Let's write our language as we speak it. Then at least our children will be able to spell properly
Instead of blaming teachers, syllabuses and text messaging, let's put the blame where it really belongs
"The p, I should add for your guidance, is silent, as in phthisis, psychic and ptarmigan," the eponymous hero of PG Wodehouse's Leave it to Psmith explained. He could have added many dozens of those p's at the beginning of English words. Many thousands of other English words bear the burden of unpronounced consonants, whose only function is to confuse schoolchildren into even more spelling mistakes than is their custom. For instance, a recent report found that only around half of English 11-year-olds could correctly spell the word doubt. A survey a few years ago concluded (I could have told them and saved them the money) that the more a word was spelled like it was pronounced, the more likely it would be spelled correctly.
Last week the Portuguese parliament voted to reform and simplify the spelling of Portuguese. Among other changes, silent consonants are to be abolished. Just like that. Baptismo is to become batismo, optimo otimo, acto ato. In addition, where the same consonant is repeated, one of them will have to go. Acção will turn into ação. It is true that the motive for the reforms was due as much to political as to orthographic necessity. Portugal had found its classical, historically-based spellings out of step with those of the newer, more logically-minded Portuguese-speaking nations, especially Brazil, with its population - at 190 million - 17 times greater than that of its mother country. In future, the worldwide Portuguese family of 230 million will be able to speak, or at least spell, with one voice.
What struck me was the ease with which the whole thing was done. There were many protests and petitions against the reforms, but in the end they were passed in parliament by a substantial majority. In a few years' time a mass of p's, c's and h's will be no more.
There is no reason why we should not copy their example. Instead of bemoaning children's waning spelling aptitudes, and blaming teachers, syllabuses and the malign effect of text messaging, let us put the blame where it belongs: an insane spelling system. I am not suggesting we impose a completely new alphabetical structure on English orthography, as George Bernard Shaw and others have advocated. Shaw's proposed alphabet was a complicated affair, almost impossible to learn. The Portuguese way is more of a tidying up operation, eliminating incongruities and inconsistencies. We could do the same, with the help of a few English profs, and if we ended up with a lot of seudo-sychopaths with soriasis and siatica writing a senario about rathful sychologists rapping reaths rongly - well, at least schoolchildren will be spelling better.
I have wormed Shaw into this item if only to repeat his famous example illustrating the absurdity and inconsistencies of English orthography. How do you pronounce the word spelled "ghoti"? The answer is "fish" - the "gh" as in laugh, the "o" as in women, the "ti" as in motion.
Marcel Berlins - Wednesday May 21 2008, The Guardian