The English Language Needs an Update
Redundant letters and inconsistent spelling. How does anyone get anything done with this?
Sometimes, I have this wild idea about updating English — taking it apart, tidying it up, and making it all a bit more consistent. Do we, for example, really need C, K, and Q? Three variants of the same sound, like remnants from an earlier draft that should be edited out. “Tick” and “duck” contain C and K, as if we had to invite both in case one felt left out.
Languages emerge organically as ideas from other cultures are grafted onto existing structures. We owe much of our alphabet to the Romans who took it from the Etruscans in the seventh century, combining it with that of the Western Greeks. Over the years, while Alexander the Great was weeping about the lack of other worlds to conquer, the Romans were looking for new letters to pronounce the foreign words that kept entering their language from all that conquering. Exhibit A: The letters Y and Z were taken from Eastern Greek and dumped at the end of the alphabet. J wasn’t added until the 17th century.
Because the alphabet grew in this haphazard way, it doesn’t do what we need. It duplicates some sounds but misses others. We only have one A, for example, but we use it to represent multiple sounds: the A in “bark” is different from the one in “take.” In total, English has 44 different sounds (or phonemes): 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds. But our alphabet only represents 26, with a particularly poor showing for vowels. It’s a system, but an incomplete one that we muddle through because we’re used to it.
To make all the missing sounds, we use letter clusters. Putting two vowels together makes a different sound from one on its own. But even then, we are inconsistent. Take “ough.” How we pronounce it depends on what is around it: through, thought, tough, thorough, plough. If you want to make a “sh” sound you write “sh” (as in “shoe”), but some words have other ideas: sugar, passion, ambition, ocean, champagne. There are over 200 ways of representing the 44 sounds in letters. Can we really say this system is fit for purpose?
We have homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently: there/their, see/sea) and heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently in different contexts: read, console). Sometimes phrases can sound the same as other phrases, such as in the Two Ronnies sketch on four candles/fork handles. And there are other examples: “pullet surprise”/“Pulitzer prize.” When it comes to that stuff, that’s tough.
I feel for people learning English as a second language. Words rhyme that shouldn’t rhyme, and words that should rhyme don’t.
Then we have words with dozens of meanings. We can set down the plates as we set the table on a film set, set back from the road. We can set a prisoner free. Set changes in motion. Set high standards. Set a new high score. Set an alarm to set the video player to record a film set in New York. The sun can set, a scene can be set, or the world can be set on fire.
I feel for people learning English as a second language. Words rhyme that shouldn’t rhyme (ewe, flu, knew, do, gnu, two, shoe, through), and words that should rhyme don’t (wind/find, love/prove, have/crave, Sean Bean). And that’s before we get to irregular verbs and plurals. One sheep and a thousand sheep. We ran rather than “runned.” We have geese for goose, but don’t have meese for mouse. Does anyone even know what the plural of octopus is? Octopi? Octopuses?
Years ago, language was malleable. Even Shakespeare’s name hasn’t been spelled consistently: Shakespere, Shakespear, Shakspeare, Shackspeare, Shakspere. And on special occasions, add in a hyphen: Shake-speare. After the invention of the printing press, and then the dictionary, things started to settle down. As recently as the 18th century, American lexicographer Noah Webster managed to tidy things up. Thanks to him, we have “color” in the United States, but “colour” in the United Kingdom. He changed “re” to “er” in words like “centre” and took out the redundant double l in “traveller.” He also tried to remove irregularities like “tongue,” which he spelled “tung,” but that one didn’t stick. Benjamin Franklin had a go at fixing the alphabet too. But he added in fiddly things like h̢ , ſ, and ɥ, and they never caught on.
These days, the idea of systematically updating the alphabet is a pipe dream. We have standardized and built everything on top of our letters. Everything is interconnected and dependent. How would I get K kicked out of the alphabet? Who would I write to? Diktionary writers? Ceyboard manufacturers?
This hasn’t stopped people from trying to fix these issues. In 1948, George Bernard Shaw, referring to the alphabet as “hopelessly inadequate,” railed against its ridiculousness: “An intelligent child who is bidden to spell debt, and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a b because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin word for it with a b.” Shaw said he’d be prepared to go to war to fix the alphabet. He proposed an English alphabet for English people.
Fiddling with language sounds abstract, but it is deeply political.
Charles Ogden created a simplified version of English that he thought would lead to world piece — um, peace. Ogden proposed word lists for Basic English, including a core list of 850 words that were, in theory, enough for everyday life. (Randall Munroe’s book, Thing Explainer, covers modern concepts using just these words — a washing machine, for example, is a “box that makes clothes smell better.”)
The most famous example of a constructed language is Esperanto: created to be consistent and logical. Esperanto has been around for over a century but is spoken by as few as 60,000 people. A glance at the Esperanto Wikipedia (La libera enciklopedio redaktebla de ĉiuj) shows it isn’t just “funny English,” it’s an entirely new language, a cross between French and Latin.
These attempts reveal the magnitude of the endeavor. And the futility. I can’t help thinking, if you’re going to learn a language, you might as well learn one you can speak to people with.
Fiddling with language sounds abstract, but it is deeply political. The fluidity of gender constructions has led to heated conversations about pronoun use: He/him or she/her. Maybe they/them. Perhaps a neologism: xem/xem, ze/zim, sie/hir. People lose their jobs arguing about this and write angry letters to newspapers. A middle-class riot over pronouns.
For my part, I wonder why pronouns are gendered at all. English doesn’t gender nouns. In French, if you want to refer to an object, like a table, you have to know its gender. A book is a little man. Tables are female. Canada is a bloke, but France is a fancy lady.
We have vestiges of this in English. Archaically, we refer to boats as “she” (even ones named after men). Gendered pronouns feel to me like a similarly strange throwback. When we refer to someone indirectly, why is their gender important? We don’t encode into our pronouns the person’s height, ethnicity, or anything about their personality or intent, yet we put in their gender. Some suggest this avoids ambiguity, but only in situations with exactly one man and one woman. In any other situation, the pronoun adds nothing.
There are dozens of tiny fixes I would like to make: irregular verbs and spelling, missing letters, the C/K/Q débâcle (not to mention débâcle with its mess of wig-like diacritics). Perhaps over time, some will be implemented. “They,” is accepted as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun (“the teacher taught their class” — superior to “the teacher taught his or her class” and the archaic default to male: “the teacher taught his class”). As fixed as language is, things do gradually change. There are still edge cases that speakers aren’t sure about. Is it swelled or swollen? Sneaked or snuck? Roofs or rooves? How should spelled be spelt?
I suspect part of my desire to make changes is because I spend my life changing and fixing things. Writing, as many famous authors have said, is rewriting. But the building blocks of writing are like mountains, platforms we build atop. Yes, they gradually change over generations, but in the short term, they are unmovable. And so I tweak and edit my sentences to try to make them clear, but I have to leave the spelling and grammar alone. When not writing, I code, another activity that thrives on fixes — and updates, bug fixes, and patches, refactoring, and enhancing. Coding, too, is re-coding (or bug-fixing). I have become conditioned to think in terms of constant iteration. But when it comes to language, I am stuck. The alphabet is an embedded system we can’t deploy an update to. It’s a first draft, written in permanent marker.
Perhaps you think me unromantic. More engineer than poet too fixated on the mechanics of language to enjoy the sibilance of the sounds sliding over us. Isn’t there a charm to the irregular spelling and grammar of English? To the seemingly ungrammatical subjunctive and the ambiguous irregular plurals? Maybe there’s even delight in oddities like referring to ships as women; dipping back in time, a fun affectation like pronouncing hotel with a silent H, akin to dressing up for a fancy party.
This is all true, and I do delight in archaisms like the New Yorker’s house style (with its hyphenated “teen-ager” and peculiar rendering of “Robert Downey, Jnr.,’s name”). But I also crave simplicity and clarity. And so I dream of the million tiny fixes I would make — the spelling corrections and the pronunciation tweaks and the letter alterations — while also knowing that even the smallest conscious change to language would be more than a lifetime’s work.