Saturday, September 01, 2007

You Say 'Tomato'

Ever since personalized license plates were introduced sometime in the late '70s, millions of people have struggled to express their thoughts in seven letters and numbers. This may seem like a challenge, but sometimes it can be done very easily. For example, I used to drive a 1978 blue Honda Accord, and I thought about getting a license plate that said BLUE CAR. I never did, for reasons I won't go into here other than to say that I'm not egocentric enough to want a personalized license plate (although it could be argued that a license plate that says BLUE CAR isn't so much "personalized" as it is "automobilized," but given the extent to which some people become emotionally attached to their cars, perhaps the two terms are almost synonymous in some cases).

I'll never get a personalized license plate, but every year a lot of people do, and since they can't always convey their messages in seven alphanumeric characters, they are often forced into using abbreviations and phonetic spelling.

I have no problem with this, but I think that people who resort to phonetic spelling should at least understand the rules of English phonology and spelling. I'm referring in particular to the incorrect use of the letter Y to represent the "long i" sound in the middle of a word.

As far as I'm aware, the letter Y behaves pretty much like the letter I, and for that matter, like all vowels in the Roman Alphabet. Between two consonants, it has the "short" sound, unless there's a vowel after the second consonant. There are exceptions, of course -- sometimes the vowel has the "short" sound even when there's a vowel following the second consonant, but I can't think of any words in which a vowel between two consonants has a "long" sound unless there's another vowel following the second consonant. (There may be examples of such words, and you're welcome to let me know of any you can think of, but words of this sort are still the exception, not the rule.)

So, for example, if your license plate reads PRTY TYM, you should be aware that most people with half a brain or more would pronounce this as "party tim" and not "party time," just as they would pronounce the words "pseudonym" and "rhythm" with the "short i" sound.

But this is a very prevalent mistake, which leads me to believe that many people with personalized license plates have less than half a brain. I think I've seen this misuse of the letter Y every year since the personalized license plate was first introduced.

We probably wouldn't have problems like this if English were spelled more phonetically. In a post I made a few months ago about Sarah Silverman's mispronunciation of the word "pubes," somebody left me a comment in which he linked to his web site on which he proposes that we adopt a system of phonetic spelling system for English.

I hate to hear people mispronounce the word "pubes" as much as anyone else, and I'm sure you cringe just as much as I do when you see the letter Y used to represent the "long i" sound on personalized license plates, but I have to say I'm not all that hot on the idea of changing our spelling system.

Maybe it would be a lot simpler if everything were spelled the way it's pronounced, but it would also give rise to several problems. The biggest question is, whose pronunciation do we use? For example, the world "either" has two very common pronunciations (EE-ther and EYE-ther), so how should that word be spelled?

A common phonetic system assumes a common pronunciation, but we haven't got anything like that. For example, a Southerner with a drawl might elongate the word "well" into a two-syllable "wail," and someone from Boston might pronounce "Harvard" as "Hawvud." These people might take issue with what a lot of other people would consider a phonetic spelling.

A phonetic spelling system gets even more complicated when you consider how much British and American pronunciations differ. And as you probably already know, most of the people who speak English don't even live in what we think of as English-speaking countries (such as the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and Australia.) The population of India is close to a billion, and most Indian kids learn to speak English in school. People also speak English throughout Africa and the Caribbean, and if every country adapted a phonetic spelling system that reflected the way they spoke, not only would we have a hard time understanding them when they speak, we'd also have a hard time understanding them when they write.

Of course, no one's suggesting that we use separate phonetic systems in different countries. The idea is that we employ one uniform system of spelling for everyone. But that would only benefit the people whose pronunciation is reflected in the spelling system, and ignoring for a moment that those people are in the minority, the benefit of a phonetic system to those people is questionable since they already know how to talk.

So I'm not sold on the need for phonetically-spelled English. That doesn't mean I think the idea of phonetic spelling is pointless, though. For example, Japanese has two phonetic systems -- hiragana and katakana -- which are quite useful despite the various differences in Japanese pronunciation you're likely to encounter as you travel from one part of Japan to another.

But in the simplified spelling, something is also lost. Maybe this is only important to scholars of diachronic linguistics and people like me, but if we changed the spelling of "phonetic" to "fanetik," for example, we'd lose the information that the word is derived from Greek (or actually from Phoenician, probably).

So I have to ask the question I always ask whenever someone proposes something like this: What problem are we trying to solve? Are we trying to get everyone to speak English in exactly the same way? If so, we're doomed to failure. You're never going to get an Australian to say "There's a rumor you're selling your house" instead of "They's a reema yuh sailin yuh hice."

Or maybe we're trying to make it easier for non-native speakers to learn English. That's a very noble gesture, but I don't think it will work, since most people learn how to speak English by listening to others -- not by reading it in books.

Or maybe we just want to let people know what's considered proper English pronunciation, regardless of how they choose to pronounce things. Well, I'm just as prescriptive and authoritarian as the next guy where language is concerned, but as I mentioned earlier, proper English pronunciation is not universally agreed upon. For example, I think I speak normally and people in England have British accents, but most people in England would probably disagree.

So I can't think of any benefit to using a phonetic spelling system for English, other than perhaps to make it easier for people with personalized license plates to convey their messages to the world without perverting the rules of English spelling and pronunciation.