Should we simplify spelling?

توضیح مختصر: How much energy and brain power do we devote to learning how to spell? Language evolves over time, and with it the way we spell -- is it worth it to spend so much time memorizing rules that are filled with endless exceptions? Literary scholar Karina Galperin suggests that it may be time for an update in the way we think about and record language. (In Spanish with English subtitles)

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We lost a lot of time at schoollearning spelling. Kids are still losing a lot of timeat school with spelling. That’s why I want to sharea question with you: Do we need new spelling rules? I believe that yes, we do. Or even better, I think we needto simplify the ones we already have.

Neither the question nor the answerare new in the Spanish language. They have been bouncing aroundfrom century to century since 1492, when in the first grammarguide of the Spanish language, Antonio de Nebrija, set a clear and simpleprinciple for our spelling: “… thus, we have to write wordsas we pronounce them, and pronounce words as we write them.” Each sound was to correspondto one letter, each letter was to representa single sound, and those which did not representany sound should be removed. This approach, the phonetic approach, which says we have to writewords as we pronounce them, both is and isn’t at the root of spellingas we practice it today. It is, because the Spanish language,in contrast to English, French or others, always strongly resistedwriting words too differently to how we pronounce them.

But the phonetic approachis also absent today, because when, in the 18th century,we decided how we would standardize our writing, there was another approach which guideda good part of the decisions. It was the etymological approach, the one that says we have to write words according to how they were writtenin their original language, in Latin, in Greek. That’s how we ended up with silent H’s,which we write but don’t pronounce. That’s how we have B’s and V’s that,contrary to what many people believe, were never differentiatedin Spanish pronunciation. That’s how we wound up with G’s, that are sometimes aspirated,as in “gente,” and other times unaspirated, as in “gato.” That’s how we ended upwith C’s, S’s and Z’s, three letters that in some placescorrespond to one sound, and in others, to two,but nowhere to three.

I’m not here to tell you anythingyou don’t know from your own experience. We all went to school, we all invested big amountsof learning time, big amounts of pliant,childlike brain time in dictation, in the memorization of spelling rulesfilled, nevertheless, with exceptions. We were told in many ways,implicitly and explicitly, that in spelling, something fundamentalto our upbringing was at stake. Yet, I have the feeling that teachers didn’t ask themselveswhy it was so important. In fact, they didn’t ask themselvesa previous question: What is the purpose of spelling? What do we need spelling for?

And the truth is, when someoneasks themselves this question, the answer is much simplerand less momentous than we’d usually believe. We use spelling to unify the way we write,so we can all write the same way, making it easier for us to understandwhen we read to each other. But unlike in other aspects of languagesuch as punctuation, in spelling, there’s noindividual expression involved. In punctuation, there is. With punctuation, I can chooseto change the meaning of a phrase. With punctuation, I can imposea particular rhythm to what I am writing, but not with spelling. When it comes to spelling,it’s either wrong or right, according to whether it conformsor not to the current rules. But then, wouldn’t it be more sensibleto simplify the current rules so it would be easier to teach, learnand use spelling correctly? Wouldn’t it be more sensibleto simplify the current rules so that all the time we devote todayto teaching spelling, we could devote to other language issues whose complexities do, in fact,deserve the time and effort?

What I propose is not to abolish spelling, and have everyone write however they want. Language is a tool of common usage, and so I believe it’s fundamentalthat we use it following common criteria. But I also find it fundamental that those common criteriabe as simple as possible, especially becauseif we simplify our spelling, we’re not leveling it down; when spelling is simplified, the quality of the languagedoesn’t suffer at all.

I work every day with SpanishGolden Age literature, I read Garcilaso, Cervantes,Góngora, Quevedo, who sometimes write “hombre” without H, sometimes write “escribir” with V, and it’s absolutely clear to me that the difference between those textsand ours is one of convention, or rather, a lack of conventionduring their time. But it’s not a difference of quality. But let me go back to the masters, because they’re key charactersin this story. Earlier, I mentioned this slightlythoughtless insistence with which teachers pester and pester us over spelling. But the truth is,things being as they are, this makes perfect sense. In our society, spelling servesas an index of privilege, separating the cultured from the brute,the educated from the ignorant, independent of the contentthat’s being written. One can get or not get a job because of an H that one put or did not. One can becomean object of public ridicule because of a misplaced B. Therefore, in this context, of course, it makes sense to dedicateall this time to spelling.

But we shouldn’t forget that throughout the historyof our language, it has always been teachers or people involvedin the early learning of language who promoted spelling reforms, who realized that in our spellingthere was often an obstacle to the transmission of knowledge. In our case, for example, Sarmiento, together with Andrés Bello,spearheaded the biggest spelling reform to take place in the Spanish language: the mid-19th century Chilean reform. Then, why not take overthe task of those teachers and start making progress in our spelling? Here, in this intimate group of 10,000, I’d like to bring to the table some changes that I find reasonableto start discussing.

Let’s remove the silent H. In places where we write an Hbut pronounce nothing, let’s not write anything.

(Applause)

It’s hard for me to imaginewhat sentimental attachment can justify to someoneall the hassle caused by the silent H. B and V, as we said before, were never differentiatedin the Spanish language –

(Applause)

Let’s choose one; it could be either.We can discuss it, talk it over. Everyone will have their preferencesand can make their arguments. Let’s keep one, remove the other. G and J, let’s separate their roles. G should keep the unaspirated sound,like in “gato,” “mago,” and “águila,” and J should keep the aspirated sound, as in “jarabe,” “jirafa,”“gente,” “argentino.” The case of C, S and Z is interesting, because it shows that the phoneticapproach must be a guide, but it can’t be an absolute principle. In some cases, the differencesin pronunciation must be addressed. As I said before, C, S and Z, in some places, correspondto one sound, in others to two. If we go from three lettersto two, we’re all better off.

To some, these changesmay seem a bit drastic. They’re really not. The Royal Spanish Academy,all of language academies, also believes that spellingshould be progressively modified; that language is linked to history,tradition and custom, but that at the same time,it is a practical everyday tool and that sometimes this attachmentto history, tradition and custom becomes an obstacle for its current usage. Indeed, this explains the fact that our language, much more thanthe others we are geographically close to, has been historicallymodifying itself based on us, for example, we wentfrom “ortographia” to “ortografía,” from “theatro” to “teatro,”from “quantidad” to “cantidad,” from “symbolo” to “símbolo.” And some silent H’s are slowlybeing stealthily removed: in the Dictionary of the Royal Academy, “arpa” and “armonía” can be writtenwith or without an H. And everybody is OK.

I also believe that this is a particularly appropriatemoment to have this discussion. It’s always said that languagechanges spontaneously, from the bottom up, that its users are the oneswho incorporate new words and who introduce grammatical changes, and that the authority –in some places an academy, in others a dictionary,in others a ministry – accepts and incorporates themlong after the fact. This is true onlyfor some levels of language. It is true on the lexical level,the level of words. It is less true on the grammatical level, and I would almost sayit is not true for the spelling level, that has historically changedfrom the top down. Institutions have always been the onesto establish the rules and propose changes.

Why do I say this is a particularlyappropriate moment? Until today, writing always had a much more restrictedand private use than speech. But in our time,the age of social networks, this is going througha revolutionary change. Never before have people written so much; never before have people writtenfor so many others to see. And in these social networks,for the first time, we’re seeing innovative usesof spelling on a large scale, where even more-than-educated peoplewith impeccable spelling, when using social networks, behave a lot like the majority of usersof social networks behave. That is to say, they slackon spell-checking and prioritize speed and efficacyin communication. For now, on social networks,we see chaotic, individual usages. But I think we haveto pay attention to them, because they’re probably telling us that an era that designatesa new place for writing seeks new criteria for that writing. I think we’d be wrongto reject them, to discard them, because we identify them as symptomsof the cultural decay of our times. No, I believe we have to observe them,organize them and channel them within guidelines that better correspondto the needs of our times.

I can anticipate some objections. There will be those who’ll say that if we simplify spellingwe’ll lose etymology. Strictly speaking, if we wantedto preserve etymology, it would go beyond just spelling. We’d also have to learnLatin, Greek, Arabic. With simplified spelling, we would normalize etymologyin the same place we do now: in etymological dictionaries. A second objection will comefrom those who say: “If we simplify spelling,we’ll stop distinguishing between words that differin just one letter.” That is true, but it’s not a problem. Our language has homonyms,words with more than one meaning, yet we don’t confusethe “banco” where we sit with the “banco” where we deposit money, or the “traje” that we wearwith the things we “trajimos.” In the vast majority of situations,context dispels any confusion.

But there’s a third objection. To me, it’s the most understandable,even the most moving. It’s the people who’ll say:”I don’t want to change. I was brought up like this,I got used to doing it this way, when I read a written wordin simplified spelling, my eyes hurt.”

(Laughter)

This objection is, in part, in all of us. What do I think we should do? The same thing that’s alwaysdone in these cases: changes are made looking forward;children are taught the new rules, those of us who don’t want to adaptcan write the way we’re used to writing, and hopefully, time will cementthe new rules in place. The success of every spelling reformthat affects deeply rooted habits lies in caution, agreement,gradualism and tolerance. At the same time, can’t allowthe attachment to old customs impede us from moving forward. The best tribute we can pay to the past is to improve upon what it’s given us.

So I believe that we mustreach an agreement, that academies must reach an agreement, and purge from our spelling rules all the habits we practicejust for the sake of tradition, even if they are useless now. I’m convinced that if we do that in the humble but extremelyimportant realm of language, we’ll be leaving a better futureto the next generations.

(Applause)