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March 12th, 2008

Phonetic spelling / communication vs. communications

by Barbara Wallraff

Mike Matouka, of Shelby Township, Mich., writes: “Why must English be so hard to learn? I often wonder why all the brilliant minds in the English-teaching world don’t get together and simplify the language. English is only a tool to help us communicate. As an engineer, I don’t see why it has to be such an unwieldy tool.

“I work with many foreign engineers, and my heart goes out to them when I think how much they have to memorize to utilize our language. There are so many inconsistencies and no rhyme or reason to much of it, both in spelling and words. The English-language profession has let us down, badly. If my company was comparable, it would have gone out of business long ago.”

Dear Mike: You’re right that English is a lot harder to learn than it might be. If hand-lettered signs and the listings on eBay are evidence, even many native speakers have given up trying to spell and punctuate correctly. Michael Henry Heim, a prizewinning translator who is fluent in seven languages and able to read six more, once told me that English is the easiest language in the world to learn to speak badly. Its large, disorderly vocabulary and loony spellings stymie many people’s efforts to speak and write it well.

This is where English teachers come in. Unfortunately, they don’t have the kind of power you attribute to them. No English-speaker does. This is strange, because dozens of languages, from Asturian to Turkish, have official regulatory groups. Typically, these groups set standards for their language and approve new words before they’re added to a national dictionary, which government agencies and others sometimes are bound by law to follow.

You might imagine that the sticking point for English is that there are so many varieties of it -- American, Canadian, Australian, South African, British and so on. But Spanish-speaking countries including Argentina, Mexico and Spain have solved the equivalent problem, with each setting its own standards. Quebec sets French-language standards independent of France.

English spelling reform has had many champions throughout the centuries, including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Prince Philip. Today the closest thing to a plausible organized effort in North America comes from the American Literacy Council, which is promoting a version of English that looks like this: “Hav u ever considerd th meny benefits ov a simplified fonetic speling that soundz just like it’s riten?”
Come to think of it, that looks an awful lot like text-message English -- as in “RU redy 4 ths?” instead of “Are you ready for this?” and so forth. Mike, are you sure you’re in favor of simplified spelling? The text-message set may inflict it on us, regardless. And I suspect that you, along with many brilliant minds in the English-teaching world, will hate it.

David Tobin, of Houston, writes: “You’d expect someone whose business card reads ‘Communications Faculty, Jones Graduate School of Management, Rice University’ to know the answer to my question. But for the life of me, I cannot find a principle that clarifies when the word ‘communication,’ either as noun or as adjective, properly takes an ‘s.’ I eagerly await your judgment.”

Dear David: When it’s a field, profession, system or technology, it’s “communications.” When it’s an activity, it’s “communication.” And if you can’t decide which of those you’re talking about, go with “communications,” which is the more common word by a wide margin.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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