Tuesday, 14 September 2010

the luv u giv

In my teens I spent many happy hours in public libraries, so became pretty familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification that they used.
This subject classification system was devised by an American, Melvil Dewey (1851-1931). He was christened Melville, but being an advocate of a rationalized spelling system preferred to spell his name Melvil.
One of his publications (1912) was entitled Abridged Decimal classification and relativ index for libraries, clippings, notes, etc.. Note the spelling of relativ. Dewey believed in eliminating redundant and misleading vowel letters. He founded a Spelling Reform Association in 1886. You can see a sample of his rationalized spelling here. (I’m surprised, really, that he didn’t change the spelling of his surname to Dewy.)

I was reminded of the issue of spelling reform by reading this morning of the memorial tributes left by people mourning the tragic death of a teenager who fell from a tower block in London. According to my newspaper, one tribute read
RIP my darling, luv u 2 bitz. Gone but never forgotten.

This is not a bit of private informal txtng but a kind of public document, displayed in circumstances that can only be characterized as formal. In the absence of any official rationalization of spelling, people are more and more doing their own thing. Luv represents the pronunciation directly; love doesn’t.
Consistency might also demand gon in place of gone.

The indefatigable Masha Bell, author of Understanding English Spelling (Pegasus, 2004), has recently been discussing “surplus -e endings” in her blog (1 August).
As she points out, the use of final silent -e to signal a long vowel (as in rate, compare rat, and hope as against hop) is undermined by cases of final silent -e that have no such function: determine, famine, medicine etc.
She also compares the ‘redundant’ -e in such words as accurate, adequate, delicate, private, with the ‘phonic reliability’ of words such as accelerate, assassinate, calculate. (She doesn’t use phonetic transcription, which would perhaps bring the point out more clearly: ˈækjʊrət, ˈædɪkwət, ˈdelɪkət but əkˈseləreɪt, əˈsæsɪneɪt, ˈkælkjuleɪt.) This implies, interestingly, that perhaps we ought to complicate our spelling by introducing a difference between moderate (verb, ˈmɒdəreɪt) and moderat (adjective, ˈmɒd(ə)rət), or separate (verb, ˈsepəreɪt) and separat (adjective, ˈsep(ə)rət) and other similar pairs.
It would certainly, I think, be advantageous to abolish the -e not only in love but also in have and give. These three very basic words immediately undermine the ‘magic e’ rule that reading beginners are taught. It would be nice, too, to be able to distinguish liv (verb, lɪv) from live (adjective, laɪv).

41 comments:

  1. Does Dewey's libraries, not librarys, indicate a difference in pronunciation between the singular and the plural -iːz?

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  2. I think the opposition to spelling reform is mainly because most attempts seem to go completely over the top and end up looking like transcriptions of extraterrestrial languages, corrupting etymology and morphology in some cases (which can be helpful).

    A subtle spelling reform would be a good idea. The silent e is often superfluous and doesn't even play that great a role in the history of our language because Norman scribes wrote as if in French.

    The scholars who tried to make our language look more like Latin also dealt damage. 'Det' and 'dout' are much better spellings than 'debt' and 'doubt'. And 'iland' is surely better than 'island' (though it might be perceived as [ˈɪlənd], it can't be much worse than [ˈɪzlənd]. These are not etymologically justified spellings, but false ones.

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  3. Perhaps we could go the German route of putting the magic "e" superscript above the vowel modified, then allow bad handwriting to turn it into two dots.

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  4. The irrationality of the English spelling system has a certain social function because the difficulty of learning it is precisely what makes it an indicator of a person's education level. In general, the more irrational an activity is, the more suitable it is for demonstrating one's commitment to the social group that identifies with it. It's a kind of 'costly signalling'.

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  5. I would read accurat as 'ækjʊˌræt. Like proleteriat and secretariat.

    And I would hate to be presented with liv or di.

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  6. David C: **proletariat**. Isn't spelling difficult?!

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  7. Dewey actually tried to change the spelling of his surname to Dui, but he ended up deciding it was too much trouble. As an American, he surely pronounced it /du.i/.

    I would say that the spelling of "luv u 2 bitz" is a conscious rhetorical strategy of our age, expressing the sincerity of an emotion by the deliberate crudeness of its expression. It reminds me of the Lucy poems of Wordsworth, who used the low diction of his age, shocking his critics, to make exactly the same point. Not for either Wordsworth or us the high-falutin rhetoric of Lycidas, say: we have come to distrust such things, associating them with official hypocrisy. Gone is not respelled because it's outside the emotional part.

    David Crosbie: I have reduced vowels in the final syllables of both proletariat and secretariat. As Dorothy Parker said extempore at a dinner party:

    Higgledy-piggledy, my black hen,
    She lays eggs for gentlemen.
    You cannot persuade her with gun or lariat
    To come across for the proletariat.

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  8. I think that I would pronounce *liv differently from live (as in "to live") were I to chance upon it in a text, with a shorter I sound, /lɪ̆v/ instead of /lɪv/, and probably with a shorter voicing of the fricative /v/ as well. Those superfluous -e are entrenched in my mind's understanding of the language.

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  9. How about "ar" for "are" and "wun" for "one"?

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  10. @vp: Please, no! "One" has the LOT vowel, not the STRUT one, for an awful lot of people. In fact, the the STRUT vowel there sounds very archaic/dialectal to me: I have memories from my schooldays of everyone laughing at the hockey captain for his eccentricity of informing us that we had "won won-nil".

    But I suppose that demonstrates the other big problem with spelling reform: not only does it look weird, but there are disagreements about certain common words.

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  11. James D: it's interesting that you say that the pronunciation of one with the STRUT vowel sounds "archaic/dialectal".

    The pronunciation of one that uses the LOT vowel /ɒ/ is, as far as I'm aware, only used in Northern England. (And even there it varies from person to person; some use the STRUT vowel /ʊ/, while others use the LOT vowel /ɒ/).

    Again, as far as I'm aware, in every other Anglophone country, one is pronounced using the LOT vowel.

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  12. As an American, [Dewey] surely pronounced [his name] /du.i/

    For someone raised in upstate New York in the mid-nineteenth century, would [diu.i] be a possibility?

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  13. @John W:

    Spelling is difficult but typing in a small box on a screen is far more so.

    @John Cowan:

    Comic verse can play with spelling pronunciations:

    I'd rather drive an engine than
    Be a little gentleman
    I'd rather go shunting and hooting
    Than hunting and shooting


    @vp:

    Ar would break my favourite English spelling rule:

    Words are spelled with at least three letters

    Yes, there are exceptions, but they are commonest words in the whole of written English.

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  14. Words are spelled with at least three letters

    Yes, there are exceptions, but they are commonest words in the whole of written English.


    As opposed to the rare word are? :-)

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  15. Robert, I think we may be watching some interesting language change here. I am from south Wales, in my late-20s, attended an independent school in the English Midlands, and would describe my accent as near-RP. My suspicion is that this is about age, rather than about isoglosses. To me, pronouncing "one" with STRUT is part of a cruel parody of ultra-conservative RP ("where hez wun's het gawn?").

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  16. Very strange to see that the pronunciation with STRUT is regarded marked even in a wide definition of RP.

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  17. Petyt recorded the pronunciation /lɒv/ in Huddersfield. I couldn't believe it when I read it. Apparently it didn't extend very far outside Huddersfield. I wonder if anywhere else in the English-speaking world said it that way?

    pp.94, 201 in "Dialect and Accent in Industrial West Yorkshire" by Petyt.

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  18. @ Robert Gibson: "one" with a LOT vowel is definitely used in East Anglia as well.

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  19. It's used in several regional accents, and not unknown in forms of RP, unless this issue is part of the definition of RP, but I'm really amazed the STRUT variety is felt to be URP or even a parody thereof.

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  20. @ Lipman: I think that's just one person's opinion. Virtually all BBC presenters use the STRUT vowel in "one".

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  21. Pizza is the other way around: Americans prefer pittsa, and this side of the ocean it's typically peetsa, isn't it?

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  22. I always hear "pizza" with FLEECE in California. Although it's possible that I am biased by my expectations...

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  23. If we mess with one and won, we'll end up with the same spelling for son and sun.

    I have another problem with u, though I have no rational defence for it. For me, luv is a plausible representation of 'southern' lʌv but not of 'northern' lʊv. Silly, I know.

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  24. @ David Crosbie: people in the North of England use "gud" as txt speak for "good". I presume that people in the South of England don't do that.

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  25. "One" has LOT in popular Irish speech; Daniel Corkery:

    'if yourself and herself died on the wan day on me, I'd get a notice in the paper for the same money as if it was only one of ye in it.'

    The same spellings one/wan and pronunciationS STRUT/LOT can mean "woman" (e.g. "yer wan", "oul one"); I'm not sure if this is from extending the sense of pronoun "one" or reducing pronunciation of "woman".

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  26. That's the consequence of the effects of technology in the way people speak and write (Twitter is a good example). Maybe, by 2510, our descendants will think that our English is weird and complex by the same reason why 16th century English is hard to understand for us.

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  27. I'm sort of a bit sad that no one has consulted LPD on the subject of one. There you will find a pie chart and a graph showing the findings of my preference survey of wʌn vs. wɒn.
    The STRUT vowel predominates in all age groups in BrE, and is of course the only possibility in AmE.

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  28. I agree that the spelling in the memorial message was chosen deliberately to sound intimate. It certainly has that effect reading it

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  29. John W

    Nothing in my copy of LPD. Did you add it in a later edition? In the first edition wɒn gets a dagger.

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  30. @James D: "some use the STRUT vowel /ʊ/" - that's not the STRUT vowel of course, the STRUT vowel is /ʌ/.

    @Mano Zezez: "The irrationality of the English spelling system has a certain social function because the difficulty of learning it is precisely what makes it an indicator of a person's education level." - I disagree, English spelling is not *that* difficult. But if you insist that is a good reason for retaining archaic spelling, let's start using hanzi, shall we?

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  31. Kilian Hekhuis, note that James D was making his comment about the pronunciation in Northern England, where many people indeed have /ʌ/ as the STRUT vowel as their speech varieties didn't go through the FOOT-STRUT split.

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  32. I see it as a show of intimacy, too. Love letters are often written that way. It's comparable to the use of baby talk: "Wuv oo." "Gone but never forgotten" is for the public, hence spelled normally.

    And in 50 years in California, I've *never* heard "pittsa." FLEECE vowel, definitely.

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  33. For what it's worth, I'm a north(east)erner with LOT in one. I have a couple of comments on other things in the post too. Firstly the mismatch between luv and gone: it seems to me that luv is becoming some sort of semi-standardised spelling (for particular registers) and people aren't consciously working out what a more consistent spelling system might be, so the innovation is no more consistent than what it replaces. Bitz, of course is further away from the phonetics than is the standard spelling of that word - but in these registers it seems that the [s]/[z] phonetic alternation is sometimes turning up as z rather than the standard s. No more or less consistent than the standard in this case. I'd also argue that 2 (for to) isn't really phonetically helpful since to can be [tuː] but is more often [tə], whereas I don't think two is ever [tə]. But then I'm the sort of person who uses semi-colons in text messages.

    On the moderate/separate issue: I've heard on the BBC news recently quite a few instances of the verb estimate with [ə] in the final syllable (as in the noun). So even there, spelling reform might run up against phonetic variation. It's true that I've never heard give as [ɡaɪv], though!

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  34. Paul

    I don't think the BBC announcers' pronunciation of estimate is a matter of phonetic variation. Rather, I suggest that they make slips while reading from a script while under pressure.

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  35. No, Jongseong, I was not making my comment about northern England. Virtually all of the people I grew up around had the FOOT-STRUT and BATH-TRAP splits. The main distinctly non-southern features were the absence (and sometimes non-acceptance) of the variants John mentions at 3.2, 3.3, and 3.5 here. I don't know what one would wish to term this variety of English, but it definitely would be misleading to classify it as Northern based upon a single word. I think Kilian got his attribution confused.

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  36. James D, here is the comment Kilian Hekhuis and I were referring to:

    The pronunciation of one that uses the LOT vowel /ɒ/ is, as far as I'm aware, only used in Northern England. (And even there it varies from person to person; some use the STRUT vowel /ʊ/, while others use the LOT vowel /ɒ/).

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  37. "But if you insist that is a good reason for retaining archaic spelling, let's start using hanzi, shall we?"

    That is precisely the reason why Chinese characters were used in Korea long long after the native hangeul system was invented

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  38. As for spelling reform, I envision an eventual melting-pot future where Future English finally abandons our clunky alphabet-only script in favour of a modified Future Simplified Chinese script using primarily logograms, with a versatile bopomofo-derived arufabetto thrown in to spell out names and to be used in all foreign languages.

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  39. See now http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/09/english_spelling_reform .

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  40. @Alex Case: I was going to say that!

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  41. army,
    So why didn't the pair of you say "the reason why Chinese characters ARE used in Japan long long after the native kana system was invented" and on a vaster scale that they have been in Korean. But "precisely" wouldn't have been the whole story: sets of homonyms disambiguated by about a hundred different kanji each make spelling reform a bit of a challenge! At least the Japanese have reformed the kanji more sensitively than the mainland Chinese.

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