Why English Spelling Is So Bad, Part 2

Posted by on July 14, 2012 in blog | 0 comments

Based upon the introductory blog posted July 5, 2012 titled "Why English Spelling Is So Bad," this blog explains the details of the primary reason that 48.7 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate and that 31.2 percent of these functional illiterates are in poverty. The "million dollar question" is: How long will it be before English-speaking people around the world act in their own financial self-interest and the interest of their illiterate fellow-man and revolt against what they have erroneously been taught from childhood — that there is only one "correct" way to spell English words — and CORRECT our chaotic, ridiculous spelling? This can happen by helping us permanently end English functional illiteracy by publicizing our simple, proven solution to ending illiteracy.

A recent human relations experience proved to be very revealing. There were 49 emails about ending illiteracy sent to friends with the word "important" in the subject line. The emails were worded expecting a reply and hopefully a positive response. Here are the results. (1) There was one positive response after two days. (2) There was a second positive response after a couple of weeks because the person responding wanted something from me. (3) Two persons presumably knew how to overcome the difficulties in opening the email and the recommended internet address but did not take the few seconds needed to do so. (4) One person who highly praised the email said he would return soon and respond positively but did not, and (5) perhaps a small percentage of the others did not see the email because of overly aggressive spam filters. In short, out of 49 emails, about 45 "friends" completely ignored my request taking about 10 or 15 seconds of their time.

Have you ever been at a party where a large number of friends and associates are standing around talking, and you are carefully observing your listener's face as you are explaining something of great interest to you? Have you become aware that the person is hearing your words but is not paying attention to what you are saying? Is your "listener" (1) thinking of what he will say next, (2) hoping — perhaps desperately — for a chance to change the subject, (3) planning when you pause for a couple of seconds to say, "Excuse me." and leave, or (4) when you pause for a couple of seconds does he simply turn and leave?

The situations in the two previous paragraphs provide very strong evidence (as if you needed it) that there are a large number of spoken or written words passing between human beings which are not understood or paid attention to. It has become obvious that unless someone is already interested in the subject before hearing or seeing the words, the words are very often ignored. What this means is that if you can spell well enough to get by without too much difficulty and your loved ones can do the same (as far as you know), you may not see any importance in how difficult English spelling — and therefore, reading — really is.

What this also means is that if everyone reacts the same way, about 600 million English-speaking people around the world (including 93 million of our fellow-Americans) will not get all of the help they so desperately need in solving the problem of illiteracy. What this means is that people's priorities are badly out of sync with the needs of their fellow-man who is suffering from the effects of his illiteracy.

Almost everyone places priority on their relationship with God, their family, their job or profession, and their recreation and hobbies (not necessarily in that order), and very seldom will spend even 15 seconds on something that is not already one of their priorities. If more people would realize that they can help considerably by spending a few minutes on something other than one of their priorities, the American public could begin a grass-roots action that can perform near-miraculous results.

Since you or I did not cause our spelling to be so bad, we need not feel an impulse to "defend our mother tongue." Instead, sit back and enjoy the following. English spelling fully deserves all the scorn we can heap upon it! As the first part of this blog explains, if you read the rest of this blog and come away thinking that English spelling is not so bad that it needs to be corrected, you are not paying enough attention to what you are reading.

Sounds per Symbol: Effect upon Reading,

Note: all of the data presented prior to the later section titled "How Can Anyone Defend English Spelling" can definitely be considered to be "the minimum" or "at least" because of the research of Professor Julius Nyikos.

There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Three letters — C, Q, and X — represent phonemes or phoneme blends more often represented by other letters. (A phoneme is the smallest sound in a language or dialect used to distinguish between syllables and words.) Since we need symbols for thirty-eight phonemes (the number of phonemes needed in NuEnglish, my spelling system) and have only twenty-three letters representing unique phonemes, we need fifteen more graphemes. (A grapheme in an alphabetic language is a letter or combination of letters used to represent a phoneme.)

Ideally, (to avoid a cost of billions of dollars to replace the present hardware and software, which has twenty- six letters) we would use fifteen two-letter graphemes. Since the data in this blog only includes words found in a standard desk dictionary (otherwise there would be more), English uses at least:

  26 single letters
184 two-letter graphemes (71 vowels, 82 consonants)
131 three-letter graphemes (81 vowels, 17 consonants)
 22 four-letter graphemes (11 vowels, 3 consonants)
   4 five-letter graphemes (all vowels)
367 total graphemes

There are many silent vowels, most notably the E at the end of words. The second vowel is silent in most long vowel sounds spelled with two vowels (as in Mae Green tried roe glue). An example of at least one word with a silent letter for each of the twenty-six letters (several of the letters have many others) is as follows: reAd, deBt, sCent, velDt, havE, halFpenny, siGn, rHyme, busIness, riJsttafel, Knot, taLk, Mnemonic, autumN, sophOmore, rasPberry, lacQuer, suRprise, aiSle, depoT, bUilt, savVy, Write, fauX pas, maYor, and rendeZvous.

There are also six consonant sounds of E, I, O, and U: I sound like /j/ in soldier, O and U sound like /w/ in choir and persuade, E and I sound like /y/ in azalea and opinion, and U sounds like /f/ in one (British) pronunciation of lieutenant . All but two (IU and UU) of the twenty-five possible vowel digraph combinations (five different first vowels times five second vowels) can be found in a standard desk dictionary with a single vowel sound. Most of these digraphs also have two sounds in some words.

Comparing English to Chinese Writing

People often think that learning to read Chinese picture writing would be very difficult. They may say, "Maybe English is bad, but we only [!] need to learn 294 graphemes and 653 ways of pronouncing them. In Chinese, you have to learn thousands! You have to learn a different grapheme for every word!" In actuality, knowledge of only about 2,000 characters is required for basic literacy in modern Chinese according to David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, page 200. Only a little more than half of Chinese words have more than one syllable. Only two types of sequences are used for most Chinese syllables, CV (consonant-vowel) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant). Most of the CVC syllables end in one of two sounds, /n/ or /ng/.

There are very few consonant clusters in Chinese, and there are a grand total of about 1,280 "tonal" syllables. The meaning of a word can change with the tone or pitch of the syllable in tonal languages. As a result, Chinese has a very large number of homonyms (words with different meanings but with the same sound). This necessitates the use of about 200 "classifiers." A syllable sign and a classifier sign are therefore written together as compound signs for 90 percent of Chinese words according to Diane McGuinness, Ph.D., Why Our Children Can't Read, pages 46-47.

To Read English: Only Learn 367 Graphemes?

In addition to learning the 367 graphemes, you also must know which one of the phonemes each grapheme represents in each word (because an English grapheme may be pronounced a certain way in one word and something different in another word). Although English is considered an alphabetic language, it is not that different from Chinese writing. In the same way that Chinese writing uses a specific stroke in a specific position for a syllable sign or classifier sign, English uses a specific group of letters in a specific order as a symbol for an entire word.

The letter order for each word is unchanging (frozen), but the phonemes in many words have changed because the pronunciation of words changes with time. It is therefore necessary to memorize (or learn by repeated use) each grapheme in each word, in proper order! Unlike Chinese writing, learned by memory alone, the human mind becomes confused because it recognizes similar graphemes in similar words and assumes the pronunciation is similar, but it often isn't. English spelling thus interferes with our logic and reasoning in learning to read because of its inconsistencies.

Many of the 367 graphemes have more than one pronunciation. The worst is the letter I which has nine pronunciations, as well as being silent in some words. Some of these pronunciations of the graphemes are used in only a few words. Many of these pronunciations of the graphemes are used in many words. If all of the different example words with different pronunciations of the 367 graphemes — and examples where they are silent — are totaled, there are at least 745 of them.

There is an average of at least the following (because only words in a standard desk-sized dictionary are included in the data).

Single Letters: 4.0 pronunciations per consonant, 9.2 pronunciations per vowel, 5.0 pronunciations per letter
Blends: 1.4 pronunciations per consonant, 2.2 pronunciations per vowel, 1.9 pronunciations per blend
Single Letters and Blends: 367 total graphemes (26 single letters and 341 blends to be learned with a total average 2.2 pronunciations each, including 26 silent letters and six vowels with consonant sounds in some words.)

Symbols per Sound: Effect upon Spelling

As usually used in English-speaking countries, the word "spelling" refers to a specific, unvarying sequence of letters to represent a word. In other languages, spelling is simply the matching of phonemes and graphemes.

If you think learning to read English is difficult, consider spelling English words! Two phonemes (/h/ as in hat and /th/ as in then) have only (!) four spellings, but most of them have many. The /u/ as in nut is spelled at least sixty different ways!

Roughly 20 percent of English words are spelled phonemically — if you use one consistent spelling of each phoneme in the 10,161 most common words. This is based upon Dewey's study as reported in his book, Relativ Frequency of English Speech Sounds. Claims that English is more than 20 percent phonemic are true only if more than one spelling of the phonemes is allowed.

The problem is that you must learn which words are phonemic, the same as you must learn the spelling of unphonemic words. There is no dependable way of knowing which words are spelled phonemically. Also, hundreds of words have alternate pronunciations and alternate spellings. The alternate spellings have no necessary relationship to the pronunciation either.

To be intellectually honest, anyone objecting to spelling reform by defending the frozen spelling we now use would also have to defend a far more extensive reason for confusion in word meaning as related to spelling: using the same spelling for thousands of words with the same pronunciation but with more than one meaning! The word set, for example, has 115 meanings. Charles C. Fries, in his book, Linguistics and Reading, reports that for the 500 most used words, the Oxford English Dictionary records 14,070 separate and different meanings — an average of 28 meanings for each word.

My research has found 736 ways of spelling 38 phonemes. Professor Julius Nyikos' research has found far more, as you will see in the next section!

How Can Anyone Defend English Spelling?

English spelling is so inconsistent, illogical, and confusing that it should not be defended. Much of what is considered a defense of English spelling is, in truth, a counterattack against the ideas that attack it. Or we assume it can't (or won't) be changed. Since most of us do not want to be bothered with too much change in our lives, we simply dismiss it from our minds. Also, if we learned it as a child, we assume other people can, too. So we give it little thought other than when we have to look up a spelling in a dictionary. Speakers of most other languages do not have to use a dictionary — they know the spelling if they know the pronunciation.

If you couldn't read, and if you discovered these facts about our spelling, you probably would be upset to say the least. You would be upset to find that you had needlessly blamed yourself for your present state, as most illiterates do. Are you upset to find that roughly 93 million people — almost one-half of the adult population of the U.S. — are affected?

Professor Julius Nyikos of Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, did a very extensive study of all the different ways of spelling forty English phonemes. He reported his findings on pages 146-163 of The Fourteenth LACUS [Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States] Forum 1987 in an article titled "A Linguistic Perspective of Functional Illiteracy." His study showed that if "practically all dictionary words" from six desk dictionaries (not unabridged) are included, there are 1,768 ways of spelling forty English phonemes (this is an average of 44.2 spellings per phoneme: 1,768 divided by 40) — and 1,120 ways if only "words classified as common" are included. This many additional spellings would include graphemes over and above the 367 shown in the previous sections.

Julius Nyikos was born and raised in Hungary. He and his classmates became proficient readers of Hungarian in first grade. At the age of ten he and all his classmates learned to decode Latin in one week and German in less than one week. During his university years, Nyikos majored in German and Finno-Ugric Hungarian linguistics and developed a keen interest in the comparative study of spelling systems. He had studied the English language for four years in high school. He came to the United States in 1949, but it took two years of intensive immersion in English to re-enter his field of foreign language teaching.

His LACUS article is a very scholarly and persuasive defense of his belief that functional illiteracy in English is primarily due to the spelling. As a result of our spelling "non-system," as he calls it, no method of teaching can be completely successful.

How Bad Is the Cause of Our Problems? How We Must Learn English Spelling?

As Kenneth Ives states in his book, Written Dialects N Spelling Reforms: History N Alternatives,

A book giving a system of rules for pronouncing English runs to 128 pages of rules with many exceptions. (Wijk, 1966) It is so involved that one writer complains it "would require a linguistic Ph.D. with an encyclopedic memory" to use it for writing. A computerized attempt to use a set of 203 spelling rules was able to spell correctly only 49% of a list of 17,000 common words (Hanna et al, 1966). . . . English is the only language whose dictionaries routinely supply pronunciation for all root words. (Wijk, 1960: 7)

Most Americans are surprised to learn that pronunciations are usually omitted from foreign language dictionaries. They are not needed because the spelling adequately represents the pronunciation. They are even more surprised to learn that students of other languages do not have spelling classes throughout most of grade school, as our students do.

Edward Rondthaler of the American Literacy Council points out, "A 1986 round table of British linguists called by eminent scholars to discuss the underlying pattern of English spelling concluded, not surprisingly, that only one rule in our spelling is not watered down with exceptions: No word in English ends with the letter V." Since Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary lists the words rev and spiv, there are therefore NO invariable English spelling rules. If you cannot learn to spell by rules, then you must learn by memorization and repetition.

Many inconsistencies could be highlighted, such as the different sounds of the double Cs in occasional and accident (pronounced like K and like KS, respectively) or the double Gs in egg, exaggerate, and suggest (pronounced like G, J, or GJ, respectively). Perhaps the most impressive English spelling inconsistency can be found it the following sentence:

The plan, though thoroughly thought through, was all for nought when the rough trough full of cough and hiccough medicine made from a hemlock tree bough floated down the shough into a Scottish lough and sank to the bottom.

The twelve occurrences of ough in this sentence can be correctly pronounced twelve different ways! If the word trough in the sentence were plural there would six different ways of pronouncing this word alone! As Kenneth Ives states on pages 22-23 of his book, Writen Dialects N Spelling Reforms: History N Alternatives:

No wonder Johnny cannot read what he sees, nor spell what he hears, with accuracy [and] confidence! When we ask him to do so, he feels we are asking him a multiple choice question to which there is no reasonable answer. [And] he is right. Each word must be learned separately, by memory, [and] in two forms, written [and] spoken, with no necessary, systematic correspondence between them. He must, in effect, become bilingual in his native tongue!

Comparative Difficulty of English vs. Other Alphabets

Noah Webster argued against the effort to freeze spelling in the introduction to his 1806 English dictionary. On page vi he states,

Every man of common reading knows that a living language must necessarily suffer gradual changes in its current words, in the significations of many words, and in pronunciation. The unavoidable consequence then of fixing the [spelling] of a living language, is to destroy the use of the alphabet. This effect has, in a degree, already taken place in our language; and letters, the most useful invention that ever blessed mankind, have lost and continue to lose a part of their value, by no longer being the representatives of the sounds originally annexed to them. Strange as it may seem, the fact is undeniable, that the present doctrine that no change must be made in writing words, is destroying the benefits of an alphabet, and reducing our language to the barbarism of Chinese characters instead of letters.

Some linguists may consider this an overstatement, but English is by far the most inconsistent and illogical of the alphabetic spelling systems and therefore the hardest to learn. Noah Webster's advice on spelling was ignored, and destruction of the benefits of an alphabet has continued. Failure to find logic in English spelling is confusing and frustrating. Ives, on 30 of his book mentioned above, tells of a significant study by Rozin in this regard:

The most unusual effort of this medium centered approach was probably "American children with reading problems can easily learn to read English represented by Chinese characters." (Rozin, 1971)

Note, however, that this was a short-term test probably using less than the 2000 symbols (Chinese characters) which Dr. McGuinness, has proven is the usual practical limit of symbols that can be learned.

The Complex Logic Our Spelling System Requires

This section gives a brief explanation of why learning to read English is so difficult. A more complete explanation can be found in chapters 1-7 of Why Our Children Can't Read by Dr. Diane McGuinness. These chapters refer to numerous studies in the previous ten to fifteen years proving the difficulty of learning to read English. Chapter 7 of McGuinness' book explains the types of logic involved in understanding English spelling. All students must learn to read English by learning every individual word by rote memorization or by repetition, but learning is especially confusing for those children who are too young to understand the complex logic involved.

There are tens of thousands of different syllables in English. Unlike other languages, which have few syllable patterns, according to Dr. McGuinness, English has sixteen different syllable patterns (C = consonant, V = vowel): CV, CCV, CCCV, CVC, CCVC, CCCVC, CVCC, CVCCC, CCVCC, CCVCCC, CCCVCCC, CCCVCC, VCCC, VCC, VC, and V. There are two or more syllables in most English words. Each syllable can have any of the sixteen patterns. If each vowel and each consonant in these syllables always represented the same sound (one-to-one mapping, an "equivalence" relationship), there would be nothing in the logic of these syllables that would be beyond the abilities of most four- or five-year-olds, but they do not.

English spelling also has one-to-one mapping where one phoneme is represented by one digraph (two letters) — since there are not enough letters to represent all the phonemes. Almost half of English sounds are represented by digraphs. But the real confusion comes since there is also one-to-many and many-to-one mapping, i.e., one phoneme is represented by many different graphemes (for spelling), and one grapheme represents many phonemes (for reading). This requires a type of logic that most children do not develop until they are eleven or twelve years old.

On pages 156-169 of Dr. McGuinness' book Why Our Children Can't Read she states,

As a result, to learn English spelling, children in kindergarten and grades one through four must be taught to read in carefully controlled steps, building types of logic they do not understand upon a logic they do understand. Until they are eleven or twelve years old, it is usually a waste of time to try to get them to understand the logic — they just have to be helped to memorize (or learn by repetition) the spelling of new words. The types of logic required for one-to-many and many-to-one mapping are: (1) the logic of "classes" (categories where objects or events that are similar are grouped together) and "relations" (where objects share some features but not all features, e.g., all poodles are dogs, but all dogs are not poodles) and (2) "propositional logic," which involves combining both the classes and relations types of logic. This requires the ability to think of the same item in more than one combination at the same time. These combinations require the use of relational terms such as "and," "or," "not," "if — then," and "if and only if" in formal statements of propositional logic. The problem of digraphs can be stated as:

If an h follows the letter t, then say /th/ (thin) or /th/ (then); but if any other letter or no letter follows the letter t, then say /t/ (top, ant).

What Does All This Mean to Us, Today?

Perhaps Sir James Pitman, on pages 47-48 of his book Alphabets and Reading, sums it up best:

It would be simple to fill many pages with the iniquities of English spelling, to draw attention to the mute characters in words like knot, scene, lamb, gnaw, hymn, and build or to list words with alternate spellings, but I hope I have included enough to convince anyone who may not previously have thought much about the subject that the pages over which their eyes skim so effortlessly and efficiently are in fact fraught with inconsistency and illogic, that there is a sizeable divergence between hearing and reading, between the language of the ear and the language of the eye; that no Englishman can tell how to pronounce a word in his mother tongue if he has only seen that word written and not heard and memorized it; that no Englishman can tell how to spell a word which he has only heard spoken and never seen written.

This is just a small portion of the facts showing the desperate need for English spelling reform. No one knows how many facts you must see before you are convinced that our ridiculous spelling must be corrected and help us publicize the need to permanently end English functional illiteracy. One thing is certain: if you carefully, honestly read Let's End Our Literacy Crisis, Revised Edition, available from Amazon.com here or available as a free e-book here, you will be convinced (unless you take this statement as a personal challenge, rather than a statement of how people who carefully, honestly read the book will react).

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