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Phonemic orthography was a big mistake

By , 5 February 2008

Phonemic orthography was a big mistake

Okay, so I've been doing some very interesting reading of late and recently discovered a new (for me) concept: morphophonemic spelling. English is morphophonemic, which means that morphemes retain the same spelling even if the phonetic context causes them to be pronounced differently. For example, bats and bags are both spelt with an s even though they are pronounced [s] and [z] respectively.

It's even more fascinating when observed in Korean, because Korean Hangul arranges letters into syllables and morphemes can change the preceding syllable by borrowing the consonant (just like the French liason). However... the spelling stays exactly the same even though the syllables have changed!

Phonemic orthography was a big mistake

So this got me thinking about how the whole idea of phonemic spelling is really screwed up. There are so many problems. Accents and variation in pronounciation are rampant. Nobody agrees. Even when we do agree, the way we speak changes far more rapidly than the way we write. Orthography can't keep up!

Let's have a look at some of the different ways the Australian English dipthong [ɑɪ] can be spelt:

fine, Christ, try, high, tie, eidos, height, buy, dye, eye, type, maestro, aisle, isle, sign, indict, tayra, guide

That's 18 different ways! What a mess!

How did it get so bad? Well, it's simply a matter of backwards compatibility. It's too late to change how we've spelt words in the past and it's too hard to keep pronouncing them the same way forever. So instead, we just leave it broken and the unfortunate people learning English as a second language just have to get used to it! Bugger!

That's not really fair, so from now on I'm writing everything in Chinese characters. Well. Okay, I might have to learn Chinese first.

 

About Roger Keays

Phonemic orthography was a big mistake

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