[Spelling Reform Anthology §13.9 pp193-196]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1980, pp.4-7]
[Vic Paulsen: see Bulletins.]

The Cultural Impediments of English Orthography,

by Vic Paulsen, San Francisco, Ca.

Communication amongst human beings involves at least two people: one who transmits the information, and another who receives it. Written communication involves a third element, which is interposed between the two human elements: a writing system, thru which the information is conveyed.

Writing systems are of two general kinds: (1) picture-writing, which uses ideographs, and (2) sound-writing, which uses syllabaries or alphabets.

Ideographs are simplified pictures with informational content. They have actual meaning. But syllabaries and alphabets are designed to represent speech-sounds only, and they are not intended to represent anything else. In China, for example, a common system of word-signs which is largely ideographic provides communication amongst people of different regions who cannot otherwise communicate because their spoken languages are different. But in the western world, where alphabetic writing is the custom, all three elements in the chain of communication must be geared to the same language. Both the writer and the reader must understand that spoken language, and the writing system must be designed for it. To the extent that any of the elements departs from these qualifications, communication fails.

The problem in the English-speaking world today is that altho the two human elements, the writer and the reader, both speak the same language, which is Modern English, the third element, the writing system, was not designed for that language. It has been shaped a bit, here and there, in the direction of Modern English, but the fact is that its spelling is based primarily on another language, Middle English, which hasn't been spoken in at least 400 years, and is no longer understood. So, we have a bottleneck in communication.

From the point of view of a technician, this problem is easily solved. All one needs to do is to design a writing, system specifically for Modern English, so that all three elements in the chain of communication can function in harmony. We know very well that in those parts of the world where such systems operate, literacy is easily achieved. Learning to read in one day is not unheard of.

But the design of a new writing system is only a partial solution. The major obstacle that confronts the orthographic reformer is the existing system itself, which, with all its scandalous lack of utility, happens to be an investiture that seems to defy displacement.

During the last 30 years or so, literacy in the English-speaking world has been declining at an alarming rate. It's not hard to guess why. During the rapid development of electronics in the past 40 years, speech, for the first time in the entire course of history, has become a mass medium. The people, having discovered those electronic channels thru which they can receive information in their own language, are now circumventing the outdated writing system which has been the bottleneck in mass communication. And having alienated themselves from it, they have become less able and less willing to cope with its irrational complexities.

In an attempt to correct this situation, the Federal Government of the United States initiated its "Decade of the '70's" program, in which "The Right to Read" was to become a reality. [1] During that ten-year period, which is now ending, both State and Federal governments have poured massive sums into programs designed to eradicate illiteracy, not by re-designing the outdated writing system, but by attempting to shape the minds of human beings into conformity with the status quo. And what has this extravagant program achieved? Nothing! The drift to illiteracy continues as before, except that it now has reached the proportions of a crisis. For example, the United States Navy now complains that from 40 to 50% of today's recruits can't read the instruction manuals. The Navy is plainly worried about the future. [2] And they are not alone. But how do the educators explain all this? Their typical response is: "Well, this is a difficult problem! We must rise to meet the challenge, re-dedicate ourselves, learn to work together, involve the parents, etc." [3]

Now, before we start examining this peculiar human reluctance to do something about conventional spelling, let's just briefly review the origins and the nature of alphabetic writing, so we know exactly what we are talking about.

Alphabetic writing seems to have begun sometime prior to 1,000 B.C. in the eastern Mediterranean area. It was acquired and perfected by the Greeks, then adopted by the Romans, who spread it thruout their civilizations. The principles were these: Each significant speech sound (phoneme) was represented by an individual symbol, and these symbols were written from left to right in the same sequence in which the sounds would be heard if the information were spoken. Diphthongs were represented analytically, that is, each of the two phonemes of which the diphthong was composed was represented by its own symbol, so that the phonetic constitution of the diphthong was clearly indicated; and those symbols were also written from left to right in the same sequence in which the sounds would be heard if the information were spoken. The reader, by scanning the line from left to right, "sounding" the symbols one by one, could reproduce, in speech, the information intended by the writer. That's what alphabetic writing is all about, and for its first thousand years or so in Europe it was done, for the most part, with capital letters and without any word-spacing. [4]

Along about the 7th Century a very important refinement was introduced. Groups of letters representing whole words were separated from each other by spaces, and this practice was combined with the use of letter styles, some of which had descenders or ascenders. [5] This gave a more or less characteristic outline to particular word-groups, making for easier whole-word recognition, and thus speeding up the decoding process.

It was not until after this development that vernacular writing evolved in Britain and in Europe, where the official language of record and of learning had been Latin. Vernacular writing was simply an adaptation of the Latin alphabet to the vernacular. But the new languages had some sounds that were not represented in the Latin alphabet, so the practice developed of using digraphs and other combinations of Latin letters to represent these sounds. But digraphs don't scan, and the only reason they could be used at all was that word-spacing had come into use. And so began a departure from alphabetic principles that fostered the strange notion that word-groups might be regarded as basic units, the spellings of which might be memorized if not scannable, or that might be identified more or less as logograms. Now, a few digraphs in the orthography of a language that has remained fairly stable is no great problem. But in the case of English, which has undergone enormous pronunciation changes which have not been accommodated in the spellings, the relationship between the speech and the writing has simply departed from the reality of alphabetic procedures.

The succession of influences that produced linguistic turmoil in England prior to the 18th Century and the subsequent orthographic chaos of which we are the inheritor, already has been documented ad infinitum, but let's just use one word as a sample of what happened: "knave." This is the Middle English word pronounced "knah-veh" (be sure to pronounce the "k" - that's what it's there for) ... two open syllables, each containing one single vowel sound. And, as you can see, the spelling was a perfect specimen of classical alphabetic principles. Using symbols for the phonetic values for which they were intended, it scans from left to right, symbol by symbol, to reproduce the spoken word intended by the writer. But in Modern English, the language we speak, there is no knah-veh. That word has become one closed syllable containing a diphthong. But how would anybody know that? We are still spelling it k-n-a-v-e, which, in alphabetic terms, is a departure from reality. According to classical alphabetic procedure, which requires that diphthongs be represented analytically, the correct modern spelling would be: "neiv."

So how does a teacher explain the spelling k-n-a-v-e to a child? One way might be this: "Children, be sure to spell this word correctly. It begins with a "k", but this is a silent "k". It must be there, but we don't pronounce it. As we know, the letter "a" has many pronunciations, but we never know which one until we know what the other letters in the word are. In this case, the last letter is an "e". We don't pronounce this either, but be sure to include it in the spelling because this one is the magic "e" that tells us that the letter "a" is pronounced like the "a" in "able". Remember that rule, but remember too that rules have exceptions, and in this case, if the "kn" at the beginning of the word were replaced by an "h", this would tell us that the magic "e" wasn't magic anymore, and that the "a" would then be pronounced like the "a" in "hat". But above all, be sure to include the final "e" in the spelling, even if it is not magic, and even if it is not pronounced, because if you don't, the spelling won't be correct. Now is this clear to everyone?"

If the teacher were in a prophetic mood, the speech might continue like this: "Now I hope that all of you will try very hard, and that by the time you will have graduated, after eight years in this school, that most of you will have learned to read ... a little. But some of you, even many of you, will have difficulties. Some of you will try, but just not be able to get it. Others will just sit and cry. Some will just stare out the window, and have a tight feeling in the stomach. But don't worry about it. The school psychologist will make a lot of tests, and ask you a lot of questions about your family, and might even interview your parents to find out what their problem is. The psychologist might discover that you have a learning disability, or perhaps a brain disfunction of some special kind, possibly dyslexia, or even that you are suffering from brain damage!

Some of you will become disciplinary problems. You will become hyperactive. You will run and jump and squirm and fight! Anything to avoid learning to read. For you, we have a little pill. Not a drug, really ... just a pill. This will quiet you down and keep you from becoming a problem in the classroom. Of course, you might come back after dark and break all the windows, maybe even set the building on fire, in which case you will have to deal with the police. But this might not stop you. You might become incorrigible, and end up in a life of crime, which is what happens to many illiterates.

And there is something else I must tell you. Girls learn to read more easily than boys. You see there is quite a difference between boys and girls. But don't worry about it. We can send you to a Remedial Reading Clinic, where they will try to correct your problem.

"Finally, children, I would like to say that this task can be much easier for all of us if only you will try to remember that, after all, Reading is Fun!"

Conventional English spelling is commonly spoken of as "crazy" or "insane", but these are general terms that don't take us anywhere. A more particular and more useful description might be "pathogenic", that is, "disease causing"; "disease" in this case meaning mental disorder. The evidence, when viewed in proper perspective, seems to justify this one. Let's find out:

The tools a society shapes for its use are reflexive cultural entities. As the tools are used, the society that produced them is, in turn, shaped by them, may become dependent on them, even enslaved by them. Examples: television, automobiles, writing systems. The more widely used the tool, the more thoroly it influences the society. And in the English-speaking world, where the writing system has - in alphabetic terms - become irrational, it has produced irrational mental processes in the society. Let's see how this has come about:

In the first place, the teaching of reading and writing in any society, whatever the language or the writing system, involves the enshrinement of the writing system as a standard of reference on which the teaching is based. This tends to identify the writing system with the particular language, as if the two were one and the same thing. This illusion has inspired a popular misuse of terms, some of which have found their way into dictionaries, thus reinforcing the illusion. For example: words such as "language", "vowel", "diphthong", "digraph", "English", "literacy", the terms "short vowel", "long vowel", and such statements as "Reading is Fundamental", and "Back to Basics'! All of these formerly had specific meanings based on the assumption that the writing represented the sounds of the language. But as the pronunciation of the language changed while the spellings remained the same, a distortion occurred in the meanings, some of the terms expanding to include multiple meanings. The result of this is that any discussion of the relationship between speech and writing tends to become futile because the terms mean different things to different people. Thus, any consideration of orthographic reform tends to be unappreciated.

Another peculiar psychological disability has come about with the phasing out of acoustic in favor of visual methods of decoding, namely: an actual incapacity to decode alphabetic writing acoustically. This has arisen from an accumulation of influences. Prior to the introduction of word-spacing, the custom seems clearly to have been that of reading aloud and listening to one's own voice to get the meaning. [6] After the introduction of word-spacing, secondary visual associations in the form of whole-word patterns came into being. The continuous contact with these secondary visual patterns that came about with the introduction of printing and the consequent proliferation of reading material, tended to cause a substitution of the visual for the acoustic. Also, certain non-alphabetic innovations such as the so-called etymological spellings contributed to the declining acoustic reliability. And in more recent times, the "look-and-say" method of teaching reading completed the job of producing a total dependence on visual word identification - to the extent that such identification is possible. Experience shows that people who have been conditioned to this visual process may be incapable of decoding a scannable alphabetic system, even if they have learned the phonetic values of the symbols and are capable of reconstituting the speech intended by the writer. Altho they may read the words aloud correctly, so that anyone within hearing distance can understand the message, they themselves are not listening to what they are saying because while they are saying it their attention is riveted to the visual image, which is where they expect to find the meaning.

Fortunately, this affliction is easily overcome, but the afflicted people don't know this, and when someone suggests a reform of English spelling that involves a restoration of alphabetic principles, they are seized with apprehension, and nothing gets thru to them. These are the people who say "making sounds is not reading" without realizing that they are only describing their own affliction.

But simple lack of knowledge concerning the nature of literacy does not adequately explain the single-minded, unbudging tenacity with which the English-speaking world clings to its outdated writing system. This phenomenon resembles the behavior of an individual suffering from a neurosis, who defends himself against any suggestion that he might have a personal problem. Even knowledgeable analysts in the education field who have shown the writing system to be the main source of our reading difficulties, will then usually propose some special way of teaching it, but seem unable to perceive the possibility of changing it. Somehow, they will manage to find an explanation, an apology, or a rationale, to show that change is either unwise or impossible. [7]

This rigid, "blank-wall" attitude is pretty strong evidence that what we are dealing with here is a mental disorder. In psychiatry, behavior is considered normal when it is determined by processes that are predominately conscious, and therefore deliberative. But behavior is considered neurotic when the determining processes are unconscious, and therefore not subject to deliberation. [8] But a collective mental disorder involving a whole society is not readily identified. If an individual should become psychotic in an otherwise healthy society, his behavior is easily noticed because it is different. But if a whole society becomes psychotic, nobody notices it because it is the norm.

Another difficulty in recognizing collective mental disorders has to do with terminology. Individual mental disorders are dealt with clinically by psychiatrists, who have evolved clinical terms to describe them. But mental disorders of societal proportions are not treated clinically, and if they are described at all, it is by anthropologists or historians or sociologists. They may speak of "cultural tag", or perhaps "the decline and fall of," etc., but they don't identify the affliction for what it really is: a mental disorder of a particular kind.

But there is another - and perhaps the strongest - piece of evidence to identify as a mental disorder the fixation for an outdated writing system, and that is the way in which such fixations have commonly been dispersed. Of the instances of orthographic reform that have occurred in this century, those of the Portuguese, the Russian, the Turkish, and the Chinese, have followed in the wake of violent social upheaval. They are the collective counterparts of "abreaction", a psycho-therapeutic process by means of which the pathological complexes of individuals are dispersed. [9]

A certain amount of evidence has now been presented to show that we are dealing with an outdated orthography that has been enshrined as a standard, but which, in terms of alphabetic principles, has become irrational; and which, by virtue of its being a reflexive cultural entity, has produced in the society itself a pathological fixation which is interfering with the need of the society to be literate.

So, how do we get out of this mess?

It has been pointed out that individual mental disorders are dealt with clinically by psychiatrists, but that collective mental disorders are not. The cure of an afflicted individual can begin only when he himself reaches the conclusion that he has a problem that needs being solved. Until this attitude is taken nothing can be done for him. But in the case of a collective mental disorder, such as the fixation of the whole society for conventional English spelling, we are dealing with a collective psyche comprising many disparate elements and groups of elements in an organizational structure the attitude of which is a resolution of the complex vector relationships amongst the elements.

Since the orthographic reformer himself happens to be one of the elements of this structure, he can work from within, using appropriate strategy, to expedite the required change of attitude. The possibility of this is not unthinkable. A mood for change has been expressing itself in the western world since the end of World War II, and this iconoclastic dynamic is looking for targets. At the same time, the political and educational leaderships, having failed to produce literacy by the traditional methods they have espoused, are more vulnerable to criticism than even before.

But it doesn't make much sense to attempt to destroy an existing system without having first evolved some superior alternatives. What is needed, it seems to me, is some large-scale comprehensive tests of writing systems designed for Modern English. Some initiative in this direction was taken at the First International Conference in 1975, but it needs to be pursued more vigorously. And to encourage interest in this whole area, we might urge universities to institute courses in "Orthographies of the Western World". Something along these lines is being considered at a university in Canada.

It was mentioned earlier that many of the terms that would normally be used to discuss this situation have lost their specificity, so that communication has become ineffective. We must change this. For example: The word "orthography", from the Greek, meaning "correct writing", has come to mean any method of spelling, including conventional English spelling, and I have used it in that way in the writing of this paper. But the fact is that conventional English spelling is not correct at all. It has, in fact, become irrational and pathogenic. But we don't have any one specific word to describe this kind of writing. So, let's coin one. How about "pathography"? From the Greek. Literally, "sick writing". Defined as follows: 1. Any form of writing characterized by disorderly, non-alphabetic use of alphabetic symbols. 2. Conventional English spelling.

The use of the term "pathography" will not by itself exercise any immediate magic, but its continuous use, particularly in connection with legal initiatives, will emphasize the pathological nature of conventional spelling, and will gradually move into proper perspective a host of unreal concepts. For example:

1. "dyslexia", "reading disability", "minimal brain damage", "hyperactive" - are all concepts, the etiology of which has been sought in the child, his cultural heritage, his parents, his diet, his family environment, etc. But with pathography a factor to be considered, it might very well turn out that all these so-called afflictions are nothing more than normal human defenses against a pathological influence. And the way this can be determined is by comparative tests of writing systems.

2. "comparative reading scores". These are widely regarded as absolute determinants of the teaching and/or the learning of literacy. But since we know that the same identical pathography is built right into all the tests, the results may be nothing more than the aggregate reactions to a pathological influence.

3. "sex differences in reading". It is said among educators that boys have "more difficulty learning to read" than do girls. But this notion does not take pathography into account. Once we do consider it, our new perspective gives us an entirely different interpretation. We can see now that it is the boys who tend to rise up in rebellion against any attempt to condition them to an irrational, pathogenic pattern, while the girls are more likely to go along with it. In other words, what we actually have here is not a "difficulty in learning to read", but a normal, healthy, masculine outrage against the rape of reason. The attempt, by whatever means, to suppress or overcome the male reaction against pathography is clearly a case of sex discrimination.

During this era of social upheaval to which we all are witness, the courts have been busy overturning old concepts, but they haven't yet got around to considering pathography because, so far as I know, it hasn't yet been in any court proceeding. But the legislative process is gradually evolving the bases for this. In addition to the anti-trust laws which have been around for some time, we are witnessing an accelerating legislative interest in sex discrimination, environmental protection, consumer fraud, and public health. If, at this stage, pathography is not yet thought of as an evil monopoly existing in spite of the anti-trust laws, it certainly constitutes manmade environmental pollution, and it seems clearly to be an instrument of sex discrimination. And when its pathological nature is legally established, the propagation of it will certainly be subject to the laws that safeguard the public health and the riots of the consumer.

So much for the attack on pathography. Assuming that by the time this has been carried out we have evolved a superior writing system, how then do we manage to establish it as the new standard, replacing the old? All of the strategies I have heard about are based on the assumption that people must be made to change life-long habits, either by persuasion or mandate, either gradually or all at once. But why should it be necessary to confront an obstacle, when one may just as easily circumvent it? It seems to me that, contemporaneous with the attack on pathography, demands should be made for the bi-literate presentation of all vital public information, with the old writing system and the new, side by side. This is not unreasonable, and is only one step beyond what we already do on a word-for-word basis in the dictionaries of the English-speaking world. This arrangement (1) makes the new system available to those who wish to use it, (2) compares the merits of the two systems, (3) provides instruction in the form of a cross-reference for those curious about the new system, and (4) continues the old for those who choose to live out their lives without changing their habits.

"In the end, the better system will survive. [10]

Pathography: n. (Gr. pathos +graphein. Literally, sick writing).

1. Any form of writing characterized by disorderly, non-alphabetic use of alphabetic symbols.

2. Conventional English spelling.


1. James E. Allen, Jr., U.S. Commissioner of Education, "Right to Read-Target of the '70's" Speech of 9/23/69 in Los Angeles, Ca. to the Ann. Convention of the Nat. Assoc. of State Boards of Educ. This well-publicized presentation was the precursor of the "Right-to-Read" program.

2. Vice-Admiral James D. Watkins: Talk given Jn 22, 1977 at the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. For full text, see Spelling Progress Bulletin, vol. XVII, no. 4, Winter, 1977, pp 14, 15, 20.

3. For a typical educator's perspective, see the article by former director of the Federal Government's "Right-to-Read" program, Ruth B. Love, in the publication, "Reporting on Reading", vol. 4, no. 6, Sept. 1978. This periodical is produced under contract with the U. S. Dept. of Education. Copies are available without charge from CEMREL, Inc., St. Louis, Mo.

4. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition, Cambridge, 1911, under the listing, "Palaeography."

5. Vic Paulsen, TORSKRIPT, LONDON, 75.1978. TORS KRIPT PUBLISHERS, San Francisco, Ca.

6. H. J. Chaytor, FROM SCRIPT TO PRINT, 1967, October House, Inc., New York.

7. I have chosen not to list examples of this, preferring to let the readers make their own judgments. Such a list would include scholars for whose accumulations of knowledge I have great respect. But knowledge and purpose are two different things, and if the purpose is determined by unconscious factors, the accumulated knowledge becomes subordinate to it.
However, here are two references the readers may wish examine for themselves, to determine to what extent, if any, the writer's positions were influenced by subjective factors:
Rudolf Flesch, WHY JOHNNY CAN'T READ, 1955, Harper & Bros., New York. See page 24.
Robert A. Hall, Jr., SOUND AND SPELLING IN ENGLISH, 1961. Chilton Books, Philadelphia. See pages 59-60.

8. Lawrence S. Kubie. PRACTICAL AND THEORETICAL ASPECTS OF PSYCHOANALYSIS, 1975. International Universities Press, Inc., New York.

9. Vic Paulsen. IMPROVED ORTHOGRAPHY, 1971, TORSKRIPT PUB., San Francisco, Ca. See pages 41-44.

10. George Bernard Shaw: In his will he gave these words.

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