Why is English spelling so weird, and why is it so hard to read hiragana?

definately byutiful

English spelling is nasty. It’s inconsistent, illogical, and only gives vague hints as to the pronunciation of the words. Why, just take a look at this poem!

When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe.

Many more such lovely poems are to be found here.

Isn’t it about time we replaced it with something rational? Why don’t we use something consistent, something phonetic, something any kid could learn in a single grade year, rather than year after year of spelling bees and flashcards?

We don’t do that because, first off, that’s not what spelling *does*. Sure, we read the words, and the pronunciation pops into our brains as we read, but we don’t actually need to letters to conform to set rules of pronunciation at all. The words printed on the page don’t inform us as to the pronunciation of the word, except maybe the first time, and even then we still have our doubts until we hear the word spoken aloud. No, the words printed on the page give us the meaning of the word, and our brain pulls out the pronunciation from our mental dictionaries as soon as we see the word.

I’ll even prove it to you, paraphrasing an example from Steven Plinker’s The Language Instinct. Read these first two sentences from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and if you’re a native English speaker (or a darn good student of English), I’ll bet you a pon de ring that you can read it with barely more effort than a normal sentence.

Xll thxs hxppxnxd, mxrx xr lxss. Thx wxr pxrts, xnxwxx, xrx prxttx mxch trxx.

The word “anyway” in there might have been a touch tricky, but I’m betting you know just what that sentence says, even with all the vowels replaced with the letter “x”. Why does that work?

There are a bunch of factors at play, but essentially, we don’t really read letter by letter–at least, not after grade 3 or so. Mostly, we look at the general shape of the word, infer its meaning from its neighbors and the context of the sentence, pronounce the word in our heads (if we haven’t taken one of those speed-reading courses), and move on to the next word. Past the point of learning basic literacy, we don’t read the letters. Instead, we look at the word as a whole, and take its meaning from there.

All this is well and good, but why retain the strange and convoluted spellings we’ve passed down over the centuries? If the letters themselves don’t really matter for reading comprehension, why not make them easier to write?

First off, those antiquated spellings actually do us a lot of good. Take an English word I learned recently as an example:

reify

Here, the “re” comes from the Latin “res”, meaning “thing”, as in “res publica”, “public things” or “republic” (I admit that I partly just want to show off my middle school Latin here). The “ify” is, of course, familiar enough to English speakers as the “hey this word is a verb about changing stuff” suffix. Even if you don’t know that little tidbit of Latin, you still probably guessed immediately that this word was a verb about changing something into something else. So, “to make into a thing.” Well, what’s the real definition?

reify – to make an abstract concept or thing real and concrete, or to regard it as real.

Not too far off the mark, I think! English spelling did its job splendidly if you ask me. It moved a concept off the page and into the reader’s brain box, wherein the reader’s mind tries to fit it with a pronunciation it knows, or outfit it with one that might work. It’s [ˈriːɪˌfaɪ], by the by.

Now, another reason we don’t change all the spellings at a go is that there’s no phonetic standard to adhere to, even if we did decide to use a phonetic alphabet. Should the word “nice” be written “nais” in Washington State, but “nois” in Australia? Should the Atlanta Journal-Constitution write an op-ed encouraging voters to “git aeot an vout fur Burak Oubaamuh”? So much for national syndication!

Having our odd-ball spelling system, complete with seeming inconsistencies like “freak” and “break”, “cow” and “low”, allows us to read texts not just from other places, but from other time periods as well. Have a listen to this bit of Shakespeare, read in original pronunciation:

Now, aren’t you glad the whole play isn’t written out phonetically like that?

This brings us to the application to Japanese. Kanji in Japanese perform much the same function: we see the shape of the word, our mind picks up the meaning, and we turn it into sounds. Writing it all out in hiragana removes that conceptual information, making hiragana-only Japanese text almost painful to read. Never mind that Japanese usually doesn’t put spaces between words!Check out this clipping from today’s Asahi Shimbun:

全村避難中で、一部で年末年始だけ自宅宿泊が許された福島県飯舘村で31日、希望した住民が2年ぶりに我が家で年を越した。

Pretty standard stuff if you can read Japanese, although I admit I didn’t know how to read いいだてむら initially. Now try it in hiragana:

ぜんそんひなんちゅうで、いちぶでねんまつねんしだけじたくしゅくはくがゆるされたふくしまけんいいだてむらで31にち、きぼうしたじゅうみんが2ねんぶりにわがやでとしをこした。

お疲れ様でした!Tough to read, right? Kanji are hard to write, no doubt about that. But once you learn them, they’re so much easier to read, and that’s to do with the way our brains make sense of what we’re reading.

The next time you feel like wailing about the difficulty of learning to write Kanji, or start to pine for a simpler system of spelling in English, there actually is some measure of reason behind it. Our written languages aren’t perfect–well, maybe Hangul come close–but they’re a heck of a lot better than any alternatives people have dreamed up.

-Jeff

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English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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