>>The "Sound Pattern of English" begins with the apparently
>>outrageous claim that English spelling is well-adapted to
>>the needs of English.

>It's not outrageous. Any language suits the people that use it. If it
>didn't, they would change it, and language does change over time,
>despite attempts to prevent it. Language is the primary attribute of
>culture, the two go hand in hand. For example, the language "wars" in
>the US, still on going. Anyway, back to English, it is no classical
>language by any stretch. It really has no "grammar" in the classical
>sense, instead "English Grammar" results from applying Greco-Roman
>grammar to English. Etc.
I see whole lot of confusion here. Lemme take a crack at sorting out the strains:
  1. Language is not the same as writing system. So, while it is surely true that aspects of real (i.e, spoken) language change over time, and that they are (in some unknown but widely-believed-in way) suited to their speakers, this does not apply to writing systems. They're much more stable, being effectively technological standards and not subject to biological evolution. Latin is a great example. It was the written language for millenia after it stopped being spoken, or changed into other languages. And the spelling didn't really change all that much.

  2. English spelling is just fine for etymology; it's got fossils showing all over the place. And it's really quite a good phonetic orthography for Middle English. But this is not at all the same thing as saying that it's adapted to the needs of (speakers of) (Modern) English. It's clearly not. It's only linguists who enjoy having their etymology so obvious. Most English speakers and readers don't know squat about it and aren't about to learn.
>>You might not believe this claim after reading the book (I have my
>>reservations), but I guarantee you will look on it much more
>>sympathetically.  Of course, it is not phonetically based, rather based
>>on etymology and morphology.

>Well, it borrows from other languages in which the words are
>phonetically spelled. I.e. the written language just kind of happened,
>made official by Shakespeare and 1611 AV (KJV). Some modern aspects of
>English are only artifacts of the AV translation. But, it is interesting
>that an average linguist can generally tell the source language from the
>written and spoken English. For example, the j in just is the French j,
>the ch in chamois is the French ch, etc. French is marginally phonetic
>in that the rules are a little complex and English just went a step
>further where the spelling is only a suggestion of the pronounciation.
>Nice for English spelling bees and linguistic history, but sort of an
>abuse of the phonetic alphabet.
As I mentioned, anybody can tell the source language and the approximate epoch of borrowings with a little training. I occasionally teach a course on just that for college freshmen. But it's largely big news to them, and they're the cream of the literate English-speaking crop in the U.S. (which, granted, doesn't guarantee a spectacular milkfat content). Far be it from me to disparage the Joys of Etymology; I wish everybody could have as much fun with English as I do. But, realistically speaking, this is not a great argument for the utility of English orthography.

One might as well argue for the appropriateness of living in huts instead of cities because it makes it easier for us all to become amateur archeologists and glory in our splendid historical and prehistorical heritage. True, but largely irrelevant.

>Still, spelling reform wouldn't hurt, and it would probably aid general
>reading comprehension, and it would aid others trying to learn English,
>etc. But, given the history of English, it's not likely.
Precisely. Though there is no evidence that a phonemically-based orthography would aid general reading comprehension, overall. Reading is not the same as speaking or understanding language, and peoples' reading strategies vary widely. Anything that aids some will almost inevitably hamper others.

For more information, I recommend the Crystal encyclopedias, and also Lewis Thomas's Etc, Etc: Notes of a Word Watcher. The American Heritage Dictionary traces English words to their Indo-European roots, and Buck's Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages (from U. Chicago Press in paperback) is a fascinating companion piece.

>Hitler's mythology was not all wrong, in fact much of his persuasive
>power came from his ability to redirect old myths. The "Founding
>Fathers" of the US considered themselves Anglo-Saxon diaspora from
>around Saxony. ...
Please, let's not get the Aryans into this. The Anglo-Saxons displaced another Indo-European language group (the Celts) from Britain; their language -- or rather a descendant of it -- is still spoken in Brittany, whence the name.

And the Danes then added plenty of North Germanic words to English. And the Normans added French (also Indo-European), and Latin and Greek still more. So what? English speakers don't walk around with the history of the English language in their heads.

Chomsky and Halle do say, quite correctly, that one should not be too surprised if one finds current English phonology organized in ways that represent something of the history of the language. That's not quite the same thing as "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", though.

>The Norman Invasion of Britain forced French on top, French became the
>educated language and English the farmer's language, hence English pig
>for the animal, French pork for the food, etc. Payne's "Common Sense"
>called the Normans bastard kings and thus nullified the British divine
>right of kings, i.e. the true Anglo-Saxons were in the US now and the
>British were accused of being in league and compromising with the Pope,
>etc. Of course, it was the French who won the US Revolution, payment for
>the British expulsion of the French from the Americas.
None of which has a thing to do with English spelling. Thank God. Language changes don't happen for political reasons, and spelling changes are technological. English spelling is the way it is because of the timing of the introduction of printing in England. Caxton set up shop at the very end of the Middle English period and Middle English orthography became standard. Much the same way we are all damned to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous ASCII, even in this multi-ethnic, international computer world, just Because It Is There.
---- followup on the preceding paragraph:

>Well, I want to see more evidence that language changes don't happen for
>political reasons.  (Next thing you know, I'll be invoking Foucault on
>power, knowledge, and discourse - but I will try to forbear.)
Obviously, some linguistic changes have political roots; Punic essentially died when Rome finally conquered Carthage, for instance. And if political changes lead to social changes, these will be mirrored in the language. An example is the accelerated rate of change in Old English after the Norman conquest, which installed French as the language of the ruling class, and left English spoken only by illiterates. Some attribute a lot to that social fact; Middle English is a whole lot more different from Old English than it is from Modern English. But such changes change everything, and the language is usually the last to show the effects, because significant language change takes centuries, no matter how much of a hurry anybody's in. As in life, catastrophic changes almost always are for the worse.

Further, nothing political has ever been shown to determine which changes occur. For instance, Old English lost virtually all its inflections, due at least in part to sound changes. You could have predicted that there would be some changes, but no one could have predicted those changes; what does the Loss Of The Dative Case have to do with The Powers That Be?

As for Foucault, I have yet to see anything by him that gets the language facts correct. For interesting discussion, I recommend Against Deconstruction by John M. Ellis. I have no particular axes to grind in lit-crit, mind; but I do appreciate people getting their facts right about language.

>Your example of English and Caxton print shop goes a long way to convince
>me that technology was a factor, but not that it was the MAIN factor.
>Can you elaborate?
What else could it be but technology? Writing is technology. All of our educational system is dedicated to getting people to handle the technology of literacy (and to a considerably smaller extent, numeracy). Writing is younger than agriculture, which is unarguably technological, and we're speaking here not about the ideas expressible in writing, but the actual means used, which is very straightforwardly a technological matter.

Before printing, in the Middle English period (and even in the first part of the Early Modern English period, which conventionally starts with Caxton), spelling was simply a personal representation of speech, and there wasn't any such thing as a standard spelling system. Everybody spelled things however they wanted to, constrained only by their desire to be understood, much the same way individual handwritings vary greatly to this day. But printing changed that, for tolerably obvious reasons. Lots of good examples can be found in any History of English (e.g, Baugh), or in Manfred Görlach's excellent book Introduction to Early Modern English (English translation Cambridge 1991; German original 1978 (but the language hasn't changed much since then)).

And computing is changing that, too, and it's very interesting seeing new standards emerge. In a century or so, maybe the dust will settle and we'll see what happened. In the meantime, we do live in interesting times.

  - John Lawler       Linguistics Department and Residential College     University of Michigan

    "Language is the most  massive  and  inclusive  art  we know,  a           - Edward Sapir
      mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."       Language (1921)

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