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Economix of Fonix

March 1, 2012

English has screwed up spelling. I think it would be worthwhile to try to reform it, but reform would be tremendously costly and faces game theory problems. Even if the reform were limited to the U.S., that still involves modifying the spelling for 300,000,000+ people. I think such a huge change would be better done slowly over time, with “both spellings acceptable” time periods. Still, I think an easier-to-learn English would be tremendously beneficial, not just for native speakers, but also for the billions of people who use English as a second language.

Path Dependencies
What arrangements are around today depend not just on what is optimal today, but what was optimal in the past. For an inefficient institution to change, the benefits of changing must exceed the costs at some point in time. A comparison of present values is not enuf. Such path dependencies are often overstated, but they do exist. For example, QWERTY keyboards are neither alphabetic, or based on which keys are hit most often. However, changing the standard would require everyone to relearn typing. Supporters of the Dvorak keyboard say that typing becomes faster, altho the evidence for this claim is inconclusive. Another example is the U.S. customary units vs. the metric system. The metric system is significantly better, but because people would have to relearn it and specify sizes, etc etc, America sticks to the standard measurement system.

Language has path dependencies as well. Language is a coordination game: it doesn’t matter what word you use for a concept or object, so long as everyone else around you uses the same word. Because everyone wants to do the same as what everyone else does, changing things can be very difficult. New speakers of the language coordinate with all current speakers, so they follow the same path. Unless most people change all at once, the change will drift back towards the initial arrangement. One way to think about irregular spellings is as local maximum, which differs from the global maximum. No one wants to move away from the local maximum, but there are better overall outcomes.

Top Down vs. Spontaneous order
In most situations, spontaneous orders are superior to top down orders. Spontaneous orders allow for evolution of institutions, they reflect the consensus, and they utilize dispersed knowledge. However, I think top down plans are better for solving coordination problems. The government often serves as a focal point, and can impose one order long enough to jump from one path to another.

Peacock Grammar
Proper grammer serves as a signal for intelligence, like a peacock’s tail signals health. People demonstrate their erudition by flawlessly invoking obscure rules and spellings. The more complex and counter-intuitive a rule is, the better it serves to show off one’s skill at learning language. Even opinionated reformers are trapped by a prisoner’s dilemma. Since fonitik spellings are often confused for mistakes, you can’t switch by yourself, or everyone will think you are an idiot.

Further reading
The Economist on spelling reform

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