Simplified Spelling Society AGM 2004

Professor John Wells, SSS President.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this AGM. As you may know, I have only just returned from China. Forty-eight hours ago I was on a domestic flight between Shanghai and Beijing. So if I appear incoherent or suddenly fall asleep you will know why, and will I hope understand.

China is a country with a language whose writing system has been the subject not only of great pride but also of considerable controversy. As you know, it is an ideographic (or better: logographic) system, where each written character represents a word or word element without any direct relation to the sounds that correspond to it. This gives it the advantage that the same writing system serves for some very disparate dialects, indeed different spoken languages. In fact people from the south, speakers of Cantonese, and speakers of the majority form, Mandarin (putonghua), cannot understand one another when speaking, though they can communicate without difficulty when using the written language. Defenders of traditional spelling of English may appeal to this fact when arguing for the retention of our arbitrary and illogical system. We have to tell such people of the downside: Chinese people have to learn by rote several thousand characters just to achieve basic literacy, and this is a real brake on popular education. The People's Republic has in fact adopted a number of simplified characters for words of high frequency, so reducing somewhat the burden on learners and users; but in Taiwan and I think in Singapore these simplified characters are not accepted, so the consequence of reform is loss of unity - a potential danger I think we who advocate the reform of English spelling must also be aware of.

A more radical proposal was that of replacing the traditional Chinese script by the romanization known as Pinyin. This uses the ordinary Latin alphabet to represent Chinese. It includes certain special uses of digraphs (such as zh) and special values for letters (such as q), which can mislead those who have not studied the system. In its ordinary form it does not include tone marks, though there is also a more elaborate form that adds vowel diacritics to show tone. Pinyin is regularly used in the official romanization of proper names, including place names. (That is why we now call Peking Beijing.) Coins and banknotes and various public displays make use of pinyin alongside Chinese characters. But after an initial period of enthusiasm the Chinese government has quietly buried the idea of entirely dropping the traditional script in favour of pinyin. So there has not been the political will to push through a sensible orthographic reform against the opposition of traditionalists committed to the status quo. (This may sound familiar to members of the SSS.)

The main reason for my visit to China, apart from delivering one or two university lectures, was to act as one of the judges for an English public speaking contest organized by the English-language newspaper China Daily. This was a high-profile event, a national final with some 33 participants, students each representing a different university. The top seven contestants won a free trip to an English-speaking country, and the first-place winner gets to participate in the international contest to be held in London by the English-Speaking Union next month. There was an audience of over a thousand, and the standard was remarkably high.

Nevertheless the contestants made quite a few outright linguistic errors. Some of these can be blamed on our crazy spelling system, as when one contestant told us of a problem that had "arisen" (pronounced with the same vowels as in "arise"). An entirely understandable error, you might think, though not one that a native speaker would make. Those who argue for a morphemically-based spelling for English, as does Chris Jolly's fellow discussant in his recent Radio 4 broadcast, ought to ponder whether the idea is as valid as they tend to claim. Personally, I'd be in favour of a single z in arise and double zz in arisen, wouldn't you?

Another source of error was stress and intonation, something that neither our traditional writing system nor the Society's proposals reflect adequately. Many contestants used mis-stressings such as question máster (for quéstion master), as well as repeatedly failing to exploit intonation in the way native speakers do in order to signal pragmatic focus (the difference between for example I don't eat meat and I don't eat meat).

To return to our own affairs: Steven Pinker, in his excellent recent book The Blank Slate, discusses the different social and political attitudes of what he calls the Tragic Vision of humanity on the one hand and the Utopian Vision on the other. In the tragic vision, human imperfection is taken as a given: there is no point in trying to change things, since humankind's innate perverseness and inadequacy means that any change is likely to have unintended consequences which render the last state worse than the first. The utopian vision, in contrast, regards humankind as perfectible, and reforms as necessary for progress. I don't want to develop this topic at this point, but I reflected that this places the Society firmly in the utopian camp, since we are committed to the view that illogical and inefficient setups - such as our traditional spelling system - can and should be changed. All will benefit, but who will take the first step to overcome the inertia that ties us to the current state of affairs?

We know that reforms can work, and work well. We have seen a recent case in London, in the matter of the congestion charge. London's traffic was in a mess. Not only were all road users disadvantaged by constant traffic jams and consequent delays. but so was everyone else by the resultant pollution and cost. National politicians did not dare support what they saw as a policy for which public backing was iffy. Ken Livingstone had the drive and determination to push the reform through, imposing the daily congestion charge of £5 on every motorist who drives a car in central London. By general agreement, the results have been spectacular. Traffic levels have fallen dramatically, the buses can run freely, the air is less polluted, London is a better place to live and work in. So all credit to Ken Livingstone. He took what was clearly a good idea, and made it work despite the opposition of vested interests and tragic-vision traditionalists. Who will do the same for English spelling?

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