Saturday, 23 August 2008

the simplicity of English spelling

There's a lot of talk about how English spelling is chaotic, confusing, and could do with a complete redo, and that's all true. But I recently talked to someone who says English spelling is easy.

He's an English language learner from Tibet. He likes the English alphabet because the letters never change their shape are written one after the other. The Tibetan alphabet has 30 basic consonant letters, and altho the script is written horizontally left to right, some consonant letters can be combined vertically. For instance, the letters ས sa, ག ga and ཪ ra are stacked to form སྒྲ sgra. (more detail.) It's quite complicated, and it's not hard to see how a Tibetan might welcome the 26 letters of English that don't stack and don't change their form depending on the letters on either side of them.

In fact, most Brahmi-derived scripts do the same as Tibetan. In Devanagari, the cluster dr̥ṣṭhva is written दृष्ठ्व - द da + ृ r̥ followed by ष ṣa + ठ ṭha + व va. What makes Tibetan potentially more difficult is the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation. The Buddhist sect pronounced Kagyu is spelled བཀའ་བརྒྱུད bka' brgyud. This is because Tibetan spelling reflects a much earlier form of the language. As I understand it, simply hearing a Tibetan word will not give you enough information to write it correctly. It's sorta like English that way.

3 comments :

The Ridger, FCD said...

If by "complete redo" you mean adopting diacritical marks and a couple of new consonants, I'm with you. If you just mean trying to spell things "like they sound" - that way lies utter incomprehensibility. We have way too many homophones for that to ever work.

goofy said...

I meant in theory it could redesigned to be consistent and predictable. But I don't think it's practical because of dialects, logistics, etc.

mahendra singh said...

I am curious why the ridger thinks it impractical to eschew diacriticals & new glyphs.

I have to confess that I loathe using any diacriticals in English; I beileve this to be one of English's strongest points: a very small character set with minimal optical disruption from miniscule umlauts, cedillas, etc

Paul Renner's original design of Futura, a popular font these days, had extra glyphs … I forget for which phonemes … he was taken with orthographical reform