The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 28 Oct 2019

A solution in search of a problem

I don't remember right now what inspired this, but I got to thinking last week, what if I were to start writing the English letter ‘C’ in two forms, to distinguish its two pronunçiations? Speçifically, when ‘C’ gets the soft /s/ sound, we'll write it with a çedilla, and when it gets the hard /k/ sound we'll write it as usual.

Many improvements have been proposed to English spelling, and why not? Almost any change would be an improvement. But most orthographic innovations produçe barbaric or bizarre spellings. For example, “enuff” is still just wrong and may remain so for a long time. “Thru” and “donut” have been in common use long enough that not everyone thinks they look entirely bizarre, and I think only the Brits still object to “catalog” in plaçe of “catalogue”. But my ‘ç’ suggestion seems to me to be less violent. All the words are still spelled the same way. Nobody would have to deal with the shock of new spellings like “sirkular” or “klearanse”. I think the difficulty of adjusting to “çircular” and “clearançe” seems quite low.

On the other hand, the benefit also seems quite low. There aren't that many C’s to begin with. And who does this help, exactly? Foreigners who might otherwise have trouble deçiding how to pronounçe a particular ‘C’? Are there any people who actually have trouble reading “circle” and would be helped if it were spelled çircle”? And if there are, isn't c-vs-ç the least of their problems?

(Also, as Katara points out, ‘C’ is nearly superfluous in English as it is. You can almost always replaçe it with ‘S’ or ‘K’, accordingly. Although she did point out a counterexample: spelling “mace” as “mase” could be misleading. My proposal of “maçe”, though, is quite clear.)

I wonder, though, if this doesn't point the way toward a more general intervention that might be more generally helpful. The “ough” cluster gets a bad rap, but the real problems in English orthography are mostly in the totally inconsistent vowel spellings. Some diacritical marks might be a big help. For example, consider “bread” and “bead”. What if the close vowel in “bead” were indicated by spelling it “bēad”? Then it becomes easy to distinguish between “rēad” (/ɹid/, present tense) and “read” (/ɹɛd/, past tense), similarly “lēad” and “lead”. Native Anglophones will quickly learn to ignore the diacritical marks. A similar tactic might even help with the notorious “ough”. I don't really know what to do about words like “precious” or “ocean”, though. We can't leave them as they were, because that would unambiguously indicate the wrong pronunçiation “prekious”, “okean”. But to spell them “preçious” or “oçean” would be misleading. “Prećious”, maybe?

(I suppose someone wants to suggest “preşious” and “oşean”, but this is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. If you're going to do that you might as well go whole hog and use “preshus” and “oshun”.)

If you follow this path too far (and in the wrong direction) you end up with Unifon. I think this is a better direction and could end in a better plaçe. Maybe not better enough to be worth doing, though.

Peaçe out.

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