“Vous ecrivez Londres et vous prononcez Constantinople!” said an indignant Voltaire after struggling with the mysteries of English spelling. “You write London and you pronounce Constantinople.”He was right, and English orthography is the linguistic equivalent of a failed third world country: corrupt, dysfunctional, hopeless. Around the turn of the twentieth century there was a rebellion against the insanity; people like George Bernard Shaw and Theodore Roosevelt wanted it reformed. Nothing doing.Despite its miserable spelling habits, English went from triumph to triumph during the next 100 years, and now reigns as the first truly global language. Too bad, in a way: all over the world people are struggling with the absurdities of an alphabet so misused and twisted that even short and common words are illogically spelled. “Sugar”, for example, is pronounced “shugar”, and “sweet” and “suite” are pronounced exactly the same way.But nothing should surprise us in a language in which, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, the letters “ghoti” can be pronounced “fish”. (‘Gh’ as in ‘tough’, ‘o’ as in ‘women’, ‘ti’ as in ‘nation’.)Our irrational spelling system is not completely devoid of purpose; you can learn a lot about the origin of words from their conventional spelling. And these days, computer spell check programs make it less necessary for foreigners and others to dedicate years of toil to mastering the vagaries of our spelling conventions: ‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ and so on.In any case, for your Sunday entertainment, here’s one of the best exposes of the anarchic nature of our spelling system I’ve seen for some time. You can find the whole thing here; I’m indebted to Chaos Manor Musings, the website of author Jerry Pournelle for bringing it to my attention. As you read it, think about the difficulty foreigners (and children) have in learning to cope with this mess, and also at the mind’s ability to accept irrational realities and move on.But don’t waste a lot of time thinking about spelling reform. English spelling seems as secure as the QWERTY keyboard, and there is probably not much to be done.If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud. Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.Here, for your Sunday