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…