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Casting the spell: is it time for a reform?

John Murray

It’s no little known fact that English is one of the most inconsistent languages in terms of spellings and how they’re pronounced. In previous features, we’ve talked about the –ough phenomenon and the concept of ‘ghoti’ being a perfectly plausible spelling of the word ‘fish‘.

With this is mind, why do we persevere with it? Why not take all the little oddities in the English language and say “you know what, that’s stupid! Let’s change it.”?

Unlike a lot of editors and wordsmiths, I’m not actually against the idea of spelling reforms. There’s no logical reason why “you” should be spelt “you” any more than that it should be spelt “u”. After all, we no longer use words like “thy”, “doth” and “hast”. In fact, if language had never evolved, wouldn’t we still be communicating in a series of grunts and bellows used by our primitive ancestors? It’s silly to think that the way we write, talk and spell at the end of 2013 is immune to questioning.

Perhaps the highest-profile spelling reform of recent years took effect on German in 1996 and was aimed to make the language more consistent and easy to learn. It focused largely on the way the ‘sharp s’ (ß) is used. This letter acts as a substitute for the double ‘s’ in some cases, but it only exists in lower case form. In block capitals, it is always printed as ‘SS’. Since 1996, it has only been used in between long vowels and diphthongs, making the letter a much rarer bird than it used to be.

Another key change was in the way compound words are spelt, and this is one of German’s main hallmarks. German speakers like to have one usually very long word where we have several, typified by words like ‘Sehenswurdigkeit’ (sightseeing opportunities), ‘Verkehrsverbindungen’ (public transport) and ‘Gespensterheusrecke’ (stick insect). Indeed, the word for the reform itself was ‘Rechtschreibreform’.

As of 1996, it was determined that compound words should not omit letters when the words were combined, even if this meant three of the same letter appearing consecutively in the word. This led to words like ‘Schifffahrt’ (ship journey) and ‘Betttuch’ (bedsheet). Also, the word for cherry brandy, Kirschschnapps, now contains eight consecutive consonants – try spelling that when you’ve had a few of them!

So I think it’s always valid to raise questions about the spellings of words, even if simplifying them would do me out of a job! While current spellings are in place, however, it’s advisable to stick to them if you want your writing, whether it’s for business or leisure, to be taken seriously.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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1 Comment »

  1. I actually feel a slight disappointment when I notice the official change of the spellings or meanings of words, I feel like we should be learning what they actually are and not changing them to suit people who can’t be bothered to learn. I quite like looking through the dictionary to find a word that’s still officially there but would never be used and I make it a challenge to use it at some point that week. It does however make sense if everyone uses a particular word in a certain way, that the meaning or spelling of that word should change with it. We have to move with the times, but when we move with it, it feels like we might just be losing something important. The day ‘you’ is publish in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘U’ will be a sad day, but alas, we must progress, hopefully it won’t be for a long time.

    Comment by Claire — December 20, 2013 @ 8:48 am

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