Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt

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Change comes slowly

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers recently. In chapter 8, "Rice Paddies and Math Tests" he describes how much faster, simpler, and easier it is to work with Chinese numbers than numbers in other languages, such as English. His argument is fairly compelling, and it makes you wonder: why haven't we adopted the superior system globally?

well_lahdidah immediately pointed out Americans still haven't adopted the metric system, except for drug dealers and scientists.

It made me wonder about the switch from Roman numerals to the clearly superior Arabic numerals. I did a little quick research on the Internet, and it turns out that Arabic numerals are actually of Indian origin, are around 1400 years old, and gained foothold in Baghdad in about 1100 years ago. From there, it took another 300 years or so before Fibonacci got ahold of them in Europe, at which time scholars started using them. But it really wasn't until the printing press another 300 years later that they were truly adopted by the masses. It took roughly 900 years for this good idea to propagate!

Of course, things moved slowly then: knowledge and ideas had to travel in caravans just like spices and gold, and were probably written laboriously on sheepskin by the light of a dim oil lamp. Maybe now that we have the Internet, things could happen a little faster.

Language change is another area that interest me, in particular the Simplified Spelling movement in the U.S. in the early 1900s. That had the backing of prominent authorities and the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, and some small part it worked: catalogue is an anachronism in the U.S., colour and behaviour belong the Brits, and we need fiber in our diets rather than fibre. Other measures were not as successful, and we still write though instead of tho if we expect to be taken seriously. I think part of its success, other than that the changes were small and of little consequence, was that it was seen as patriotic to differentiate American English from English abroad.

I read the abstract of an academic study some months back, from which I drew the most outrageous and conclusions of perhaps dubious merit, but with that caveat let me continue: it said that a study was done of the reading ability of Greek schoolchildren that found the differences between strong readers and poor readers were largely eliminated by the 2nd or 3rd grade. The idea was, if I remember correctly, that modern Greek has a simple and clear orthography, and given a few years, everyone catches up. The conclusion I drew is that modern Greek is an inherently democratic language, and that, by comparison, English is not.

Although I will admit to occasionally writing hiccough for hiccup, I agree that a simpler orthography would probably go a long way to help people learn English, whether as a first language or second, third fourth, or fifth. Why do we need ph anyway? Why should a gh sound like an f? Why does a c sound like a k or an s when we already have those perfectly good letters to do the job? I have been occasionally concerned that without those clues we might overlook the origin of the words: a soft c is from a Romance language, a rough gh from a Germanic language, etc. But does that really matter to the average writer? Is any particular nuance lost? Sure, it would really shake up spelling bees, but I'm not sure I see the drawbacks. I think text messaging may soon speed up the adoption of some simpler spellings, and we'll all lol instead of laf, laff, or laugh, to think back on these clumsier times.

I am starting to wonder, though, if the world could be a smarter and fairer place if we removed a few roadblocks and all learned to count in Chinese and speak and write modern Greek. Kalimera!
Tags: books, chinese, english, greek, language, malcolm gladwell, math, numbers, numerals, simplified spelling
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