Rethinking English, part 1

It is well known that English is a mess, mostly because of it’s diversified history, and the diverse people who have overrun England, coupled with the diverse peoples that the English have overrun.

The mess creates problems for kids growing up English and trying to learn the language, as well as people coming from other language and writing backgrounds. There is just so much that is inconsistent and does not make sense.

Some random examples:

1. 1 cow, 2 cows, 1 bull, 2 bulls, 1 ox, 2 oxen
2. 1 ram, 2 rams, 1 ewe, 2 ewes, 1 sheep, 2 sheep.
3. 1 shark, 2 sharks, 1 fish, 2 fish.
4. 1 rat, 2 rats, 1 mouse, 2 mice, 1 house, 2 houses.
5. 1 elephant, 2 elephants, 1 hippopotamus, 2 hippopotami.
6. same word, two meanings, e.g. stick, box, cleave.
7. same word, different tense depending on pronunciation: read.
8. same word, different meanings depending on pronunciation: minute.
9. concatenation vs. possession: it’s Jack’s.
10. same letters, different pronunciations: I thought it was tough, though.
11. silent letters: gnome, knife, herb. (but not as bad as French.)
12. stationary / stationery (etc…)

I could go on but you get the point. But before we even get to vocabulary and grammar, we need to deal with the alphabet.

Our alphabet has had a long history, from Phoenicia (or possibly Armenian before that) via the Greeks and Etruscans to the Romans, and then further modifications by the French and English. The Romans apparently did have miniscule (lower case) but examples are rare. They also had fewer letters than us (21), missing J, U, W, Y, Z, which were added over time.

At one point English had even more letters than we have now (eth ðÐ, thorn þÞ, wynn ƿǷ, yogh ȝȜ, ash æ, ethel œ, as well as long s ſ, eng ŋŊ, ampersand & and et ⁊ … plus a few other abbreviations).

But now we have 26, and still there is confusion.

When we teach children to write, we start with something like this:

Schoolbell font

And immediately we can see potential problems. There is no clear distinction between zero and capital O, between 5 and capital S, between 2 and capital Z, between 1 and lowercase l or between 6 and lowercase b. The confusion between O and 0 is made worse by teaching them to pronounce it as “Oh”, as in 0800-555… oh-eight-hundred-five-five-five-etc., instead of from day one insisting on nil, nought or zero.

The problems multiply from there on. The children have to learn both the name of the letter and it’s sound, which are different. Heaven only knows why.

Then there is the problem that majuscule and minuscule are not always the same. In effect, the kids have to learn more than 26 letters.

We can divide the letters into three groups, according to how similar the majuscule and miniscule are. Firstly letters that are essentially the same:

Shape is consistent.

Majuscule same as miniscule

Then we have a group with clear derivation:

Miniscule derived from majuscule.

And lastly, those problem children who look nothing like their parents.

Miniscule have no relation to majuscule.

Then while the poor kids are getting to grips with this, we throw them another curveball, in the form of printed books, where we have, depending on if the book uses a serif or sans serif font, these new confusions:

Letters changing shape from hand printing to book printing.

But wait, the torture is not yet complete. Around the third year of schooling, they get taught to write AGAIN …. using cursive handwriting, which of course introduces yet more new letter forms, for example these:

Let’s just take a moment to dissect this…..

1. Some majuscule now look like their minuscule. (A, M, W)
2. Some letters have acquired loops. (D, G, I, J, L, Y, b, f, h, j, k, q, y, z)
3. Some letters are now reversed (F, T), with F now looking like T and not E.
4. Some letters have changed shape completely (E, F, I, J, S, Z, e, f, r, s, z)

Won’t someone please think of the children? 🙂

As previously mentioned, people coming to English from other languages and writing systems have to deal with all this too. And for why?

So before we get to fixing the broken spelling and grammar, we should fix the alphabet.

There are several letters and digits that are far too similar, particularly at small font sizes, and particularly depending on the colour schemes used. This can lead to fatal mistakes, for example when mistaking a zero for an Oh, or a 1 for an el or 8 for B. Particularly if it’s in program source code. You can play around with the Compare-typefaces site, but note that the sample fonts they use are meant for programming by design, and are supposed to be NOT confusing.

I propose a few changes to some letter forms, to make the miniscule and majuscule more consistent, and to reduce possible confusion between the various letters and digits.

In truth, it’s quite natural for alphabets and writing systems to evolve over time, for example even the ancient Sumerians did it.

To be continued.

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