Chomsky wasn't right — wait, how was that spelled again? Write, no, that's not it ... rite?
Perhaps we need a rite to figure out the right way to write right.
In any case, it seems Chomsky was wrong.
That's the conclusion of a study titled "English orthography is not 'close to optimal' " coming out of the University of Alberta. Specifically, the study disproves the linguist's famous quote, where he said English orthography (spelling) was "close to optimal."
The argument was put forward in the well-known intellectual's book — co-written with Morris Halle — The Sound Pattern of English.
'We were very interested in not just arguing it, but showing it is incorrect.' - Greg Kondrak
Greg Kondrak, co-author of the U of A study and a professor in the department of computing sciences, called the book "one of the most important books in phonology that exists" and added that "Chomsky is arguably the most influential linguist in the world."
Chomsky is famous, as a linguist, a philosopher, as a political activist.
"Whatever Noam Chomsky says, people pay attention to," Kondrak said. "When I saw that statement (from the The Sound Pattern of English), it just didn't seem right. We were very interested in not just arguing it, but showing it is incorrect."
Kondrak teamed up with co-author Garrett Nicolai, a graduate student in the Department of Computing Science who also has a linguistics degree. They talked to linguists who told them that few people actually take Chomsky's claim seriously. So the two decided to put the theory to the test.
To accomplish that, they used exactly what you would think to use when testing languages. That's right, algorithms.
'Unlike other languages, Spanish, for example, there are no hard and fast rules in English for pronunciation.' - Greg Kondrak
The two used a transliteration program called DirecTL+, which was developed at the University of Alberta. The program translates English letters to individual units of speech sounds. They used that breakdown to create a baseline to predict how a word would be pronounced based on spelling.
It turned out to be a difficult task.
"Unlike other languages, Spanish, for example, there are no hard and fast rules in English for pronunciation," said Kondrak.
"And that's not only for people learning English as a second language, even the native speakers are often not sure how to pronounce words."
They tested 51,000 words and their derived forms.
Using what they gleaned from the information, they found that, as the study title suggests, "traditional English orthography was found not only to be lacking — it was, in fact, the farthest from optimal out of any of the systems."
Kondrak, citing another study, said English is three times more difficult than German, and 40 times more difficult than Spanish.
He said there are two major reasons why English is so wonky. First, many words are still spelled in their original Latin or Greek. Second, other words are spelled like they were pronounced 500 years ago, but that has since changed.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, according to this study, Chomsky was rong.
English is hard.