Monday, March 06, 2006

Even if it is broke...

don't fix it. That's my philosophy. At least when it comes to complex, arbitrary sets of conventions. You know, like grammar, or spelling. And by "don't fix it" I mean "don't try to make it conform to your own 'logical' principles, because human language ain't logical, my friend." Gee, who knew the voice in my head could sound so folksy?

What got me on this track was a recent allusion in Language Log to Theodore Roosevelt's attempt at spelling reform: apparently, Roosevelt took a list of 300 spelling changes devised by Andrew Carnegie's Simplified Spelling Board and ordered the Government Printing Office to start using the new spellings. This caused a public outcry (but not as big as if this were to happen today, I bet). Ultimately congress passed a resolution condemning the order, and Roosevelt withdrew it.

I'd never heard of this before, and was curious to see what the changes were. I've so far only been able to find sample lists, though as of 2002 an organization called the American Literacy Council was selling copies of the list for $5.

Now, I can't fault the impulses behind spelling reform; Roosevelt, Carnegie et al. were driven by progressive, populist sentiments which I endorse wholeheartedly. Furthermore, while I am a good speller (but a poor copyeditor, as regular readers are no doubt aware) I sympathize with those frustrated by English's complex spelling. And I think that the backlash against spelling reform was driven by smugness and snobbery, which I definitely don't approve of. No, my beef with spelling reform is that it is simply taking one illogical system and replacing it with another one, but one that no one knows. This just happened in Germany, and there has been no real benefit; German spelling is no easier, and now those who used to know how to spell in German no longer do.

Yiddish has had a disproportionate number of brushes with spelling reform; the Soviets reformed Yiddish spelling three times, and a consortium of academics invented their own spelling system in 1937, which to this day is considered 'standard' in academic settings, even though only a tiny fraction of Yiddish texts since 1937 have used this system, which is in fact more complex than the conventional Yiddish spelling. I use 'standard' spelling in my class, and I feel guilty knowing that if and when any of my students goes on to read Yiddish on their own they will see the rules I taught them flaunted.

Which reminds me; I meant to have a footnote in my last post about the verb 'to flaunt' which can mean either "to exhibit ostentatiously" or "to disobey (ostentatiously?)." The latter came about through confusion with "flout" and some consider it nonstandard, but the OED cites Noel Coward using it in 1938, which makes it kosher in my book.

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