It is a land renowned for its awesome bureaucracy, where each citizen is expected to be able to complete multiple lengthy forms that resemble essay tests, in cursive longhand, which the fearsome bureaucrats refuse to accept if they contain as much as a single correction, deletion or error in grammar, orthography or punctuation. And it doesn't stop with the bureaucrats: nobody wants to make an error in speaking, for fear that children will point and laugh at them. Speaking of the children, they go from reading level 0 to reading level 99 rather swiftly and unnoticeably. It starts with them learning the letters on letter blocks and sounding them out in exchange for lollies and such (in this language, you see, all the letters but two make specific speech sounds). Then they learn to put these letters/sounds together to pronounce syllables. Then the penny drops and they start reading—the whole language, every word of it, more or less correctly. They learn new words either by hearing them or by reading them—it doesn't matter which. In their world, the terms “reading level” and “functional illiteracy” are unheard of, and the term “illiteracy” is mostly used metaphorically, as a synonym for “inadequacy,” as in “You stacked that firewood illiterately.” The catalogue copy for their 3rd grade text book reads: “Mother Tongue, Third Grade features works by classic and contemporary native and foreign writers. Familiarity with these works will connect the child to the world of literature, teach him to love and understand the book, expand his horizons...” By the time they are 12 they are done being trained in the cursive longhand, the grammar, the orthography and the punctuation. It works: my favorite reading when I was 10 was The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov; when I was 12 it was War and Peace by Tolstoy. By then I had already devoured Le Comte de Monte Christo by Dumas and lots of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, who are all considered children's authors. This is not to brag; I was something of a laggard compared to many.
Back in that faraway exotic land where my boat is bobbing listlessly waiting for its owner, things are not so happy with regard to basic literacy. According to a recent report, “high school students today are reading books intended for children with reading levels far below those appropriate for teens.” A compilation of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3—barely above the fifth grade. I couldn't find a handy definition of fifth-grade reading level, but a desultory scan of the paltry offerings did not turn up anything War and Peace-like. “A fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship,” writes Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The unenviable conclusion is that American high schools produce functional illiterates.
But, you know, so what? If they can't read, then maybe they can just play video games instead. After all, if they do learn to read, they may end up in college, and then end up mired in debt, still with no good job prospects. (Of course I am being facetious.) But it gets worse. It turns out that functional illiterates constitute 70% of the prisoners in state and federal prisons (that's 70% of the world's largest per capita prison population, larger even than the population of the Soviet Gulags at the height of Stalin's purges). It turns out that 85% of juvenile offenders are classified as functionally or marginally illiterate, that 43% of those with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and that over 42 million American adults can’t read at all. Beyond the mere inability to read and write lies the vast wasteland of psychological damage littered with dysfunctional coping mechanisms that spontaneously develop as a result of living in a society that requires literacy but is unable to provide for it.
What is the difference? Why is it that Russian children, even the lazier ones, breeze along from letter blocks to War and Peace without having to sacrifice any valuable snowball-tossing time, while American children, and their teachers, struggle mightily but fail to succeed? The answer is obvious: it is the fault of the fucking English! Not the long-suffering English people, mind you, but of the aristocratic ponces and twits who have lorded over them for centuries, and who are responsible for contriving and perpetuating the ridiculous thing called the English “spelling system.” I put it in quotes, because, although spells have something to do with it—evil ones, cast long ago, yet to be broken—it is definitely not any sort of system. It cannot be taught as a system (it has over 91 major patterns, 80 of which are undermined by numerous exceptions) and in practice it cannot be learned except through rote memorization, which takes something like ten years. And that is just too damn long!
Thus, this is not an American problem; the situation is much the same throughout the English-speaking world. There are at least two million functionally illiterate adults in England and Wales alone. “In my opinion, the irrationality of the English spelling system is an important factor, among a great number, contributing to the high level of reading failure and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. I am very concerned at the lack of recognition of this fact in educational circles... if our spelling were reformed so that all words were spelt according to a regular system, reasonably phonetic in character, anyone, child or adult, could become completely literate, able to spell correctly as well as to read, within a few months. Compare this with the years it now takes.” writes Marjorie Chaplin who spent a career teaching English literacy skills.
How did this situation come about? Back to the British upper-class ponces and twits: they never intended hoi polloi to be literate, and especially not the part of hoi polloi that do not even know what hoi polloi stands for (it doesn't matter what it stands for, really). Literacy was for the upper classes, the ones with the free time and the money to put their children into special schools where useless Greek and useless Latin were drummed into their heads, after which useless English spelling probably seemed like a walk in the park. These are the people who thought it unwise to teach sailors navigation, since they might then find it more perspicacious to mutiny than to take orders from ponces and twits. The same attitudes carried over to the Colonies, where it was forbidden to teach Negroes how to read and write, or to use Arabic numerals and arithmetic (Roman numerals were considered safe, since they are almost impossible to calculate with, but allowed slave carpenters to scribe numbers on planks for ease of assembly). The English spelling non-system was not designed for universal literacy; it was contrived specifically to make universal literacy impossible. We are now struggling along with something that was intended to be taught to Little Lord Fauntleroy by his personal governess while strolling about the manicured gardens, not something that can be imparted quickly and efficiently to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It is, to put it simply, just wrong.
When the Russians embraced the concept of universal literacy (in the wake of the revolution of 1917) they yanked five redundant letters from the Russian alphabet and decreed that Russian be written more or less the way it's spoken, without references to Latin, Greek or that bane of Russian schoolchildren up to that point, the horrible artificial language called Old Church Slavonic. And they did achieve universal literacy in spite of many of the previously literate people (aristocratic ponces and twits included) going into exile or getting killed, a civil war, a world war and a few other accidents and complications.
In the meantime, English orthography has remained the haphazard, nonsensical, idiosyncratic waste of everyone's time it has always been. But it is quite possible to write English phonetically and so the problem of putting the entirety of the English spelling system to a well-deserved death is strictly a political issue whose solution would be especially applauded by the many millions of people who have to learn English as a second or third or fourth language. While English spelling continues to reign, forcing millions of people to endure years of rote memorization, it produces the additional side-effect of inadvertent acculturation to specifically English ways of thinking: because of the time it takes to learn, students of English learn not only the language but also subliminally absorb its cultural clichés, many of which have barely shifted since the days when English was the imperial tongue. Perhaps it is time to invent a new English writing system, which has exactly one symbol to represent each psychologically significant, lexically differentiating phoneme (there are, it turns out, only 32 of them, across all the major dialects). English is, after all, a simple little language that just happens to have a big dictionary. The two reasons it caught on so well as the lingua franca across the world are its extreme grammatical, phonological and morphological simplicity compared to all of its international competitors, and its international vocabulary. With 80% of its vocabulary specifically French, and quite a bit of the rest international, it is really just “French made simple.” It's a sort of baby-babble, great for scat singing (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah!”) that comes with a fat dictionary full of big foreign words nobody seems to know how to write or to pronounce, never mind figure out quite what they mean. Yes, it has the strange retroflex approximant ‘r’ (the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for which is [ɻ], its queer shape a testament to its strangeness) but that too can be taken to be a charming little infantile speech impediment. Yes, it has some of the world's most fearsome consonant clusters (the word “strengths” is one syllable—but that too is just the sound of a baby spitting up).
Beyond that, most of the trouble with English comes from its lingering post-imperial smell and its refusal to let go of the abominable spelling non-system in favor of something that a linguist might design on a day off and that can be learned fully while attending a single adult education course at a neighborhood community center. It is highly recommended that this alternative English orthography start out by not flouting the alphabetic principle, according to which exactly one symbol (letter) unambiguously represents exactly one sound (phoneme) of the language. The current English orthography flouts the alphabetic principle for arbitrarily large values of “flout”: for about a century now a debate has been raging in the US as to whether students should be taught that letters represent sounds—or not! If that isn't sad, what is? In other parts of the English-speaking world, “phonics” has been accepted as the superior approach, but even there adult functional illiteracy rates are the shame of the developed world.
While at it, let's give up on the Latin alphabet; it's the 21st century, and Latin is still dead. The medieval monks who preserved it for posterity, and tried to apply it to English, clearly didn't know what they were doing. The Latin alphabet is missing 10 letters that English needs (two vowels and eight consonants). Other European languages have since upgraded their alphabets, but English is still proudly muddling along with Latin 1.0 Beta. Plus, those monks laid a trap for dyslexics; to see what I mean, stand on your head and try to read this: “bdbpdpqbqdpdpqbdbdq. Even the mildest case dyslexia is further exacerbated by English spelling. One letter stands for multiple phonemes and multiple letters stand for one phoneme, what is phonologically the same word can be written in different ways (“ewe,” “yew” and “you” are indistinguishable in speech but, as with any homonym, would conjure up different images even if all three were written identically). Different words can be written identically (“moped” vs “moped” and “tear” vs. “tear,” depending on whether there are wheels or liquids involved—and this does in fact cause damage to comprehension). Same letter combinations can represent many different sounds—“enough,” “plough,” “though”, “through”—and that is, technically speaking, just a bug.
Now that all text is electronic and the question of how to render it on the screen or on the printed page is strictly a question of software, somebody really ought to do something about it: “break the spell,” as it were, and leave the evil old spelling system in the dust. For those who will need to decipher a passage from an obscure old book, a smartphone app can be provided: snap a picture of a page full of Crazy Old Gibberish, and a second or so later a perfectly legible version flashes up on the screen. At the very least, start providing English spelling with legible, sensibly written subtitles, as an accessibility requirement. We take care of the deaf, the blind and the wheelchair-bound; why not the dyslexics? The lack of a sensible, phonologically accurate English orthography is, in software terms, just a missing feature.
Of all the big problems we face, the problem of impossible-to-write language is one we can strike off the list—literally, with a stroke of a pen.
Update: A reader sent this in, and it sums things up very nicely. It echoes what Nabokov once said: that nothing breaks the human spirit better than consistently bad treatment. Having to submit to English spelling is just such treatment.
Thank you for taking a hunch I've had for a long time—that some property of the English language brings domination and inequality to follow wherever it goes—and putting some flesh on it. I would add that the extensive time spent learning and consistently obeying a set of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules conditions a mind to more easily accept sets of arbitrary, relentlessly inconsistent rules outside of language, and, further, makes that mind seemingly less able to deal in principles, cause-and-effect relationships, especially higher-order ones, and ambiguity.
Update: From a Scottish reader: recite this! Don't think about it, go as quickly as you can and see how many times you trip up. It's your native language, your birthright, isn't it?