Monday, April 21, 2008

Text messages

Many people are horrified by abbreviations used in text messages, such as 'U R L8', meaning 'you are late'. Is there any justification in the beliefs that our literary tradition is being corrupted and that young people are going to be disadvantaged by their ignorance of correct spelling?

While in no way advocating that this kind of writing should replace the system we have in place today, let me explain why I think that it is not reasonable to be overly-concerned by this phenomenon. There may even be some positive sides to it!

Firstly, the English language is a big mess when it comes to spelling. There are few rules, and even the ones that exist have too many exceptions. Teaching children to read using the phonics method can only help them to read a small number of words, the majority need to be learned by sight. The same for foreign learners of English. Few of my students, including those at intermediate and advanced level can pronounce properly the word 'women'.

Another good example would be words that contain the letters 'ough'- ought, though, through, rough, bough, and thorough are all pronounced differently.

The writer George Bernard Shaw wanted the English alphabet to be revised so that each sound had its own character. He famously argued that 'ghoti' could be pronounced 'fish' in current English, the 'gh' as in 'enough', the 'o' like 'women' [WIMIN] and the 'ti' as in 'station'. His proposed 'Shavian' alphabet was never taken seriously.

Secondly, simplification of spelling has already begun in the United States, largely due to the work of their great lexicographer, Noah Webster. He argued that superfluous (that is, unpronounced) letters could be deleted, like the 'u' in 'colour', 'favour' and the 'ough' in 'through' which is now written 'thru'.

Thirdly, what is so scandalous about using symbols for words anyway? We gape in awe at the complex hieroglyphics of the Egytptians and languages like Chinese only have characters that represent words or ideas, not a phonetic alphabet like ours. Also,the idea of dropping vowels is not new. There are some languages that have an alphabet of only consonants, the reader knows how to pronounce the word from his oral learning of that word. Let's face it, the way I say certain vowels is very different to the way, for example, a New Zealander would say them, so why not drop them altogether?

If we were serious about preserving the written tradition of our language, rather than complaining about the pitiful state of teenagers' writing we should seriously consider revising the ridiculous way we spell our words so that spelling more accurately reflects pronunciation. By so doing, text language would remain in its place where it is useful, and not spill over into other areas of written language.


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cécéelle said...

NO ! ghotie = enough (gh for f)
women (o for i)
nation (ti for sh)
gh, pronounced /f/ as in tough /tuff/;
o, pronounced /i/ as in women /wimen/; and
ti, pronounced /sh/ as in nation .