Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jaber whacky!

There was a very interesting (and very muddled) piece in the Times yesterday on the subject of the sounds of the English language and its spelling conventions.

The story begins with former investment banker Jaber Jabbour sitting on an aeroplane reading the safety instructions and wondering why two languages, in this case Portuguese and English, could use what is essentially a Latin alphabet and sound so different. This would probably give the first indication to the knowledgeable reader that Mr Jabbour has got it arsy versy: we start not with the spellings but with the sounds of the language: it is the spellings that represent the sounds and not the other way about. And that different languages contain different sounds should not surprise us.

Turning his attention to English Jaber began looking in detail at the alphabet and decided that the letters [c], [q] and [x] could be dispensed with immediately. This, he claims, is because they are replicated by [s], [k] and [g]/[z] respectively. He’s right about this but it is here that things begin to go awry. Of course, in (mostly) northern pronunciations, [x] can represent the two sounds /g/ and /z/, as in the word ‘exit’, /e/ /g/ /z/ /i/ /t/; however, in southern pronunciations they are more likely to be /k/ and /s/, as in /e/ /k/ /s/ /i/ /t/.
He also, according to the article, feels it necessary to add a new letter to the alphabet, a [ǝ], which is how, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the schwa (the most common vowel sound), is represented in English. The example he chooses to give is the word ’oven’ and he believes that the schwa symbol should replace the letter [o] in ‘oven’. Actually, there’s a reason why the spelling [o] represents the sound /u/ in English: it’s because until 1630 the spellings [u] and [v] were used interchangeably for the sounds /u/ and /v/ - imagine for a minute trying to read the word vuula [uvula] before 1630! Alexander Gill decided that henceforth the spelling [v] would represent the sound /v/. Even so, given that there were no typewriters or computers around at the time, when these two letters appeared together handwritten or when the letter [u] appeared next to other ‘stick’ letters, people often found words difficult to decipher: again, imagine trying to read the word ‘muney’. In the typeface I’ve used, it isn’t too difficult to distinguish one letter from another but, in other handwriting scripts, separating them could be much more difficult.

This was the moment when someone closed off the [u] to turn it into a letter [o]. This enabled everyone to see clearly where one letter finished and another one started: hence, ‘money’, ‘another’, ‘mother’, etc. What didn’t happen was that people started pronouncing words differently: the letter [o] still represented the sound /u/.
Going back to the word ‘oven’, the schwa sound (ǝ) is the spelling [e] in the unstressed syllable and not the spelling [o], the vowel in the stressed syllable. I know this sounds nerdy but it does have important implications for helping pupils with spelling because it is the schwa sound that causes so many pupils to misspell words.

What Mr Jabbour also does not understand is that many spellings represent more than one sound. This isn’t a difficult idea to come to grips with. For example, even small children will tell you that a circle can represent different things: a moon, a pizza, a face, a ball, etc. We live in a culture where symbols are used interchangeably all the time. So, it’s not a great intellectual jump to understand the spelling [o] can be /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ in ‘go’, /oo/ in ‘to’ or /u/ in ‘money’.

He also doesn’t appreciate that having more ways than one of spelling each sound has a function: it helps to differentiate homonyms, words which sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings. And, again, it isn’t a difficult concept. After all, any child can tell you that such and such is a rose, a tulip, a dandelion, a daisy but that they’re all flowers.
So, Mr Jabbour, better stick to banking than enter the linguistic graveyard in which are buried the bodies of other would-be spelling reformers.

Oh frabjous day!

Thanks to Nicholas Mutton, who has licensed  the photo for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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