>>I recall some years back some newspaper had an article about someone
>>promoting a phonetic alphabet using various symbols in addition to the
>>normal 26 letters.  The article included a sample paragraph written in a
>>British accent.  I was tempted to write a letter to the Editor in U.S.
>>Southern, but never got around to it. 

>>But this does make the point that with the present diversity of
>>pronunciation you can have phonetic spelling or standardized spelling but
>>not both.  I suspect the latter is more efficient for fast silent reading. 
>>Do you really want all newspaper articles, instruction manuals, scientific
>>papers, etc., looking like dialect humor? 

>First off, we have the Latin alphabet (with a few modifications), and so
>we should use it. No change of character sets or special accents are
For traditional written English, no. Note that this is pan-dialectal, or perhaps non-dialectal. I.e, it can be read with some semblance of understanding regardless of the native dialect of the reader. If the aim, however, is to represent the speech of the writer, then all bets are off. Writing and speech are different.
>As for different accents, why shouldn't these be recorded in
>the written language? Do we translate accents on the radio or TV for
>"greater efficiency"? [Sadly this was attempted, i.e. US Broadcast
>English and BBC Broadcast English.] The accents represent culture [which
>should never be dumbed down for the sake of the lowest common
>denominator!] and are an aid in understanding the context and idiomatic
>expressions. For example, can you imagine Ross Perot in US Standard
>Broadcast English or BBC English? And the sound is very important in
>strong regional dialects, such as Brooklynese or Black English where
>rhyme and sound are key.
As I mentioned above, sound and rhyme are phenomena of the spoken language, not the written language. Check out Chinese, where there are different languages -- as different as German and English -- that are comprehensible to all readers because of the largely non-phonetic nature of the writing system. Though poetry that rhymes in one language has to work as free verse in another.
>Besides, there wouldn't be that much variation
>with the standard, unaccented alphabet (no indication of vowel length,
>etc.). Given the rising illiteracy rate in the US, how many more people
>could read if English was spelled correctly?
Lots. It helps if English is spelled correctly. Not least, most recently, because electronic search engines require correct spelling. (This page, for instance, gets a lot of hits from people looking for the phrase "English grammer", who haven't noticed that it should be spelled "English grammar".) And many readers get dismayed at incorrectly spelled text, for much the same reasons search engines do -- it requires too much processing and takes too much time. In addition, many people, rightly or wrongly, judge the literacy and therefore accuracy of people by the spelling of their text. In this age of spell-checkers, this is not altogether a bad standard.
>For example, it's already
>known that Spanish is easier for children to learn to read, precisely
>because it is spelled correctly (though the grammar is also easier).
Yes, but ...

Spanish has a reasonably phonological orthography, and this means that Spanish-speaking countries can skimp on education while maintaining a respectably high literacy rate. How? Well, a phonological orthography is easy to lip-read. Mexico, for instance, has an impressive literacy rate, and Cuba an even more impressive one, but one never finds out how much the literate population reads beyond fotonovelas. In both societies, the truly literate intelligentsia is a very thin veneer over an officially literate population of lip-readers. The layers are differently organized in the U.S., sneer as you may (and may well) at the U.S. education system.

As a linguist, I never questioned the value of a phonologically accurate orthography until I lived in Mexico for a while.

George Bernard Shaw left a big chunk of cash in his will as a prize for someone who'd devise a new English orthography on phonemic principles. It was won in the 60's by someone who developed a clever system. It's never been heard of again. So much for spelling reform.

For references, I'd recommend, as usual, David Crystal's (1995) Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, and Dennis Baron's lovely little Grammar or Good Taste?, a history of English language reform.

  - 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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