Monday, January 14, 2013

Those Pesky Heteronyms. A Modest Proposal

Do you ever write their when you mean they're, or there when you mean their?

If so, some people would call you an illiterate ignoramus. Join the club.

But why are we supposed to spell words with the same sound in different ways merely because their meanings differ?

The grammar freaks who devote themselves to pointing out other people's errors  (I don't call them Nazis, since that might imply that they should be hanged, and I don't go that far — quite) would never ask "What do you mean?" if you wrote Its snowing in Jerusalem today, because the context makes it obviously idiotic to take its to be the possessive case of it, rather than a contraction of it is.

And in fact, in speech, we never have difficulty recognizing the relevant meaning of a homophone, which is the technical name for a word with only one sound but several meanings. So why not spell all words with the same sound the same way, which for those who like fancy technical terms, would make all homophones homographs — though they'd still be a homophones too!

And just so no one could be confused, why not, where possible, select new and unique spellings for our newly coined homophones/graphs. Thus, for their, they're and there, I propose we adopt the spelling thare, to rhyme with share, fair, heir, pear, where, and nom-de-guerre.

For example, thare are the nuns of Sandy Hook. Some people think that thare wearing Size 14, military issue, 511 Tactical Shoes in a non-suede finish. They departed the scene in thare purple van.

I think it works, and since it spares us illiterates the social stigma of illiterate ignoramushood, I'm (Ime?) for it.

But while we are in the mood for reform, what about those pesky heteronyms, words with the same spelling but different meanings when pronounced differently: for example lead, which may be pronounced with a long e, as in Shackleton will lead the expedition, or a short e, as in lead-pipe certainty.The solution, obviously, is to adopt the phonetic spellings: leed and led.

Arthur Bottomly, Swindler, Fraud and MP.  Image source
The absurdity of English spelling reaches its apogee in the spelling of proper names, as illustrated by an account of a visit paid by the English scoundrel and Member of Parliament, Horatio Bottomly, to the residence of Lord Cholmondley.

Addressing the Butler who answered the door, Bottomly said:
I have come to see Lord CHOL-MOND-LEY.
To which the butler responded:
Do you mean Lord CHUMLEY?
To which Bottomly replied:
Yes. Tell Lord CHUMLEY it's Mr. BUMLEY.
 For more  about heteronyms, see the Heteronym Home Page.

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