[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980, pp13-15]
[George O'Halloran: see Newsletters, Bulletins.]

A Pedagogical Purview of Orthography,

by George O'Halloran.*

*London, England. Presented at the 2nd International Conference on Reading and Spelling at Nene College, Northampton, Eng. July 27-30, 1979. Sponsored by the Simplified Spelling Society.

The English language has long been used as a means of class discrimination in English society. This is how it works. One reads, say, the applications that have come in for a vacant job. One then sorts them according to their spelling errors and, perhaps, their use of the subjunctive. A certain effectiveness in spelling shows, in general, a certain type of education, and so, again in general, a certain type of class background. In this way one can be reasonably sure of sorting out the right kind of middle-class young man for one's office or factory. The next step was to write a letter to The Times complaining that school-leavers cannot spell. Some folk were, as usual, more equal than others.

But then, as is common in England, the middle-class conscience began to twitch. It was felt that all (well, nearly all) children ought to be able to read and spell. A spelling reform movement set out to make spelling easier for the lower classes. Then the fun started and it still goes on. Which pronunciation of English should be used for the brave new spelling? Various suggestions, made in all seriousness, were put up: educated speech, the Edinburgh dialect, the Dublin dialect, R.P. (Received Pronunciation, and believe it or not, the pronunciation of the English gentry! What was lost sight of in all these solemn deliberations was that the selection of any particular dialect would put all the others at a disadvantage and so frustrate the original purpose of the exercise: to produce a system easy for all. There is still no agreement on this question and probably never will be. But it doesn't really matter and it never really did.

When Pitman and I worked together we sometimes disagreed about the pronunciation of English words. On consulting Daniel Jones we often found that my pronunciation was labelled as correct but also as 'old fashioned' or by some such tag. Yet it was perfectly good English sound transmigrated from the English midlands to the Irish midlands (together with the usual complement of English settlers to form an upper class) in the reign of our good Queen Mary in the 16th century. The real difference was that my dialect had remained in its pristine state and had not developed on the same lines as its cognates in England. This atavistic knowledge of English really does give Irishmen an advantages kind of insight over natives in pronostigating the direction of evolution in British English.

All this disputation made up the controversy (confusion might be a better word) about the what of spelling reform. Soon, however, it blossomed into the argument about the how. Hereabouts we began to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Nobody seemed to consider that it was not the sound which was put on paper that was important but the sense being read from it - as the Chinese had discovered several thousand years earlier. They had solved the problem for their own culture by the use of a pasigraphy.

In England in the beginning there was Nue Spelling and the various phonetic alphabets. The problems associated with these were soon recognised and then we began to hear about phonemic solutions. There was an enormous proliferation of both kinds of alphabetic solution. I am told that over 700 have been counted. Sinclair Eustace in his 1974 publication states that he and his sub-committee of the Simplified Spelling Society 'examined about eighty.' it is a pity he did not include a list.' It would have been useful to later workers in the field.

The phonemic alphabets also seemed to produce problems and we next saw the arrival of the 'two-stage' solutions of the problem. Chief, and for some time the most popular of these was i.t.a. - the Initial Teaching Alphabet. [See Journals, Bulletins.] At one time over 4,000 British schools were using i.t.a. and many thousands in other countries. One country, The Gambia, agreed to put all its elementary schools over to i.t.a. but inactivity in the I.T.A. Foundation frustrated this hope. It now seems that two-stage solutions are no longer widely accepted as the answer to the problem, except in TEFL-teaching English as a Foreign Language.

It is, I think, probable that there will never be a unification of the pronunciation of the various dialects of English. If, therefore, we are to continue to seek a universal writing system for English, it seems likely that we shall have to eschew both phonetic and phonemic approaches. We shall have to go for a medium in which folk all over the world will be able to read off, in their own local pronunciations, what is printed or written.

Take a look at the following sentence:
He had fair hair.

Think how it might be sounded in London, Los Angeles, Liverpool, Lagos, and Dublin - and a few other places, too! If the different sounds of this sentence in each variant dialect were to be represented in a phonetic or phonemic script, the written versions would differ quite considerably from each other (and, of course, from the traditionally written version).

At present, all readers learn to read this line into what ever are the appropriate sounds in their own dialects. And, indeed, it should be pointed out here that all the spoken interpretations of traditional orthography (T.O.) are still universally comprehensible to all speakers of all English dialects. In other words, all spoken English dialects can be understood still by all English speakers. But this kind of resolution of written symbols into variant but inter-understandable sounds is usually known as diaphonic. Our traditional orthography (T.O.) is diaphonic - although catalectically so in places. Teachers in all English-speaking lands have always used T.O. diaphonically and described its use as 'phonics' or 'the phonic method.'

If we were to change to phonetic or phonemic script could we, in fact, retain the unifying diaphonic property of T.O.? Or would English just dissolve, phonetically or phonemically, into dozens of written dialects? - just as Latin did some two thousand years ago. Was it not really the writing down, perhaps phonemically, of slightly variant dialects that brought about the dissolution of Latin into French, Spanish, Italian? Is not T.O. now actively preventing this kind of dissolution of English?

I am, for example, able to read with fair case the meaning of most things written in the Kiriyo dialect of Sierra Leone (an English dialect perhaps three hundred years old) when this dialect is written in a script similar to our T.O. But when this dialect is put into full phonetic script by a scholar, I find it difficult to read. Is this phonetic script, because it is different, the start of a new language? Is this what happened in the genesis of the Romance languages from Latin? Is phonemic spelling the new road to Babel for English?

It seems to me that we are beset by scholars - and pseudo-scholars. From Mulcaster, and even before, onwards they have done us a lot of damage. From a base of small Latin, less Greek, and no feeling at all for English, persistent and enduring attempts have been made to pervert the naturally evolving spelling of English into a Latin pattern - in the same way as other scholars had already spancelled English grammar into a Latin strait jacket. New Spelling (Nue Speling) set a bad fashion and the subsequent systems that have all been derived from it suffer from the same main defect - a compulsion to multiply letters and/or rules to cover up inconsistencies. None of these newer systems has paid much attention to the way in which English spelling was evolving naturally, nor to the special genius of the English language which produced this spelling.

An orthography should work according to the nature of its own language and not according to the Latin language, nor the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A.), nor, indeed, to any preconceived ideas. When in 1947 I was given by the Gambian Government the task of writing down the Mandinka language for the first time in a script suitable for the production of books for speakers of the language, I had not yet learned this simple truth. I started work in the Africa Script - sometimes called the Westermann Script. This is a variant of the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A.) prescribed for African languages by a group of scholars in London and Berlin. Up to a point this script worked well enough but there were some problems. As well as making an orthography for the language, I was at the same time composing a literacy primer. To test the primer, I had a gang of boys aged about ten+ years from the nearby village of Jenyer who would come to my mud-and-grass hut in the evening to learn to read. They had some trouble in coping with my first attempts at orthography. We ran into the word for 'cloth' which I had written as baio. My students kept obstinately saying ba-i-o as three syllables. (I could not speak Mandinka at this time so could not explain.) After a little experimentation, I found the answer. This was simply to write bayo as two syllables. This was read accurately at first attempts. This was the first change in my prodromal alphabet.

We also had a problem with doubled vowels in expressions like a taata (he/she/it went), a boota (he/she/it came/went out). Here by trial I found the remedy was simply to undouble the vowel to a tala, a bota, and so on.

After some time I found that where I had started off with an alphabet, I was now working with a syllabary. We had adjusted to the genius of the Mandinka language. Our new approach made accurate soundings out of sentences possible from simple juxtaposition of syllables and their sequential utterance. I had also found out that a rigidly consistent system was not needed. Readers were able and willing to adapt (even unconsciously as they became more expert) where adaption is logical and not excessive.

From these boys I learned many things about practical orthography. A general conclusion was the need for practical trial in the field with consequent adaptation to the learning habits of students. There is a need for testing - NOT to prove one orthography to be better (whatever that may mean) than another but to find out how an orthography works for learners. In summary I might say that from my trials I learned (a) to follow the genius of the language and (b) to be guided by the learning habits of its speakers. Little heed has been paid to the genius of English spelling by its hordes of reformers.

I have a theory that the later in its development a language gets written down, the better for all concerned. It gets a chance (like cheese or wine) to mature. Let me give a few examples of what I mean. Many African languages have complex and complicated systems of syntax and accidence. They get much of their effect by changes in word shape - perhaps several changes in the same word - (Twi) asu (water, loose in a lake or river), nsu (water, controlled in a receptacle) osu (water, in the form of rain). Prefixes often complicate the scene: (Temne) Rabomp rami rabang (My head is aching). The forms these changes take are very numerous.

These languages still have to work their complications out of their systems and, of course, they will do so if the scholars will only allow them to do so.

Mhndinka has already cleared most of the complications from its linguistic system. It has shed all of the inflections except one: -lu to show plurals and this rule, like all of the very few rules the language has, has no exceptions to its working. The analytical tendency in Mandinka has gone far past that even of English. The Mandinka third person pronoun has, for example, coverage for all possible third person senses. The little word a means he/she/it in the nominative; him/her/it in the accusative, and his/hers/its in the genitive.

Nouns, adjectives and verbs (so far as these terms are applicable) are used interchangeably as appropriate.

Mandinka has also worked out all 'difficult' sounds, e.g. the velar fricatives present in its neighbours, the cognate but more primitive dialects of Bambara and Wongara. Bambara tagha [1] has become ta in Mandinka and sighti [2] (sit) has become si.

Mandinka has also preserved and developed an agglutinative utility. For example, it has no difficulty in coining new words where these are called for in life: jiokono-moto (in-water-motor): launch; kaluntila (boat-fly-maker): aeroplane; sisibondirango [2] (smoke-make-go-out-instrumerit): chimney. It also borrows freely from other languages which offer useful words, and such words become indistinguishable from real Mandinka words. Examples of borrowings are: champiyongo [2] (English): champion; kalaso (French): ice; tura (Portuguese): bull; alimani (Arabic): headman; duntung [2] (Fulaani): cockbird; nyeta (Jolof): three-penny piece, etc.

We know all this has happened in Mandinka for several, reasons. First, Mandinka is surrounded by Bambara, Wongara and other cognate dialects in which these changes have not taken place. There is also internal evidence in the Mandinka language.

English was, perhaps, written down too soon. Before it had time to develop and mature as fully as Mandinka, the scholars and pseudo-scholars got hold of it and began to pervert its spelling. They have continued to do so until this day.

A very reasonable system of putting sound on paper (or vellum) had begun to evolve in English - one which is both acceptable and interesting to young learners. I know about this. I teach it every day. Its beginning works (for me) in graded steps as follows:

1. We have five basic vowel signs: a, e, i, o, u.

2. They are sounded as these words: bag, beg, big, bog, bug.

3. The names of the vowels are: e:i (ay), i: (ee), ai (ie), o (ou), yu.

4. Sometimes the names of the vowels are uttered in words instead of the sound values given above. When this happens the different sound is cued by the addition of 'e' to the syllable, as in mate, mete, mile, mote, mute. This supervenient ''e' is not itself sounded. It is there merely as a signal. Children are interested in this kind of change. A little magic has been worked. It gives them a feeling of expertise. They will look harder at words. Some will even start to collect examples perhaps minimal pairs.

5. Then we have the soft pronunciations of 'c' and 'g'. The soft sound of 'c' always precedes 'e' and 'i'. The soft sound of 'g' sometimes precedes 'e' and 'i' at the beginning of words; it often does so in the middle of words and it always does so at the end of words: cement, gem, engagement, cage but begin.

6. We have consonant doubling to cue short vowel sound: can, canned, canning but cane, caned, caning.

7. We have various consonant clusters which cue vowel sound, for example, 'ck': sack, seck, sick, sock, suck.

8. The magic 'e' works for these also but one consonant has to be left out as always to change the vowel sound: sack: sake; lick: like; pock: poke.

9. What happens when the other consonant of the cluster is left out? rack, cake, race; mack make, mace; lick, like, lice, etc.

This is only the beginning. There are other ploys of this kind which stimulate interest in the working of words and lead to questions, explorations and dictionary drill. This is a much better system of inculcating literacy in the young than the drudgery of unrelieved phonetics or crude phonemics. Children enjoy this way of working, especially when it is used with a cued key sentence approach. One group of our children, measured on the Schonell Test, was four years better than the local average and two years above the Schonell norm.

This system is natural to English. It is the lineal descendent of the way in which English folk began to adapt the Roman alphabet to their own language, indeed, just a little earlier than the Mandinkos of West Africa began to adapt the Arabic alphabet to their language. Oddly both encountered the same kind of problem.

Below is a table of some vowel sound representation in English in a cuing frame with 'p' and 'l' bounds:

vowels
longer vowels
magic 'e'
oddments
pal
pall
pale
pawl
Paul
(palm)
pel
---
pele
peel
peal
pil
pill
pile
---
pol
poll
pole
pool
pul
pull
pule
purl
pearl
5
4
5
4
3
1
(pele is an obsolete spelling of peel) 22

The vowel combinations above occur as discrete syllables in English. In these syllables 22 vowel sounds are cued - and no need for any other characters. And of course, other vowel combinations do occur. The ingenuity shown reminds me of the inventiveness of the Mandinkos in their rather simpler adaptation of Arabic letters to their own language. It is true that the English system now needs tidying up a bit. Mere physical difficulties of communication in the roadless Britain of a thousand years ago made it inevitable that local variations would arise. Since then the scholars and pseudo-scholars of later days have been at work and stirred things around a bit. The net result of all this is that much that was simple has been made complicated. There is need for some measure of re-simplification, perhaps, (mainly as a result of the labours of the pseudo-scholars) but none for massive, and to most folk unacceptable, reformation. The resolute wisdom of the man-in-the-street in rejecting most forms of reform proposed up to now, gives hope for a rational future.

But the latest research is beginning to look again at the old system. Out greatest living linguist, Chomsky, has said in Sound Patterns of English (New York, 1968) that the traditional English orthography (T.O.) comes very close to being an optimal orthographic system. Another major scholar of international repute has recently published detailed findings of a method of building on the ancient natural system of our ancestors to achieve a modern evolutionary alphabet for English. I refer, of course, to our friend and colleague, Prof. Axel Wijk of Stockholm.

Phonetic or phonemic reform contains in itself the germ of the dissolution of the English language. The inter-understandable slightly variant dialects of the Latin of the old Roman Empire were written down phonemically for local use in France, Spain, Italy, and other places. They became progressively more variant deprived of the influence of the traditional Roman orthography and, in the end, they became separate languages. The same can easily happen with the various dialects of English - and Babel will once more ensue! It has already happened with the Kiriyo English dialect of Sierra Leone which has been given its, own orthography by Thomas Decker. I understand that the Gulla Negro dialect of the Southern East coast of the United States and the islands off-shore has also been given a variant script. The French Creole dialect of Haiti has officially been written as an open syllable language by UNESCO in a variant script and has lost all resemblance to French in appearance. In the back streets of Monrovia, Lagos, Accra, even Douala, and many of the other larger cities of Africa, new dialects of English are emerging - even into literature. Plays, novels, and the Bible have been written into them.

Nobody wants to try to prevent any people from having its own language, even an evolved language, but when one compares the relative uselessness of Swahili to its speakers - as compared with English - one begins to see the value of preserving the best point of the writing system which seems destined to preserve English as a world utility.

If we want to keep any unity in English, spoken or written, we must forget phonetic for phonemic reform. Unless we wish to allow English to degenerate into a multiplicity of dialect - in time, even into different languages - and thus lose its great usefulness as an international medium of communication, let us cling to the spelling system which began to evolve to fit the sounds of English some six or seven centuries ago. This traditional orthography (T.O.) is a good script eminently suited to English with its wide dialectal variety of sounds. By all means let us tidy up our spelling into regularity and consistency and also keep it in line with developments in the language, but let us make sure also that we keep any simplification along the well-known traditional lines.

Notes:

[1] gh represents a velar fricative consonant.

[2] ng represents a velar nasal consonant.

Back to the top.