chapter  11
14 Pages

Accent variation reflected in the standard writing system of English

ByJesper Kruse

The notion of a standard writing system for present-day English ought to be relatively uncontroversial: subtle differences between British and American spelling aside, English words in general come with only one acceptable spelling, with all other spellings falling outside of the standard. It is infinitely more difficult to apply the same rigid notion of a standard to the spoken language because speech by its very nature admits a considerable degree of both social and geographical variation that is seldom tolerated or reflected in the writing system. Thus, depending on geographical and social circumstances, individual speakers of English may pronounce the word pot as, for example, [pʰɑt], [p˭ɔʈ] or [pʰɒʔ], but for the purpose of formal writing they must all learn to spell it <pot>. This basic problem – that English orthography must cater to a wealth of different accents, both social and geographical ones, each with its own phonetic characteristics and phonemic contrasts – has been acknowledged by spelling theorists for centuries, particularly by those who favour phonetic transparency as an orthographical ideal. Renaissance writers like Sir Thomas Smith, Francis Clement and Edmund Coote all comment explicitly on the matter (Salmon 1999: 15-18), but for our purposes it seems more pertinent to quote Daniel Jones’s rather more recent observation:

The chief cause of difference for English [between an “orthography” and an exact phonetic representation of pronunciation] is that people in different parts of the country speak differently, and that what is a phonetic representation of a word for one person is not necessarily phonetic for another.