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Are Odd Spelling Rules Good for the Economy?

Mark Liberman of Language Log asks, “Is a bad writing system a Good Thing?” He wonders whether there is a correlation between the difficulty of a language’s writing system and cultural and economic advancement.

There are some simple factors that will guarantee such a correlation: national languages that were recently reduced to writing tend to have historically shallow and rationally-designed orthographies; and the countries for which this is true tend to be relatively poor and underdeveloped, simply because otherwise their literacy traditions would have started many centuries earlier. In some cases, like Turkish, special circumstances permitted a recent and radical orthographic reform. Spanish seems simply to have lucked out, by having a fairly shallow and transparent system to start with, and then undergoing relatively few orthographically-opaque sound changes. But around the world, countries who came late to the table of literacy tend to have relatively transparent and easy-to-learn orthographies; and the same countries tend, for roughly the same reasons, to remain relatively undeveloped economically, to have relatively little cultural influence outside their borders, and so on.

You could go beyond these trivial historical associations, and make an argument that an unnecessarily complex and hard-to-learn writing system is genuinely and causally a Good Thing from a political and economic point of view.  According to this story, a crappy orthography — in a society where literacy matters — creates a meritocracy based on verbal aptitude and the willingness to work hard at difficult and arbitrary socially-prescribed tasks. Mastering the orthographic system is a necessary (and sometimes even sufficient) condition for economic success, and this tends to offer a path out of poverty to the bright and ambitious children of the masses, and  to create a handicap for the most lazy and stupid children of the elite. You could point to the Mandarin system in Tang-dynasty China, or the English “grammar schools” back in the days when they taught Latin and then a standardized form of English.

But not so fast. Mark continues to say,

I’m skeptical that this argument remains valid, if it was ever valid to start with. For one thing, there are now many gatekeeper subjects that are more intrinsically useful, such as science, history, and math, (And of course we’ve levelled the global playing field by making it necessary for everyone to learn English, which has the third-worst orthography among modern languages, after Japanese and Chinese.)

….

Whatever its causes, the handicap is well documented. It’s true that we Americans (along with the British, the Japanese, and the Chinese) have collectively managed to overcome the handicap of our crappy writing system; but this is not evidence that the handicap has paradoxically done us good.

You’ll want to read the whole thing, especially if you’re not that terrific a speller.

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