The English Language: Need for Change

Research Essay written for my English class.

Let us make the assumption that you are a native English speaker. You have command of a language that nearly a billion and a half people around the world speak at some level of proficiency (Graddol 10). English is more than just a primary language of former British colonies. The language has become the lingua franca of science, international business, technology, diplomacy, and many other fields. With so much use in many different important areas, one would think the language would be far more eloquent. However, anyone with a child in elementary school likely knows the frustration of trying to explain to their young ones why ‘ph’ makes an ‘f’ sound, or why ‘ough’ is a long ‘o’ sound in the word ‘dough’ but makes more of an ‘uhf’ sound in the word ‘enough’. Why is the English language like this? Is there hope to salvage our language before spelling becomes too far separated from the spoken?

The English language, as with most, has evolved from vernaculars long dead. The real beginnings of what we would call modern English came about with various invasions of the British Isles. The Norman Conquest of the 11th century created a dialect called Anglo-Norman. The Norman language is more French than English, but the Anglo-Norman Dictionary’s introduction summarizes its influence on modern English quite succinctly: “No matter what you say or read in English… the legacy of Anglo-Norman is everywhere. And everywhere on the globe where the English language has gone, it has taken Anglo-Norman influences with it” (Seignurs). It was during this era that French became the language of the court system, leaving the mixture of Germanic languages out of official use for three centuries. With my own investigation, I discovered that these old Germanic languages had more in common with modern English than Anglo-Norman. However, I did find that the nuances of modern English grammar appear to have come from the Normans. Anglo-Norman soon was replaced by French, where it was used by the upper class as a symbol of status and as a gateway to respected careers (Heys).

Eventually, the previously used Germanic languages made a comeback in the mid-1400s. This language had taken on some aspects of the French language (Enuf), and this infusion of French, and ultimately Latin words, gave early modern English a new twist in its sound and set the path leading to the language we speak today, 600 years later. A large change occurred in the English language beginning in the 1500s: the Great Vowel Shift. The pronunciation of English vowels made large changes over a few centuries’ time to result in the spoken word of today (Algeo 144-147). This event came around the same time as the printing press. The printing press allowed for mass production of books which in turn began to formalize written English. Previous to this, how a word was spelled depended upon who was writing the material. The result was to “freeze” our spelling in place while the spoken word began to change (Enuf).

In addition to the natural changes to the core language, I was aware of the heavy influence of foreign languages on English as well. What I did not know was just how expansive and numerous these loanwords are. While many basic words in English come from our ancestor language, there are a lot more words that have come to us via other languages, and this influx of loanwords continues to this day. John Algeo summarized a study by Garland Cannon in the textbook “The Origins and Development of the English Language.” It states that of the recent thousand or so loanwords to have entered the English language, just over half of them have come from French, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, and Latin (266-267). This influence of other languages has given us a tongue that is far more expansive with a higher word count than most other languages. However, this has caused a curious event to happen: many of our words do not make sense when you attempt to match spelling with pronunciation. In an example of how odd our spelling to pronunciation is, I came across a constructed word using alternative – but correct in their normal context – spelling to make the word ‘potato’: ghoughpteighbteau (Scobbie). With this example, some common and uncommon English words were used as samples to construct a silly word showing the plight of some of the oddities in our spelling.

Is it possible that we may be able to rescue the English language from a slippery-slope of mismatched spelling? I stumbled across organizations in other languages that work to maintain their language’s integrity by defining word meanings and correct spelling. The German language has the Council for German Orthography, French has the French Academy, Italian has the Academy of the Bran, and Spanish has the Association of Spanish Language Academies. Each of these groups is tasked with regulating their respective languages. The list of these organizations is expansive and includes many of the big languages of the world: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Hebrew, Irish, Latin, Russian, Thai, and so on. However, you will not find English on this list. No university or organization has taken up the task to standardize the English language, spelling or grammar.

Without a regulatory body, our spelling has remained the same since the renaissance era with exception to some of the changes brought forth in American English. This has resulted in the further disparity between how we spell our words and how we speak them. This has not only increased the difficulty on our children to learn the language, but it has also made English hard for people to learn as a secondary language. A great example that I found of a language being reformed for ease of use for both fluent and native speakers and for new learners is the German language reform of 1996. Chris Upward of the Spelling Society wrote in an article that the original rules for German had been produced in the beginning years of the 1900s for German-teaching schools worldwide. Due to the natural changes in the language over the century, it was decided by the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland that new reform was needed. After years of collaboration and scholarly research, the “Rechtschreibreform” was accepted and made mandatory for all German schools, language schools, public and governmental bodies, and was then recommended that industry and private organization change to the new reform (Upward).

English language reform is not a new concept. Spelling reform in the United States can be traced back to at least the late-1800s when various reform movements began. The International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography was held in 1876 and developed into the Spelling Reform Association (Kimball). However, throughout the years many of these organizations have formed and faded away, having never produced enough influence to make a change, radical or otherwise. The most recent transformation of our language was when dictionary-maker Noah Webster first introduced his compendium of the English language in 1828. These radical changes to the English language soon caught on in the United States and have been the primary source for the difference in spelling between American and British English (Noah).

After a careful study of the history of the English language, and a review of how other languages have been managed, it appears that we have allowed our language to expand quicker than our ability to adapt to these changes. It is this author’s opinion that a formal academic committee should be formed to help regulate and streamline the English language. The potential to ease the difficulty and burden that students of our language have in learning such a culturally diverse language as our own should not be dismissed in the face of potential difficulty. We can stop this slide now by following a model similar to many of the European languages. Change is not easy, but we have the opportunity to academically secure the future of English as the de facto language of the world with common-sense reform.

Works Cited

Algeo, John, and Thomas Pyles. The Origins and Development of the English Language. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

“Enuf or Enough? Why Is English Spelling so Random?” Dictionary.com Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2014.

Graddol, David. The Future of English?: A Guide to Forecasting the Popularity of the English Language in the 21st Century. London: British Council, 1997. Print.

Heys, Jacquie. “French as a Mother-Tongue in Medieval England.” French as a Mother-tongue in Medieval England. N.p., 2001. Web. 05 Apr. 2014.

Kimball, Cornell. “History of Spelling Reform.” Spelling Reform. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

“Noah Webster’s Spelling Reform.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

Scobbie, Jim. “What Is ‘ghoti’?” AUE: FAQ Excerpt. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

“Seignurs, Dames, Bien Viengez Vus!” A Tour of the AND: Welcome. Ed. David Trotter. Aberystwyth University, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2014.

Upward, Chris. “Spelling Reform in German.” The Spelling Society. N.p., 1997. Web. 06 Apr. 2014.

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