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Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-14, 13:44
by tertrih
My name is Rolf Weimar and I run a youtube channel where I explore language related topics. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and my native language is English. My dad was born in Germany, and I heard German growing up but never learned it. I eventually ended up learning German when I went to university. A while ago I got really into learning languages and at the moment I am learning Swedish.

In this video, I look at why English spelling is so weird and propose some ideas on how we can deal with this problem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Opud-DnAmN4

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-14, 13:52
by uzferry
Do English speaking natives really pronounce vowels in "train" and "stay" the same way?
Also, some images would've been nice, or some kind of transcript to follow, because it was quite difficult to understand your speech (partly because of the accent, partly because of oral presentation abilities that still have lots of room for improvement). I know you linked the transcript in the description, but who's going to be constantly looking back and forth at two different screens?

Also, I was hoping for some more history, for example why did the Great Vowel shift happened? I was waiting for you to tell me, but you, again, wandered into some other details.

And as for main idea, I don't think I like it. It would introduce tons of new characters to learn, and would probably create some more ambiguity, because similarly sounding words would be written identically (for example "I" and "eye" would be written as "ï").
After all, considering English nowadays is pretty much an international language, spoken in almost every region, I wouldn't say it's too problematic to learn.

Just my two cents

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-14, 18:03
by mōdgethanc
uzferry wrote:Do English speaking natives really pronounce vowels in "train" and "stay" the same way?
/tɹeɪn, steɪ/

So yes, pretty much all of them do.

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-14, 19:11
by Dormouse559
uzferry wrote:Also, I was hoping for some more history, for example why did the Great Vowel shift happened? I was waiting for you to tell me, but you, again, wandered into some other details.
May as well ask why any sound change happens. It depends. Some sound changes are triggered by other sound changes. For instance, deleting some vowels might result in a consonant cluster that a language doesn't allow, so the cluster may change in some way. To my knowledge, the Great Vowel Shift wasn't caused by a preceding sound change. For sound changes like that, which don't result from other changes, you'd be hard-pressed to find a truly non-controversial trigger.

What I just said isn't totally accurate. The initial change in the the Great Vowel Shift wasn't caused by a preceding change. After /iː/ and /uː/ began to shift toward /aɪ/ and /aʊ/, all the other vowels followed along, filling the empty spaces they left behind. It was a domino effect.

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-14, 23:53
by mōdgethanc
The weird thing about the GVS is that the first stage of it also happened in German and Dutch, long after English was separated from those two. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe some underlying structural feature of all three.

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-15, 3:38
by linguoboy
mōdgethanc wrote:The weird thing about the GVS is that the first stage of it also happened in German and Dutch, long after English was separated from those two. Why? Who the hell knows. Maybe some underlying structural feature of all three.

High German also has /ē/ > /iː/ and /ō/ > /uː/, but this change actually precedes the raising of /iː/ and /uː/. That is, the first stage of it does. First the vowels were "broken" so they had diphthongised realisations (preserved in Alemannic varieties), then following the diphthongisation of high vowels they were monophthongised.

The same shift happened in Dutch, so Proto-Germanic *fōts ends up with a similar vowel in all three varieties:

foot [ʊ]
Fuß []
voet [u]

(Cf. Low Saxon Foot with [oː]. Swedish fot independently shows a shift to [].)

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-15, 23:48
by mōdgethanc
linguoboy wrote:High German also has /ē/ > /iː/ and /ō/ > /uː/, but this change actually precedes the raising of /iː/ and /uː/. That is, the first stage of it does. First the vowels were "broken" so they had diphthongised realisations (preserved in Alemannic varieties), then following the diphthongisation of high vowels they were monophthongised.
I'm not quite sure I've got it. So you mean that the long mid vowels were raised, then broken (into centering diphthongs), then monophthongized after the original high vowels were diphthongized?

Basically, I mean the following:
1) original /eː, oː/ > new /iː, uː/
2) new /iː, uː/ > /iə, uə/
3) original /iː, uː/ > /ai, au/
4) /iə, uə/ > new /iː, uː/ again

Is that what happened?
The same shift happened in Dutch, so Proto-Germanic *fōts ends up with a similar vowel in all three varieties:

foot [ʊ]
Fuß []
voet [u]

(Cf. Low Saxon Foot with [oː]. Swedish fot independently shows a shift to [].)
So it's just a coincidence that German and Dutch underwent this change? I'm guessing Dutch underwent it as an areal feature, but it's possible English did too.

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-16, 2:06
by linguoboy
mōdgethanc wrote:So you mean that the long mid vowels were raised, then broken (into centering diphthongs), then monophthongized after the original high vowels were diphthongized?

No. "Breaking" generally involves raising of the initial element. (Examples: PGmc *hertōn > ON hjarta, NCVS bad > [b̥eæ̯d] ~ [b̥ɪ̯æ̯d].) So the sequence is:

1. Breaking (e.g. /ē/ > /ie/)
2. Diphthongisation (/iː/ > /ei/) [Not present in Alemannic outside of Swabian]
3. Monophthongisation (/ie/ > /iː/) [Not present in Alemannic]

mōdgethanc wrote:
The same shift happened in Dutch, so Proto-Germanic *fōts ends up with a similar vowel in all three varieties:

foot [ʊ]
Fuß []
voet [u]

(Cf. Low Saxon Foot with [oː]. Swedish fot independently shows a shift to [].)
So it's just a coincidence that German and Dutch underwent this change? I'm guessing Dutch underwent it as an areal feature, but it's possible English did too.

Which change? The Dutch and German areas with breaking are contiguous and the change is old (i.e. already present in Old Franconian and OHG). It's very doubtful there's any connexion between this and later changes in Middle English. With diphthongisation, it's less clear. The change begins in the far southern part of the German Sprachraum and is present in Middle Dutch by the 14th century, which is close enough to the beginning of the first phase of the GVS that there could be a causal connexion. I'm not up on the scholarship in this area, however, so I can't say anything more than that.

Re: Why is English spelling so hard to learn and what can we do about it?

Posted: 2016-02-16, 2:26
by mōdgethanc
linguoboy wrote:No. "Breaking" generally involves raising of the initial element. (Examples: PGmc *hertōn > ON hjarta, NCVS bad > [b̥eæ̯d] ~ [b̥ɪ̯æ̯d].)
So breaking is a type of diphthongization? I thought they meant the same thing.
So the sequence is:

1. Breaking (e.g. /ē/ > /ie/)
2. Diphthongisation (/iː/ > /ei/) [Not present in Alemannic outside of Swabian]
3. Monophthongisation (/ie/ > /iː/) [Not present in Alemannic]
That makes way more sense.
Which change? The Dutch and German areas with breaking are contiguous and the change is old (i.e. already present in Old Franconian and OHG). It's very doubtful there's any connexion between this and later changes in Middle English. With diphthongisation, it's less clear. The change begins in the far southern part of the German Sprachraum and is present in Middle Dutch by the 14th century, which is close enough to the beginning of the first phase of the GVS that there could be a causal connexion. I'm not up on the scholarship in this area, however, so I can't say anything more than that.
I meant the raising of the mid vowels to high vowels. I had this notion that's what triggered the GVS, but it seems the first step of that was the diphthongization of the high vowels, and the rest were raised following that.