LING: English Orthography and Spontaneous Order

The Low Willow (
Wed, 29 Jan 1997 16:25:06 -0800 (PST)

Chris Hind wrote:
Ridding the English language of sexist words is as pointless as attempting
to rid the english language of Christianity-related words. The ideas are so
deeply engrained in our fundamental language and no longer hold true to
their original meaning brings up the question: Whats the point in trying?
Are people that psychologically weak that they're so easily offended?

How would you like to be chairwoman of a committee? Sexist words I don't
care so much about; and I didn't care about pronouns despite
Hofstadter's essays (plus I've always used the indefinite 'they'), until
I ran into some Usenet discussion including someone getting very upset
over non-sexist or reverse-sexist language. Not saying it didn't
matter; getting upset. I agree that it shouldn't matter, which is why I
now try to use feminine pronouns where masculine ones would be used
instead, out of spite.

On Jan 28, 8:55pm, "Lee Daniel Crocker" wrote:
} Subject: Re: Linguist's Of The Apocalypse, unite!

} I agree that ideographs take longer to learn than alphabets. I
} thought, therefore, it might make more sense to base the ideographic
} writing system on the gestural language. That way, the deaf would

Hrrm. Maybe, if everyone was taught sign language. I hadn't thought
of that.

On to my post.

First case: the "silent 'e'" isn't. Most of you should know this
already, but I'll go through it anyway. Although final 'e's aren't
pronounced as such they do lengthen preceding vowels, a rather necessary
task as we have 5 vowel symbols and 13 simple vowel sounds, although
that includes the schwa which is sort of defined as the vowel English
doesn't care about. Still, even the long/short dichotomy taught in
grammar school (inadequate -- can you come up with 3 values for 'a'?
But then they still impose Latin syntax on our language.) (how about
discussing punctuation and parentheses?) gives ten sounds which our
alphabet doesn't include. ton/tone, run/rune. 'done' might seem an
exception, with the save value as 'ton', but then try prouncing 'don'.
The vowel is still lengthened. Of course I would prounce 'con' like
'don' but 'cone' like 'tone' -- the vowel is _still_ lengthened, but
inconsistently somewhere.

Second case: some dialects drop 'r' or 'h' in many places. Should their
writing conform to their pronunciation? I think most would agree that
that would confuse them and us. The problem isn't that orthography
doesn't match phonology but that phonology doesn't match phonology --
that's what it means to have dialects. _Except_, that the differences
between dialects often follow patterns -- consistent shifts of vowels,
dropping terminal 'r', or whatnot. Rather than having our writing
pinned to one privileged/standard dialect (simple solution) we've
evolved an orthography representing an abstract phonology from which an
actual phonetic pronuniciation can be predicted using the rules of the
dialect -- rules often similar in form to other dialects, but with
different values. Not that there still aren't irregularities, but part
of English's complexity is in fact solving a problem most people don't
realize exists. A rather 'fair' solution, too.

And then much of the remaining irregularity is not random, but encodes
historial information, which may well be subject to more rules. Our
French, Greek, and Italian imports are the biggies here. 'philosopher'
could be 'filosofer', but that would lose the handy etymological crutch
-- particularly considering how much of English's classical
constructions get adopted by other languages, e.g. I think the Japanese
and Russian words for a telephone is more or less 'telephone'. And
conversely, knowing that 'philosopher' is Greek in origin helps
transcribe the /f/ sound properly. Similarly, one could gripe about
having to memorize the odd spelling of /shato/ (actually, I want to
pronounce that with a long /a/, whoops) 'chateau', and ask for it to be
spelled 'shato', or one could remember that French /sh/ is 'ch', /o/ is
'eau', and that the word is French, thus spelling it with ease, except
for the terminal 'x' of 'Bordeaux' whose justification I am unfamiliar

Again, there are still flaws, but most of what is considered an insanely
flawed structure is in fact quite powerful and useful for dealing with a
multi-dialect history-rich language. Without a jot of intelligence
having been applied to the overall design. So much for the perils of

Merry part,
-xx- Damien R. Sullivan X-) <*>

"Undoutedly there is meanness in all the arts which ladies condescend to
employ for captivation..."
Miss Bingley was not so satisfied with this reply as to continue the
-- Jane Austen, _Pride and Prejudice_, Mr. Darcy