Should we simplify spelling?
Should we simplify spelling?
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 school learning spelling. Kids are still losing a lot of time at school with spelling. That’s why I want to share a question with you: Do we need new spelling rules? I believe that yes, we do. Or even better, I think we need to simplify the ones we already have.
Neither the question nor the answer are new in the Spanish language. They have been bouncing around from century to century since 1492, when in the first grammar guide of the Spanish language, Antonio de Nebrija, set a clear and simple principle for our spelling: “… thus, we have to write words as we pronounce them, and pronounce words as we write them”. Each sound was to correspond to one letter, each letter was to represent a single sound, and those which did not represent any sound should be removed. This approach, the phonetic approach, which says we have to write words as we pronounce them, both is and isn’t at the root of spelling as we practice it today. It is, because the Spanish language, in contrast to English, French or others, always strongly resisted writing words too differently to how we pronounce them.
But the phonetic approach is also absent today, because when, in the 18th century, we decided how we would standardize our writing, there was another approach which guided a good part of the decisions. It was the etymological approach, the one that says we have to write words according to how they were written in 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 differentiated in 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 up with C’s, S’s and Z’s, three letters that in some places correspond to one sound, and in others, to two, but nowhere to three.
I’m not here to tell you anything you don’t know from your own experience. We all went to school, we all invested big amounts of learning time, big amounts of pliant, childlike brain time in dictation, in the memorization of spelling rules filled, nevertheless, with exceptions. We were told in many ways, implicitly and explicitly, that in spelling, something fundamental to our upbringing was at stake. Yet, I have the feeling that teachers didn’t ask themselves why it was so important. In fact, they didn’t ask themselves a previous question: What is the purpose of spelling? What do we need spelling for?
And the truth is, when someone asks themselves this question, the answer is much simpler and 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 understand when we read to each other. But unlike in other aspects of language such as punctuation, in spelling, there’s no individual expression involved. In punctuation, there is. With punctuation, I can choose to change the meaning of a phrase. With punctuation, I can impose a 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 conforms or not to the current rules. But then, wouldn’t it be more sensible to simplify the current rules so it would be easier to teach, learn and use spelling correctly? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to simplify the current rules so that all the time we devote today to 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 fundamental that we use it following common criteria. But I also find it fundamental that those common criteria be as simple as possible, especially because if we simplify our spelling, we’re not leveling it down; when spelling is simplified, the quality of the language doesn’t suffer at all.
I work every day with Spanish Golden 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 texts and ours is one of convention, or rather, a lack of convention during their time. But it’s not a difference of quality. But let me go back to the masters, because they’re key characters in this story. Earlier, I mentioned this slightly thoughtless 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 serves as an index of privilege, separating the cultured from the brute, the educated from the ignorant, independent of the content that’s being written. One can get or not get a job because of an H that one put or did not. One can become an object of public ridicule because of a misplaced B. Therefore, in this context, of course, it makes sense to dedicate all this time to spelling.
But we shouldn’t forget that throughout the history of our language, it has always been teachers or people involved in the early learning of language who promoted spelling reforms, who realized that in our spelling there 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 over the 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 reasonable to start discussing.
Let’s remove the silent H. In places where we write an H but pronounce nothing, let’s not write anything.
It’s hard for me to imagine what sentimental attachment can justify to someone all the hassle caused by the silent H. B and V, as we said before, were never differentiated in the Spanish language –
Let’s choose one; it could be either. We can discuss it, talk it over. Everyone will have their preferences and 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 phonetic approach must be a guide, but it can’t be an absolute principle. In some cases, the differences in pronunciation must be addressed. As I said before, C, S and Z, in some places, correspond to one sound, in others to two. If we go from three letters to two, we’re all better off.
To some, these changes may seem a bit drastic. They’re really not. The Royal Spanish Academy, all of language academies, also believes that spelling should 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 attachment to history, tradition and custom becomes an obstacle for its current usage. Indeed, this explains the fact that our language, much more than the others we are geographically close to, has been historically modifying itself based on us, for example, we went from “ortographia” to “ortografía,” from “theatro” to “teatro,” from “quantidad” to “cantidad,” from “symbolo” to “símbolo”. And some silent H’s are slowly being stealthily removed: in the Dictionary of the Royal Academy, “arpa” and “armonía” can be written with or without an H. And everybody is OK.
I also believe that this is a particularly appropriate moment to have this discussion. It’s always said that language changes spontaneously, from the bottom up, that its users are the ones who 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 them long after the fact. This is true only for 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 say it is not true for the spelling level, that has historically changed from the top down. Institutions have always been the ones to establish the rules and propose changes.
Why do I say this is a particularly appropriate moment? Until today, writing always had a much more restricted and private use than speech. But in our time, the age of social networks, this is going through a revolutionary change. Never before have people written so much; never before have people written for so many others to see. And in these social networks, for the first time, we’re seeing innovative uses of spelling on a large scale, where even more-than-educated people with impeccable spelling, when using social networks, behave a lot like the majority of users of social networks behave. That is to say, they slack on spell-checking and prioritize speed and efficacy in communication. For now, on social networks, we see chaotic, individual usages. But I think we have to pay attention to them, because they’re probably telling us that an era that designates a new place for writing seeks new criteria for that writing. I think we’d be wrong to reject them, to discard them, because we identify them as symptoms of the cultural decay of our times. No, I believe we have to observe them, organize them and channel them within guidelines that better correspond to the needs of our times.
I can anticipate some objections. There will be those who’ll say that if we simplify spelling we’ll lose etymology. Strictly speaking, if we wanted to preserve etymology, it would go beyond just spelling. We’d also have to learn Latin, Greek, Arabic. With simplified spelling, we would normalize etymology in the same place we do now: in etymological dictionaries. A second objection will come from those who say: “If we simplify spelling, we’ll stop distinguishing between words that differ in 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 confuse the “banco” where we sit with the “banco” where we deposit money, or the “traje” that we wear with 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 word in simplified spelling, my eyes hurt”.
This objection is, in part, in all of us. What do I think we should do? The same thing that’s always done in these cases: changes are made looking forward; children are taught the new rules, those of us who don’t want to adapt can write the way we’re used to writing, and hopefully, time will cement the new rules in place. The success of every spelling reform that affects deeply rooted habits lies in caution, agreement, gradualism and tolerance. At the same time, can’t allow the 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 must reach an agreement, that academies must reach an agreement, and purge from our spelling rules all the habits we practice just for the sake of tradition, even if they are useless now. I’m convinced that if we do that in the humble but extremely important realm of language, we’ll be leaving a better future to the next generations.
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