Recently I was tutoring a non-English-speaking student and was dismayed to learn how many of our words cannot be accurately pronounced by knowing the spelling. How can the written word "laugh" be translated to the spoken word? Why isn't "come" pronounced like "home" and "dome?" And why the "b" in "dumb"? Try to pronounce "though" without sounding like you're trying to clear your throat.
I had no answers for my confused student except to shove these aside under the category "crazy words" and concentrate on those that followed the rules.
Given the dismal literacy level in America and the complexity of the language, it is understandable that becoming fluent in English is tough for many. Could it be improved if we overhauled the language, making the pronunciation obvious and predictable given the written word? And how did we get these words anyway?
For a humorous but wonderfully informative romp through the origin and evolution of our English language, spend some time with Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got This Way." From him we learn that words evolve, appear, change and disappear for little or no apparent reason (what happened to the "u" in "forty"? No one knows).
Meanings change over time. ("The exception proves the rule" is understood only when we realize the word "proves" once meant "tests.") Worse, pronunciations change but spelling may not. Our silent "k" in "knife" once was hard and sounded, awkward as it seems. So was the "g" in "gnat" and the "l" in "should."
Writes Bryson: "The result is that we have today in English a body of spelling that, for the most part, faithfully reflects the pronunciations of people living 400 years ago."
Attempts to bring the spelling in line with the modern pronunciation began as early as the 1700s and continued into the late 20th century. Notables such as Noah Webster, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin and Andrew Carnegie (who gave $250,000 to start a Simplified Spelling Board) all supported spelling reform, but in the end all failed.
A powerful force is rising that may change all that. An army of thumb-adroit adolescents ("Students' work full of :) and lol," April 25, Page A-1) is texting its way to a new and efficient vocabulary, much of which just may, in time, become permanent. If "a" can be "a," why can't "B" be "be," or "U," "you"? Why shouldn't "laf" be the new "laugh," "thot" become the new "thought," "ake" the new "ache"? ("Thru" instead of "through" seems to have DMV approval for highway signs, a minor triumph).
I have a modest proposal. Each year, the president, advised by a small group of rational linguists, would formally mandate all government writings to change the spelling of two words to meet their pronunciations -- (for starters, light to "lite," night to "nite"?) and eventually all publications would follow suit. In time we might have an understandable vocabulary, and that would be OK (or, as I was taught to spell it, "okay").
Allen, a semiretired Modesto physician, has served as a visiting editor on The Bee's editorial board. E-mail him at email@example.com.