When a C is Just a C

A post from two years ago revived from a now defunct blog:

I’m not in for simplifying English’s orthography. The vestiges of languages and pronunciations long gone in the written appearance of English is a delight. That English is now a cross between logographic and phonetic styles of writing (phlegm looks suitably sicklier than flem) is something to be celebrated, never maligned. I usually consider George Bernard Shaw and Gough Whitlam to be my fellow travellers, but on the subject of spelling reform, there’s certainly a u of difference in the colour of our stripes (Shaw funded the development of Shavian, an ugly, other-worldly, 48-letter alphabet specifically designed so that English is efficiently and phonetically spelt; and, believe it or not, Gough Whitlam changed the Ministry of Health’s name to the Ministry of Helth!)

Nevertheless, my soft spot for the spelling of the English language has not precluded me from pondering on occasion that, of all the letters of the alphabet, c is the most insidiously power mad and undeservingly prevalent. I freely admit that I regularly curse the evil, usurping letter that so often stands in the way of k and s, and slowly over to the dark side of spelling reform I have crept, dreaming of the day c might get its comeuppance.

Happily I’m in Indonesia, and here c knows its place. With the advent of the colonial powers, Indonesian, in its earlier guise as Malay, was turned over to the Roman script from another adapted from the Arabic in the seventeenth century. This meant that the script adapters could do as crazed English spelling reformers have only dreamt of doing and apply the Roman alphabet to an unsuspecting language from scratch. And, quite rightly, these Roman-script appliers wrote a k for k, an s for s and left c with the sole responsibility of looking after its only irreplaceable purpose in English, that of tag-teaming with h so as to represent the sound written as ch. But in Indonesian, c does not usurp the representational rights of its alphabetical brethren, so c requires no h as back up when performing the only role it should be performing. Hence, cuci, the very excellent word for wash, is pronounced in Indonesian as if it were written as choochi in English, and no one is ever confused.

So in Indonesia, I’m mostly at ease whenever I look over a piece of text. Sure, I can’t for the most part understand what’s written, but I know that a c is a c and it’s pronounced as if it were ch in English. Of course, now that I’ve got what I wanted, now that I know that Indonesian spelling is far more equitable than English’s and there is no unwarranted trespassing going on, I miss scissors, I miss cents and scents, I miss concision and I miss cholera. There’s a humdrum utilitarianism in Indonesian’s spelling regime, a utilitarianism that has certainly been most helpful over the past couple of weeks since I’ve arrived in Jakarta, but a utilitarianism that has left me longing for the drama of the logographic and the etymological, where words have colour, not kulla, and from miles away I can spot a Greek influence in my chrysanthemums.

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