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Silent letters leave English spellers in the Dark Ages

If we can’t reform the written language can we at least get rid of silent letters?

Here’s the beauty: as they are silent they won’t change the word at all, just make it easier to spell.

We can’t confidently spell our own language, even fluent, native English speakers.

What purpose does the spellcheck on your computer serve other than to help you spell words that you are unsure about?

And if you’re computer savvy there’s a fair chance you are a reasonably high-functioning, literate person, rather than someone living nude in the bush with only dreadlocks and animal fat for warmth.

It would be understandable to hold dear to the traditional spelling origins if we were engaged in a cultural identity crusade like speakers of Flemish or Gaelic.

But if English is the world’s language now should it not more accurately reflect “now” considering that Geoffrey Chaucer has been dead for quite a while.

Having a medieval, dysfunctional written language (dysfunctional spelled with a Y instead of an I – convinced yet?) as the common tongue (spelled tongue, pronounced tung) for global business is neither efficient or practical, yet we’re told such attributes are held in some esteem by business.

The horse and carriage served us well when the English we know today was taking shape, then the steam train, car and aircraft were progressively embraced as more beneficial modernisations.

Meanwhile in 2016 physical is still spelled using PH for F, quite oblivious to the fact that the language has an F, and a Y for an I, for reasons not governed by anything more rational than just the habit of history and the fact that no-one has bothered to update it.

It is the archaic interpretation of a people who boasted a literacy rate of about 1 per cent and thought nothing of emptying bed pans out the window before dealing with the witches in their midst.

If we can congratulate modern society on its, er, modernity, then surely we should also have a language that reflects the move from bear-baiting and open sewers.

If written English is so difficult that school children still compete in spelling contests to see who best can master the absurdities and inconsistencies of the language transcribed, how do those for whom English is a second language cope?

Whether they are our fellow citizens, tourists, or foreign trading partners, going about our business in a language that spells similar sounds as rhymes – because without the H it’s incomprehensible right? – can only be a needless and serious impediment.

Come on: comb needs a B? Receipt needs a P? The H in thyme? Queue needs two Us and two Es to spell a one syllable word that appears in another context as cue?

Plaque with a Q and U and E instead of a K? Then why don’t duques quaque?

Would the walls come tumbling down if we dropped the P from psychiatry and pneumonia? 

Without the pointless, silent E in does it would sound slightly more like it’s pronounced, and not be exactly the same spelling as a group of female deer.

If it’s risk why is it wrist? It’s subtle, like scuttle, yet the latter seems to have been left none the worse for not having a B jammed in the midst of it.

Lime makes sense, but we put a B on it for limb as if that shortens the vowel, until you put a C at the front for climb to lengthen it again – the silent B is just a novelty hat that serves no purpose: a door to nowhere but confusion.

And solemn and column with an N at the end? Of course.

How many of those with reading and writing difficulties – and all that entails for their future prospects – would have found reading and writing easier if it was made easier by removing the difficulty and complication?

Silent letters add nothing and detract much - tyme to be wrid of themn.


#1 Peter Mare 2016-08-28 19:21
But the reform does and should not include any ;literate person. Give them and I a break. Let's make it happen in the schools first with receptive Grade 1 kids the first year, and then let the second wave of Grade 1 learn using the new spelling system, and so on and so forth for 12 years. This is will give enough time for industry and govn't to get ready. The paradigm has shifted with people texting. They know there is a better way. There are translating programs and tablets. Kids do not need books and everything could be transcoded, which is easier than translating. Let's not ask literate people to learn the new code. But, it has been 250 years. As to the usual objections of dialectal differences,for the few "phonemes" that are difficult, there is the re-assignment principle that could mitigate that issue. Programs could do that too. A few hundreds words that do not spell as they should should be pittance compare to the hundreds of thousands of words that have been misspelled for 250 years. 40% illiteracy rates in Commonwealth countries are posing a real threat to social peace and unity, the integration of migrants and extra budgets for extra teachers. The burden put onto parents with tutoring and kids is costing a lot. Texting is eroding the language as it is not a real solution. Are the Chinese going to bow or are they going to force us to learn a better system (Chinese is easier to type (http://www.livescience.com/55607-whats-the-fastest-language-for-texting.html). Is the writing is on the wall? Chinese? Just taking those silent letters out could do, but we might as well do it well. If the reform is not imposed on common people and phased in in schools, this could be done. We have to clean our room if we are going to tell kids that they should clean theirs.
#2 Allan Campbell 2016-08-29 11:33
I agree with the thrust of your article but I'd add these suggestions.

We CAN reform (i prefer upgrade) our spelling. Other languages do it (Portuguese recently). It just needs the will.

The "silent e" is not always pointless. It spells the difference between words such as pin/pine, rat/rate, fad/fade, us/use, dot/dote. I was taut (sic) that the e makes the previous vowel "say its name". It is a marker. If we dont want it we would need to replace it with other markers, probably diacritics, such as umlauts and acutes, over the affected vowels. Othewise, mat and mate would presumably both be spelt mat.

I omit the silent e in words that should not hav (sic) it, such as hav, gon, liv (verb), ar, literat.
#3 Masha Bell 2016-08-29 16:55
Brilliant article, Tony. English spelling is insane and should be modernised.
I took a careful look at the 7,000 most used English words and found that 4,219 have spelling traps of some kind:
A few hundred have SURPLUS letters (havE, heAd, hEart, plouGH, gonE…),
but far more have WRONG letters (fond – PHoto, run – frOnt, ditty – prEtty),
some have both WRONG AND SURPLUS letters (sum - sOmE, taut – bOuGHt) and
some COULD DO WITH MORE letters (lost toast – pOst, shoddy – boDy).
(I’ve listed them all on my EnglishSpelling Problems blog.)
Cutting surplus letters would be a good start. To make a bigger difference to learners needs bigger changes. Like spelling the /ee/ sound just with ee, rather than as in ‘leave, sleeve, believe, even, seize, secret, machine, key, quay, people, ski...’.
#4 Nigel 2016-09-02 02:40
Good article - these linguistic fossils add nothing to the ease of learning and using English. While we are having a go at the spelling of our beloved language, the way we double up some consonants and not others is a terrible learning burden too. Salad - ballad, very - berry, comic - common. There are hundreds of these kinds of irregularities. And these irregularities takes us to illiteracy and other social evils.