Thursday, January 8, 2009

The silence of the letter

A friend objects to French because she finds the concatenations of vowels defies her perusement. They are original, true.

There are no absolutely silent letters in French, but many of them are merely breathed. Like a subtle glance passing, and understood, without spoken words, between un homme and une jeune fille – n’est-ce pas?

Whereas in English, silent letters are like old family secrets, concealed so long that people have no idea what (if anything) they ever meant. And yet somehow, they linger and oppress the future generations.

Or like leftover dishes in the back of the refrigerator that you never ate and can’t remember what they are and whether they are still good for anything, but haven’t got around to discarding. Flavoring everything about them.

Other languages don’t have silent letters at all and look at us with amazement.

But they serve a purpose, like silent butlers and silent partners and silent movies.

They are evidence (like family secrets) of a forgotten ancestry that links us, holds us together. After all, if English were to be spelled phonetically, it would rapidly distinguish itself from the language written (as it already does from the language spoken) in Scotland or Ireland or Australia or India - not to mention all the different languages spoken in the U.S.

Which phoneticism would rule? If nite replaced night, would it also replace knight? Would eight become ate, or aught? Would through be threw or thru if it were through? Led has already become lead to far too many writers, and L.E.D. is not a past pariciple of any description. As for foreign words rewritten as English, if niche were obliged to choose between "nitch" (the correct English spelling) or its French ancestor, would it be written "neesh"? Would beautiful's beauteous bounty of vowels be replaced by the voicing "y" of byootiful, since we lack the alternate vowels of the Russians? If know were spelled no, would not confusion arise? And would wud be pronounced wood or wad? Would money retain its reassuring extra "e" - and where would all the other "e"s go, the silentest as well as the frequentest letter in our language? Would we reduced to IM speak?

R U + (with) me?

4 comments:

londheart said...

Clean ur frij!

Allanstr said...

'Which phoneticism would rule?' u ask.
Since ours is an international language, it would need to be one that would be internationally acceptable. And we dont need to keep relics of our forgotten ancestry. The language is for the here and now.
At present our spelling, such as it is, is rufly based on present 'General Ameerican' and 'Received Pronunciation' (Brit). Why not use these two varieties as the basis for an upgraded spelling system? Newsreaders at NBC and BBC could be the models to work from.
We certainly need to upgrade, as our present spelling is preventing many children from becoming literate.

Chip said...

I propose instead a transition to a character-based form of written English, based on the Chinese language. This ought to shut up the detractors of silent letters.

Also: hi there. Apologies for the comment-haunting, but a letter of mine has been rejected by two email addresses of yours. Is there a better address I could use? I am editor@thornmagazine.com.

infanttyrone said...

'Which fanaticism would rule?'

Maybe not "Which?" but "Whose?" ...and the answer..."The writers of history" AKA "The Owners" AKA "The Winners"...they (o-o-or is it They) will write the news for the general public...non-standard usage will be employed by the learning disabled +/or the rebellious.

Our education system may be preventing many from becoming literate, but tho poor spelling may be an impediment to language arts excellence +/or fluency, it is not now make or break w.r.t. functional adequacy.

Before you "upgrade" spelling, be sure to set a "System Reset Point" and take note of who you are working for (see above).

Practitioners have gotten into serious trouble making Registry Changes on their own...not every Upgrade is an Improvement.