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Great power accrued, in preliterate societies, to those who could read and write. Everyone else may have been spared reading nonsense in books, and lies in newspapers, but the consequent limited opportunity for objective investigation, and reporting of events, gave succour to the plots and shady dealings of princes and kings, to extraordinary theological claims, and to numerous wild exaggerations and inaccuracies - which all too often led to strife and armed conflict.
The introduction of the printing press to London, by Caxton in 1476, opened the book on the new scientific age in the English-speaking world. Whereas previously the interest of both rulers and scribes had ensured that the connection between language and script remained mysterious and obscure, the market for printed books demanded a more rational orthographic link. In particular there was a pent-up demand for an accessible translation of the Bible. Consequently Caxton and other London-based printers, using the "East Midlands" dialect typified by Court circles and educated speakers in London, Oxford, Cambridge and central England, rationalised both language and script to some extent.
In retrospect it might be asked why the process did not continue until a common orthographic standard was reached. One answer is that there was simply a lack of demand. The classroom situation of children learning to read provides a useful analogy. Those children who benefit from an intensive education, and/or parental diligence, become literate largely through the habituation of constant exposure to the written word: an osmotic process of memorisation which effectively offsets the partial operation of the orthographic principle in English. Likewise, centuries ago, a tiny educated class, mainly selected from wealthy families which could provide books, and generally having the additional advantage of a knowledge of Greek, Latin and French, had little problem with English spelling.
In fact it is notable that the first concerted attempts at spelling reform did not start until after the middle of the 19th Century - when universal primary education was beginning to become a reality in both the U.S.A. and the British Isles. For the first time, schools were being attended by a significant proportion of pupils for whom the osmotic methods of acquiring literacy were inappropriate, since they had little or no opportunity to read at home. Thus, for want of an alternative, these children had to rely on the phonic or orthoepic method, which incidentally served to highlight the inconsistency of traditional orthography. Spelling reformers, invariably promoters of education for all, were reluctant to see a large section of the population cowed into functional illiteracy by this incongruity.
These facts have taken a long time to permeate the political consciousness for various reasons essentially connected with the particular experiences and prejudices of those who have been setting the educational agenda. However, the evidence is conclusive that whole-word methods are inappropriate for those pupils not encouraged to read at home. An orthographic reform of English would enormously facilitate literacy by building upon the inherent advantages of the phonic method.
The greatly superior reading skills of Italian compared with English children prove the point. With the benefit of a mostly predictable orthography, young Italians can normally read words whose English translations would often leave equivalent English children guessing. In languages which are even more orthographically regular than Italian, such as Hungarian or Finnish, a small child might read out a page of difficult text, hardly comprehending a word, while being understood by an adult audience.
Children respond to a logical orthography because of an inborn sense that language has laws. Both experience and experiment have long shown that the concept of regular and rational language is innate in young minds. For instance, deaf children may spontaneously develop sign language between themselves, even when they have not been taught it; and many English-speaking children naturally use rule-based words. For example, they tend to regularise plurals into words like "mouses, deers, dices", and turn strong verbs into weak forms, such as "rised, teached, bringed, swimmed, eated". Scientific studies have confirmed that children prefer to use regular and consistent grammatical forms, even at the expense of brevity and simplicity: a consistent conclusion if the primary purpose of language is to communicate knowledge accurately. A full realisation of its many other powers, mainly associated with brevity, exclusion or wit (including metaphor, metonymy, ellipsis, synecdoche, jargon, in-words and code-words, acronyms, puns, euphemisms, argot and foreign expressions) normally comes later.
The main problem with regard to children is not illiteracy so much as sub-literacy: a condition which can be associated with some aspects of late 20th Century civilisation. The difficulty of English spelling should not take more than part of the blame: another share should go to motivational and social factors. The success of high-profile intensive reading courses, using the phonic method, attests to this. For example "The Independent" on 16/9/96 included a report about a government-funded reading scheme in Bradford, West Yorkshire, which had brought childrens' reading-age on by 6 months in 10 weeks. According to researchers, the childrens' school-work had improved, they were much less likely to play truant, the burglary rate had dropped to less than half of its 1992 level on the housing estates where the scheme was held, and those who had taken part were still well ahead of their classmates three months later.
Such results are impressive enough, but allowance must be made for extraneous factors before conclusions are drawn, not least the quality and motivation of both teachers and students in a showcase scheme. Moreover, some families are very amenable to education as a means of social mobility, particularly immigrants, middle-class incomers and/or those who by reason of religious belief are not bound into local class-systems and attitudes; the corollary being that a similar success would not necessarily be achieved elsewhere.
Indeed, experience has shown that significant sections of the population are resistant to both education and literacy. Successive governments are partly responsible for this. By orienting the state education system towards "white-collar" employment, they have alienated those whose vocation is manual rather than cerebral, and for whom an academic curriculum is mostly irrelevant. (The over-mechanisation of work which has led to the decline of craftsmanship, mass unemployment, global warming, soil erosion, the marginalising of the animal kingdom and various other ills is part of the same mindset.) All these things will take time to change, but meanwhile a reformed orthography would make literacy more accessible.
Another important factor is that modern media devices, such as the telephone, gramophone, radio, television, and tape and video recorder, have compounded the difficulties of current English spelling by seducing many people, whether literate or not, into an audio-visual environment where they barely read. Since proficiency in English spelling is hard to maintain without the constant visual impression of the written word, especially since the irreversible abandonment of Latin and Greek in the majority of schools, it isn't surprising that the standard of literacy has deteriorated during the latter part of this century, even as these new media have contrived to replace print with images. A British survey in 1996 showed that 65% of 16-24 year olds misspelled "occasionally" and over half of all graduates misspelled "accommodation".
A vicious circle has developed, with children spending more and more time watching television, partly because they find reading difficult. It isn't coincidental that the English-speaking countries lag behind others, both in literacy and educational achievement generally. Moreover, inability to read and write appears to be a factor in a range of social problems which particularly affect the English-speaking countries. For example, it was estimated in 1996 that about half the relatively high U.K. prison population of 54,000 was functionally illiterate.
Recorded programmes, whether sent out through radio, tape, T.V. or video, are an excellent source of learning; but the relative absence of script creates a particular problem in English, since education must depend to a large extent upon written examination. The solution is not to restrict the use of these appliances, but rather to establish congruence between language and script, so that learning aids work with rather than against the examination system.
Computer technology poses a challenge to the English language from the other direction - by providing script without language. There is no sound to give a guide to the meaning of unfamiliar words and idioms - and "netiquette" forbids the correction of spelling mistakes! Users of the Internet in various countries must normally use English because it is the established lingua franca of the medium - to the irritation of many speakers of other languages. Nana Mouskouri, the European Union Commissioner for Culture, has been charged with combating the spread of English through the Internet. This is one of many circumstances crying out for the establishment of a simple and orthographically-rational official international auxiliary language; another is international drivers' documents - which Spain has turned into an issue by insisting upon Spanish translation.
The Internet is certain to become an important phenomenon in the future, although less than 5% of the world's population presently has access. English predominates in the medium for reasons connected with its pre- eminent international status; but the outdated and biased orthography of English is wholly inadequate for the Internet's exacting demands. The right linguistic vehicle has yet to be found: meanwhile English is the least bad language in terms of global comprehensibility.
The demand for an Internet language with a predictable orthography will grow because, in a silent medium, those with limited command of English can only discern the sound of words orthoepically from the script. But if they cannot do this to the extent of reading words with confidence, due to English orthographic irregularity, they will start looking for a language which is written as it is spoken and spoken as it is written. Moreover, as increasing numbers of people get "wired", there will be more and more who can read and write some English, but cannot speak it well enough to hold an extempore conversation. But the desire to do just this is demonstrated by the growing demand for "netphones": simply computers with an integral telephone, which is used ordinarily as a telephone, or as an adjunct to script on the Internet (the addition of a video camera permits video conferencing). If English does not rise to the challenge of these modern inventions, with reforms leading to orthoepic predictability, another language is likely to replace it.
The Internet has encouraged abbreviations like "imo" = "in my opinion" and "re-hi" = "hullo again" (it may not be long before such words creep into speech.) Orthographic reform would likewise tend to reduce the size of words by omitting silent letters and replacing common digraphs. For example replacing "th" (/dh/) in English by a single letter would mean an approximate 3% print saving. Thus orthographic reform would reduce the space required by words, whether on the page or the screen - which would consequently reduce the relative cost of literature, and hence encourage literacy.
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