Talking point...

Should we ‘dum’ down language to make it easier to learn?

Sallyanne Stanbridge Assistant Principal, St Therese’s Primary School, New Lambton, NSW

The UK’s spelling society has proposed that the English language should be modernised, including getting rid of the silent letters and double consonants that make English such a tricky language to learn.

This would mean that the word ‘knee’ would be written ‘nee’, ‘cough’ would be ‘cof’ and ‘dumb’ would be ‘dum’. Some words would disappear altogether. The Spelling Society have asked a range of professionals to give the proposal serious thought ahead of the first international spelling congress which will be taking place later on this year.

Over time the meaning of words, their grammatical use and spellings have drifted and changed, as English language enthusiasts and teachers very well know. So suggestions such as the one proposed by the UK Spelling Society may not seem too strange from the perspective of the evolution of the English language. Although, it must be said, it’s a move that wouldn’t be supported by purists such as this one.

It also would not seem so illogical to another section of our population – but for a totally different reason! For the digital natives, living in an online world of chatrooms, posts, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and texting to name a few, such ‘modernisation’ of the English language (including spelling) is already understood. This generation has already adopted these ‘changes’ and have, in fact, created a total new and unique grammar and punctuation. As for spelling, these users would surely argue that, when in need, spell check and the like take care of any confusion over spelling rules they may have.

Alas it would seem that our language will continue to evolve, perhaps in a way that many of us may not endorse! So a final word to the professionals who are contemplating this change to a simplification of our spelling rules from the young audience who will be most affected by it. What would they say?

@TEOTD 2G2BT (for those of you still perplexed, that is text speak for: At the end of the day, this is too good to be true)…LOL

English will outlive its detractors

Chris Carlill English, Humanities, and Languages Curriculum Leader at St Benedict’s College, Mango Hill, Queensland

James Nicoll is a name synonymous with an oft-misinterpreted observation on the nuances of the English language.

In 1990, during the innocent days of the internet, this accidental enfant gâté made a sardonic comment on the (im)purity of our lingua franca that echoed around the then small, online world. The slightly edited version recounts that the “problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English [doesn’t] just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffled [sic] their pockets for new vocabulary”. English may not be pure, but it is survivor. Its nuances, in particular its impossibly inconsistent spelling conventions, are like battle scars and trophies of its triumph over all of the European languages.

Learning English can be a harrowing experience, even for native speakers. In a commentary on the Herculean heuristics faced by English learners, Catherine Rodie responded to the most recent plea from the English Spelling Society to simplify spelling rules. The Society, founded in 1908, cites a range of cognitive, social, and economic deficits that arise when children, from terrified tots to tempestuous teens, struggle with silent letters and double consonants. Rodie reports that the Society’s proposes, among other potential atrocities, that ‘knee’ be amputated to ‘nee’, presumably simultaneously relegating the French interloper née to the commonly misspelled lists. Even the Germanic, and staunchly resolute, ‘cough’ and ‘dumb’ will be streamlined to ‘cof’ and ‘dum’, as if they were advertising neologisms. Zounds and egad! What an imbroglio.

Ov corss, theez ar just egzampuls ov tha laytist kulchooril panik. It wud nevah hapin in owir lyfetyme. Yes, that was as difficult to conceive and compose as it looks. What is often missing in this debate is the clear acknowledgement that all languages, including their grammars, symbols, gestures, and cultural importance, are difficult to learn. This is a function of not only our neurolinguistic wiring, but also a rite of attaining membership to certain groups and, in many sad realities, a right to attaining power therein.

Any attempts to innovate or to sidestep the induction process, namely through graphemic, phonemic, and morphemic reduction or the removal of rules, have been underwhelming thus far. The hope of Esperanto to share a common language to promote peace and international understanding is yet to materialise. The glimmer of Globish is yet to truly shine, despite its pop-linguistics pizazz. English is destined to outlive its detractors. It will evolve and manifest anew, with successive generations of true believers who will dutifully learn the arcane secrets of where to place ‘i’ and ‘e’ when ‘c’ is nearby.


BBC News January 2015, English Spelling Society’s chairman on word phonetics.

McCrum R 2006, So, what’s this Globish revolution? The Guardian.

Nicoll J 1990, The King’s English Posted: Tue May 15 1990, Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf-lovers.

Polony A 2012, La Universala Lingvo: The Rise and Fall of Esperanto. The European Magazine.

Rodie C 2015, Should we ‘dum’ down language to make it easier to learn? Essential Kids, January 28, 2015.

In a word

Maria Nicholas Lecturer in Language and Literacy School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University, Victoria

This question has me reflecting on a 2003 study conducted by Gontijo, Gontijo and Shillcock who found that there were 195 ways in which to put the 26 letters (graphemes) of the English language together to represent the sounds (phonemes) used in British English.

Many of those graphemes could represent more than one sound, resulting in a total of 461 grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Consider the letter ‘a’ for example, in the words angel, was, panda and any, or the cluster ‘ough’ in the words rough, cough, through, dough, ought and hiccough.

There’s no doubt that compared to more phonetic languages such as Finnish and Italian, English is tricky to learn to read and write. It’s therefore no surprise that the question of how best to approach the teaching and learning of reading and spelling is always a hot topic with our student teachers. The suggestion that a body should meet and decide on how to modernise the English language in one fell swoop in an effort to make English easier to learn is an interesting proposition. Writing was invented to meet societal needs and has changed as those societal needs have changed. From pictographs represented on cave walls to the textese of today, language changes naturally. A quick read of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English (more readable than Old English, which was more Germanic) highlights how English has evolved in the past several hundred years:

Chaucer: “Ye seken lond and see for your wynnynges”.

Modern translation: “You seek land and sea for your winnings”.

Also consider that Modern English has adopted words from other languages. Are we to change ‘spaghetti’ to ‘spugeti’, ‘façade’ to ‘fusard’ and ‘schnauzer’ to ‘shnawzu’ in an effort to make English easier to learn, or will borrowed words be exempt? Then we have logistics to consider. How will current British English users be informed and supported during the transition phase? What of the expense? I for one will certainly be watching this space with interest.