Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for U

“Thank u,” I tapped the letters on my phone and pressed “Send”. Bleep.
“But in English ‘u’ does not equal ‘you’,” my Dutch friend texted back. Bleep.
“But you understand that ‘u’ = ‘you’.” I thumbed the key pad. Bleep.
“That doesn’t make it right,” he texted back. Bleep. I put my phone down and turning to Benny beside me looked him in the eye.
“What are you—the spelling police?” 

When I first started texting I told myself I would always type things grammatically and correctly. “You” would always be “you”; “my fabulous friends” would always be “my fabulous friends” and “Thank goodness it’s Friday” would always be “TGIF”. But I haven’t, I don’t and I won’t. Clearly I’ve broken this promise to myself. 

In texting I take shortcuts with my spelling and quite some time ago I started typing “you” with the letter “u”. After all, the sound is the same so my typing is just reflecting the pronunciation. Little did I know that my little laziness in texting reflects what’s happened to the Dutch language over the last 1,000 years.

Dutch is spoken from Friesland to Amsterdam to Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels. Even today the pronunciation of Dutch varies between the populations of these cities with Amsterdammers having a harder accent where the /g/ sound resembles a person with a pulmonary infection hacking up a lung. Meanwhile Brusselaars have a softer accent where /g/ sounds like a person with a lisp, laughing—hee, hee. Understandably, the accents in the other cities fluctuate between these two extremes. 

Therefore it isn’t any surprise that a millennium ago when Dutch speakers transcribed their language that they wrote the words down exactly how they pronounced them. This created slight differences in the spelling of the language which continued for centuries. Finally in 1804 the government decided to standardize the spelling and grammar of the Dutch language making it the same throughout the Netherlands and Belgium. The idea was to have the pronunciation of the word be reflected in the spelling of said word. Although the spelling of the diphthong letter IJ was introduced at this time, other changes were not embraced by some of the population. Afterall people get attached to their language and don’t like others changing it. 

But once you start changing the spelling of a language it’s a slippery slope—for when do you stop? The Academy of the Dutch Language, the Nederlandse Taalunie, didn’t know for it revised the language’s spelling again in 1844, 1864, 1883, 1934, 1946, 1947, 1996 and 2006. 

One good change in 1946 was to rid words of letters that were never pronounced. Therefore the Dutch word for “fish” pronounced /vis/ changed its spelling from visch to vis. If anyone knows about the spelling police, it’s the Dutch.

“It must have been hard in the beginning but now I’m glad Dutch standardized and simplified its spelling system,” Benny said stirring four cubes of sugar into a caffe latte. “Why don’t you change the spelling of English?”
“Noah Webster made some spelling changes to American English in the 19th century to differentiate ourselves from England, which is why U.S. prisoners go to “jail” and British ones to ‘gaol’.”
“But there’s still so much confusion in English. Take ‘gh’—it can sound like /f/ in ‘laugh’ or /o/ in ‘dough’.”
“What spelling revision would we take? American English or British English?”
“Why not a little of both?”
“English is too international. We can’t change its spelling now because people are attached to their form of it and don’t want others changing it.”
“Ah, hah!” Benny said stabbing the air. “That’s why you should type ‘you’—not ‘u’—in your text messages.” 

When foreigners point out my mistakes in my own language, they leave me speechless. So I texted my Dutch friend.

“Thank you.” Bleep!