Today’s “Today”


The Today Programme on Radio 4 has this morning once again demonstrated the ignorance of journalists about the nature of language – the main tool of their trade. This was particularly deplorable this morning (Thursday 29 January) as both its presenters claim some expertise in the subject: Edward Stourton has proclaimed himself a linguist, as I have mentioned before, and John Humphrys is well-known for his forthright views on language and its usage, including having written the book Lost for Words. On a day when a report claimed that “the number of people in England who cannot read, write and count properly is unacceptably high”, Stourton introduced a piece by saying that children find the language harder to learn because of its spelling. It cannot be said too often that spelling is an artefact, arbitrarily decided upon; that letters are not sounds, and cannot accurately represent sounds; and that the problems of learning a language and those of learning to spell are totally different. Children who, for whatever reason, leave school without having learned to read and write adequately can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, speak English as well as those whose reading and writing are excellent.

In the interview following this introduction, Stourton went on to say that other languages may be easier to learn because they have rules. Can he really believe that English has no rules? Later mention was made of Finnish as being a language whose spelling system is totally consistent. Whenever the question of the difficulty of English spelling is raised, the ‘perfection’ of that of another language is always contrasted with it. However, one of the other languages that have vied with English for world domination, which has an equally difficult spelling system, is French. What is the functional illiteracy rate for French speakers in France? Do we know? If it is very low, then presumably it is English teaching that is at fault. If it is as high as that for English, perhaps something should be done about the spelling of both languages.


  1. As of 1992, the figure for functional illiteracy in France was about 10% (full illiteracy about 1%). But the French spelling system is not to be equated with the English one. French spelling-to-sound rules are complex but reliable: there is only a handful of words (oignon being the best known) whose pronunciations are not predictable from the spelling. In English, 10-15% of written words have unpredictable pronunciations, usually because of idiosyncratic representations of the stressed vowel, but also because of idiosyncratic silent consonants.

    In short: both French and English are difficult to spell, but English is also hard to read. A sensible spelling reform (as opposed to revolution) of English spelling would eliminate the unpredictable pronunciations and the homographic heterophones, making English spellng as usable as French spelling.

    However, one must take care not to overdo it. English, unlike French, is firmly pluricentric: it has many living accents, all of which are equally part of the standard language. The frequent mistake of anglophone spelling reformers is to make their spellings match their own accent only, which renders it inadequate to the use of people with different accents, usually by way of merging away distinctions that others maintain. Distinctions like “or” vs. “ore”, “sawed” vs. “sword”, and even “meet” vs. “meat” cannot be safely discarded.

  2. I’m grateful to John Cowan for the French figures – I had never seen them. It would also be interesting to know if there are comparable figures for native English spelling ability and native French spelling ability. Certainly what one might call “greengrocers’ French” demonstrates as many oddities as the equivalent English, as does “greengrocers’ Spanish”, and no doubt other languages too. (I’m taking greengrocers as the example here because of the well-known “greengrocers’ apostrophe” in English, whose best examples include “seedle’ss raisins” and smokele’ss fuel”.)

  3. Orthography is a constant issue for the French education system. Recently, there’s been some debate about the necessity of a reform of French orthography. Unfortunately, I have no figures to give, but what people favorable to such a reform say is that orthographic skills are now an important social divide in France. Apparently, many university students and also graduates don’t have a perfect knowledge of orthography. In particular of what is called here “grammatical orthography”, i.e. those letters which are never spelled, but indicate grammatical relations, such as the plural -s, -ent for third person plural or the difference between -é or -er in, respectively, past participles and infinitives.

  4. Do they actually really believe that the non literacy rate is to do with the difficulty of english as a language?

    Do they really believe that some crazy attempt to to fiddle with the language, would make it easier for learners.

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