While having a discussion with a friend who oft malapropriates their/there/they're, and to/too/two, he maintains the position that he has a:

"disbelief that the current system is the best one"

He contends that all that is necessary is a single word, say, 'ther', that will accommodate all the uses and that since the context can be gained from a spoken conversation, that a "better system", in his view, would be a system with just the single option - essentially, collapse all homophones into single words with the same orthography, but with combined definitions.

I don't share this perspective; I find the written word to be a superior form of language than spoken, and detest the bastardization of linguistic rules by people who can't be bothered to proofread and follow grammatic and syntactical rules.

My sentiments aside; what specific reasons are there to persist variant spellings of homophones?

He's also made reference to the supposed 'inefficiency' of having to learn and use the variant homophones:

"I do not refuse to learn, I just will not go out of my way to re-type, or proof read something when I feel it reasonable that it will be understood. Also, I feel that its requirement is not necessary and the rules should be amended to simply and expedite conversation."

So - what are good linguistic reasons to retain the heterographic homophones?

  • I think this is a much better fit for Linguistics than here—it’s not really about English as such, after all. French has much the same problem, as do many other languages, and the arguments for or against are much the same in most languages. Flagging for migration to Linguistics. Aug 12, 2015 at 6:57
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    (Incidentally, the written word is always secondary to the spoken word; whether it can ever be superior is a matter of whether you believe a derivative can ever be superior to the original. In this particular case, I would certainly argue that it isn't. The written word is an impoverished dumbing-down of the spoken word with all its subtleties, intonations, body language, etc. There are many aspects to the spoken word that are impossible to accurately represent in writing; the opposite is not the case.) Aug 12, 2015 at 7:02
  • How do you feel about dangling participles (gentle josh from a linguist)? Aug 12, 2015 at 12:26
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    Depends on what the assignment was. We have to teach adult native speakers what the actual sounds of their language are, and then train them to transcribe them. This is something that's handled in grade school most places in the world; but Anglophone schools don't do that. As for "derivative" -- cars are all technology, like writing, and that changes fast. But language is not technology; it's evolved, and evolution does not result in organisms that are better adapted than their ancestors -- it results in organisms that are adapted to the current environment. Period. Like language.
    – jlawler
    Aug 12, 2015 at 17:40
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    @Ehryk Correcting a thesis is rather irrelevant to the discussion. Of course, anyone would correct mistakes like that, because there are certain rules or conventions that are expected to be followed in order for the thesis to be accepted. That is the tradition. But at the same time, it has little to do with linguistics - after all, prescriptive rules like that are created by people, they are not borne by the language (which is correct, endeavour or endeavor, and why not indever or even indevr? And how about invizij). Aug 12, 2015 at 18:41

3 Answers 3


The final sentence in your post, "...what are good linguistic reasons to retain the heterographic homophones?" reveals a fundamental misunderstanding on your part of what linguistics is.

  1. Theoretical linguists, in their capacity as researchers, are never interested in prescribing any rules or maintaining or "retaining" anything. They are interested in making observations about how language works and how it changes over time.

  2. Most linguists study spoken (or signed) languages; written records and orthography do come into play in linguistic research, but mainly as tools to gain insight into the historical development of languages.

In comments above you ask about a linguistics professor correcting spelling in written assignments. When I corrected my students' phonology assignments, I never cared if there were prescriptive grammar or spelling errors; I only wrote comments if there were errors having to do with the concepts being tested in the assignments. Think of a math teacher grading an assignment involving a geometric proof. Would that teacher take points off for an extraneous apostrophe in a sentence like "Because ABC is a right triangle, the square of it's hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the other sides"? Nope.

But actually, whether or not a linguistics professor corrects spelling errors in a written assignment is (as people have mentioned above) irrelevant. You bring up the scenario of an advisor correcting a thesis draft. In that case, the professor might comment on a misspelling, but not in her capacity as a linguistic researcher! Such a comment would merely be in the interest of "playing by the rules" of the academic establishment at large. When my choir director in college took us on concert tours, he dutifully saw to it that the underage members of the group (the majority of us) didn't drink after performances, as that is the law in the U.S. But his personal political belief was that people should be allowed to drink from the age of 18. It would be silly to extrapolate from my music director's behavior that there must be a "musical reason" for maintaining the legal drinking age of 21.

All that aside, I invite you to think about what you really mean when you lament the "bastardization of linguistic rules". The truth is, the way any individual uses language (written or spoken) can be seen as a "bastardization of linguistic rules" from the perspective of someone who lives in a different place or a different time. In my comment below your post I teased you about the dangling participle in your first sentence. Some people would consider that sentence construction to be a "bastardization" of English; as a linguist, I don't care one way or the other, especially since I had no trouble inferring your intended meaning. Even the spelling of bastardization that you use would be considered a bastardization of the written form of English by those in the UK who would spell it bastardisation (although their complaints would not be entirely founded from a historical standpoint--see this blurb on -ize and -ise)!

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    Fair enough, on both counts! But it's not that this is the wrong place for your question. It's only the wrong place if you want experts in the field to take your side, haha! Linguists will be happy that the question was asked here, and they (we) will be happy to tell you that the answer is "There are no good linguistic reasons to retain those spelling distinctions." Aug 12, 2015 at 20:21
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    Well, what good reasons are there to retain the spelling distinctions then? Why don't we collectively abandon them today, informal and formal writing both, aside from 'because that's the way it was done before'?
    – Ehryk
    Aug 12, 2015 at 20:23
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    Because changes to spelling and prescriptive grammar conventions are not precipitated in that way in our society. We might indeed abandon them if we lived in Communist China and a mandate were passed down from the ruling party that "from now on ther shall only be one 'ther' in written communications" (as they did when they simplified the Chinese writing system starting in the 50s). Aug 12, 2015 at 20:33
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    There are rules, but they change over time--even within a lifetime. If and when I have a child, I will teach her the prescriptive rules of grammar and spelling (just as my English teacher mother did with me--that's how your dangling participle caught my eye), but I will adhere to the "rules" at that time, some of which will be different from the ones my mom taught me. And I will do so merely because I know that our society equates "correct" grammar and spelling with being "well-educated" and it will give her a leg up in the world. Aug 12, 2015 at 20:43
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    Well, yes, I agree with your friend. I concede that a person's ability to pick up and adhere to the highly complex "rules" of spelling and grammar may reflect on her capacity to learn and think analytically in general, but there are many forms of intelligence, and many valuable minds can fall through the cracks if we use prescriptive spelling and grammar as a main metric for intellect. Aug 12, 2015 at 20:59

The only reasons I can come up with are these:

  • to avoid or reduce semantic ambiguity
  • to keep tract of the word's history

In Czech orthography, for instance, we keep both <y> and <i>, and both <ý> and <í>, although their pronunciations have merged to [ɪ], and [], respectively, in most varieties of the language. While it helps the reader to distinguish <bit> "beaten" from <byt> (both pronounced [bɪt]) "flat/apartment", and <bít> "to beat" from <být> (both pronounced [biːt]) "to be", it has a major impact on school children who have to memorize close sets of words preserving the <y>'s and <ý>'s.

Another example from Czech is the use of graphemes for voiced obstruents (such as [d], [ɡ], [b], [z]) in devoicing environments or their voiceless counterparts in voicing environments to maintain the underlying phonological information to some extent. This, unlike the <y/ý>/<i/í> distinction, can actually make things easier for learners, who usually retrieve the underlying information from the various inflected forms anyway, hence they know, for example, they have to write <plod> [plɔt] "a fruit", because the genitiv singular is pronounced [plɔdu], and they know they have to write <plot> "a fence", because the genitive singular is pronounced [plɔtu] etc.

So the answer is not simple at all and depends largely on your preferences as a reader or learner, as well as various properties of the language in question plus its orthographical system. Notice that one of the main obstacles Czech learners of English have to face is the high level of spelling unpredictability (spelling-to-pronunciation mapping and meaning-to-spelling choices) and I also remember reading an article mentioning the very same kind of problems pre-to-early-school native speakers of English have to face (which is why it seems to take them much longer to acquire basic reading and writing skills than it takes children trying to acquire a more predictable orthographical system, such as the Czech one). On the other hand, of course, learning the English spelling system trains learners' memory, which could be considered a pro rather than a con.

For what it's worth, being a non-native speaker (and forever a learner) of English, I would welcome a radical reform leading to a simplification and regularization of the English spelling system. :-)

  • From our discussion, he would discount the second point of keeping tract of the word's history, is irrelevant and just because it's how it has been done, does not mean it's the way it should be done.
    – Ehryk
    Aug 12, 2015 at 15:07
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    OK, to completely discard the history is something that a big portion of Czech linguists and intellectuals - and perhaps even the public - would oppose heavily. To some extent, it must be similar in other nations. The special spellings linked to the historical version of the words preserve the cultural identity and continuity. The number of examples in Czech is much greater. Pavel hasn't mentioned "ů" vs "ú". Both are pronounced the same but "ů", with the circle above "u", is the long "u" which used to be spelled and pronounced "uo" - e.g. kuoň/horse. It evolved to "ô" (o with hat) in Slovak. Aug 12, 2015 at 15:36
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    But even imported words such as president. We "mostly" spell it "prezident" in Czech these days because it has been pronounced in this way for quite some time - not only but especially thanks to the influence from Russia etc. But lots of intellectuals would insist on the spelling (and pronunciation!) "president" because it comes from the Latin "presedere". Every broken link to the ancient cultural languages turns us into savages more than before. Not everyone agrees with this concern but many people do and it's counterproductive to pretend that this concern does not exist. Aug 12, 2015 at 15:38
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    @LubošMotl I completely agree with you, Luboš. Perhaps, my second point should have been more general: to preserve continuity. I think, however, it is also about a certain level of balance between "preservationism" and "reformism". Clearly, there are pros and cons on both sides. By radical I don't necessarily mean total in the sence of a 100% 1-to-1 mapping, anyway. I'm aware unifying <ie>, <ee>, <ea>, <ae>, <oe>, <eCV> etc. (all capable of representing /i/ in English) would already seem insurmountably radical to many preservationists. :-) Aug 12, 2015 at 18:01
  • @PavelJetušek - exactly. It's always easier to be a reformer when the reformed object is some other nation's language (or its system), something we don't care about and we haven't grown an emotional tie to. But one should realize the expected reaction of a modest proposal, e.g. to bring English spelling closer to a pragmatic phonetic script. Hau meny Britnz end Emériknz vůd akčuely supórt sač a čendž θat is sou obvijsly dyzajreble. Hau many bougus konzrvatif argjuments agejnst θ refórm vůd be rejzd? Even to teač them to write š e.g. in bullšit would be harder than it was for Mr John Huss. Aug 12, 2015 at 19:31

If you go to the Middle English Dictionary, you will see what English looks like when words are spelled according to the way they sound.



Of course, words are spoken differently in different parts of a country and in different parts of the world, and pronunciation changes over time.

So, even if we could "decide" on a normalized spelling for each English word (New York accent wins? London? Los Angeles?) the spellings would eventually get out of sync with the sound, and for many speakers they would be out of sync from the get-go.

One also wants to preserve the ability to read what is already written. Do you want people 100 years from now not able to read what is written today? How easy do you find Middle English? or even Elizabethan English?

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    I understand some people might want to be able to read old texts (like myself), but how is that relevant to the majority? Moreover, now that we have spent some time in the computerized 21st century, I don't see why we shouldn't be able to (1) either transliterate older texts or (2) translate them if necessary, all within a relatively short transitional period, during which the two systems could coexist. You also seem to neglect grammatical change and semantic shifts, which might have impacts exceeding those of phonological developments and orthographical reforms. Aug 12, 2015 at 18:19

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