US spelling reform, the letter 's'

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Blue_UK, Apr 19, 2008.

  1. Blue_UK Drifting Mind Valued Senior Member

    I've been wondering.

    Why didn't Webster change his definition of the letter 's', rather than the spellings of many words that contain it? Surely this would both protect the integrity the etymologies and also solve the problem of inconsistencies (sunrize, enterprize, revize etc.).

    'S' remains a dodgy one anyway (consider 's' in the words: raise, sand, pleasure and crush - two positions of the tongue, voiced and unvoiced).

    The Japanese place two small marks by a phonetic character if it is to be pronounced with a voiced 's' (in other words, a 'z'). I think using an accent would have been a better alternative, even though this would be a first for the English language, rare exceptions aside.
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Webster's motivation is difficult to understand. He changed centre to center, labour to labor, and authorise to authorize. At least I assume the last one was his. If he indeed changed that S to a Z, why didn't he do it with other words?

    But it's just as well. Perhaps he foresaw the explosion in both literacy and printing, and knew that some day the Brits and Americans would be reading each other's writings routinely and in large volume. He may have elected to just make a few changes as a mark of American pride, so anyone reading it could tell which side of the ocean it was written on.

    As you probably know, it's recently been discovered that we read words holistically, taking in all the letters at once, rather than scanning the letters sequentially. As long as the first and last letters are correct the arrangement of the ones in between is not terribly important. Taht enipxlas why enyeovre can raed a steecnne taht lokos lkie tihs ptetry qckuliy.

    But if there is an incorrect letter, or a missing or extra letter, it throws us off even if all the others are in the right place. We have to change visual modes and scrutinize each letter to find the mistake and figure out what the word is. The same process most of us use when reading in a foreign alphabet.

    So when an American encounters organise, colour or theatre it slows him down, and I'm sure our spelling has the same effect in the UK. Still, we've been exposed to those three specific changes for so long that our visual processing center may have come to accept them as "alternate" spellings like fulfil and judgement, so perhaps they don't really slow us down.

    But if Webster had undertaken a holesale revizhun uv American spelling, it kood meen dhat tooday Amerikanz and Inglishmen mite not be abel too reed eech udher'z riting at ol, or at leest not fast enuf too enjoy it.

    British and Americans don't pronounce words the same way, so it would be impossible to devise a spelling system that would be phonetic for both. This is what is stalling the movement to romanize Chinese writing. Cantonese and Mandarin are written the same way, but they are two different languages with very little similarity in pronunciation, not even a mapping from one to the other. Each has phonemes that the other lacks.
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  5. Blue_UK Drifting Mind Valued Senior Member

    I've gotten used to most, but my concentration spikes off if I see a US spelling when I'm not ready for it. Things 'spelt' vs. 'spelled' make a different in speech, too. I agree that it'd be nice to be uniform, but of course if you're brought up one way then it does sound off sometimes. If someone said "I maked you a cookie, but I eated it" you'd probably notice the normal verb conjugation that sounds very wrong.

    American pride? Webster should have switched to French if he wanted to piss the English off

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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Most of them don't, since our whole problem revolves around the fact that we pronounce words differently even when we spell them the same. There are only a few words like spelled/spelt and aluminum/aluminium which are both spelled and pronounced differently. Color/colour, center/centre and organize/organise are pronounced the same on both sides. To the extent that any phoneme is the same in the two countries! We pronounce the R in all three of those words and you don't.

    Whereas words like schedule and laboratory are different.

    There are myriad phonemes that are pronounced differently in the two countries and it's not a systematic enough difference to render it into spelling. We distinguish "writer" from "rider" by having the same consonant (a flapped Spanish R) but a different vowel (I haven't got the IPA but in "writer" it's the upside-down U instead of a broad A in the diphthong) whereas you use the same vowel but a different consonant. (Most of your dialects don't flap intervocalic T and D like we do.)
    I don't know how it is in British speech, but we Americans seem to be enraptured by strong verbs so the trend goes the other way. "Dove" for "dived" and "snuck" for "sneaked" are already in our dictionary and "drug" for "dragged" can't be far behind.
    But those British spellings -OUR, -RE and -ISE are French!
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2008
  8. Blue_UK Drifting Mind Valued Senior Member

    I am very aware of this (!) and I am grateful to the French for their contributions to the language. Actually, the US would have done quite well to have gotten rid of the English language since it's so very, very crap (I expect you agree).

    Ah yes - writer / rider. I can just imagine! Though I don't understand what you mean by not pronoucing the 'r' in colour etc. Though I expect some of the regional British accents would say 'culla', more than 'cullur' - which is how I say it ('ur' as in "urgh! - disgusting"; I speak a degraded version of RP English).

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