Making Ћ English language better: a (long) history of failed attempts

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Every so often, I write about language, in my capacity as an amateur user of one. And a few times, when I have done, a polite and earnest young man from something called the SaypYu Project has got in touch.

The SaypYu Project is, and I’ll quote the young man in question directly here, “a collaborative project that aims at building a list of words from all languages spelled phonetically using a 24-letter alphabet”. English is, they say, wildly illogical in its spelling. They want to remove unnecessary letters (C, Q and X, “because these could be replaced by their phonetic equivalents: K and/or S”), and add one new one (Ǝ/ɘ, or “schwa”), which would replace the short A sound in “about” or “ago”.

Under the new system, it is proposed (although SaypYu stresses that it is at an early stage of development and likely to change) the similarly spelled but differently pronounced words “bough”, “cough”, “though” and “through” would be written as “baw”, “kof”, “dhow” and “thruu”. (On a side note, I’m intrigued to see that the TH sounds in “though” and “through” are different – although, when you say them, one is indeed “voiced” and one isn’t. I hadn’t noticed before.)

The SaypYuers are not the first to try to reform English’s illogical spelling. There’s a piece of mocking poetry that made the point a long time ago, and which Steven Pinker mentions in his book The Language Instinct:

Beware of “heard”, a dreadful word
That looks like “beard” and sounds like “bird”
And “dead”; it’s said like “bed”, not “bead” –
For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”
Watch out for “meat” and “great” and “threat”
(They rhyme with “suite” and “straight” and “debt”)

In 1855 a publisher, Charles Ollier, complained that “fish” could perfectly logically be spelled “ghoti”, if you used the GH from “tough”, the O from “women” and the TI from “nation”. The playwright George Bernard Shaw similarly wanted to reform the language, and left a cash prize in his will to the designer of a more logical writing system.

Old GBS’s unquiet ghost still roams, of course, since we still write “martial” instead of “marshal” and so on. But in today’s paper we report that someone is trying to improve on the written language in a different way. Paul Mathis of Melbourne thinks that there should be a single symbol used for “the”, in the way that the ampersand & is used for “and” – it’s the most common word in English, he reasons, so we might as well make it easier to type. He has proposed Ћ, which if it takes off shall clearly become known as the “bathtap”. (Another side note: I’ve just learned that the ampersand wasn’t, as I had believed, created by Cicero’s scribe-slave Tiro. He made his own shorthand system, and had a symbol for “and” which looked like a 7.)

It won’t take off, of course, in the same way that the “SarcMark” (a mark to indicate sarcasm, obviously enough) didn’t, and Bernard Shaw’s proposals didn’t, and (sorry, guys) SaypYu won’t. Language, written and spoken, evolves in remarkably unpredictable ways, and deliberate attempts to “improve” it almost never work. Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, lists a few attempts, notably an artist who decided that the language lacked a word for “the hi-tech aesthetic” (“as in ‘The new iPad Nano is really X”), and decided “neen”. It didn’t stick. None of the jokey “Liffs” from Douglas Adams’s The Meaning of Liff ever got past the comedy stage; Rich Hall’s “sniglets” (including “sniglet” itself) died a similar death. No one campaigned for the word “defriend” to make it, meanwhile, but there it is in the new Oxford English Dictionary nonetheless, following earlier unheralded entries like “blog” and “reboot”.

Would we even want a phonetic alphabet, anyway? Bear in mind it would mean that we’d have to spell “electric” one way and “electricity” another, “nation” one way and “national” another, “malign”/”malignant”, “sign”/”signature”, and so on. They sound different but fill similar slots in our mind, so it makes sense to keep them spelled similarly. It’s illogical from a pronunciation point of view, but a phonetic alphabet would be illogical from a meaning point of view.

The “bathtap” Ћ, of course, is rather less ambitious than the Shavian or SaypYu alphabets, and it would save two valuable characters on Twitter. (It’s more important than non-Twitterers might realise; I’ve taken to using the single character … instead of three full stops to mark an ellipsis, for that very reason. Alt-0133, if you’re interested.) But I doubt that will be enough; if you try to use it, you’ll have to explain it every time, and that will end up costing you a lot more characters. I do think, as well, that no one wants to use a symbol that looks like plumbing.

• I originally attributed “ghoti” to Bernard Shaw – apparently that’s not true, so I’ve fixed.

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