lying i’s

Arabic vowels lie. It’s no wonder the Arabs don’t bother to write them half the time — you would think they’d want clarity, but perhaps they chose relief instead. It’s not bad enough that many of the three-letter words roots are “hollow,” having a slippery vowel in the middle which changes to another vowel in conjugation — or that some of the verbs with a vowel in the middle don’t follow that pattern. It’s bad enough that there will sometimes be a “و ” inserted between certain verb endings and the personal pronouns, but not in other cases. But take a word like “اعطى،” “to give,” which ends in “ى” — which ought to mean that it turns into “ي ” in most conjugations — and would, in most words, but here it has simply decided to do what it wants. The fine, sturdy consonants of Arabic never change their sound, unless you count the taa marbuta, the “tied-up taa,” which does changes sounds, but which does so according to very strict, very comforting rules. But the vowels — oh, wicked, slick, ever-changing vowels!


This means nothing to you, of course, dear English-language reader, except to say that English vowels lie, too, and in a much more grandiose fashion. I will not rehash Gallagher’s well-known routine on pronunciation in English, but I will point out that to a non-native the fact that “do” and “to” are not pronounced the same as “go” and “no,” without any rule or reason, must be at least annoying and possibly exasperating — and let us leave alone “through” and “though” and “trough” and “tough.”

But there is another, more functional, nobler aspect to English spelling. A few weeks ago, one of my Arabic teachers was teasing me, calling English a “simple” and “easy” language. This was a little hard to take, as her English is far from perfect and sometimes breaks down entirely. But I asked her what she meant, and in her broken way she said that English, which does not conjugate for gender and just barely for number and person, which hardly declines for anything at all, and which has nothing like the fine and organized system of roots one finds in Arabic, cannot express the subtle gradations of thought that Arabic can. To which I replied that what English lacks in grammatical complexity it makes up by having a vast and inclusive vocabulary, full of synonyms and near-misses, one-offs and cousins by marriage.

Yet thinking about it later, I realized that our enormous and redundant vocabulary presents a problem — namely, that without some sort of tonal system (for the spoken language) or unlimited set of ideograms (for the written) one quickly runs out of manageable unique combinations of sounds and symbols. Thus, as our language evolved, was colonized by the French, went through a free-for-all period of glorious expansion and experimentation, and was finally corralled, though hardly tamed, by grammarians and schoolmasters, we left behind our relatively straightforward, relatively phonetic Anglo-Saxon rules of spelling and leapt into the explosion of “bear” and “bare” and “to” and “too” and “two” and “shoe” and “shoo” and “for” and “four” and “fore” and “blue” and “blew” and “by” and “buy” and “eves” and “eaves” and “you” and “ewe” and “won” and “one.” We developed these alternate spellings as a way of keeping meanings straight among homophones adopted from different places. Most languages would not tolerate such flagrant homophonia among such common, high-usage words, in part because most languages have sensible spelling rules. But because we English speakers have been willing to give up a certain amount of phonetic identification in our spelling, we’ve gained a measure of flexibility in creating and adopting words which sound alike, and thus increased our available vocabulary and power of expression.

In short, we have taken a small regressive step back from the truly phonetic alphabet, have made a compromise with the ideograms and memorization. For surely that is what it boils down to — we must memorize more visual patterns than do those whose language is written purely phonetically. But the small compromise has given us, as we have said, more flexibility and more reach.


I must admit, I great prefer this system to the Korean system, another hybrid but, in my opinion, a more difficult one. The Korean alphabet is famous for its simplicity and its phonetic perfection; there are no two letters which sound the same, and misspelling is, for a native speaker, almost literally impossible. (Non-natives have trouble distinguishing a few of the sounds, but that is a different matter altogether, and even for non-natives spelling is ridiculously easy.) On the other hand, Korean works not simply on a linear alphabetic level but as a syllabary — that is, the letters are clustered, visually, into syllables, which then form a line. This gives Korean its unique visual style (이 단어와 같이), but also reveals its roots, and the nature of its hybrid form.

The Korean alphabet was created in 1446 by a group of scholars commissioned by King Sejong. Prior to that, the Koreans wrote using the Chinese syllabary of ideograms — i.e., it was a syllable-based language, and each syllable was a single idea represented by a more-or-less unique character. The Koreans had already eliminated the tonal elements and slightly modified the pronunciation of Chinese vocabulary, creating a lot of identical-sounding syllables in the process. But these could still be distinguished easily by the Chinese ideograms (한자) (hanja) in writing.

This was a workable enough system, but it took, of course, years to master the thousands and thousands of Chinese characters, years which the great majority of Korean people did not have. King Sejong commissioned the Korean alphabet as a corrective, which may be the greatest act of democratization in the history of language, but it also created an additional nuisance in the language. While farmers learned to read and write, scholars castigated the new alphabet as ugly and vulgar. But they ought to have been concerned about the way it would change the functioning of the written language. The invention of 한글 (hangeul) carried further the process of collapsing distinct linguistic elements, completing the process in the written form which had begun in the spoken.

Today, the older generations of Koreans (say, those over 40) are often still familiar with hanja; hangeul did not completely take hold until the mid-20th century, thanks largely to the inertia of scholars and publishers (not to mention the Japanese invasion). But younger people who have grown up in a world where books and newspapers are printed almost exclusively in hangeul are often at a loss to distinguish the hanja of two identical hangeul syllables. This is not generally a problem for them — context clues and the native speaker’s encyclopedic memorization combine to produce the right meaning nearly all the time. Only when confronted with a new, unknown word must a young Korean pause and try to puzzle out the hanja, much as an English speaker might try to guess at Latin or Greek roots.

But for a foreign student of Korean, the overlap can be maddening. A few of my colleagues, the more visually gifted ones, picked up a few dozen hanja along the way in our Korean course, but none of us knew enough to be truly conversant in them. This led to our thinking about “hanja” as a term for collections of identical syllables, and their meanings, rather than the actual Chinese characters. Thus there was a 성 (seong) for “sex” and a 성 (seong) for “one’s lineage or nature,” but it was not always immediately obvious which was the correct idea for a given word, especially since it must be admitted that sex, lineage, and one’s nature are hardly unconnected concepts.


No, altogether, I have come to have a great appreciation for English spelling, mad as it is; it is our way, inscrutable to foreigners and sometimes to ourselves, but our way nonetheless, of keeping ideas separate. There is, perhaps, no perfect method; human ideas are too many, and our capacity to learn symbols too limited. But this method is ours; and it should not be disparaged.

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