August 30, 2015

English Spelling

The Dutch government legally controls the Dutch language, and I've been told that Dutch had three spelling reforms in the 20th Century. I think the French government could do the same for the French language if they wanted to, though I have no idea if they have done so. (I doubt it. The Dutch are very practical and see language as a tool. For the French, their language is more like a religion.)

The transition from Middle English to Modern English is generally dated to some time in the late 1600's, and Shakespeare is one of the first major writers in Modern English.

But English as a spoken language has continued to evolve since then, especially after it started to fork. The nation with the largest body of English speakers is India, it turns out, but for the majority of them English is a second language. No less than the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary declared a few years ago that the modern center of the English language was now in the US.

Everyone knows that English is long overdue for a spelling reform, but the problem is that no one can make that happen. Unlike Dutch, no single body has control. So the last significant spelling reform was in the middle of the 19th Century and was informal. It happened when American dictionary writers (like the famous Webster) decided some of the old spellings were ludicrous.

That's when plough became plow. That's when colour lost its "u". It was a unique moment when a small handful of linguistic radicals seized their opportunity. But those changes didn't propagate back to the UK, so in the Commonwealth the old spellings still dominate. I've despaired that English spelling will ever be rational again (if it ever was after the 15th century).

But it's happening now. And it's Twitter that's making it happen. Because of the 140-character stricture on a tweet, plus the sheer pain of entering text using a phone, an entirely new spelling reform is happening before our eyes.

Through has become thru. Hate has become h8. The real question is the extent to which these changes will percolate back out into real world usage, and how long it will take. My guess is "not very much" and "a very long time" but I have been known to be extremely wrong about things.

Anyway, it's interesting to watch it happening.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste in Weird World at 12:08 PM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
Post contains 402 words, total size 2 kb.

1 Interestingly, there was a successful spelling reform of German in the 1990s. It involved getting agreement between Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. I'm guessing the bigger three nations got Liechtenstein's agreement basically as a courtesy.

Posted by: Boviate at August 30, 2015 08:41 PM (XRvFv)

2 An agreement from Namibia wasn't even requested, I take it.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at August 30, 2015 09:05 PM (RqRa5)

3 I doubt if the Dutch consulted South Africa, either. (I do wonder if they got the Belgians involved, though.)

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 30, 2015 10:42 PM (+rSRq)

4 The French definitely do have a government office charged with maintaining the French language, the Académie fran├žaise. (It's a body that's been around since Richelieu and appoints new members to itself as they die off). It's not -theoretically- limited to metropolitan French but you can imagine how few Louisianans make the list.

Posted by: Avatar_exADV at August 31, 2015 09:24 AM (qxzj1)

5 Both Spanish and Portuguese have official government language control ministry.  Not sure if there is any kind of agency for Catalan.

Posted by: BigFire at September 17, 2015 05:43 PM (pNmmq)

6

But does the Portuguese commission also control Brazil?

Does the Spanish one control Mexico/Argentina/Chile/Peru/and so on?

Spanish has the same problem English does -- it's too widespread now for any kind of central control.

Even French has that problem to some extent, because of Quebec, Louisiana, Haiti, and I think there's at least one African country where French is the official language.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at September 17, 2015 06:23 PM (+rSRq)

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