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Subject: Re: 25 vowel sounds ( 10 of 58 )
Posted by Douglas Adams

Spelling has always been a fairly approximate guide to pronunciation. Many years (or rather, decades) ago, George Bernard Shaw - who was impatient with the manifest irregularities of English spelling - funded a project to create a phonetically based alphabet for English. Only one book was ever published in this alphabet (his play Androcles and the Lion) and when I was a kid I learnt to read it. It didn't actually take that long to learn (I'm not boasting here, it just turns out to be easier to do than you'd expect). But it would never catch on for the precise reason that as you move from London to Wales to Yorkshire to New York, to Chicago, to Alabama to Los Angeles, to Sydney, to Auckland the words would actually have to be spelt differently, which would be obstacle to understanding. Ease of understanding is the key here. Many people argue, quite rightly, that in the days of Shakespeare spelling was something you pretty much made up as you went along. But I think I'm right in saying that other languages were already more tightly structured in their spelling than English was. Both ancient Greek and Latin had to be spelt in a structured way because the spelling conveyed not only the basic meaning of the word, but also the grammatical function of the word in the sentence. They were inflected languages - hence all those endings we had to learn, all those tense formations and adjectives which had to agree with their nouns etc. If you took a casual attitude to how you spelt words, their actual meanings would become unclear. French is a good example of a modern inflected language. If you take a rough and ready approach to writing French the French will not merely have difficulty understanding you, they will actually refuse to.
English was different, because it was a mongrel language. We were invaded so many times that we assimilated lots of other languages into our own - Anglo Saxon, Norse, Latin, French etc. That's why our language, unlike French, is so rich in synonyms. (Just count the number of words to do with light or vision that start with 'gl' - glimmer, glimpse, glint, glance - it goes on and on). It's also why the language has so many gradations of meaning in it. As we all know, the reason why we call live animals pigs and cows and sheep, but call the food we get from them pork and beef and mutton is that when they were running around the field they were looked after by Anglo-Saxon peasants who called them by their Anglo-Saxon names, but when they were cooked and brought to the table they were eaten by their Norman masters, who called them by their French names - porc, boeuf and mouton. So English was a very flexible language, rich in vocabulary, a great deal of which was foreign imports. So instead of sticking inflections on to the ends of foreign words, we evolved a language in which the sense was conveyed purely by word order. Word order in English is very subtle and complex because the actual words could be from anywhere, and people didn't have much of an idea how to spell most of them. There were so damn _many_ of them. But that situation gradually changed, and changes take place for a reason. Uniformity of spelling makes for much easier reading. It's that simple. If you wanted to be understood easily it was worth your while to spell in a way that people would easily recognise. Hence the work of the dictionary makers - Dr Johnson, etc. It was a deliberate exercise in making communication easier and clearer.
It's quite true that a number of great writers were terrible spellers. Churchill is a great example. It's interesting, though, that his mastery of the grammatical construction of the language was stupendous. You have to be a particularly good writer to get away with the obstacle you put in your readers' way by spelling badly.
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