Voyou Désœuvré

Via this post on a translating (or transliterating, I guess) the GNOME desktop to Shavian, I’ve been reading this interesting article on spelling reform, and thinking some more about the subject. It’s good to see an article address the most obvious problem with phonetic spelling, the fact that there’s no one mapping from words to pronunciations, because there’s no one accent. Still, I’m not convinced by the argument here. The author suggests that the spelling system should maintain the widest set of distinctions among sounds recognized by the various different accents; the problem with this, as I’ve learnt in trying to distinguish between different American accents, is that it requires speakers of one accent to learn to make distinctions between sounds that are not only not relevant to them, but that they can’t even hear. It’s not at all obvious to me that a workable phonemic spelling system would have a significantly more obvious relation to spoken language than the current system.

But this is merely an illustration of the more fundamental problem with phonetic spelling reform proposals, which is that they’re phonocentric. They assume that spoken language is primary, with written language merely a representation of speech. But, as Derrida among others has argued, that just isn’t the case. Even with spoken language, we don’t hear sounds, we hear words, and converting these words to symbols representing their sounds is just as arbitary as any other form of symbolization; but spelling reformers persist in the quixotic quest for some kind of transparent and obvious representation of the word. They should take another tack. A meaningful spelling reform would require that we break the spurious connection between sound and meaning. Spelling reformers should start advocating that we adopt Chinese lexigraphs, or perhaps design their own lexigraphical system better suited to English.

Well. This page on various spelling reforms in other languages makes me think that, rather than complaining about spelling reform, I should work on a historical materialist analysis of spelling reform proposals. The Spelling Society, for instance, is a charming example of early-twentieth-century rationalism, while Russian spelling has been marked both by national building and revolution.

Comments

  1. Richard Comaish, 5:51 am, September 20, 2008

    Perhaps the accent of ‘(s)he who gets on with it without so much discussion’ will prevail, in any successful attempt at spelling reform?
    The ‘Simplified Spelling Society’ may be ‘a charming example of early-twentieth-century rationalism,’ but refering to it simply as ‘the Spelling Society’ belongs to the new millenium.
    As a member, I too have often thought that ‘I should work on a historical analysis of spelling reform proposals,’ but I’m not sure how the ‘materialist’ concept would contribute to such a study.

Post a comment