In this interesting article from the Times Literary Supplement, Tom Shippey reviews two books about the origins of the English language. The History of English Spelling looks at the history of the spelling of English words based on a substantial collection of data from Christopher Upward. Shippey also explores Richard J. Watts’ Language Myths and the History of English, a book that examines popular English myths and their origins.
The myth of English as a global language
English spelling is notoriously inconsistent, and some have gone further, calling it “the world’s most awesome mess” or “an insult to human intelligence” (both these from linguists, one American, one Austrian). Maybe this is just because our alphabet only has twenty-six letters to represent more than forty phonemes, or distinctive speech-sounds, and some of those – notably q and x – are not pulling their weight, while j is not allowed to (see “John” but also “George”). If we gave s and z a consistent value (“seazon”) and extended this to k and c (“klok” and “sertain”), we could free c up for other duties, such as maybe representing ch, as once it did. But then there are all the vowels . . . . Read more »