English - the Best Language in the World?

Letter to the Independent


Spelling error :-) Spelling error :-) Sir:

Is it any wonder that inner-city children came out badly in reading tests, when, for example, there are 15 ways of spelling the “sh” sound. A few of them are: “ci” as in “special”, “ti” as in “mention”, “sci” (“conscience”), “ssi” (“mission”), “xio” (“anxious”) and “si” (“pension”). What is a child to make out of this adult nonsense?

Our basic problem is that we have only 26 letters for around 44 sounds. But as there’s been no modernisation of English spelling in about 1,000 years, the accretions of history have made it increasingly difficult to spell. However, other languages have modernised. The German-speaking countries are now completing their last modernisation.

Our research director, Gwenllian Thorstad, has done an academic comparison of learning to read by English and Italian children. She found that it takes an English child 10 years to learn what an Italian child does in one. This is because in Italian every letter is pronounced except “h”, which is always silent. In contrast, the English alphabet has only one consonant “v” which has one sound, cannot be produced by other combinations of letters and is never silent.

Because British children have to spend so long learning literacy skills in English they have less time for their other studies.

Our editor, Christopher Upward, recently developed a systm cald Cut Spelling (this paragraph is ritn in it) by which redundant letrs ar dropd. One first notices that one can immediately read CS quite esily without evn noing th rules of th systm. Since most words ar unchanjed and few letrs substituted, one has th impression of norml ritn english with a lot of od slips, rathr than of a totally new riting systm.

Leo Chapman


The English Spelling Society, London N7


Questions for Discussion

  1. Can we say that one language is “better” than another? Justify your answer.
  2. Should we “modernise” languages, like Leo Chapman suggests, and, if so, who should control the process of change?
  3. Is English doing all right as a world language, or should we choose another language to do this job? If so, which one?