Posted by: Brian Glass | April 16, 2010

Standardized Spelling is Retro

I am told that the phonetic alphabet (named such because it was invented by the Phoenicians) was a great leap forward in language technology. The beauty of a phonetic alphabet is that it greatly simplifies learning a written language.

As we learn Latin and begin to understand how languages work, we are seeing that Latin and probably most other phonetic languages were spelled phonetically throughout their history. That is, as pronunciation changes, so did the spelling of the word. This practice maintains the benefit of a phonetic language. On the other hand, it makes it harder to read books from different eras because they have slightly different spellings. Just try reading Chaucer in the original old English. Here’s a short verse from the Canterbury tales:

Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licdur
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

So with the advent of standardized spelling around 1500 or so (see Printers Orthoepists, and Standardized English), we suddenly began locking our spellings in place while our pronunciation continued to drift. Now we all know of words that are spelled different than they sound.

My question is, if we are going to insist on standardized spelling and lose the benefits of phonetic language, why bother using a phonetic alphabet? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to hieroglyphs?

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