[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1982 pp12-14]

SSS Conference 3: Spelling in other languages and international aspects of English Spelling continued.

"Spelling Reform in International Perspective,"

by Jesús Mosterín, Ph.D.*

*Departmento de Logica Facultad de Filosofia y Ciencias de la Educacion, Universidad de Barcelona, Spain.


The goal of spelling reform is to improve written communication between all the peoples of the world. Of course it should make reading and writing much easier for children to learn. But it should also increase the linguistic awareness of the speakers, facilitate the learning of foreign languages, diminish the burden of bilingual communities, offer a uniform and consistent system of transcription' from other writing systems, allow the unified representation of nouns in cartography, permit the design of universal word processing machines, etc. And it should be made in accordance with the principles valid for all the languages of the world. Most plans of spelling reform that have been proposed in the past are too narrow in scope, too parochial in concern, and incompatible with the possible reformed spelling of other languages.

The scheme of spelling reform proposed here is based on the principle of alphabetic spelling, that is, on the establishment of a biunivocal correspondence between the phonemes of each language and the graphemes of its writing. This principle is modified by 3 restrictions (morphemic, semantic, and transdialectal), which permit departures from it in specific cases, in order to maintain the uniform graphic representation of morphemes, to differentiate homophones, or to unify the writing of different dialects. The graphemes themselves should be chosen according to international criteria, and their shapes and values should differ as little as possible from those of the international phonetic alphabet.

This scheme has just been applied to Spanish and could easily be applied to English and to any other language.


We live in a world and in a time full of unprecedented opportunities and of unprecedented problems. Some of our problems are due to the resistance nature opposes to our wishes. But most of our problems are of our own making: they do not arise from a withstanding nature, but from the inadequacy of our conventions.

The Greek philosophers of the 5th century B.C. made the all important distinction between physis and nomos, between nature and convention. Nature we must accept. As Galileo put it, the only way of dealing with nature is by obeying its own laws. Laws of nature can be discovered, but not agreed upon by convention. On the contrary, laws of the state, customs, dispositions and orthographies are conventions, whose only substance comes from out agreements. It would be a waste of time to discuss whether the solar system should have 9 planets or more or less. But it is very well invested time to discuss the laws of the state, the taxes, the systems of measures, and the rules of orthography.

Rationality has to do with the analysis and critical discussion of systems of conventions. It presupposes the clear articulation of the goals or functions the system is supposed to serve, and it seeks the optimization of those goals through the conscious design or redesign of those systems of conventions. Rationality leads to technology. And spelling reform is a typically technological task. Humanity faces graver and bigger problems than those posed by inefficient and antiquated orthographies or by inadequate systems of measures. But if we are not able to cope with these relatively simple problems, much less can we hope to solve the bigger ones. By successfully tackling such problems as spelling reform, we can flex our intellectual muscles and prepare them for more ambitious enterprises.

Most proposals for spelling reform have been a failure. In a sense, this has been a pity, for children and adults and foreigners have been burdened with needless problems, frustrations and waste of time and effort. In another sense it has been fortunate, for a successful spelling reform would be an enormously laborious and expensive process, which should not be gone through more often than once a century. But most proposals for spelling reform have been so parochial that, had they succeeded, very soon the need for a second spelling reform would have been felt.

One typical system of conventions is the systems of measure units. Every country in the world has had two different problems with its traditional system of measures:

(1) the traditional system used to be more or less accidental or absurd, the units were not interrelated by any simple proportions, the computations with them were unnecessarily difficult and cumbersome; and

(2) the units of such a system used to be different and incompatible with the units of other countries, and this diversity hampered commerce and industry, science and communications. Each country could have coped with the first problem by itself, arriving at a satisfactory solution, but one different from the solutions arrived at by other countries. This reform would have simplified the life of the citizens of that country: But the second problem would have remained intact, and the need to deal with it would have soon led to the need for a second reform to be felt. Of course, it would have been much better to catch both flies with the same stroke. And that is the opportunity offered by the International Metric System.

The British or Americans could have proposed a new and thoroughly rationalized system of measure units based on their old pounds, ounces, drams, grains, and so on. But a wholly new system of units and measures is something difficult to impose or to accept, as it so severely impinges on the habits of the people. Nevertheless one of the best arguments for the Metric System was that not only would it facilitate the learning of physics by children and the making of computations by adults, but also that it would greatly promote the exchange of all kinds (econnomic, cultural, scientific, medical, etc.) among all countries of the world. Evidently the 'sex appeal' of a system which is not only logical and simple, but moreover of international validity, is much greater than that of any merely parochial or provincial one, whatever its merits.

The same applies to spelling reform. We should spare ourselves and others the trouble of having to go through two different spelling reforms, a first one simplifying spellings of different languages independently of one another, and a second one harmonizing and changing again all previously reformed spelling. Also in this domain, we should aim at catching both flies with the same stroke. In order to achieve that, we have to devise and promote a world spelling reform, valid for all the languages of the world.

Let us consider for a moment the English palato-alveolar fricative phoneme /ʃ/, which appears in such words as shoe, ship, of machine. One problem about this phoneme the spelling reformers have been. well aware of has been the one posed by the pathological diversity of its graphic representations in traditional English orthography: sometimes it is represented by sh, other times by ch, sch, s, ss, ti, si, sci, ci or ce. Of course, this is an absurd situation. It could be remedied, for example, by writing always sh for /ʃ/, as many reformers have proposed. But we should not forget that this is only one problem about phoneme /ʃ/, the problem of its polygraphy in English orthography. There is another problem, which has received very little or no attention at all by spelling reformers of the past. It is the problem posed by the different and mutually incomparable graphic representation of the phoneme /ʃ/ in the orthographies of the many other languages which possess such a phoneme. Limiting our attention to the best known west European languages (all of which are written in the Roman alphabet)which possess the phoneme /ʃ/, we easily notice that no two of them represent it in the same way. English represents it (mainly) by sh, Italian by sc or sci, French by ch, German by sch, Dutch by sj or stj, etc. This is a real problem which should be tackled from the beginning. It is not enough that this particular phoneme gets a uniform representation in the reformed orthography of English, another and different uniform representation in the reformed orthography of French, a third one in that of German, and so on. All spelling reforms should be so coordinated from the beginning that this phoneme gets the same uniform graphic representation in the reformed spellings of all the languages. A spelling reform which ignores or forgets the second problem is a merely parochial reform and perhaps it is not worth while being carried through.

Look at German. They write the labio-dental fricative phoneme /f/ sometimes as v, sometimes as f, and sometimes as ph. So the initial consonant of the three words forms, vorn, phosphor is the same, /f/, but it is written in 3 different ways. Of course, this is absurd and every German spelling reformer worth his name will want to change this. So Ftitz Vonficht proposed a uniform graphic representation of /f/ in German by writing it always as v. That is reasonable in the context of traditional German orthography, where /v/ is represented by w, so that the letter v always represents the phoneme /f/. But this is incompatible with the writing of every other language of the world, and so it must be rated as a very bad proposal. If Germans want to unify their graphic representation of phoneme /f/, they should choose the letter for doing it, because it is the internationally accepted letter for that sound.

Look at Spanish. It possesses the velar fricative phoneme /x/ (the same sound pronounced at the end of Scottish loch), which is sometimes written as j and sometimes as g. Every Spanish spelling reformer has proposed to eliminate this anomaly by unifying the graphic representation of /x/. But most of them (like Andrés Bello and Juan Ramon Jimenez) have proposed to use the letter j for doing the job. Again this is quite correct in the context of traditional Spanish orthography, but no writing system of any other language in the world uses the letter j for representing the phoneme /x/. If international considerations are taken into account, Spanish speakers should use the letter x and not j for representing the phoneme /x/.

Look at French. André Martinet, certainly one of the most eminent linguists of our century, devised in 1973 a phonemic alphabet, called alfonic, that should serve as an initial teaching alphabet for children, on the one side, and as a possible means of written communication among adults, on the other. There is nothing to reproach in the phonemic analysis which is its base. And there is nothing new about the shapes of the letters. But the values he assigns to some of them are strange indeed. He assigns the phoneme /ʃ/ (the one at the beginning of ship) to the letter h. Here again, there is no problem with this choice in the narrow context of the French language, which lacks any glottal fricative /h/ (like English hat). But French is not alone in the world. Many other languages possess that phoneme /h/, for which the letter h should be reserved. The suggestion of representing /ʃ/ by h is too idiosyncratic to be accepted by anyone but the French. If the French went along with that proposal, their reformed spelling would be (at least in this point) utterly incompatible with any other actual or reformed spelling of other languages. The French children would have to learn anew to read and to write every time they learnt a foreign language (just as now) and the same would happen to foreigners wanting to learn French. The lot of bilingual communities with French as one of their languages (in Alsace, in Quebec, in Brussels, etc.) would continue to be an unnecessarily hard one.

Look at English, and at its spelling reformers. Consider for example the close, forward, unrounded and long vowel phoneme /i/ which appears in cheese, me, or machine. This is a very common phoneme, to be found in most languages. Of course, the polygraphic representation of this phoneme in traditional English orthography (by the different phonograms ee, e, ea, ie, ei, ey, i) is absurd. But some of the proposed medicines are perhaps still worse than the disease they are supposed to cure. So the Simplified Spelling Society's New Spelling proposes to represent the phoneme /i/ by the letter combination ee. That would have the advantage of unifying the now chaotic graphic representation of /i/ in English, but it would be utterly unacceptable from an international point of view. No other language of the world could represent /i/ as ee. Sir James proposal of the idiosyncratic sign [joined] ee, is still worse. Consider now the diphthong /ai/, found in words like time, die or aisle (and now written as i, y, igh, eigh, ie, ye, ei, ai). New spelling's proposal for it is the letter combination ie. That also is utterly unacceptable in any other language. Dr. Gassner's suggestion for /ai/ is the letter y, also wholly off the mark, if we look at it from an international perspective.

We should beware of this sort of proposal. Some of them (like writing machine, police, prestige or suite with ee in place of actual i) would make English spelling still worse than it is today, from any point of view (and to begin with from the phonetic point of view). And they would carry English spelling still further away from international practices.

If we look at the future destiny of the English language, we must take into account that, on the one hand, every year fewer people are going to speak English as their first language (due to the demographic trends now at work) and, on the other hand, every year more people are going to use English as a second language. There are already many more people who speak Chinese than English. And soon there will be more people who speak Spanish or Hindi than English. Nevertheless English has the best chance of becoming the international auxilliary language. This means that many hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of millions of people are going to learn and use English as a second language (besides their native Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, German, Russian; French, Japanese, etc.), many more than those learning and using it as their first language. In this perspective, it is imperative to reform the spelling of English, not only in order to regularize its present extravagant patterns, but also with a view to accomodating its orthographic conventions to the needs and interests of the speakers of other languages (which, by the way, are identical with the true needs and interests of English-speaking children). R. Venezky excuses some of the oddities of traditional English orthography with the observation that "English spelling is geared for the convenience of the native speakers, not for the foreigner" (The Structure of English Orthography, p. 121). This callous, parochial and irresponsible attitude has to give way to a much broader frame of mind when analyzing or redesigning English spelling, or the spelling of any other language, for that matter.

The biunivocal correspondence between the phonemes of the language and the graphemes of the writing is the essence of the alphabetic way of writing. This we should never forget. But of course, it is not as simple as that. A purely phonemic transcription would not be a good working orthography. Other considerations have to be taken into account, like the need for preserving the uniform graphic representation of the same morphemes, the need for differentiating in writing some homophonic morphemes and the need for maintaining the unity of the writing code beyond the dialectal frontiers. This is not the place for me to dwell on these most important subjects. Much more space would be required to deal with them adequately.

Let me just remark that the full consideration of these essential topics does not impinge at all on the general principle that the most economic, efficient and easy use of alphabetic writing can only be achieved by having at our disposal as many different letters in the alphabet as we have phonemes in the language. And that means that in most languages (and anyway in English, French or German) we need more letters than are available in the Roman alphabet.

We need not invent the new letters. They have already been invented and have been in general use in the scientific community for many years. They are the letters of the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A.), designed by the International Phonetic Association. The I.P.A. is called to play in spelling reform a role similar to that played by the International Metric system in the reform of national systems of units and measures.

Spelling reform is one of the most important, socially relevant and intellectually fascinating tasks which confront us. We should approach this task with a certain awe and with a certain humility, but at the same time with a fresh openness of mind and a bold grasp of the aims.

We need more letters than the Roman alphabet has. That is a fact. Any spelling reform proposal which forgets that is not worthy of its name. (Another question is the tactics of implementation. But clear ideas are more important now and in the long term than mere tacticing and compromising). In choosing the new letters and in assigning values to the old ones, we should resist any temptation of personal originality and of idiosyncratic invention. We should always proceed according to the shapes and values proposed by the International Phonetic Alphabet. Only so shall we arrive at scientifically sound and internationally compatible spelling reforms of all languages of the world.

Some spelling reformers are anxious to get some movement in the actual spelling, to get people begin to change their traditional and often absurd ways of writing. To them I would like to give the advice: Do not press for all changes in spelling you think good or conforming to your favourite scheme. Press just for the ones which are compatible with international uses and with the International Phonetic Alphabet. Forget about the others for the time being and until more research has being carried out. Forget about pressing for writing ee for /i/, or ie or y for /ai/, or j for /ʤ/ (as in George). There is still enough little changes you can press for with a good conscience, like the ones accepted at the 1981 Edinburgh Conference on Spelling, i.e., writing the letter e (instead of a, ie, ai, ea, etc.) for the phoneme /e/ in words like frend (instead of friend), hed (instead of head), eny (instead of any), meny (instead of many), sed (instead of said), insted (instead of instead), etc., and writing the letter f (instead of ph) for the phoneme /f/ in words like filosofy (instead of philosophy), fonetic (instead of phonetic), foto (instead of photo), etc. These are changes which go in the good, internationally acceptable direction. As a matter of fact, the last one, for example, is a change the Italians (and Spaniards, Portuguese, etc.) who are nearer to the Latin sources, have already made long ago. Now they write filosofia, fonetico, foto.

Spelling reform is a grander task than some reformers thought. Let's rise to the occasion.


Wise Sayings, Worthy Mottos, Humorous Quotes, in the style of Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. Useful for Public speakers, Teachers, Clergymen and others to improve their talks. Quotes from many famous persons.

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