Why can't we spell English words phonetically?

English, whatever its merits as a language, is a bitch to spell. There are so many rules, and so many exceptions, and yet in the end you have to learn a lot of words on a case-by-case basis. If future linguists discover our written texts, what on Earth will they think English sounded like?

So is it time to turn English into a fully phonetic language? And is there any way to do that without destroying the English language entirely?

All images from Doctor Who: "The Invisible Enemy," a show which features all phonetic signage.

Mark Twain, who tried his hand at satirizing nearly everything, takes a turn with the idea of the phonetic spelling of English. In a few brief paragraphs he outlines the first few years of such a plan, slowly substituting more phonetic spelling along the way. The sentences deteriorate. At the end of the treatise, he shows what spelling would look like on year twenty of the plan. It is a little like trying to read The Canterbury Tales.

The Problem

The Canterbury Tales, or at least the language that produce them, is one of the reasons why we're having a tough job spelling in the first place. We've long been in the habit of grabbing whatever we want from whatever language gets close enough — and it's left us with a lot of different words, many of which have very different origins.

Starting at around 500 AD, the native Celtic languages of what became Britain got pushed aside by the Germanic languages which formed Old English. These in turn were shouldered away — only one sixth of modern English words date back to them — when the Normans arrived in 1066, taking with them a German-French language that was mostly spoken by the aristocracy, but slowly filtered down to the plebeians. And finally came the Renaissance, when English grabbed on to all the Latin and Greek it could wrap its metaphorical hands around.

Why can't we spell English words phonetically?

Dip a ladle into that linguistic soup and we find silent letters that we used to pronounce, multiple letters covering the same sound, and other letters stretched to cover all kinds of foreign vowel sounds. From it we pluck rose, toes, and dose, and find that the first two rhyme, even though the spelling only matches in words one and three. Meanwhile doze rhymes with rose, despite the ending consonants being entirely different.

As much as we try to educate our children with phonics, it's an exercise in futility to try to sight-read English. For the most part a child learning to read will search their memory until they find a word that approximately seems like the one they're being asked to sound out, and fits it in as they struggle along. Audio doesn't translate to visual. Even as adults, most of us have known the frustration of trying to look up a word, only to be stumped because we can't spell it well enough to find it in the dictionary.

What Would it Take?

The big choice in English would be to either cut down or build up. Either we would need to learn to say all our "o" sounds the same or we would need to build a bigger "o." It being harder to police the way everyone speaks all the time, it looks like we will have to change how we write. Technically we could spell English words phonetically tomorrow. All we would need to do is substitute the pronunciation guides next to each word in the dictionary for the word itself. But there is a limit to how much of a headache anyone is willing to put up with.

Why can't we spell English words phonetically?

Turning English phonetic has been actually attempted, before. The Simplified Spelling Board was formed in 1906 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie. They were going to attempt to form an easier and more unified language, and started out with quite a lot of popular support. They kept their initial ambitions modest, mostly wanting to eliminate silent letters and publicize the easiest versions of any words that were, at the time, being spelled multiple ways.

Why can't we spell English words phonetically?

Their first list, released in April of 1906, was backed by Teddy Roosevelt. It included simple things. Words that might end in -re were changed words that ended in -er, switching sabre to saber. The first list also eliminated the silent e words like abridg(e)ment and removing English-y silent u letters in hono(u)r and colo(u)r. The homely ck was to be used instead of que, so cheque became check. The Board's boldest two moves were eliminating the ugh from the end of words like through, and substituting chapt for words like chapped. English readers will notice that these last changes did not happen.

Though the Board had luck publicizing simple, phonetic words for cases in which people vacillated between two spellings, they did not fare well against more entrenched spellings. Eventually Roosevelt withdrew his support, as did Andrew Carnegie.

As much as I like boards, committees, and their suggestions, it looks like this kind of English make-over would take a dictator to accomplish. Not just a single person, either, but an empire to rifle through the mail and look at random outgoing text messages, to make sure that no one was spelling father with a th anymore, since the th sound was earmarked for the final sound in teeth. It would take people checking to make sure that rose was spelled roze and pleasure was either spelled plezsur or with the new letter we'd make for the s sound.

How Much Would We Lose?

"Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld."

That's the final sentence in Twain's argument for more rational spelling. Obviously, he's trying to be funny, and sometimes choosing needlessly confusing phonetics. Still, a shift to phonetic spelling is going to end with current readers of English feeling like they're either wading their way through a continuous text message or trying to figure out Finnegan's Wake. No matter what, a significant portion of the population is going to switch over to audio books. No matter what, we will lose a couple of generations of readers.

Why can't we spell English words phonetically?

And what about written works? People do go through the trouble of translating "Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote," to "When April comes and with its showers sweet. Has, to the root, pierced March's drought complete," but that's The Canterbury Tales. Modern non-phonetic books are going to be even more confusing to phonetic readers and while things like The Bible, Romeo and Juliet, and Twilight, are all going to get translated, we're going to be knowingly consigning many books to obscurity.

Then again, that was going to happen anyway. Languages change, no matter what, and not all books are going to be changed along with it. Wouldn't it be worth it to make the next change something that makes English easier, faster-to-learn, and involving less memorization? What do you think?

Please do not reply phonetically.

Via Word Origins and About.com.