Recently, an Estonian friend sent me a link to The Chaos, an interesting poem which points out the irregularities of spelling in English. I’ve been seeing it pop up on Facebook for a little while now and although it is an impressive piece of poetry (for its content, not its meter), I don’t think many people think about why exactly it’s interesting. If you haven’t read it, go here and check it out. No need to read the whole thing, the first couple of lines will tell you what you need to know.
First, the poem was written by a Dutchman, Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité, as an introduction to spelling irregularities for learners of English. In that, it’s quite amazing as the full version of the poem lists about 800 irregularities. But the real question is, why would English learners need to be told about the irregularities of English spelling? Presumably they would come across it in every class. Also, English certainly isn’t the only language with irregular spelling. What is amazing about The Chaos then is that it is a poem about a language with irregular spelling (English) by a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (Dutch) and dedicated to a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (French – do I really need a link here?).
Second, the poem is bound to trip up native English speakers in some places. Consider:
And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.
That tier/tier tripped you up at first, didn’t it? It’s because the context which the pronunciation is based on comes after the first instance of two homonyms – tier and tier. There are other examples presented without any context (does – third-person singular of do or plural of female deer?), but they really just point out what speakers of languages with irregular spelling already know – context is key.
Third (and somewhat related to the point directly above), mispronunciations are rarely examples of a non-native English speaker rhyming a word with another of similar spelling. Consider this line from the poem:
Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.
Have you ever heard a non-native speaker rhyme these words? I didn’t think so. If I was more of a dialect expert, I could speak better about this, but learners of English (whether as a first language or not) very clearly learn to do away with the notion that words with similar spellings always rhyme (or to base their pronunciations of unknown words on the pronunciation of words with similar spellings). This is very easy for humans to do.
Fourth, The Chaos is bound to not rhyme in some places for some native speakers. There’s a classic example of the difference in pronunciation between, for example, Brits and Americans in the last stanza:
Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
The different pronunciations of rather nicely encapsulate the problem with this poem, i.e. that English orthography is causing a problem with learning. This idea is not as spelled out in the poem as it is by (Dum Dum Dummmm) The English Spelling Society. According to their “Axioms,” the spelling irregularities of English make “literacy unnecessarily difficult in English throughout the world, and learning, education and communication all suffer.” Hmmm… sounds tempting, but at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man (“no good rotten kids can’t bother to learn the language like I had to”), there are also some major problems with spelling reform.
I’m willing to kind of sort of suppose that English orthography could be easier on the eyes, but in light of the problems associated with spelling reform and a lacking body of research on dyslexia (both in and across languages with different orthographies), I’m left to wonder which is the bigger problem – irregular spelling or spelling reform? I also don’t think the spelling reformists take psycholinguistics and the capabilities of the human brain seriously enough.
Finally, and completely unrelated, is the English Spelling Society’s take on why English spelling should be more like Finnish spelling. It’s not that such a thing wouldn’t help, it’s just that they clearly don’t know much about the Finnish language. It’s hard to take a group seriously when they publish nonsense like this. I recommend those with knowledge of Finnish to head on over here for a few chuckles. Here are a couple of highlights with my comments:
NK and NG [in Finnish] are sounded as in English sinking. [Not by native Finnish speakers, that is.]
The lack of a B means that most Finnish ears cannot distinguish, eg, Big Ben from pig pen. Nor can they distinguish between shoes, choose and juice, and as they always stress the first syllable, they tend to pronounce interpret as interbreed. [Seriously, the Finns this guy was hanging out with either had a twisted sense of humor or they were retarded. Interbreed? WTF?]