Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alphabet – simplifies writing and turbo charges learning

In Damascus Museum you have to lean down to peer through a small glass window to see its most interesting exhibit, a small clay tablet about six by two centimetres with the world’s earliest alphabet. Only discovered in 1928, it was found in Ugarit. I’ve stood on this small coastal hill in Syria, now somewhat far from the sea, razed and burnt by the Sea Peoples in 1200 BC, and as clay is unharmed by heat, this act of destruction preserved the tablets. They show us detailed records in a writing system that proved so superior to the previous systems, that it quickly became the Phoenician, Greek then Latin alphabets, literally providing the foundation for Western culture.
This was a turning point for learning, as to learn to read and write was reduced from several thousand to a couple of dozen symbols. The Greek breakthrough was to take the idea of an alphabet from the Phoenicians but invent one of their own, with signs for every sound. The word ‘alphabet’ comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha and Beta. An alphabet simplifies and turbo charges writing, reading and therefore learning.
Why upper and lower case?
At one point all phonetic alphabets were in upper case (or one case). As brushes and pens started to be used, and writing became more cursive, the letters following the first letter in words tended to run together and get smaller and lower case evolved. So it was the physical technology of the brush and pen that led to upper and lower cases. It improves the speed of writing and legibility in reading. In general, lower case letters are not found in European languages prior to 1300. In fact, there were no fixed rules for capitalisation prior to the early 18th century, before this letters could be written larger and distinctly at the start of sentences and on nouns. In English, capital letters indicate proper names, abbreviations, personal pronoun ‘I’ and the start of sentences. In German all nouns are capitalised. Arabic and Hebrew still have only one ‘case’ and therefore no capital letters, whereas Latin, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets have two cases. The actual terms  ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ are named after the ‘cases’ in which printers’ moveable type were held. In an interesting twist, CAPITAL LETTERS have come to indicate ‘shouting’ when used in emails and txting.
Alphabets and learning
An alphabet accelerates literacy and learning. It not only makes writing and reading easier, it makes learning how to write and read easier. Some languages are more difficult to learn than others as they have more irregular spellings and complex grammar.
So despite the obvious advantages of an alphabet for learning, there’s huge differences across languages on the degree to which the letters represent actual sounds. Finnish, Turkish, Serbo-Croat and Bulgarian have nearly one to one correspondence between letters and words, making spelling easy to learn. English, however, is highly irregular and has lots of mismatches with silent letters, double letters and so on, as it went through a historic vowel shift and has many loan words from other languages. This is brilliantly explored in Crystal (2012). English is therefore more difficult to learn. This may account for some differences in literacy in international comparative tests. This is not all bad news as this irregularity gives English breadth over a wide range of dialects and has a simpler grammar with no gender differences.
Interestingly, research suggests that children learn literacy as much as 3 times faster in countries where phonetic letters match sounds. It has been shown that a reformed phonemic English alphabet can achieve similar results. Some have achieved even faster improvement rates, up to five times faster. Astoundingly, English spelling is about 20% predictable until you memorise dictionary words. With truly phonetic alphabets it becomes nearly 100% predictable. Writing also becomes tighter and faster to produce. At a stroke one eliminates the misery of memorisation and being branded as stupid for being poor at spelling.
Alphabet reform
There have been two different approaches to the pedagogic problem of spelling; 1) reform spelling; 2) reform the entire alphabet.
Andrew Carnegie tried to reform spelling, with simplifications and got some support from President Roosevelt. Examples include: "bizness" for business, "enuf" for enough, "fether' for feather, "mesure' for measure etc. Mark Twain doubted that spelling reform could work and preferred to recast our “drunken old alphabet” and its “rotten spelling”. American English has benefitted from some of this simplification, and Noah Webster in the early 19th century had a little success with the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. But in English, neither serious spelling nor alphabet reform took off.
Over a century earlier Benjamin Franklin recognised that irregular spelling made English difficult to learn but went for alphabet reform and, in 1768, proposed A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling to simplify the alphabet and its use in spelling. The new alphabet was published in 1779. He eliminated c, j, q, w, x, and y, which he saw as superfluous but added six new letters for sounds he though were not represented. But theory is one thing, embedded practice another and it never took off. He himself lost interest in the project.
Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw wanted complete alphabet reform and Shaw proposed a 48 letter alphabet that matched the actual sounds of English, 36 brand new letters and 12 combinations. This was radical as he was not interested in just improving spelling but changing the whole alphabet.
Turkey did reform its alphabet in the 20th century in response to western oriented Turkish nationalism. In fact, the new alphabet was more suited to Turkish as Arabic, which had been used for over a thousand years is consonant rich but lacks the vowels so commonly used in Turkish. Ataturk personally promoted the project on the basis of it being easier to learn and therefore produces higher rates of literacy. Indeed the literacy rate rose from 20% to over 90%. However, many factors were at work here. This was an attempt to use alphabet reform to change history and push a country into the modern age by breaking with the past. It was a cultural, historical, linguistic and pedagogic break.
Alphabets, especially when they phonetically match sounds, accelerate literacy and learning. We could, for example, reform English so that literacy can be dramatically improved. However, culturally and practically this is unlikely. Alphabet reform seems to only work where there is enormous political and cultural will to break from the past, as in Turkey. In any case, an alphabet is a boon to learning a language.
Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal D (2012). Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling

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Anonymous valerie yule said...

Most languages have reformed their writing systems to a major or minor degree in the past hundred years - except English. The harm done by unnecessary difficult spellings extends to the consistent ones, and affects half the population being illiterate or nearly so, and most people unable to spell.
We could change this, cheaply and allowing for present readers' needs.

2011, Yule, Valerie 'Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.' English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67 Can you spell? The best of us may not be perfect.
1986. The design of spelling to meet needs & abilities. Harvard Educational Review. 56.3. 278 - 297.
and see Writing systems of the world A half hour cartoon overview of reading and spelling, especially useful for learners who are stuck somewhere
2002. It's the spelling that's stupid, not me; Taking Ockham's Razor to English Spelling. ABC Radio National broadcast. Ockham's Razor. 5.5.
2004 Sharing Knowledge with learners. Self-Help in learning to read Ockham’s Razor, Radio National 29 February.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Thanks Valerie. I couldn't agree more. The rational arguments are overwhelming. However, the problem is a sort of cultural inertia and snobbery around current English, its spelling and punctuation. England is a deeply conservative and backward looking nation that constantly indulges in Lynn Truss like pedantry around spelling and punctuation.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Masha Bell said...

Dear Donald
Congratulations on your very clear description of the history of western writing and how different alphabets affect progress in learning to read and write.

I hope you may change your views about the feasibility of reforming English spelling if you read my ebook ‘Spelling it out: the problems and costs of English spelling’, which I published on amazon in July 2012. Perhaps you might even like to review it?

I give an account of the history of English spelling too, but mine is more critical than Crystal’s, because I was not born to English-speaking parents and did not begin to learn English until the age of 14. I also explain exactly how English spelling differs from other alphabetic writing systems, and some of the costs it entails.

Additionally, I have identified the 14 inconsistencies which are the main retardants of literacy progress in English, and among those the 7 that impede it most of all, and make tentative suggestions for reducing them.

I believe that a radical transformation of English writing is unrealistic, but that it is perfectly possible, given a serious desire to reduce educational underachievement, to make learning to read and write English much easier than it currently is.- I wrote the book with the hope that it might start a public debate about this.
Masha Bell, Dorset, UK,
Ex English teacher, now independent literacy researcher,
author of ebook 'SPELLING IT OUT: the problems and costs of English spelling' (2012)
'Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling' (2009)
'Understanding English Spelling' (2004)
and Youtube video 'Why improve English spelling?'
Dorset, UK

6:25 AM  
Anonymous Elrohir said...

The idea of phonetic alphabet for a language with vowel reduction is absurd.
The language is intended to provide benefits to its literate users, so the invariability of morphemes and consistent cross-language spelling is what does really matter.

4:54 AM  

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