[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall, 1980 pp17-19,1]

A letter to Sen. George McGovern,

by Raymond H, Pierson*

*San Diego, Ca.
(Written in SR-1-Spelling Reform, Step 1)

Senator George McGovern
Senate Office Bldg
Washington, D. C. 20580
Subject: Spelling Reform.
Reference: My letter of 3 Jan. 1980.
16 May 1980.

Dear Senator McGovern:

Thank you very much for your personal response of 29 Jan. to my letter of 3 Jan. 1980 on the subject of spelling reform (regularization of our English orthography). I wrote to both you and Sen. Dole on 3 Jan., as well as to several other persons, including the newly appointed hed of the Department of Education, Mrs. Shirley Hufstedler.

Both you and Sen. Dole were interested by my letter and responded in person. Mrs. Hufstedler (who probably did not come down far enough from her lofty perch even to glance at my letter) delegated the reply task to a subordinate whose response was less than gratifying. I wonder if (and hope that) Mrs. Hufstedler will take kindly to my proposal for spelling reform if you and Sen. Dole favor Congressional action on the subject!

Today I am writing you and Sen. Dole identical letters (except for minor differences) to provide you with some additional information which I hope will augment my plea for spelling reform.

A. Adult Illiteracy in the United States.

 First I must comment on a book, a report to the Ford Foundation entitled "Adult Illiteracy in the United States" by Hunter and Harman (Sept. 1979). I'm sure you are well aware of it and hope you may find some nuggets in it. I thought it mighty dull, repetitive and uninteresting, except for some details on the distribution of illiteracy by groups and localities.

Its main conclusions seem to be that: (1) about 50 to 60 million persons in the U.S.A. (about one fourth) who are over 15 years of age are "functionally illiterate" (a term the authors admit is hard to delineate exactly; as tho we didn't know that before they told us), and (2) that a great deal of money has been wasted trying to reduce adult illiteracy, because the ones who needed help most did not take advantage of the help offered (as tho we hadn't alredy known or sensed that!)

In my opinion, that study was largely a waste of money too. There is no word or hint (as far as I could see) as to why the adults happened to be so illiterate (maybe I missed something). Altho the last two of the book's 4 chapters bear the titles (III), "What is being done about adult illiteracy" and (IV), "What should be done, by whom, and how" - there is no mention enywhere in the book about the problem of our culpable orthography.

Their Appendix A "Summary of Recommendations" gives as their "Principal Conclusion: A major shift in national educational policy is needed to serve the educational needs of disadvantaged adults." Less euphemistically they could have sed "Efforts so far in adult education have been woefully unproductive and it is time for a DRASTIC CHANGE." And, they could go even farther and say that some of the change should begin in kindergarten plus grades l, 2, and 3, with an improved orthography.

Please take a critical look at their principal recommendation and their 11 ("so-called") specific recommendations: Specific number 1 says, in my words, "Everybody and his brother, including legislators, etc. should be provided with a copy of our book." They say "this study" insted of "our book", of course. I think the "study" was a "boondoggle."

Were it not for danger to myself of a libel or copyright infringement suit, I would furnish for your convenience photocopies of pp. 133-35, the Summary of Recommendations, with copious comments thereon. To me, the recommendations seem to be "Cloud 9" vagaries (e.g., "increase public awareness" or in my words, "dispel public apathy" which is what we should like to be able to do about simplified spelling or even adoption of the metric system).

There are, of course, a number of factors that contribute to illiteracy, but I sincerely believe there is one outstanding and overriding factor, and that is our English orthography.

B. The History of Spelling Reform.

 There is a long history of spelling reform attempts and failures. Comprehensive reviews may be found in the references (encl. 5).

There are a host of reasons for the failures, for example:

(1) Meny attempts were schemes of individuals, each of whom believed his plan was the best possible solution. None of these schemes (altho some had good points) had eny possibility of universal acceptance; meny were "zany" ones with odd-looking characters.

(2) Efforts by illustrious individuals (Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, etc.) failed mostly because the public had not been properly "sold" on the idea and the plans were not well conceived and planned, or were too extensive and radical for public acceptance in one gulp.

(3) Even WES (World English Spelling, advocated by the Simpler Spelling Association - now called the Phonemic Spelling Council) which uses no new letters (only the 26 now in use) and no diacritical marks, failed to obtain Congressional support.

(4) Over a period of time, meny bills on spelling reform have been proposed in Congress but so far all have died. As far as I know, none of these suggested a Step-by-Step plan.

Most of us have heard of the Chicago Tribune attempt to promote revised spellings, but the basics involved are not generally well-known or appreciated. In brief, the Tribune began in 1934 with a revised spelling list of 80 words. From time to time additions and deletions were made to this list. Then at various dates, reversions were made to T.O. (Traditional Orthography) and finally in 1975 (after 41 years of valiant effort) all the improved spellings were abandoned (including even "thru, tho, altho, and thoro") except for such words as "catalog" ending in "og" insted of "ogue," which were introduced by Webster's Dictionary. The experiment had failed simply because it have had a very faulty design and should never been started with such a design in the first place. In the 80 words, there were 26 types of change and consequently thousands of contradictions! For example, "hearth" was changed to "harth" by elimination of the "e" but "heart" remained unchanged because it was not on the prescribed list. What a terrible waste of well-intentioned effort! What a pity it had not presented a good consistent plan such as SR-1, 2, 3, etc.! Such a plan might have gained wide acceptance and might have eventually obtained Congressional backing.

C. The Step-by-Step Proposal, Step No. 1 (SR-1).

 First of all there should be Congressional action which would prepare the public for a gradual step-by-step manner of change to begin with SR-1. Otherwise there will be not only public apathy but probably rejection.

Then I suggest that the SR-1 be introduced by requiring all Government (both military and civil service) publications to use SR-1 (with due allowance for lapses into T.O. until an adequate period of adaptation had passed). Altho reading material written in SR-1 is very easy, writing it is a bit more difficult. Eventually everyone using SR-1 will see that words like "any" that are not spelled as "eny" do indeed look ODD! Then state offices and the public in general can follow the Federal lead.

This "preparation" of the public is very important. Even if such a thing as gas rationing becomes imperative, a little advance notice will tend to "soften the blow" to some extent and the more warning time, the better.

For each step of spelling reform, consideration must be given to such things as: (1) how will the changed words look in print as compared to T.O., (2) how difficult to read, (3) how difficult to write, (4) how meny words would be affected, (5) how meny homophones would be created, (6) how helpful would it be for children and for adults, especially those studying English as a second language, etc. (in other words, how much good will the change do in reducing illiteracy and in promoting English as a world language ).

In the references provided in this letter, there are guidelines regarding proper steps for spelling reform and some pitfalls to be avoided. Let me call your attention to just a few specific items to emphasize this point. SR-1 is a good step because it changes in a very simple and consistent way about 250 common English words. Also it creates very few homophones and these are ones that are redily and instantly resolved by context. At the same time it eliminates some homographs. For example, "read" pronounced "red" is so written, and "lead" pronounced "led" is so written. And at the same time the new spelling "cures" the confusion in T.O. which pronounces the homographs "read" and "lead" in two ways.

D. What about Steps SR-2, -3,

 etc.? Steps beyond SR-1 must be well-planned and should represent a consensus of a group (committee or panel) of well-qualified experts (and I do mean experts, for there are meny pitfalls; it is a complicated matter, not a simple one).

As for SR-2, changing all "ph" spellings to "f" where it is sounded as /f/ would probably be a very sound choice because few problems would be encountered (except for lexicographers!). In the Spanish language, our word "photograph" is written "fotografia," - no problem there as "ph" was never used for /f/. Then how about our "gh" or "ough"? That is a very different matter, and changing "gh" to "f" where the /f/ sound is intended, requires a variety of modifications and should be deferred to a step considerably further along in time than Step SR-3.

How about dropping all silent letters in one fell swoop. Hevens to Betsy, that would indeed open a can of worms! Changing words like "give, have, live" to "giv, hav and liv" (where the final "e" wrongly shows the preceding . vowel is long) could have an early priority. Step SR-1 will cure some silent and unnecessary "a"s (as in "head") but the silent "a" in "road", etc. would need modification in addition to the deletion.

How about the next silent letter after "a", namely "b"? That would be just fine for words like "debt" which would logically and desirably become "det" simply by deletion. And "lamb" would be O.K. as "lam", but how about "comb"? That would go just to "com" by deletion, and horror of horrors, what if we wrote it logically as "come"? We alredy have that word which would certainly have to be changed to something like "cum". Another example of a "simple" change that should have deferred priority is changing the word "of" to "ov" (the way it is sed); altho this change represents consistency and the word occurs very frequently, it would "bother" the man in the street more than the change is worth - until change itself becomes commonplace.

Now these details have been presented to give you some idea of the need for an experienced group for the promulgation of a logical and acceptable sequence of changes.

E. Enclosures and References.

 These are intended to supplement those furnished in my letter of 3 Jan. 1980. At this time I realize that some of the references may not be redily available to you (altho the Library of Congress can, I'm sure, go far beyond my sources). Hence I offer now to try to furnish you with originals or photocopies of those which may be of special interest to you. For example, it would be my plesure as a civic duty in the interest of reducing illiteracy, to do what I can to get copies to you of articles from S.P.B. (Spelling Progress Bulletin, the quarterly edited by Mr. Tune, 1961 to 1980 inclusively) which you might like to see.

F. My Plea Reiterated.

 I realize your time and energy must be assiduously concentrated and regulated, but I beg of you to think seriously of the benefits which would accrue from a carefully planned and carried out series of Step-by-Step reforms of our English orthography. Think of where we could be by now (i.e., how meny of our illogical and frustrating spellings could have been eliminated by now) - if only we had started such a plan at the Federal level 25 years ago!

Sincerely yours, Raymond H. Pierson.

P.S. The matter of international cooperation with other English-speaking countries will, of course, come up and merits discussion by qualified persons. But I believe the U.S.A. can go ahed with the suggested step-by-step plan without eny delay on this score. As a matter of fact, SR-1 is not a new U.S.A. invention; it is alredy in use to a considerable degree in Australia, where it has been advocated by Harry Lindgren since 1969. (cf. Item 3 on a Recommended Reading List in my letter of 3 Jan. 1980.)

P.S. 2. Senator McGovern, I sincerely believe that IF, thru your efforts and those of Sen. Dole, SR-1 were to be initiated in this country, the end result could very well be a regularization of English orthography that would not only reduce illiteracy in the U.S.A., but also change the history of the U.S.A., other English-speaking nations and the WORLD! You and Senator Dole are, I think, in a position to put very large fethers in your caps!!

P.S. 3. Are we going to let the Russians get ahed of us in education and technology just because they have a fonetic alfabet and we are stuck with a difficult to learn and a wasteful alfabet?

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