Notes on Chomsky's Near-optimal English Spelling

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Vivian Cook

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Chomsky, N. & Halle, M. (1968) The Sound Pattern of English, Harper & Row

‘an optimal orthography would have one representation for each lexical entry’

‘the fundamental principle of orthography ... that phonetic variation is not indicated where it is predictable by a general rule’

‘conventional orthography is ... a near optimal system for the lexical representation of English words’.

Chomsky, N. (1972), ‘Phonology and reading’ in Levin, H. (ed.), Basic Processes in Reading, Harper and Row, p.3-18

‘In short conventional orthography is much closer than one might guess to an optimal orthography, an orthography that presents no redundant information and that indicates directly by direct letter-to-segment correspondence, the underlying lexical form of the spoken language’

Chomsky, Carol (1970), ‘Reading, writing and phonology’, Harvard Educational Review, 40, 2, 287-309
‘What the foreigner lacks is just what the child already possesses, a knowledge of the phonological rules of English that relate underlying representations to sounds.’

Phonological variation ignored in spelling

A. Alternations of two or more phonological forms

/ei/ vs // nation, national, nationalist, nationalistic, nationality, ...
nature, natural, naturist
/i:/ vs /e/ extreme/extremity
/k/ vs /s/ medicate, medicine
critic, criticise
/g/ vs /d/ sagacity, sage
prodigal, prodigious

/g/ vs /d/
photograph, photographer
/a:/ vs // vs //
telegraph, telegraphic, telegraphy

B. Preservation of a grammatical morpheme’s identity despite allomorphs

present tense "-s" likes /s/, plays /z/
past tense "-ed" liked /t/, played /d/

C. ‘Silent’ letters pronounced in some forms

/g/ sign, signature, assignation, resignation, ...
/b/ bomb, bombardier,
bombastic?, bombazine?, ...

Yule, V. (1991), Orthographic Factors in Reading: Spelling and Society, Ph.D., Monash (in Essex Library PE 1150.Y8)

Implications for English

i) Related words should retain their visual similarity
ii) Inflections should have a stable representation
iii) Vowels in unstressed syllables should retain the spellings of the stressed vowels in
related words (as if in formal speech)
iv) Regular vowel alternations in stressed syllables should retain their single vowel
spelling (e.g. sane/sanity)
v) The question of representing irregular stress should be taken seriously

Orthographic changes in morphemes in related words

(based on a sample of derived morphemes from the spelling list issued by the Victorial Education Dept, Australia)

‘under 6% of irregular spellings ... could be attributed to Chomskyan representation of underlying lexical structure that overrode pronunciation changes’

Table 1 Phonological changes unaccompanied by changes in orthographic representation, as predicted by rules such as Chomsky's generative spelling (inflections and changes in stress are disregarded)

accident/accidental animal/animate

bath/bathe

because/cause

causal /causality

breathing/breath/breathe

bury/buries/burial

carry/carrier/carriage

centre/central

century/centennial

child/children

climate/climatic

college/collegiate

company/companion

continue/continuity

decagram/decimal decide/decision

decorate/decorative

distance/distant

divide/division

duty/dutiful

easy/ease

explore/exploration

factor/factory/factorial

family/familiar

figure/figurative

finish/final/finite

heal/health (but hale)

hear/hearing/heard

history/historic/story

hysteria/hysteric

image/imagine import/important

industry/industrial

meaning/meant

money/monetary

nation/national

nature/natural

necessity/necessitous

one/only

pleasant/please

practice/practical

reader/read

study/studious

use/useful

variety/various/invariant

Table 2 Counter-Chomsky. Related words which change spelling but not phonology

able/ability
capable/capability etc
favour/favorite
fire/fiery
four/forty
high/height

honour/honorable, etc.

jelly/gelid
labour/laboring
speak/speech
stable/stability
strategy/stratagem

Table 3. Related words that change both spelling and phonology

alive/living/live/live/life

angry/anger

asleep/slept

awake/woken

became/become/becoming

began/begin

believe/belief

best/better

blood/bleed/bled

break/broken

bring/brought

bring/brought

brother/brethren

build/built/building

busy/business

buy/bought

came/come/coming

carry/carries/carriage

castle/castellan/chatelaine

catch/caught

chosen/choose/choice

contain/contents

creep/crept

dead/death/die/dying

despair/desperate

did/do/does/deed

dig/dug/digging

double/duo/dual

drank/drink/drunk/draught

enemy/enemies/inimical

example/exemplar

explain/explanation

fall/fell/falling

fear/afraid/fright

feel/felt/feeling

fight/fought

five/fifth/fifty

fling/flung

food /feed/ fed

forgot/forget/forgotten

freight/fraught

giant/gigantic

give/given/gift

got/get (gotten)

has/had/have

heave/heaved/heavy /heft

hold/held/holding

hungry/hunger

just/judge/judicial

keep/kept

kneel/knelt/kneeling

language/linguistic/lingual

least/less

leave/left/leaving

lion/leonine

lost/loose/loss

machine/machination/
mechanical

man/men/women

marry/marital /marriage

matter/material

meet/met

mistake/mistook/mistaken

process/proceed

repeat/repetitive

retain/retention

sank/sink/sunk/sinking

see/saw/sight

seek/sought

slay/slew/slaughter

sleep/slept

strive/striven/strife

success/succeed

take/took/taken

teach/taught

thought/think

three/thirty

treble/trio/triple

twelve/twelfth

two/twice/twenty

verity/verities/veridical

was /were/ is

weave/weft/woven

won/win

English past tense forms (also paper)

Nonverbs

/d/            /t/           /id/ VC
bird          belt         talented

Regular Past Verbs <ed>

/d/           /t/          /id/        <d>=/d/ /t/ after <e>
called     dressed     waited       used

Irregular Past Verbs

/d/       /t/         V change     no change VC
found    felt          ran                hit

ortho <gh>   doubling    addition of <t> VC
bought           rubbed          bent

  

Result of L2 experiment with 65 Ss misc L1s (VC unpublished)

Note: Treiman (1997) says greater use of <t> for flapped /d/ in <dirty> and /d/ for flapped /d/ in <duty> shows morphological knowledge; also preservation of <t> in <waited> (flapped) as opposed to <wait> non-flap.