For centuries, there has been a movement to reform the spelling of English. It seeks to change English spelling so that it is more consistent, matches pronunciation better, and follows the alphabetic principle.
Common motives for spelling reform include making it easier to learn to read (decode), to spell, and to pronounce, making it more useful for international communication, reducing educational budgets (reducing literacy teachers, remediation costs, and literacy programs) and/or enabling teachers and learners to spend more time on more important subjects or expanding subjects.
Most spelling reform proposals are moderate; they use the traditional English alphabet, try to maintain the familiar shapes of words, and try to maintain common conventions (such as silent e). However, some proposals are more radical and may involve adding letters and symbols or even creating a new alphabet. Some reformers prefer a gradual change implemented in stages, while others favour an immediate and total reform. A more moderate approach advocates for a careful implementation that would be introduced at the Grade 1 level, by waves, one grade at a time, sparing current literate learners from having to learn the new system.
Some spelling reform proposals have been adopted partially or temporarily. Many of the spellings preferred by Noah Webster have become standard in the United States, but have not been adopted elsewhere (see American and British English spelling differences). Harry Lindgren's proposal, SR1, was popular in Australia at one time.
Spelling reform has rarely attracted widespread public support, sometimes due to organized resistance and sometimes due to lack of interest. There are linguistic arguments against reform; for example that the origins of words may be obscured. There are also many obstacles to reform: this includes the effort and money that may be needed to implement a wholesale change, the lack of an English language authority or regulator, and the challenge of getting people to accept spellings to which they are unaccustomed.
Modern English spelling developed from about AD 1350 onwards, when—after three centuries of Norman French rule—English gradually became the official language of England again, although very different from before 1066, having incorporated many words of French origin (battle, beef, button, etc.). Early writers of this new English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, gave it a fairly consistent spelling system, but this was soon diluted by Chancery clerks who re-spelled words based on French orthography. English spelling consistency was dealt a further blow when William Caxton brought the printing press to London in 1476. Having lived in mainland Europe for the preceding 30 years, his grasp of the English spelling system had become uncertain. The Belgian assistants he brought to help him set up his business had an even poorer command of it.
As printing developed, printers began to develop individual preferences or "house styles". Furthermore, typesetters were paid by the line and were fond of making words longer. However, the biggest change in English spelling consistency occurred between 1525, when William Tyndale first translated the New Testament, and 1539, when King Henry VIII legalized the printing of English bibles in England. The many editions of these bibles were all printed outside England by people who spoke little or no English. They often changed spellings to match their Dutch orthography. Examples include the silent h in ghost (to match Dutch gheest, which later became geest), aghast, ghastly and gherkin. The silent h in other words—such as ghospel, ghossip and ghizzard—was later removed.
There have been two periods when spelling reform of the English language has attracted particular interest.
16th and 17th centuries AD
The first of these periods was from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th centuries AD, when a number of publications outlining proposals for reform were published. Some of these proposals were:
These proposals generally did not attract serious consideration because they were too radical or were based on an insufficient understanding of the phonology of English. However, more conservative proposals were more successful. James Howell in his Grammar of 1662 recommended minor changes to spelling, such as changing logique to logic, warre to war, sinne to sin, toune to town and tru to true. Many of these spellings are now in general use.
From the 16th century AD onward, English writers who were scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to link English words to their Graeco-Latin counterparts. They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek akhos), and so forth.
William Shakespeare satirized the disparity between English spelling and pronunciation. In his play Love's Labour's Lost, the character Holofernes is "a pedant" who insists that pronunciation should change to match spelling, rather than simply changing spelling to match pronunciation. For example, Holofernes insists that everyone should pronounce the unhistorical B in words like doubt and debt.
The second period started in the 19th century and appears to coincide with the development of phonetics as a science. In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as color and center, would become hallmarks of American English. In 1807, Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. It was published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.
In 1837, Isaac Pitman published his system of phonetic shorthand, while in 1848 Alexander John Ellis published A Plea for Phonetic Spelling. These were proposals for a new phonetic alphabet. Although unsuccessful, they drew widespread interest.
By the 1870s, the philological societies of Great Britain and America chose to consider the matter. After the "International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography" that was held in Philadelphia in August 1876, societies were founded such as the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association. That year, the American Philological Society adopted a list of eleven reformed spellings for immediate use. These were are→ar, give→giv, have→hav, live→liv, though→tho, through→thru, guard→gard, catalogue→catalog, (in)definite→(in)definit, wished→wisht. One major American newspaper that began using reformed spellings was the Chicago Tribune, whose editor and owner, Joseph Medill, sat on the Council of the Spelling Reform Association. In 1883, the American Philological Society and American Philological Association worked together to produce 24 spelling reform rules, which were published that year. In 1898, the American National Education Association adopted its own list of 12 words to be used in all writings: tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, program.
20th century onward
The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the United States in 1906. The SSB's original 30 members consisted of authors, professors and dictionary editors. Andrew Carnegie, a founding member, supported the SSB with yearly bequests of more than US$300,000. In April 1906, it published a list of 300 words, which included 157 spellings that were already in common use in American English. In August 1906, the SSB word list was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered the Government Printing Office to start using them immediately. However, in December 1906, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution and the old spellings were reintroduced. Nevertheless, some of the spellings survived and are commonly used in American English today, such as anaemia/anæmia→anemia and mould→mold. Others such as mixed→mixt and scythe→sithe did not survive. In 1920, the SSB published its Handbook of Simplified Spelling, which set forth over 25 spelling reform rules. The handbook noted that every reformed spelling now in general use was originally the overt act of a lone writer, who was followed at first by a small minority. Thus, it encouraged people to "point the way" and "set the example" by using the reformed spellings whenever they could. However, with its main source of funds cut off, the SSB disbanded later that year.
In Britain, the cause of spelling reform was promoted from 1908 by the Simplified Spelling Society and attracted a number of prominent supporters. One of these was George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion) and much of his considerable will was left to the cause. Among members of the society, the conditions of his will gave rise to major disagreements, which hindered the development of a single new system.
Between 1934 and 1975, the Chicago Tribune, then Chicago's biggest newspaper, used a number of reformed spellings. Over a two-month spell in 1934, it introduced 80 respelled words, including tho, thru, thoro, agast, burocrat, frate, harth, herse, iland, rime, staf and telegraf. A March 1934 editorial reported that two-thirds of readers preferred the reformed spellings. Another claimed that "prejudice and competition" was preventing dictionary makers from listing such spellings. Over the next 40 years, however, the newspaper gradually phased out the respelled words. Until the 1950s, Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries listed many reformed spellings, including the SSB's 300, alongside the conventional spellings.
In 1949, a Labour MP, Dr Mont Follick, introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons, which failed at the second reading. In 1953, he again had the opportunity, and this time it passed the second reading by 65 votes to 53. Because of anticipated opposition from the House of Lords, the bill was withdrawn after assurances from the Minister of Education that research would be undertaken into improving spelling education. In 1961, this led to James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet, introduced into many British schools in an attempt to improve child literacy. Although it succeeded in its own terms, the advantages were lost when children transferred to conventional spelling. After several decades, the experiment was discontinued.
In his 1969 book Spelling Reform: A New Approach, the Australian linguist Harry Lindgren proposed a step-by-step reform. The first, Spelling Reform step 1 (SR1), called for the short /ɛ/ sound (as in bet) to always be spelled with <e> (for example friend→frend, head→hed). This reform had some popularity in Australia.
In 2013, University of Oxford Professor of English Simon Horobin proposed that variety in spelling be acceptable. For example, he believes that it doesn't matter whether words such as "accommodate" and "tomorrow" are spelled with double letters. Note that this proposal doesn't fit within the definition of spelling reform used by, for example, Random House Dictionary.
Arguments for reform
It is argued that spelling reform would make it easier to learn to read (decode), to spell, and to pronounce, making it more useful for international communication, reducing educational budgets (reducing literacy teachers, remediation costs, and literacy programs) and/or enabling teachers and learners to spend more time on more important subjects or expanding subjects.
Advocates note that spelling reforms have taken place already, just slowly and often not in an organized way. There are many words that were once spelled un-phonetically but have since been reformed. For example, music was spelled musick until the 1880s, and fantasy was spelled phantasy until the 1920s. For a time, almost all words with the -or ending (such as error) were once spelled -our (errour), and almost all words with the -er ending (such as member) were once spelled -re (membre). In American spelling, most of them now use -or and -er, but in British spelling, only some have been reformed.
In the last 250 years, since Samuel Johnson prescribed how words ought to be spelled, pronunciations of hundreds of thousands of words (as extrapolated from Masha Bells' research on 7000 common words) have gradually changed, and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) has gradually been corrupted. Advocates argue that if we wish to keep English spelling regular, then spelling needs to be amended to account for the changes.
Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and thus today only partly holds to the alphabetic principle. As an outcome, English spelling is a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.
Most phonemes in English can be spelled more than one way. E.g. the words fear and peer contain the same sound in different spellings. Likewise, many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, such as the different pronunciations of the combination ough in words like through, though, thought, thorough, tough, trough, plough, and cough. These kinds of incoherences can be found throughout English spelling and pronunciation, and they cause extra difficulty in learning and practice and lead to uncertainty because of their sheer number.
Such ambiguity is particularly problematic in the case of heteronyms (homographs with different pronunciations that vary with meaning), such as bow, desert, live, read, tear, wind, and wound. In reading such words one must consider the context in which they are used, and this increases the difficulty of learning to read and pronounce English.
A closer relationship between phonemes and spellings would eliminate many exceptions and ambiguities and make the language easier to master.
Undoing the damage
Some proposed simplified spellings already exist as standard or variant spellings in old literature. As noted earlier, in the 16th century, some scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to make English words look more like their Graeco-Latin counterparts, at times even erroneously. They did this by adding silent letters, so det became debt, dout became doubt, sithe became scythe, iland became island, ake became ache, and so on. Some spelling reformers propose undoing these changes. Other examples of older spellings that are more phonetic include frend for friend (as on Shakespeare's grave), agenst for against, yeeld for yield, bild for build, cort for court, sted for stead, delite for delight, entise for entice, gost for ghost, harth for hearth, rime for rhyme, sum for some, tung for tongue, and many others. It was also once common to use -t for the ending -ed where it is pronounced as such (for example dropt for dropped). Some of the English language's most celebrated writers and poets have used these spellings and others proposed by today's spelling reformers. Edmund Spenser, for example, used spellings such as rize, wize and advize in his famous poem The Faerie Queene, published in the 1590s.
Many English words are based on French modifications (e.g., colour and analogue) even though they come from Latin or Greek.
The English alphabet has several letters whose characteristic sounds are already represented elsewhere in the alphabet. These include X, which can be realised as "ks", "gz", or z; soft G, which can be realised as J; hard C, which can be realised as K; soft C, which can be realised as S; and Q ("qu"), which can be realised as "kw", (or, simply, K in some cases). However, these spellings are usually retained to reflect their often-Latin roots.
Obstacles and criticisms
There are a number of barriers in the development and implementation of a reformed orthography for English:
- Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently strong, at least since the early 19th century, when spelling was codified by the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).
- English vocabulary is mostly a melding of Germanic, French, Latin and Greek words, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Some reform proposals tend to favour one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.
- Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural -s and possessive -'s are both pronounced differently in cat(')s (/s/) and dog(')s (/z/). The handling of this particular difficulty distinguishes morphemic proposals, which tend to spell such inflectional endings the same, from phonemic proposals that spell the endings according to their pronunciation.
- English is the only one of the top ten major languages that lacks a worldwide regulatory body with the power to promulgate spelling changes.
- The spellings of some words – such as tongue and stomach – are so unindicative of their pronunciation that changing the spelling would noticeably change the shape of the word. Likewise, the irregular spelling of very common words, such as is, are, have, done and of makes it difficult to fix them without introducing a noticeable change to the appearance of English text. This would create acceptance issues.
- Phonetic spelling reform could result in a multitude of different versions of written English, largely unintelligible across different accent-groups. Scottish writers might not be read by Indians. Americans would write whut and British wot for the same word.
- Spelling reform may make pre-reform writings harder to understand and read in their original form, often necessitating transcription and republication. Even today, few people choose to read old literature in the original spellings as most of it has been republished in modern spellings.
Writing conveys meaning, not phonemes
The main criticism of many purely phonemic reform proposals is that written language is not a purely phonemic analog of the spoken word. While reformers might argue that the units of understanding are phonemes, critics argue that the basic units are words. Some of the most phonemic spelling reform proposals might re-spell closely related words less alike than they are spelled now, such as electric, electricity and electrician, or (with full vowel reform) photo, photograph and photography. This argument applies even more strongly to technical words that appear more often in writing than in speech, and to words that are similar to or identical to the corresponding words in other languages.
However, there are also a great number of words in the current lexicon that look like they are related in their orthography, but that are not semantically related at all. These words would be respelled differently and remove the ambiguity in such words as are and area, rein and reinvent, river and rival, ampersand and ampere, caterpillar and cater, ready and readjust, man and many, now and nowhere, etc. False-positives are bound to occur no matter what system is used. What reformers want is for words to be spelt more closely to how they are pronounced and for the spelling rules to be adhered to more regularly and consistently across the whole lexicon.
Cognates in other languages
English is a West Germanic language that has borrowed many words from non-Germanic languages, and the spelling of a word often reflects its origin. This sometimes gives a clue as to the meaning of the word. Even if their pronunciation has strayed from the original pronunciation, the spelling is a record of the phoneme. The same is true for words of Germanic origin whose current spelling still resembles their cognates in other Germanic languages. Examples include light/ German Licht, knight/ German Knecht; ocean/ French océan, occasion/ French occasion. Critics argue that re-spelling such words could hide those links.
Spelling reformers argue that, although some of these links may be hidden by a reform, others would become more noticeable. For example, Axel Wijk's 1959 proposal Regularised English proposed changing height to hight, which would link it more closely to the related word high.
In some cases, English spelling of foreign words has diverged from the current spellings of those words in the original languages, such as the spelling of connoisseur that is now spelled connaisseur in French after a French-language spelling reform in the 19th century.
The orthographies of other languages do not pay special attention to preserving similar links to loanwords. English loanwords in other languages are commonly assimilated to the orthographical conventions of those languages and so such words have a variety of spellings that are sometimes difficult to recognise as English words.
Another criticism is that a reform might favor one dialect or pronunciation over others. Some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either). Some distinctions in regional accents are still marked in spelling. Examples include the distinguishing of fern, fir and fur that is maintained in Irish and Scottish English or the distinction between toe and tow that is maintained in a few regional dialects in England.
Reformers point out that learners learn accents before they see any spelling. Throughout their life, learners have a natural tendency to acquire and use the accent that they hear around them. Later, as learners learn to read, they naturally use and assign the correct allophones or accent they have learned to the right phonemes or words, as is currently happening and has been for centuries, with a spelling system that is phonemically more accurate or not so much. Moreover, dialectal accents exist in languages whose spelling is called phonemic, such as Spanish. If a reform were to happen, learners will use the correct accent for the right letters or combinations of letters (words), whether the spelling is phonemic or not. A reform will simply make the match more intuitive, possibly more regular or systematic than is currently the case. A spelling reform would only affect how we spell words, not how we say them. After a reform, English would still allow multiple pronunciations of a standard spelling, as it is currently the case, with no one struggling to use the correct pronunciation for an ambiguous spelling. Some reformers also suggest that a reform could actually make spelling more inclusive of regional dialects by allowing more spellings for such words.
Some reform proposals try to make too many spelling changes at once and do not allow for any transitional period where the old spellings and the new may be in use together. The problem is an overlap in words, where a particular word could be an unreformed spelling of one word or a reformed spelling of another, akin to false friends when learning a foreign language.
For example, a reform could re-spell wonder as wunder and wander as wonder. However, both cannot be done at once because this causes ambiguity. During any transitional period, is wonder the unreformed spelling of wonder or the reformed spelling of wander? This could be resolved by using the old wander with the new wunder. Other similar chains of words are device → devise → *devize, warm → worm → *wurm and rice → rise → *rize.
Some reformers would avoid these confusions completely. No literate person familiar with the current system would be required to learn the new system. The reform would be generational and happen in parallel for one generation. The reform would be introduced in schools first, starting at the Grade 1 level in the first year. The next year, another cohort would go to school and be taught the new spelling system, and the previous year's Grade 1 would continue to learn using the spelling system that they learned in their first year. This reform would take 12 years to implement, giving time for programmers to make transcoding programs that could transcode any text (on the internet or from digital files) into the old or the new spelling system, as needed. This would of course require a vastly improved image-to-text technology (such as OCR) than is available currently, as is demonstrated by the appalling standard of accuracy in scanning and converting to text for most books not published using modern fonts, or including foreign language passages using accents and other marks other than those regularly occurring in the most common languages with the best developed graphics-to-text technologies. This means that, until this problem is solved, all who have learnt the new system would not have access to such books. The first cohorts would need to learn to read public signs that would not be transcoded. People in the workforce not familiar with the new code or the old code would be able to use transcoding programs that would transcode on the fly whatever documents would be needed to be decoded.
Spelling reform proposals
See also: List of reforms of the English language
Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing the basic English alphabet or making a new one. All spelling reforms aim for greater regularity in spelling.
Using the basic English alphabet
Extending or replacing the basic English alphabet
These proposals seek to eliminate the extensive use of digraphs (such as "ch", "gh", "kn-", "-ng", "ph", "qu", "sh", voiced and voiceless "th", and "wh-") by introducing new letters and/or diacritics. The impetus for removing digraphs is so that each letter represents a single sound. In a digraph, the two letters do not represent their individual sounds but instead an entirely different and discrete sound, which can sometimes lead to mishaps in pronunciation, in addition to much lengthier words.
Notable proposals include:
Historical and contemporary advocates of reform
A number of respected and influential people have been active supporters of spelling reform.
- Orm/Orrmin, 12th century Augustine canon monk and eponymous author of the Ormulum, in which he stated that, since he dislikes the way that people are mispronouncing English, he will spell words exactly as they are pronounced, and describes a system whereby vowel length and value are indicated unambiguously. He distinguished short vowels from long by doubling the following consonants, or, where this is not feasible, by marking the short vowels with a superimposed breve accent.
- Thomas Smith, a Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I, who published his proposal De recta et emendata linguæ angliæ scriptione in 1568.
- William Bullokar was a schoolmaster who published his book English Grammar in 1586, an early book on that topic. He published his proposal Booke at large for the Amendment of English Orthographie in 1580.
- John Milton, poet.
- John Wilkins, founder member and first secretary of the Royal Society, early proponent of decimalisation and a brother-in-law to Oliver Cromwell.
- Charles Butler, British naturalist and author of the first natural history of bees: Đe Feminin` Monarķi`, 1634. He proposed that 'men should write altogeđer according to đe sound now generally received,' and espoused a system in which the h in digraphs was replaced with bars.
- James Howell was a documented, successful (if modest) spelling reformer, recommending, in his Grammar of 1662, minor spelling changes, such as 'logique' to 'logic', 'warre' to 'war', 'sinne' to 'sin', 'toune' to 'town' and 'true' to 'tru', many of which are now in general use.
- Benjamin Franklin, American innovator and revolutionary, added letters to the Roman alphabet for his own personal solution to the problem of English spelling.
- Samuel Johnson, poet, wit, essayist, biographer, critic and eccentric, broadly credited with the standardisation of English spelling into its pre-current form in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755).
- Noah Webster, author of the first important American dictionary, believed that Americans should adopt simpler spellings where available and recommended it in his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.
- Charles Dickens
- Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used system of shorthand, known now as Pitman Shorthand, first proposed in Stenographic Soundhand (1837).
- U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a committee, the Columbia Spelling Board, to research and recommend simpler spellings and tried to require the U.S. government to adopt them; however, his approach, to assume popular support by executive order, rather than to garner it, was a likely factor in the limited change of the time.
- Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson was a vice-president of the English Spelling Reform Association, precursor to the (Simplified) Spelling Society.
- Charles DarwinFRS, originator of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, was also a vice-president of the English Spelling Reform Association, his involvement in the subject continued by his physicist grandson of the same name.
- John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, close friend, neighbour and colleague of Charles Darwin, also involved in the Spelling Reform Association.
- H.G. Wells, science fiction writer and one-time Vice President of the London-based Simplified Spelling Society.
- Andrew Carnegie, celebrated philanthropist, donated to spelling reform societies on the US and Britain, and funded the Simplified Spelling Board.
- Daniel Jones, phonetician. professor of phonetics at University College London.
- George Bernard Shaw, playwright, willed part of his estate to fund the creation of a new alphabet now called the "Shavian alphabet".
- Mark Twain, a founding member of the Simplified Spelling Board.
- Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell
- Upton Sinclair
- Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, wrote published works in simplified spellings and even simplified his own name from Melville to Melvil.
- Israel Gollancz
- James Pitman, a publisher and ConservativeMember of Parliament, grandson of Isaac Pitman, invented the Initial Teaching Alphabet.
- Charles Galton Darwin, KBE, MC, FRS, grandson of Charles Darwin and director of Britain's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in World War II, was also a wartime vice-president of the Simplified Spelling Society.
- Mont Follick, LabourMember of Parliament, linguist (multi-lingual) and author who preceded Pitman in drawing the English spelling reform issue to the attention of Parliament. Favoured replacing w and y with u and i.
- Isaac Asimov
- HRHPrince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, one-time Patron of the Simplified Spelling Society. Stated that spelling reform should start outside of the UK, and that the lack of progress originates in the discord amongst reformers. However, his abandonment of the cause was coincident with literacy being no longer an issue for his own children, and his less than lukewarm involvement may have ended as a result of the Society's rejection of attempts to 'pull strings' behind the scenes.[dubious– discuss]
- Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955), publisher of the Chicago Tribune, employed reformed spelling in his newspaper. The Tribune used simplified versions of some words, such as "altho" for "although".
- Edward Rondthaler (1905–2009), commercial actor, chairman of the American Literacy Council and vice-president of the Spelling Society.
- John C. Wells, London-based phonetician, Esperanto teacher and former professor of phonetics at University College London: past President of The English Spelling Society.
- Valerie Yule, a fellow of the Galton Institute, Vice-president of The English Spelling Society and founder of the Australian Centre for Social Innovations.
- Doug Everingham, doctor, former Australian Labor politician, health minister in the Whitlam government, and author of Chemical Shorthand for Organic Formulae (1943), and a proponent of the proposed SR1, which he used in ministerial correspondence.
- Allan Kiisk, professor of engineering, linguist (multi-lingual), author of Simple Phonetic English Spelling (2013) and Simpel-Fonetik Dictionary for International Version of Writing in English (2012).
- Anatoly Liberman, professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota advocates spelling reforms at his weekly column on word origins at the Oxford University Press blog. Current President of the English Spelling Society.
- Masha Bell, writer and independent literacy researcher, retired teacher of English and modern languages.
- ^David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling (HarperCollins, 2009).
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling. Simplified Spelling Board, 1920. p.3
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.4
- ^Thomas Smith (1568), De recta & emendata lingvæ Anglicæ scriptione, dialogus: Thoma Smitho equestris ordinis Anglo authore [Correct and Improved English Writing, a Dialog: Thomas Smith, knight, English author, Paris: Ex officina Roberti Stephani typographi regij [from the office of Robert Stephan, the King's Printer], OCLC 20472303 .
- ^Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 17–18.
- ^ abcdWijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 18.
- ^ abHandbook of Simplified Spelling, pp.5–7
- ^ abOnline Etymology Dictionary
- ^Horobin, Simon. Does Spelling Matter?. Oxford University Press, 2013. pp.113-114
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.9
- ^Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 20.
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.13
- ^ abcd"Spelling Reform". Barnsdle.demon.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.14
- ^Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 21.
- ^"Simplified Spelling Board's 300 Spellings". Retrieved 12 July 2009.
- ^Wheeler, Benjamin (September 15, 1906). "Simplified Spelling: A Caveat (Being the commencement address delivered on September 15, 1906, before the graduating class of Stanford University)". London: B.H.Blackwell. p. 11.
- ^"Start the campaign for simple spelling"(PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12.
- ^"Theodore Roosevelt's Spelling Reform Initiative: The List". Johnreilly.info. 1906-09-04. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
- ^Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.16
- ^Godfrey Dewey (1966), Oh, (P)shaw!(PDF)
- ^Alan Campbell, The 50th anniversary of the Simplified Spelling Bill, retrieved 2011-05-11
- ^Ronald A Threadgall, The Initial Teaching Alphabet: Proven Efficiency and Future Prospects, retrieved 2011-05-11
- ^Sampson, Geoffrey. Writing Systems. Stanford University Press, 1990. p.197.
- ^Taylor, Lesley Ciarula (30 May 2013). "Does proper spelling still matter?". Toronto Star. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
- ^"an attempt to change the spelling of English words to make it conform more closely to pronunciation." Spelling reform at dictionary.reference.com. Merriam-Webster dictionary has a similar definition.
- ^"Start the campaign for simple spelling"(PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12.
- ^"English Language:Orthography". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 July 2009.
- ^Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen (Book I, Canto III). Wikisource.
- ^"Start the campaign for simple spelling"(PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12.
- ^Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularised English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 63–64.
- ^Children As Young As 19 Months Understand Different Dialects
- ^Humans imitate aspects of speech we see
- ^Mare, Peter D. "Regularizing English Spelling". Regularizing the English Spelling System. (dead url)
- ^ abWijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 17.
An 1879 bulletin by the US Spelling Reform Association, written mostly using reformed spellings (click to enlarge).
An 1880 bulletin, written wholly in reformed spelling (click to enlarge).
In an ideal writing system every phoneme would hav a letter. In a way when linguists try to find the phonemes of a language they are in effect say "What is the smallest number of letters we can hav for the alphabet of this language and ensure that no two words are spelt the same if they hav a different sound."
Many of the differences of pronunciation that make up accents are phonemically neutral. People may differ in the way they say a phoneme but if they do so consistently then there is no problem. Unfortunately this is not always the case but the phonemic differences between accents are a great deal smaller than the phonetic differences.
I'v already mentioned the Southern Anglo-English distinction between /bVt/ and /pUt/. In Northern Anglo-English they are both pronounced with a [U]. Hence put from putt are pronounce the same way. Clearly this is a problem for a phonemic alphabet. The spelling system can reflect Northern pronunciation and use the same letter for /V/ and /U/ or it can use two letters and reflect Southern pronunciation but not both
There are a number of ways round this.
One is to pick on once accent and make that the standard. This is the option taken by lots of reform schemes because it is very easy to do. If you base your reform on either standard American or the English RP then the bulk of the work of devising a reformed alphabet has already been done for you. It is also the principle behind the West Saxon Standard which was based on the speech of Winchester of the time.
Another option is to allow differences in spelling. This was the option adopted in Serbo-Croat but the difference between Serbian pronunciation and Croatian was no more than one phoneme. It would be unworkable for English.
Another is to let the current spelling be the guide where there is a large minority whose accent is best described by the old spelling. On this basis southerners would continue to use u for both /U/ and /V/ but they would be no worse off than they are at the moment so this is unlikely to create great problems.
Finally there is option of taking everybody's accent into account and patching together a compromise that allows everyone to get their way some of the time. This would take a lot of work to devise, would produce an alphabet that didn't conform exactly to anyone's pronunciation but would nonetheless be a massiv improvement for everyone.
But really this all misses the point. English spelling is so hopeless at representing phonemes that a reform based on virtually any accent would be an improvement for everyone else. There are, further, a vast number of reforms that would be accent neutral.
For instance words like psychology are pronounced by no one as /psychology/. If we were to spell the <ps> as <s> and the <ch> as <k>, we'd get sykology which is closer to everyone's pronunciation. Then there are words with <ph> like photograph and, for that mater, phoneme where everyone says /f/.
Even with words that are pronounced differently in different accents improvements for all are possible. Scottish Vernacular English often has a short vowel in words like bone and make. In most English accents the final e is needed to show the vowel as long. If we were to replace the magic e rule by two letter combinations so that bone was spelt boen this would be equally illogical for the Scots. However where the magic e rule causes problems is in spelling. Words where the vowel is short must sometimes be doubled when vowel endings are added (such as ing etc) if they are not to become long. If we reformed the magic e out of existence then we could do away with all double letters and this would benefit Scots along with everyone else.
What causes reading failure?The earliest theory was that poor readers had a visual problem - hence the term for dyslexia "word blindness". This theory bit the dust when it was a number of experiments showed that poor readers were no worse at visual tasks. For instance one experiment with children of the same age and intelligence but different reading ability showed that the poor readers were just as good at copying Hebrew letters and even English letters. They were also just as good at remembering the visual patterns of Hebrew letters. (Children's Reading Problems: Bryant and Bradley p27 The original work was by Vellutino). There is also no evidence that dyslexia is caused by a problem with reversing letters. Poor readers hav no greater a proportion of reversal errors than good readers (Bryant and Bradley p24). That letter reversal is an indicator of dyslexia is probably simply that letter reversal is more noticeable amongst poor readers because the total number of errors is greater.
There are however a number of experiments that seem to show that poor readers hav various deficits, especially in verbal ability. To explain why these do not show what they appear I hav to explain something about experiment design. Most experiments take two groups of children of the same average and intelligence but differing in reading ability. These are the so called "age matches". The problem with this kind of experiment is that if you show that the poor readers hav poor verbal ability you hav to ask which caused which. It could be that the poor verbal ability caused the poor reading. But reading opens up a whole world of verbal experience which could hav expanded the verbal ability of the good readers. Hence showing a connection with an age match proves nothing. All age matches are good for is excluding possibilities. If an age match shows that that poor readers hav no weakness in visual ability then we can be sure that is not the problem. It must be something else that slows their learning to read. An age match is like the first hurdle that a theory on the causes of poor reading must cross.
If we hav time, we can try longitudinal studies. Here we measure an ability and see if it predicts another ability some time in the future. For instance Bryant and Bradley took a group of four and five year olds and tested them for their ability to remember words. If this ability helped the children to read then this should hav helped predict which children would be the good readers when the children were tested later. That is to say, when they tested the children a year and a half later those who had had good memories at the first stage should hav been the best readers. They were not. That Bryant and Bradley found no such link suggests that the age match experiments that found a link between reading and memory for words had got the cause and effect the wrong way round. They then tested the children two and a half years later still. They found that the children's reading ability at the earlier stage did predict their memory for words at the final stage. So it was not the children's ability to remember words that caused their success in reading as had been assumed but their experience of reading that improved their memory. (Children's Reading Problems: Bryant and Bradley p36).
If we don't hav the time to do a longitudinal study there is an alternativ to the age match. It is the reading level match. The reading level match is the mirror image of the age match. Hence it is good for ruling in possible causes of reading ability rather than ruling them out as age match test do. We take a group of poor readers and compare them with a group of younger children who are matched in reading ability. That is to say if the poor readers are ten years old but hav the reading ability of normal eight year olds we compare them with a group of normal eight year olds. They hav the same reading ability so any weakness in ability can't be caused by a difference in reading ability. However the younger children will be less intelligent because of their younger age even if they hav the same IQ level. Hence the poor readers may cover up a real deficit in ability by using their superior intelligence to compensate. One might speculate they are more likely to understand the instructions and so know better what was expected of them for instance. Hence the odds are in this case stacked in favor of the poor readers and if we find no difference in ability this proves nothing. On the other hand if despite their advantages the poor readers are shown to be worse at a task we hav found something important.
Reading match experiments hav shown that poor readers are poor in phonological skills. They are bad at detecting rhymes and the onset (ie the initial consonant cluster). They are also poor at reading nonsense words like "slosbon" that can only be read by interpreting the sound from the letters. (Phonological Skills and Learning to Read, Usha Goswami and Peter Bryant pp84-87). There are strong grounds then poor readers are let down by their weakness in perceiving the sounds of English. It is probably the main cause of poor reading.
If poor readers hav problems with phonemes won't a phonemic alphabet make things worse?Perception of phonemes can be learnt. There has been a number of experiments comparing illiterates with literates and readers of a logographic script with readers of an alphabetic script. These suggest the experience of learning to read an alphabetic system improves phonological abilities. The snag is that with English spelling the phonemic code is hidden by fog of silent letters and the host of different spellings for each phoneme. The able children manage. Those children whose phonological ability is not too hot are however completely defeated and giv up. Had English spelling provided less high a hurdle many would hav managed.
Experiments on teaching methods tell the same story. Phonics methods hav been shown to be superior to whole word methods of teaching reading (pp118-20, Goswani and Bryant) but that in itself not conclusiv. A phonic method does not simply teach phonemes in isolation and it is possible that other parts of the phonic method are what helping children. Quite naturally, the phonic method teaches the phonemes in relation to the alphabet and it could be the resulting awareness of the alphabet that really helps. To be sure that teaching the sounds helps children we must teach children phonemes in isolation. Experiments show that when teach children about phonemes in isolation from any training with the alphabet their ability to learn to read is indeed helped (pp121-24, Goswani and Bryant). The first words that children learn often highly irregular. Is, come, one, have, said, you and was would in a phonemic system be spelt iz, cum, wun, hav, sed, yoo and woz. Because these are frequent words they are usually learnt without great problems, but they are poor training for perceiving phonemes. Not surprisingly people whose language is English hav as a result a poor sense of phonemes. Many manage to read fluently despite this handicap but many others do not.
You may notice that part of my argument is based on research that focused on rhymes rather than phonemes. It could be argued that all that is needed is to solv the problem is to ensure that English consistently spells rhymes. I don't see that as a very strong objection because the easiest way to ensure that all rhymes are consistent is to make English spelling phonemic.
But enough of theory. The real clincher for the advantages of a reformed spelling is i.t.a..
Hang on, i.t.a. failed didn't it?It is a myth that i.t.a. was a failure. In many ways it was a dramatic success. Children taught using i.t.a. remained ahead of children taught from the beginning on TO even after the i.t.a. children had made the transition to TO. (G Sampson, Writing Systems p 196 who quotes Warburton and Southgate 69: i.t.a. and independent evaluation). i.t.a. avoided the problem of TO in that books for beginners must be graded to avoid confusing spellings. i.t.a. readers by contrast had far greater freedom in what they could read at a very early stage. (i.t.a. and the teaching of literacy: John Sceats 1967 p121)
And then most striking of all was the effect on the children. I include here some quotes from John Sceats book from heads of schools that experienced i.t.a..
"You do not get the frustrated infants you used to get."
"children are more reliant"
"The main effect of i.t.a. has been to restore children's confidence..."
In this school i.t.a. was started as a means of dealing with a reading problem where it was estimated that 42 per cent of the children were retarded in reading. Children from non-cultured homes hav been liberated by a simple method of learning to read..."
"If only they could keep to i.t.a. it would be marvelous; you see t.o. inhibits them."
"We found that with i.t.a., children were inclined to get a general interest in books; they read more and when they were reading it was very hard to distract them, they became engrossed in the book..."
Because it proved effectiv the use of i.t.a. spread till by 1975 10% of schools were using it yet seven years later it was used in only 280 schools (Sampson p196). What went wrong?
First i.t.a. did not solv all the problems of literacy. Some children still failed to get the hang of TO. But now they would be more visible as the children who still hung onto i.t.a. so i.t.a. got the blame. And the transition was difficult to manage. It is tricky when half the class has switched to TO and half are still using i.t.a. to know which to use when writing on the blackboard. Further i.t.a. only really comes into it's own if based on a phonic method of teaching. Children taught using whole word methods which tend to encourage children to memorize the sequence of letters in individual words got less benefit from i.t.a. but still had the problem of switching to TO. And heads and teachers move. When those teachers who were committed to i.t.a. were replaced, new teachers could easily switch back to TO by brushing the dust off the old TO books. The big problem for teachers committed to i.t.a. was money. The basic text books cost and the expense was even greater if the school library was to carry a fair number of more general books.
Oh yes, 1975. The year that i.t.a. peaked was the year before Britain got into the clutches of the IMF. In 1976 Britain faced a catastrophic run on the pound. A loan from the International Monetary Fund seemed the only solution but there was a price. The IMF insisted on brutal cuts in government spending and local government spending was hit especially hard. One can imagine that in those days education committees took a very dim view of teachers who wished to fork out a small fortune on books for some new fangled teaching scheme.
OK so a reformed spellings will help learners but won't it make it harder for adult readers?This is an argument that you most often meet from linguists and the most eloquent statement of it that I know of is that of Geoffrey Sampson in Writing Systems. Sampson is certainly on strong ground when he argues that the fluent reader does not decode the letters of a word to get the sound and then use that sound to retriev the meaning. What probably happens is that the reader accesses the meaning of the word directly from the letter sequence. This is why reformed alphabets are quite jarring because you hav to think about the sound of what you are reading and this is briefly slower. Sampson further argues that a less phonemic system allows words to hav a greater variety in letter sequences so ensuring that words are less easily confused.
Sampson is prepared to concede that for beginners a more phonemic script would probably help. He also concedes that writers would benefit from a phonemic script. What he argues is that the interests of adult fluent readers are more important. After all in the age of printing most people read more than they write. Further beginners will eventually become fluent learners so if we help beginners but at the cost of making it harder for fluent readers we harming those beginners long term interests. Given that people now liv longer the part of peoples lives when they are fluent readers is relatively much longer. Hence it is worth the extra effort of learning a writing system like English with loads of silent letters because later in life those same silent letters will help them read more quickly.
The argument rests on the assumption that all, or nearly all, beginners progress to be fluent readers. This is not the case. In English speaking countries those whose literacy is so poor that they often fail to read the most basic signs is around 10%. Further there is an even larger group who read so laboriously that they only read if they hav no choice. The complexities of English spelling are such a high hurdle that many don't pass into the promised land of fluent reading.
But it is disputable that silent letters really provide any benefit for fluent readers. Sampson givs examples where children found learning individual Chinese characters easier that leaning the English words (p163). This, they argued was down to the distinctiv look of Chinese characters. However this kind of learning strategy does not work well with English. We can see this in that phonic methods are more effectiv than whole word methods. English words, it seems, lacks the distinctiv look that allows an effectiv learning strategy based on the idea that English words can be treated almost like Chinese characters. But this of course only applies to learners. Sampson provides no evidence that, to take an example that Sampson uses, the <b> in debt helps fluent readers distinguish that word from bet. It is rare that a fluent reader will hav any noticeable hesitation when reading the word live in which the single spelling disguises different meanings and pronunciations. It is extremely unlikely that there is any significant advantage to fluent readers in that the letter sequence of debt is more sharply distinguished from the word bet by the extra <b>.
Of course the transition to reformed alphabet will cause fluent readers short term problems. They will hav to go thru a period in which they get used to the new spelling during which they will hav to pay attention to the sound-letter code. This is likely to be fairly short for most people but nonetheless they would gain little long term benefit. Spelling reform benefits learners and unfortunately these tend to be children with less political clout. The different needs of learners as opposed to fluent readers may not be a serious objection to the value of spelling reform. This difference is, however, a serious political problem.