabble tournaments are exciting. Reading the Oxford English Dictionary entries are a source of delight to me.

People say English is hard to learn. Is it harder than German with its long words? Is it harder than Japanese, with its Chinese character set (over 2000 base characters and who knows how many combinations), two sets of phonetic characters and the the English alphabet? Not by a long shot.

I don't wish a hard time on anyone who's learning to speak, write or read English, but. . .

Language is not just a form of communication. It is also a reflection and a product of the cultures it originates from. Languages (and their dialects) have so much personality!

I am not a scholar on this, but my gut tells me that stripping the English language of its quirks is like forced normalization of people who are quirky and difficult to pigeonhole. In fact, we say of these people, oftentimes, that they are "hard to read".

So, of course, putting aside my love of words for themselves, I am terribly wary of anything that normalizes anything. Yes, some words, books and people are hard to understand. We can either live with that or try to standardize everything. I'd prefer the former. I still can't read Proust, but I don't want to read some Cliff's notes phonetic rewriting of him.

Painting note: Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772
His "A Dictionary of the English Language" was published in 1755. Doesn't he look likes he needs a good antacid?

The first English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey's "A Table Alphabetical", written in 1604. You can read the entire text on the University of Toronto's website.

The history of dictionaries, in themselves, are fascinating. Some have speculated that being a contributor to the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary drove William Chester Minor mad. I have always meant to read "The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary".

Addendum: Just for amusement, I thought I'd try "translating" some Emily Dickinson into phonetic English:

Hope iz thuh theeng with fetherz thaht purchez in thuh sole and seengz thuh toonz withowt thuh wurdz and nehver stops at awl.

Wuht doo yoo think?

Check out Here's the introductory sentence on their home page:

"Welkam tu a nu wae uv rieting Ingglish — a raashanal wae."

Here's my version of this sentence (after spending more than the normal amount of time figuring out what it actually said, which rather defeats the purpose of this supposedly "rational" way of writing): Wellcum 2 uh nu wey uhv riteeng eenglish - a rashunul wey". Are we moving towards are pre-Websterian rending of our language?

Am I being a knee-jerk language snob? Perhaps.

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