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Why?: English Spelling Reform

January 15, 1994. I’m ten years old and am in the fourth grade. It’s nine o’clock at night and I should be asleep; however, I still have an hour or more left of studying.

“I hate spelling,” I say to my mother. “Why can’t things be spelt the way they sound?”

“I don’t know,” she replies. “Hurry up now. I have to go to work in the morning. Only ten more words to memorize.”

Does this story sound familiar? It should. For hundreds of years Englishmen, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and the millions of other English speakers all over the world have struggled to memorize the orthography of their native tongue. This should not be so. The English-speaking people of the world should unite and reform the spelling of our language.

“Why should we reform?” one might ask. To understand why we need a reform one must look at the history of the English language.

English comes from the German stock of language, closely related to Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Flemish, Low Saxon, and other Germanic languages. During the early days of the English language, English orthography was quite simple and almost completely phonetic. Things were spelt fairly closely to the way they were written (Webster 40-67). Everything was going great with English orthography until the Norman invasion of 1066 when French became the language of the government and the upper class in England. “[The] next few centuries saw an influx of French, Latin and Greek words and major pronunciation changes [in the language]” (Modernizing).

In 1399 Henry IV took the throne in England. He was “the first king after more than three centuries to claim the throne of England speaking English rather than Norman French.” Henry IV once again made English the national language of Britain. The English had a problem, however; no one had written English in more than three hundred years. The way English was spoken and many of its old Latin-based grammar rules had been changed over that long period of time. Also, “the clerks who had the job of re-inventing a writing system for English had only written French or Latin before.” These clerks began to write English using French and Latin spelling rules. It is from these clerks that we get such spellings as centre, double, couple, route, and sure (Why).

After 1476 English orthography became further complicated with the advent of the printing press. “The early printers were nearly all foreign,” mostly coming from Holland or Belgium and had little knowledge of the English language. “Printers often […] added letters to the last word of a line to make the whole text look neater. They were paid by line and habitually inserted letters into words to earn more money.” Many of our current spelling rules come from people who never even spoke English and had no concern as to whether something were spelt correctly (Why).

For the next few hundred years English spelling would be completely confusing. No one person would spell things the same way. Spellings were not consistent and completely arbitrary. Finally in 1755 an authoritative dictionary was published by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson didn’t use spellings that were mostly phonetic; however, he chose the orthographies that he preferred best, the ones that looked prettiest to him. “Many of our worst problems are due to him.” Since 1755 English spelling has changed very little (Why).

In 1828, “the only significant orthographical reform of English in the last 250 years” was made. Noah Webster, a schoolteacher, realized that he wasted too much time memorizing spelling words with his classes. After a few years of travel and deep linguistical and orthographical study Noah Webster “published the ‘American Dictionary of the English Language’ […], which initiated the American spelling of words like labor from labour and program from programme” (Sappenfield). Even after some of these changes, “English spelling is today reviled and ridiculed worldwide [as] ‘one of the world’s most awesome messes’, ‘and insult to human intelligence’, etc. for its unpredictability.”

Noah Webster is not the only one, however, who has ever tried to reform English spelling. Many other very famous people have attempted to reform the way we spell as well. Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system used in many libraries around the world, “chafed at the time and energy wasted on spelling and writing English.” During his life he constantly wrote and published philosophical books written in his reformed version of English orthography. Sadly his form of spelling never caught on (Prescott). Founding father Benjamin Franklin said that English spelling must be reformed, “or our writing will become the same with the Chinese, as to the difficulty of learning and using it” (Webster 410). Bernard Shaw, the great British playwright and actor, appointed in his will that a new “British Alphabet” be created so that the English language could be reformed in the way that is was spelt (Shaw 9-10). There are many, many more intelligent and famous people over the years, more numerous to list here, who have been in favour of some sort of spelling reform.

According to the Simplified Spelling Society (SSS), an organization founded in 1908 by linguists and educators for the purpose of researching and funding the reformation of the English spelling system, “after eleven years at school barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers. Italian children can spell accurately after just two years at school.” The SSS also notes that “around seven million British and forty million US adults are functionally illiterate.” Our current spelling system is just too hard for people to try to learn. The current orthography keeps English-speaking children behind by making it harder for them to become literate (Why). “Learners must decode this chaos [of English spelling] for reading, and memorize it for writing. Literacy is therefore far harder to acquire in English than in most languages; teachers and pupils struggle with it at every level, and many learners never master it properly.” “The forty-odd sounds of English can be spelled in hundreds of ways, and one spelling can represent many sounds. Simple words like once, who defy all logic.” “Inconsistency is rife [in the language] because English has no strategy for ensuring consistency. No other language tolerates such alphabetic chaos” (Modernizing).

The nations of Denmark and Sweden speak very similar languages. The Swedes updated their spelling during this century to more correctly represent how it is spoken. The Danish decided not to make such a move. “Swedish spellers always come near the top in all international comparisons on standards of literacy, Danish spellers near the bottom” (Why). In English results would be similar.

During the 1960s the British took heed of this example and during the years of 1963-1964 did a “large-scale study [to see whether] English [could] also be achieved easily if the writing system [was] based on regular spelling.” In this study 837 children learning how to read were taught using the Initial Teaching Alphabet, a spelling system that is completely phonetic and consists of forty-four different characters based on the current Roman lettering system (Dewey, Why). Another 837 children were taught using traditional methods of spelling English. The SSS says that children taught using the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA), “scored higher in reading and writing tests. They also used a much wider vocabulary.” Teachers that taught using the ITA, “were also impressed by their pupils' more favourable attitude to learning” (Why).

Again, for another example of spelling reform in the last century we need only to look to our parent tongue of German. The spelling of the German language had not been reformed since the beginning of the twentieth century. During that time many new words had been adopted from neighbouring languages through increased trade and the expanding world economy. (It is humorous to learn that most of the words that needed to be reformed in the German language were words adapted from English, our horrible mess, and French, the main culprit in our chaos.) Because of the adaptation of new words, “the gap between phonetics and spelling,” as Mr. Gerhard Stickel, director of the Institute for the German Language, said, “was just getting too difficult for people to remember. ‘People should control orthography, rather than being controlled by it,” Mr. Stickel said. Mr. Stickel’s organization worked together in the years preceding 1998 with representatives from the four German-speaking nations of the world (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein) “to hammer out a reform of German orthography acceptable to all four countries.” After many years of work the Institute for the German Language finally reached a solution that all four nations found suitable. This new spelling was introduced on June 1, 1998. According to Karin Eckermann, “a teacher of grammar school and high school German for the past twenty-five years [in Germany]”, “high school aged students tested under the new spelling rules have improved their scores [on reading and spelling] by as much as forty percent” (Sappenfield). I believe the same or better results could be obtained in English-speaking nations as were reached in Germany.

English orthography doesn’t only hold our children behind and prevent many intelligent people from becoming literate; it also costs the government (and in turn you and I) a lot of money each and every year. “The human, social and economic cost of today’s [English] spelling is incalculable. All writing and publishing wastes materials, time, [and] money” (Modernizing). “[L]ess time spent lernng to read and rite, and less need for chekng and corectng [means] […] time saved [that] can be spent on mor useful lernng, wile in the workplace it increases productivity.” It is estimated by many scholars that by only removing unneeded letters from words as they are currently spelt, publishers could cut the amount of page used to write by as much as ten percent. This would save an untold number of trees and millions maybe even billions of dollars a year on printing costs. Schoolbooks would be less expensive and thus more plentiful and fewer trees would need to be harvested to be made into paper (Cut Spelng).

In a perfect world solving the English orthography problem would be easy. All one would have to do is to make a completely phonetic standard writing system for English. Such systems as Unifon, Saund Spel, Tru Spel, and even my own Redformd Englís’ Speleng Sístúm would easily solve our spelling problems. The only catch to these systems is that they require people to learn a whole new way of reading. A few of these spelling systems, such as Unifon, even require that the reader learn of whole new alphabet. Most of the words in the language would have to be respelt in these new systems and standard pronunciations of words would have to be established. “The necessary worldwide re-education would be so costly, that it would be impracticable” (Cut Spelng). Since English has such a wide range of dialects and pronunciation tenancies, finding a standard pronunciation and thus a standard spelling would be impossible and cause much grief among the speakers of the language. Because of this a phonetic system of writing is currently very unpopular and thus, sadly, next to impossible to implement.

The next best solution to the English spelling problem is a system developed by the Australian psychologist Valerie Yule, called Cut Spelling (CS). This method of reformation is endorsed by the Simplified Spelling Society as the first “new approach to the English spelling problem that is flexible enough to be adapted to public demand” (Cut Spelng). Dr Steve Bett says the following on his website about Cut Spelling, “One first notices that one can immediately read CS quite esily without even noing th rules of th system. Since most words ar unchanjed and few letrs substituted, one has th impression of norml ritn English with a lot of od slips, rathr than of a totaly new riting systm.” The SSS says the reason for this is that “most words ar unchanjed.” They also say that “CS is not a rijid systm, but a synpost pointing to th omission of redundant letrs as th most practicl and advntajus way of modrnizing English spelng” (Cut Spelng).

The rules of Cut Spelling are quite simple and very flexible. The first rule is to cut letters that are “irrelevant to the sound.” Words like head change to hed, doubt to dout, and would to wud (Cut Spelng). “More complex forms of Cut Spelng remove letters that provide an unreliable guide to pronunciation (the become th),” and who is spelt ho. These spellings are very controversial and do not make a big enough a difference to really matter as to how they are spelt (Bett). (However, I personally prefer the to be spelt th as it makes writing much faster. I would also be in favour of a article symbol to be used in place of the, but as Dr. Bett said either way who and the are spelt it doesn’t really change the amazing improvements CS would make to English orthography. I would be willing to keep the spelling of the and who in their traditional forms if it made CS more acceptable to the masses.) The second rule consists of cutting vowels that are either unstressed (this vowel is called the “shwa” by linguist) or in regular endings. Words such as pedal, camel, lentil, pistol, consul, mountain, and glamour are changed to pedl, caml, lentl, pistl, consl, mountn, and glamr respectively. The words washing, washes, washed, and washable are respelt as washng, washs, washd, and washbl. The third and final rule of CS deals with the elimination of consonants in many words including most words where consonants are doubled and the misleading consonant combinations gh and ph and others like them. Under CS spelling reforms the words lock, well, bottle, hopped, hopping, rough, photograph, ginger, and judge would be spelt as follows lok, wel, botl, hopd, hopng, ruf, fotograf, jinjr, and juj. Also under rule three the letter combination ig in words like sigh, sight, and sign would be changed to y as in sy, syt, and syn. As you can see CS is very simple to learn, only consisting of three major rules. The entire CS handbook can be purchased through the Simplified Spelling Society’s website (Cut Spelng).

Dr. Bett thinks that Cut Spelling is a very big step in the right direction, andI must say that I agree. According to him, “cut spelling [removes] about 50% of the common spelling errors: when to double consonants, where to put the silent vowel […] etc.” The CS system also “regularizes swathes of inconsistencies in written English that confuse learners, readers and writers everywhere, regardless of accent” (Cut Spelng.) With all of these great improvements and with very little disruption of our current orthographical system it would be hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to adopt a CS spelling system, but there are many who don’t want spelling reform. The reformation in Germany had the same problems. “‘It’s emotional,'” says Professor Norbert Wolf of the University of Wurzburg; “‘they are afraid of losing tradition. I just read some articles on the changes of 1901 [to the German orthography], and you can see many of the same arguments [against the reforms] back then’” (Sappenfield). Changing the way we spell English does not change the language. The language has already been changed and is changing slowly everyday. Spelling reformers are only trying to catch the orthography up to the point the spoken language is. We aren’t changing anything except spelling.

Many say that a reform to the orthography of English would make previous works made prior to the reformation unreadable to new generations and the cost of republishing books using the new orthography would be too costly. I say no. We can still read Chaucer with great ease and his spelling varies much further from our current spelling than CS would. Switching to CS would lose no knowledge. As can been seen in the attached excerpt from Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities written in the new orthography, CS greatly resembles current spelling. Anyone who could read CS could almost just as easily read traditional English with the occasional help of a dictionary for the odd words greatly changed in CS. Also, with the advent of computers old works could instantly be converted into CS text by means of CS “translators.”

Another popular claim against changing the spelling of English is that it would require current readers of English to have to relearn spelling all over again. To this I say hogwash. At just a glance one can easily read CS; it only has three rules. There would not have to be a relearning time because CS is so completely easy. Within a few hours anyone competent in traditional English can completely master the new spellings of CS. After a few days of practice one will be so confident in CS that one will no longer need to think about spelling. After a month of using CS people will have either gotten to the same level of speed as they were at with traditional spelling or far surpassed it due to CS’s ease of spelling and condensed size.

Should we keep an orthography that is composed of arbitrary rules formed by ancient customs, foreign print masters, old dictionaries, and Latin and French spelling patterns? Should we continue to lag behind the rest of the world with our rates of literacy? Should children of the English tongue continue to waste precious hours memorizing spelling words when they could be studying something else? Should we continue to pay millions of dollars for the wasted time in the classroom? I say no! We, the English-speaking citizens of the world, should adopt the CS orthographical system and use it immediately. If the people started using CS the governments of the world would soon follow and publishers soon after that. Within twenty years we would be free from the arbitrary rules of our forefathers. At last we could spell with ease, no more dictionaries, no more spell-check, no more limiting one’s vocabulary because one doesn’t know how to “correctly” spell a word. It’s time for a change. It’s time for Englishmen, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and the millions of other English-speaking peoples of the world to unite and reform our antiquated English orthography! Cut Spelling is the answer and the future.

Works Cited

Bett, Steve. Surplus Cut Spelling. 17 November 2002.

Cut Spelng Leaflet. 12 November 2002. Simplified Spelling Society.

Dewey, Godfrey. English spelling: Roadblock to reading. Columbia University, NY: Teachers College Press, 1971.

Modernizing English Spelling: Principles & Practicalities. 12 November 2002. Simplified Spelling Society.

Prescott, Sarah. “Tackling the ‘Ineficiensi’ of the English Language.” School Library Journal 47.8 (2001): 50-53.

Sappenfield, Mark. “Germans will Spell ‘em the way they see ‘em.” Civilization 2.5 (1995): 15.

Shaw, Bernard. Androcles and the Lion: with a parallel text in Shaw’s Alphabet. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1962.

Webster, Noah. Dissertations on the English Language. Gainesville, Florida: Scholar’s Facsimiles & Reprints, 1951.

Why English Spelling Should be Updated. 12 November 2002. Simplified Spelling Society.