Steven Pinker on English spelling
Folgendes ist ein Ausschnitt aus einem sehr erfolgreichen Buch, das auch in deutscher Übersetzung vorliegt (gebunden bei Kindler, als Taschenbuch bei Knaur).
The Language Instinct
The New Science of Language and Mind
New York 1994, S. 190 f.
Obviously, alphabets do not and should not correspond to sounds; at best they correspond to the phonemes specified in the mental dictionary. The actual sounds are different in different contexts, so true phonetic spelling would only obscure their underlying identity. The surface sounds are predictable by phonological rules, though, so there is no need to clutter up the page with symbols for the actual sounds; the reader needs only the abstract blueprint for a word and can flesh out the sound if needed. Indeed, for about eighty-four percent of English words, spelling is completely predictable from regular rules. Moreover, since dialects separated by time and space often differ most in the phonological rules that convert mental dictionary entries into pronunciations, a spelling corresponding to the underlying entries, not the sounds, can be widely shared. The words with truly weird spellings (like of, people, women, have, said, do, done, and give) generally are the commonest ones in the language, so there is ample opportunity for everyone to memorize them.
Even the less predictable aspects of spelling bespeak hidden linguistic regularities. Consider the following pairs of words where the same letters get different pronunciations:
Once again the similar spellings, despite differences in pronunciation, are there for a reason: they are identifying two words as being based on the same root morpheme. This shows that English spelling is not completely phonemic; sometimes letters encode phonemes, but
sometimes a sequence of letters is specific to a morpheme. And a morphemic writing system is more useful than you might think. The goal of reading, after all, is to understand the text, not to pronounce it. A morphemic spelling can help a reader distinguishing homophones, like meet and mete. It can also tip off a reader that one word contains another (and not just a phonologically identical imposter). For example, spelling tells us that overcome contains come, so we know that its past tense must be overcame, whereas succumb just contains the sound kum, not the morpheme come, so its past tense is not succame but succumbed. Similarly, when something recedes, one has a recession, but when someone re-seeds a lawn, we have a re-seeding.
In some ways, a morphemic writing system has served the Chinese well, despite the inherent disadvantage that readers are at a loss when they face a new or rare word. Mutually unintelligible dialects can share texts (even if their speakers pronounce the words very differently), and many documents that are thousands of years old are readable by modern speakers. Mark Twain alluded to such inertia in our own Roman writing system when he wrote, They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce.
Of course English spelling could be better than it is. But it is already much better than people think it is. That is because writing systems do not aim to represent the actual sounds of talking, which we do not hear, but the abstract units of language underlying them, which we do hear.
(*Nicht zufällig enthält diese Aufzeichnung kein einziges Wortpaar germanischer Abstammung. Über foot feet könnte man z. B. in diesem Zusammenhang nachdenken, R. M.)