Have you ever thought that you might be paying a financial and social penalty for living in a nation whose language is non-phonetic in spelling? Here's the link: whilst most people can overcome this handicap when learning to read and write, some do not. For this latter group, inability to progress in English effectively stifles their education in other subjects, academic, social and practical. They will struggle at school and drop out of the education process, which leaves them without the skills and knowledge they will need to find employment and support themselves. You, the taxpayer, will fund the state benefits they will draw to live on. Some of them will end up destitute or drug-addicted and may turn to crime as the only source of adequate income. The general public will be their victims. When (if) caught and convicted, these criminals end up languishing in jail (at taxpayer expense).

Of the major European languages, two are notable for their non-phonetic spelling: French, and to a lesser extent, English. To the chagrin of the linguistic purists, most living languages are constantly changing, not only in the dying out of little-used words and the coinage of new ones, but in the pronunciation of them. It could be argued for example that French, which many people find pleasing to the ear, is merely a very lazy way of speaking Latin. Another example: The Latin word for ‘saint’ is ‘sanctus’. The ‘lazy’ Spanish version is ‘santo’, or even lazier, ‘san’. Many English experts find the Cockney accent dissonant, but this form of the language is just an economical way of speaking: communicating maximum information with minimum effort. If a Cockney were to pronounce ‘santo’ it would be heard with a glottal stop replacing the letter ‘t’. And so we arrive (approximately) at the Portuguese ‘são’. The same Cockney would pronounce the Spanish word for ‘level’, which is ‘nivel’, like the French equivalent, ‘niveau’. There we have it – lazy speaking changes languages.

English is primarily a Germanic language, but with a considerable leavening of French. Other words come from Danish, Greek and Latin. Although German spelling is phonetic, many English derivatives thereof are not. Thus the German ‘Licht’ has evolved into the English ‘light’, in which the ‘i’ sounds like ‘eye’ and the ‘g’ and ‘h’ play no part in the sound of the word. Lazy speech again. Those pernickerty purists are upset when they perceive standards of pronunciation slipping, but how many of them sound the letter ‘k’ at the start of ‘knife’ and ‘knee’, as their mediaeval forebears would have done?

The illogical pronunciation of many English words can be traced back to the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th and 16th centuries, when the sound of words changed, but not the way they were written or printed. Inconsistencies have sprung up over the centuries: think of the many ways the letter group ‘ough’ can sound in various words.

There are some useful characteristics to offset these complications for students learning English. Nouns have no gender (there are two in French and Spanish and three in German), which means that adjectival endings do not change. Nouns do not change their sound or spelling in plural form or when used in different parts of sentences (as German nouns do). And conjugation of English verbs is far simpler and therefore easier to learn. There is the added complication of ‘polite’ and ‘familiar’ forms of ‘you’ in French, Spanish and German. English has only one form of ‘you’ and none of the accented letters to be found in other languages. Word order in constructions is not critical (unlike German) as long as the meaning is clear.

English is now widely spoken around the world. Perhaps we should modify that statement: American (English) is widely spoken around the world. It is the language of commerce, telecommunications, technology and politics. English when spoken as a second language frequently exhibits American characteristics, such as the voice emanating from the throat rather than the mouth and the short vowel ‘o’ pronounced as the modern English ‘u’, so that to the ear the American ‘mom’ sounds like the English ‘mum’. Of course, some English words also follow this pattern, such as ‘money’ and ‘cover’. In fact the American sound is perhaps derived from the colonial English of three centuries ago. Although currently English English and American English are still generally interchangeable, they have diverged in those three hundred years. Slang American, influenced by creole and Caribbean inputs, is not so easy to understand. It could well be that eventually 'slang' American as a language will be as different from English as is French from Latin. And of course English itself will change as the years pass. Perhaps it will gradually metamorphose into Fonetik Inglish (FI) via the introduction of new spelling rules.

As a useful start, the six sounds of the 'ough' letter group could be replaced with phonetic substitutes. For example:

though becomes thoe
thought becomes thort
through becomes throo
drought becomes drout
rough becomes ruff or ruf
cough becomes coff or cof
Abolition of apostrophes would also be helpful. Currently, apostrophes indicate missing letters or possessive character. But do we really need them? Both the German and Spanish languages manage without. If apostrophes are undetectable in spoken language, why include them in written language?

Scholars of English Literature might object to the appearance of FI words. And perhaps they would be justified in doing so. Sometimes the printed words of our best poets, playwrights and authors are beautiful to the eye as well as the ear. But poetic licence would solve the problem. No need to revise the work of our past authors (other than in order to teach it to new students more easily). But new writers could pen their efforts in ‘old English’ or FI, or a combination of both, according to how they were being led by their muse.

Traditionalists might wring their hands in horror when our language changes, but perhaps they should try not to upset themselves, because they can no more prevent change than King Knut could halt the tide. They should bear in mind that the purpose of language is communication.

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