[Spelling Reform Anthology §2.5 pp19-23]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Summer 1980, pp2-6]
Is Spelling Reform Feasible?,
by Elsie M. Oakensen,**Northampton, England.
Presented at the 2nd International Conf. of S.S.S. at Nene College, July 29, 1979.
The Origin of Spelling.Spelling was originally the true matching of spoken sounds each with a different symbol. It began when symbols were first used to represent sounds instead of pictures. 4,000 years ago languages were simply spoken. The Greeks had 24 letters in their alphabet, Latin used 22, the Phoenicians 26. All symbols could be matched to sounds and the spoken languages had become visible.
When the Romans arrived in Britain bringing with them their alphabet, it was no doubt adequate for the purposes of written communication then (which was usually in Latin) but since that time many influences have played their part and Weekley (1949) described the spelling of English as "so far as its relation to the spoken word is concerned, quite crazy."
John Downing says, "There is a logic in English spelling but it is very complex. It consists of several logical systems that were introduced at different times. Now they overlap and give the appearance of illogicality. This appearance confuses children because it is difficult for them to understand the complex logic involved." Our language is said to be made up of about 42 sounds and we have only 26 letters with which to spell words. Consequently letters must do double duty. Each of the vowel letters represents several or many sounds. All of the different sounds may each have several letters or letter combinations to represent them. Every letter of the alphabet is used silently in some word. Appendix 1 gives some examples of the different sounds for the same letter and the different letters or groups of letters for the same sound, and also words with silent letters.
Should a Reformed Spelling be Implemented?Consideration should be given as to whether or not spelling reform should be implemented and I shall now examine the arguments for and against transferring to a fully phonetic alphabet.
English, although richly endowed with many advantages, has, in comparison with other languages, one serious defect - its unphonetic spelling. Many people from the 13th Century onwards have considered it worthwhile to spend many years of their lives designing alphabets which they feel would make it more phonetic or would help to simplify and regularize English spelling (Appendix 3, The Way to Spelling Reform). These devotees of spelling reform would consider the following of being the advantages for such a move.
1. It is commonsense to enable English-speaking children to spell correctly without having to memorise every word, and unreasonable to confront them with such a host of apparently irrational difficulties at the very outset of their careers. The perceived confusions and inconsistencies of the existing spelling impose an obvious burden on pupils and teachers throughout the English-speaking world.
One of the chief objects of education is to develop children's reasoning processes. This they cannot do with our spelling because it is so difficult to perceive its logical basis. Thus the discipline of "learning to spell" may be harmful and worthless.
2. In foreign countries English is less effective than it might be as a second language because of its extremely complex spelling. With a system which is free of unnecessary complexities or apparent irrationalities, and which offers a better guide to pronunciation, its acceptance as a world language could be made surer. Nothing stands so much in the way of English becoming the most important medium of communication as its spelling. This alone would justify our attempts to reform it. In 1975 H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh agreed to support the aims of the Simplified Spelling Society by becoming its first Royal Patron.
3. The number of adult illiterates in this country is staggering. Considerable sections of the adult population find difficulty in achieving literacy and communication. An alphabet relating written symbol to spoken sound would rapidly lessen the vast numbers of people who have failed to learn to read in traditional spelling.
In A Plea for Spelling Reform, W. R. Evans (1878), referring to the work of the Elementary Education Act writes,
". . . . that teaching our anomalous system of spelling to the children of the poor is in most cases impracticable, and that when the task is in exceptional cases accomplished, it entails the loss of much other instruction that might be imparted during school attendance. . . ."Charles Dickens may have been expressing a similar view when, in The Pickwick Papers, he had old Mr. Weller say to Sam,
"When you're a married man, Samivel, you'll understand a good many things as you don't understand now; but vether it's worthwhile goin' through so much to learn so little, as the charity-boy said ven he got to the end of the alphabet, is a matter of taste."The Simplified Spelling Society estimates that at least a year of educational time would be saved by all English speaking children if their "New Spelling" system were used. Jamieson (1973), who designed 'sensubul speling', calculates an average of one-and-a-half misuses of symbols per word in traditional spelling. The time and energy saved when teaching a simplified and regularised orthography could be better used in meeting the increased educational demands of a changing civilisation.
4. Paulsen (1971) and Rondthaler agree that the practical consideration of turning out printed material which is nonconventional is no longer a forbidding one. During the last 25 years there has been a continuous state of revolutionary change in printing techniques. Today we can place a transliterating computer between the typesetter's keyboard and the photo-printout unit and at the turn of a switch, the traditionally spelt input comes out as the new spelling typesetting. These two writers both feel that the saving in printing bulk would pay for the computers again and again. "We have at last the technology to make the dream come true. Do we have the courage to use it?" Rondthaler, (1973) asks.
The opposers of Spelling Reform see as an insuperable obstacle. 1, that pronunciation is not uniform in all areas where the language is spoken, nor is it even static. It is forever changing. In Vallins (1973),
"Swift and Johnson saw what Spelling Reformers have never been able to see, that phonetic spelling means swiftly changing spelling, with variations according to local types of pronunciation. The one thing that can be legitimately fixed in a language is the form of its words, and that must depend not so much on changeable and variable sound as on recorded history: in brief, spelling should be precisely what it is in English, etymological rather than phonetic."The derivation of a word would be obscured by a new type of spelling. 'Words of Teutonic origin for instance would be extensively changed.
English is a living language, outside influences add foreign words to our vocabulary, and the pronunciation of words is continually changing. The use of dialect is no longer frowned upon. At present all these changes are being gradually absorbed into our language, because with the large variety of combinations of letters required to spell a sound, a new group is accepted without comment. If we used a phonetic alphabet for our present 40-plus sounds, would new symbols need to be added in the future when new foreign words were admitted to our vocabulary, or would we accept the foreign spellings for these words, and by so doing, could this new simplified and regularised spelling become, in a thousand years time, even more confused than it is at present. We could, of course, copy the languages of other countries who adapt the spelling of foreign words to their own spelling rules, eg. picnic = pique nique (French).
2. The learning of spelling it is argued, is a good mental discipline. Children who never have to exercise their minds on anything difficult will not be good for much in later life. In Boyd (1924),
"English spelling though teeming with irregularities is fundamentally rational, and in spite of confusion and uncertainty caused by irregularities, we learn to spell the majority of words on the basis of analogy."Prof. Axel Wijk (1972) suggests that if we examine the entire vocabulary of the English language, we shall find that the vast majority of English words (about 90-95%) actually follow certain general rules and patterns and that only 5-10% display definite irregular spellings. (see Appendix II, Comparison of alphabets)
3. With a new alphabet, words would have absurd representations and look unfamiliar. Some would be shorter in length but with "New Spelling" and "Consistent Spelling", very many would be extended, so it would be doubtful if there would be an overall economy of letters or space.
4. Homophones, words which sound alike, are spell differently at present, but when represented phonetically would have the same configuration and would cause confusion to the reader.
Dr. Gassner has shown great concern about this problem in his "Consistent Spelling," and uses double consonants in words to show difference in meaning.
5. If Spelling Reform were implemented, the millions of volumes in public and private libraries would become 'closed books' (without special study) to the children of tomorrow.
My own observations on these points would agree that
"A language requires an adequate collection of various signs for its spoken sounds. English spelling reformers say we need 40 or more phonetic symbols instead of the 26 we have." (Fairbanks 1970)1. The chief merit of a phonetic system would presumably be its consistency. It may be argued that our not having such a system is indeed the root of our troubles. Goaman (1966) supports this. He stated: "It would make English a much easier language to read if we always used the same letters to represent the same sounds."
2. After a short study of phonetic print, the reader will find he is able to read and write with perfect fluency. The only difficulty will be to analyse the different sounds needed in formulating the written words, but this neglected part of our education can become surprisingly interesting.
3. It is said that reformed spelling would obscure the etymology of words. But in an approximately equal number of words wrong etymology would be clarified. A phonetic spelling would no doubt give many words a form farther removed from their Latin or other source than the old spelling, but the mass of those who learn the new spelling will also know the old, which will always be available for reference to those who are interested in etymology. The study of the derivation of words is a specialist subject for the scholar. As long as words convey meaning to the ordinary person, that is all he requires from them.
In the 8th Century Alcuin taught the scribes a development of script used by Irish monks. He introduced the small letters of the alphabet. Most of them have a different representation from their corresponding capital letters.  These were new characters and Alcuin could be accused of reforming the spelling of his day. He introduced new configurations to each word and we can assume that this was welcomed by the scribes who would find it much quicker and easier to write.
At first the unusual American spellings we see in many present-day books may be offensive to the eye. This would be so with any new spelling. We shrink instinctively from any change from the familiar, but in time the initial strangeness becomes accepted, and in turn, also becomes familiar.
4. Pitman (1969) observed, with reference to Shaw's alphabet, that it was both more legible and one-third more economical in space than traditional printing, and suggested that this could lead to a great increase in reading speed.
5. The homonym-homophone argument is baseless. It is maintained that confusion would arise if right, wright, rite, write (which are homophones) were all written with the same configuration, but confusion does not arise when these words are spoken, and it is impossible to make up a sentence containing one of these words so that any of, the other three could take its place and make sense. (Ben Franklin, 1783)
It is appropriate at this point to mention the confusion caused to children beginning to read, by homographs,  words such as 'read, tear, wind, row' etc. which have different pronunciations, but the same configurations. This at present is a far more confusing situation than future similarly-spelt homophones would be.
With a phonetic alphabet, homographs would have a spelling in which their accurate sound would he read and the confusion we now have when reading them would be eradicated. In both cases the efficient use of context will establish the meaning of the words. And care in writing context would eliminate the need for differently-written homophones.
6. All books in the old spelling would be useless it is said. Those who use the new spelling would also be able to read the old without too much difficulty. Everyone would find it is relatively easy to read phonetic print. One verbalises as one reads. The future generations could apply this ability to reading the old print - they would not have to learn it and spell it - just read it.
Before a decision can be made about a reform which would affect us all to some degree, there are six questions to be answered.
1. Is it fair that a year's education time should be wasted on teaching children to read? i.t.a. has been proved to be a success in the initial stages of learning to read. The transfer from i.t.a. to conventional spelling is not as formidable as had been anticipated. Even the most sceptical observers have had to concede that it helps dull children from poor homes and does not retard bright ones from good homes.
How much more reading could have been achieved by these children if they had not had the problems of changing to the traditional orthography and learning so many spelling rules! How much less would be the pronunciation problems of foreigners learning our language, if it were phonetically spelt!
In Fernald (1974),
"Learning to read the English language is one of the worst mind-stunting processes that has ever formed a part of the education of any people."2. Can we legitimately criticise the idea of Spelling Reform without first having a detailed knowledge of the imperfections of our present-day spelling system?
Teachers and members of the public not familiar with i.t.a. are doubtful of the advantages of the use of a phonetic alphabet because they have the impression that this would mean learning over 40 completely new symbols - and even people in the teaching world cannot, or will not, realise that this is a complete falacy. Of the 45 symbols in the expanded i.t.a. alphabet, 24 are exactly the same as our Roman letters, 13 are easily recognisable digraphs of our common letters joined together, 5 are ordinary letters with slight distinguishable embelishments, and only 3 are completely new to be learned.
Prof. Walter W. Skeat (1942) felt strongly about this also. He said,
"No one can possibly be in a position to judge as to the extent to which our spelling ought to be conformed (if at all) to that of Greek or Latin - for this is what supporters of the (so called) etymological spelling really mean - until he has first made himself acquainted with the history of our spelling and of our language. The plain question is simply this: how came we to spell as we do, and how is it that the written symbol so frequently gives a totally false impression of the true sound of the spoken word. Until this question has been more or less considered, it is impossible to concede that a student can know what he is talking about, or can have any right to be heard. It is surely a national disgrace to us, to find that the wildest arguments concerning English spelling and etymology are constantly being used by well educated persons, whose ignorance of early English pronunciation and of modern English phonetics is so complete that they have no suspicion whatever of the amazing worthlessness of their ludicrous utterances."3. Is Spelling Reform coming to us gradually without us realising it?
Since the 1950's changes towards clarity and simplicity in the mechanics of spelling have been made where fullstops, apostrophes, inverted commas (quotes), hyphens, and capitals are concerned.
Spacing now performs the function of punctuation in addresses and qualifications after a person's name. Fullstops and commas are omitted. (Robert Brown, BA, MP)
Abreviated words omit the fullstops after the final letter if that is the same as the letter in the full form. (Gk for Greek)
The apostrophe is less used and has disappeared from 'bus and 'cello (bus and cello), and in plurals where there is no clear notion of possession (Girls School). Teachers' Training College became Teacher Training College in the late 1940's and in 1964, College of Education. We now have Earls Court., St. Davids, Selfridges.
We say 'quotes' instead of 'quotation marks' or 'inverted commas'. They were not used by Shakespeare or in the King James Bible. Are they really necessary?
Hyphens are essential in such phrases as 'will-o-the- wisp' or 'happy-go-lucky' but previously hyphened place names have dispensed with them (Kingston upon Thames, Stratford upon Avon).
Current custom prefers lowercase letters if there is uncertainty as to which to use, thus there is simplicity of print.
New words are continually being added to our vocabulary.
These reforms have come about almost unnoticed. In Australia (1975) Harry Lindgren's spelling reform (SR 1) using no new characters was introduced. Here in the first stage of Spelling Reform the short e sound was simplified. In all words containing this sound the group of letters used was replaced by a single e, e.g. bread becomes bred; friend - frend; leopard - lepard; said - sed, etc. By simplifying one sound at a time the change is so gradual that very few inconveniences will be felt.
4. If traditional spelling is continued, is help needed for a simpler introduction to this complex system? In 1913, Bradley in his paper "On the Relations between Spoken and Written Language, with special reference to English," stated,
"It is not the sole function of writing to represent sounds. Writing can directly express meaning, in that for most experienced readers words have an ideographic rather than a phonetic value. We do not, in fact, read by sound. . . Traditional spelling is essential for the preservation of association of words, and for speedy communication of ideas. However, there is no doubt that those unphonetic features of our spelling which have their practical value for the educated adult, do add enormously to the difficulty of learning to read and write. The waste of time in education caused by the want of consistent relation between written and spoken word is a serious evil which urgently calls for a remedy."It was to be 50 years before Sir James Pitman introduced a remedy, namely i.t.a., into British schools. This is the best thing that has happened so far to simplifying the task of teaching children to read.
5. If it were decided to introduce spelling reform, which type of alphabet would be best for this country? This is a decision which would be made, by a responsible body of knowledgeable people, taking into consideration all the advantages, disadvantages, and observations I have listed, and selecting the type of alphabet best suited to the needs of the world at the time in question.
The alphabets I have studied appear to fall into four categories. (see Appendix II, Comparison of alphabets)
1. A medium for teaching beginners to read and write, and designed specifically to facilitate the transfer to traditional orthography. (i.t.a.) [See Journals, Bulletins.]
2. A new system of regularised spelling using the present 26 letter alphabet without the addition of new characters. (New Spelling, Wurld Inglish, and Consistent Spelling).
3. A new system of regularised spelling using some of the 26 letters of our present alphabet singly or as digraphs, with a few additional characters. (simpl speling).
4. A new system with sufficient augmentation of the Roman letters to achieve highly consistent matching of sounds and letters with one symbol to each given sound, and no double or treble letter combinations used as at present. (Readspell, Torskript). Or in addition,
5. A compromise between traditional orthography and total reform. (Lindgren's SR 1, and Wijk's Regularized Inglish).
6. What then is to be the future of our unsystematic spelling? Must we suffer indefinitely?
"When once the public mind is prepared to accept reform in principle, and the government is stirred up to action, it is clear there will have to be some official enquiry into the best method of reform."
Echoing these words of William Archer in an interview in the Daily Chronicle (November 1911), it was felt at the First International Conference of the Simplified Spelling Society that although representation had been made to Parliament by the Society in the past, and to the Bullock Committee, nothing positive would be done in this country without definite proof of a successful alphabet - one which could be brought into use with the minimum effect on the public.
Perhaps it will be considered after the future trials that such an alphabet is among those I have mentioned, and a gradual and unobtrusive transfer to its use will be employed in this country, learning too from any problems which may arise during the Australian Spelling Reform. But in making a decision about Spelling Reform the main consideration must be the welfare of future generations of readers and writers, not our own, as we can finish our lives using the traditional print.
Until then phonologists and linguists will continue to search for one standard pattern of written English with Kingsley Read's (1975) words echoing in their minds:
"The time for endless and often petty-fogging research is over. The need is for CONTROLLED TESTING, FORWARD THINKING, and ACTION!"
Back to the top.