Introducing Cut Spelling
A streamlined writing system for English.
A proposal for modernizing English spelling by removing redundant
Published by the Simplified Spelling Society. Version IV June 1992.
Why reform English spelling?
English spelling is notoriously hard to master. It is a centuries-old writing system whose contradictions and eccentricities were never designed for a fully literate society. We all suffer from its clumsiness and inconsistency: it takes far longer to learn than more regular systems; it limits people's ability to express themselves; it causes mispronunciation, especially by foreign learners; most people acquire at best an erratic command of it (even skilled writers are prone to uncertainty and error); and many millions are condemned to functional illiteracy. It is therefore small wonder there is such concern about standards of literacy in English-speaking countries today. Yet many of those countries have in recent decades seen the benefit of modernizing equally antiquated systems of currency and weights & measures. Similar modernization of English spelling is badly needed.
Is reform possibl?
Spelling reform is an unfamiliar idea to the English-speaking world, but other languages show it is feasible and indeed a normal way of preserving a writing system from obsolescence. The letters of the alphabet were designed to stand for the sounds of speech, but pronunciation evolves in the course of time, and confusion sets in when letters and sounds cease to match: the way we speak words now no longer tells us how to write them, and the way they are written no longer tells us how to speak them. That is the central problem of English spelling. In the past century many languages have modernized their spelling to improve this match between letters and sounds, and so aid literacy. To ensure continuity, only small changes are usually made, and while schoolchildren learn some new, improved spellings, most adults continue to write as before. It may therefore take a lifetime before everyone uses the new forms. Ideally, spelling reform needs to be an imperceptibly slow, but carefully planned and continuous process.
Problems of regularizing.
Many schemes have been devised for respelling English as it is pronounced, but apart from some small improvements in America none has been adopted for general use. Several fully regularized systems have however been tried in the past 150 years in teaching beginners, with dramatic success in helping them acquire basic literacy skills, the best known recently being the i.t.a. (initial teaching alphabet). However, all these schemes have required learners to transfer to the traditional irregular spelling as soon as they can read and write fluently, and much of the advantage is then lost.
Ideal though total regularization may ultimately be, the effect such schemes have on written English is so drastic as to be a major deterrent to their adoption. The following sentence, in the Simplified Spelling Society's New Spelling (1948), perhaps the best thought-out and most influential of these fully regularized orthographies, demonstrates the effect: "Dhe langgwej wood be impruuvd bie dhe adopshon of nue speling for wurdz". Less radical proposals have therefore been made since then, so as to avoid such visual disruption, suggesting for instance that at first only the spelling of one sound, like the first vowel in any, should be regularized; or a single irregularity, like <gh>, should be removed. However, the immediate benefit of such a reform would be slight.
A new approach is called for if today's readers are not to be alienated, yet learners are to benefit significantly.
Cutting redundant letters.
In the 1970s the Australian psychologist Valerie Yule found that many irregular spellings arise from redundant letters. These are letters which mislead because they are not needed to represent the sound of a word. Writers then cannot tell from a word's pronunciation which letters its written form requires, nor where to insert them, while readers are likely to mispronounce unfamiliar words containing them. A group within the Simplified Spelling Society therefore decided to explore which letters are redundant in English, and the effect their removal has on the appearance of the resulting 'cut' text. This Cut Spelling (CS) is now used for the rest of this column and for the next in order to demonstrate that effect.
Esy readng for continuity.
One first notices that one can imediatly read CS quite esily without even noing th rules of th systm. Since most words ar unchanged 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. Th esential cor of words, th letrs that identify them, is rarely afectd, so that ther is a hy levl of compatbility between th old and new spelngs. This is esential for th gradul introduction of any spelng reform, as ther must be no risk of a brekdown of ritn comunication between th jenrations educated in th old and th new systms. CS represents not a radicl upheval, but rather a streamlining, a trimng away of many of those featurs of traditionl english spelng wich dislocate th smooth opration of th alfabetic principl of regulr sound-symbl corespondnce.
Th secnd thing one notices is that CS is som 10% shortr than traditionl spelng. This has sevrl importnt advantajs. To begin with, it saves time and trubl for evryone involvd in producing ritn text, from scoolchildren to publishrs, from novlists to advrtisers, from secretris to grafic desynrs. CS wud enable them al to create text that much fastr, because ther wud be fewr letrs to rite and they wud hesitate less over dificlt spelngs. Scoolchildren cud then devote th time saved in th act of riting (as wel as that saved in aquiring litracy skils) to othr lernng activitis. Simlr time-saving wud be experienced by adults in handriting, typng, word-procesng, typsetng, or any othr form of text production. Th reduced space requiremnt has typograficl benefits: public syns and notices cud be small, or ritn larjr; mor text cud be fitd on video or computer screens; fewr abreviations wud be needd; and fewr words wud hav to be split with hyfns at th ends of lines. Ther wud also be material savings: with around one paje in ten no longr needd, books and newspapers wud require less paper (alternativly, mor text cud be carrid in th same space as befor), and demands on both storaj and transport wud be less. And th environmnt wud gain from th loer consumtion of raw materials and enrjy in manufacturng and from th reduction in th amount of waste needng to be disposed of.
Targetng spelng problms.
Less imediatly obvius is th fact that CS removes many of th most trublsm spelng problms that hav bedevld riting in english for centuris.
Ther ar thre main categris:
1. ther ar silent letrs, such as <s> in isle or <i> in business, wich ar so ofn mispelt eithr as ilse, buisness, or as ile, busness; th latr ar th CS forms.
2. Anothr categry is that of variant unstresd vowls, as befor th final <r> in burglar, teacher, doctor, glamour, murmur, injure, martyr, wich CS neatly alyns as burglr, teachr, doctr, glamr, murmr, injr, martr.
3. Thirdly ther ar th dubld consnnts, so ofn mispelt singl today, as found in such words as accommodate, committee, parallel(I)ed; CS simplifys these to acomodate, comitee, paraleld.
RULES OF CUT SPELLING.
The three problem areas of traditional spelling listed above correspond to the three main rules of Cut Spelling (CS).
Rule 1. Letters irrelevant to pronunciation.
About 20 of the 26 letters of the alphabet are sometimes used with no bearing on pronunciation at all. Some, like <e> in love, <gh> in though and <w> in answer, were once sounded, but fell silent centuries ago. Others were taken from foreign languages, like <ch> in yacht (Dutch), <h> in honest (French), and <p> in psyche (Greek), but are always silent in English. Yet others were inserted by analogy (<gh> in haughty to match naughty, <l> in could to match would) or to show a dubious or imagined derivation (<b> in doubt, <c> in scythe). Two vowel letters are often written when the pronunciation only needs one; thus <a> in measure, <e> in hearth, <i> in friend, <o> in people, <u> in build are all redundant. CS removes letters such as these from hundreds of often common words; most strikingly, CS eliminates that most grotesque of all English spelling patterns, the <gh>.
Rule 2a Unstressed vowels before <l,m,n,r>.
Thousands of English words contain <l, m, n> or <r> after an unstressed vowel, though the pronunciation fails to tell us which vowel letter to write. In fact, it is often redundant and can be cut, as seen from such rhyming pairs as apple/chapel, centre/enter: CS Rule 1 cut the silent <e> in apple, centre, and the resulting appl, centr show that unstressed <e> can be cut in chapel, enter too, giving CS chapl, entr. Likewise the forms rhythm, mustn't show that the unstressed <o> can go in fathom and the unstressed <a, e> in resistant, insistent, giving CS fathm, resistnt, insistnt. Sometimes two letters can be cut: CS reduces curtain, luncheon, fashion to curtn, lunchn, fashn. CS Rule 2 cuts a swathe through one of the areas of greatest uncertainty in English spelling.
Rule 2b Vowels in certain suffixes.
Similar is the cut of vowel letters in some major suffixes: the plural of ax(e) is cut to CS axs, distinguishing it from the uncut plural of axis (axes); the verb form learned is cut to CS lernd, but the adjective is distinguished as lerned. Strange at first is the cut of <-ing> to just <-ng> in verbs whose root ends in a consonant (waiting, hating diverge as CS waitng, hating), but an important gain from this cut is that it allows numerous troublesome doubled consonants to be simplified by Rule 3. A notable simplification is that th confusing <-able, -ible> suffixes are mostly reduced to just <-bl>, turning eatable, edible into CS eatbl, edbl.
Rule 3 Doubled consonants simplified.
Doubled consonants sound like single consonants, so the writer cannot tell when doubling is required: frequent errors are the inevitable result. CS simplifies nearly all of them, as in CS abreviate, embarass, omitd/comitd/benefitd, travld/compeld and (by Rule 2) hopng/hoping for hopping/hoping. The main exceptions are disyllabic words ending in <y> and words ending in <ss>; furry, tinny, hiss, discuss therefore remain distinct from fury, tiny, his, discus.
The key feature of CS is that it removes rather than replaces letters. However, 3 simple substitutions are also made:
1. When <gh, ph> are pronounced /f/, they are spelt <f>. This produces forms such as CS cof, tuf, fotografy, sulfr.
2. When <g, dg> are sounded as /j/, they are spelt <j>. This produces forms such as CS juj, jeolojy, jinjr.
3. When <ig> is pronounced as in flight, sign, it is spelt <y>, producing aligned forms such as fly, flyt, sty, sy, syn.
THE CUT SPELLING HANDBOOK
This leaflet barely outlines the CS proposal for modernizing English spelling. A full account is given in a three-part Handbook. Pt I (pp.1-160) discusses the rationale of CS, its main features, its advantages, its psychological, linguistic and educational implications, and ways in which it could be implemented; but above all Pt I gives a detailed analysis of the present irregularities of English spelling and how cutting redundant letters improves the crucial interface of writing and speech. Pt II (pp.163-231) illustrates the various cuts and provides exercises for literate adults to practise converting traditional spelling to CS and writing CS for themselves.
Pt III (p.233-297) is a dictionary of over 20,000 of the most common words with redundant letters, giving their simpler CS equivalents. At the end is a bibliography of works for readers planning further study of the complexities of English spelling and the possibilities for its simplification.