[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1982 pp15-17]
[Also on this page: Accolade to Newell Tune.]
[George O'Halloran: see Newsletters, Bulletins.]

SSS Conference 3: Development of Improvement in English Orthografy continued.

"Spelling: What Road to Reform?",

by George O'Halloran, London, England (in absentia).


Abstract.

How nearly ideal is English spelling? Phonemic reform - will it make the teaching of English a lot easier? Diaphonic spelling: How accurate do we need vowel representation? Dialect spelling, and teaching in it. Syllabic systems. Is English a syllabic system, and should it be taught as such? Is ideographic writing on the ascendency? Can we devise a spelling system compatible with Eurospellings? - perhaps by semi-ideographic spellings?

Corpus.

The long-standing insult offered by our traditional spelling to all readers, but especially to beginning readers must surely be coming to an end - or must it? Is our spelling really, as Chomsky would have us believe, the ideal instrument for representing English?, or is it, as so many others would assert, a treachery, a delusion and a snare? And if English spelling is to be reformed, or perhaps just simplified, what kind of changes should be made? From Ormin onward there have been many proposals for change. These came to a head in the first third of the century when reform bills had encouraging support in the House of Commons. The operation of these was hindered by the selfish outlook of a purported reformer who attempted to foist his own system on the unsuspicious public. He failed in this attempt, but left the reform movement considerably weakened.

Some of the early proposals for reform were said in their time to be phonetic. That is to say, they were said to be based on the systematic representation of the sounds of words as uttered. There was some uneasiness about the use of this description and as time went by it began to be replaced by the word phonemic. This description is said to be based on the systematic representation of families of related sounds. It was hoped that all the slightly variant members of such a sound family might be represented by the same single character. This possibility is not now so widely accepted as a panacea. There was for many folks in many lands the danger of just substituting one unsatisfactory system for another equally disappointing.

The reformers had hoped to make reading (and consequently education and thus economic progress) more easily available to the hoi poll. But was this happening? The underprivileged, speaking the widely variant dialects of the ghettos of London, Liverpool, New York, Freetown, and the West Indies would seem still to be out of the range of help. Large scale experiments in new systems such as i.t.a. conducted on thousands of children in hundreds of schools in numerous countries showed conclusively that children did learn to read in English faster when using i.t.a. - but not much faster. It seems that the greater net gain was not worth the disproportionate expenditure of money, effort and printing needed. The fact that nearly all former i.t.a. schools have now given up i.t.a. and have reverted to traditional orthography must, in itself, be significant. It has now become clear that any simplification or reform to be generally acceptable will have to be diaphonic as well as phonemic. That is to say, it will have to cover all (or most) of the sounds of all dialects of English adequately for reading - at least for beginners. A diaphone is a character which covers all the variant pronunciation of particular phonemes. Using a diaphonic alphabet, learners would be able to learn to read in terms of their own dialects. A diaphonic system would be equally valid for the English sounds of Liverpool, Los Angeles, Lagos, Adelaide, and East London.

Another thing that was highlighted by all the experimentation was the importance of dialect itself in learning to read English. English has always been written in the middle-class dialect of the language. This has not been unreasonable since this dialect was in the past the language of most English literature as written by middleclass writers. It was fair that they should write as they spoke. But this made it harder for speakers of non-standard dialects to learn to read. This defect is said to be one of the causes of immigrant failure in education. One of the causes of the failure of i.t.a. was probably because it held too closely to class pronunciation and spellings. The mood of the times was against it. It was probably better to have early readers taught in their own dialects, and some progress has been made along this road already.

It is widely accepted that the vowels of English cause more confusion to beginning readers than the consonants. Teachers of reading in any language are only too well aware of the difficulties of vowel blending. In an earlier presentation to this Society, I described a method by which I overcame specific difficulties in an African language by consonant substitution. Experiments have shown that reading in a devoweled English script is quite easy. Would it be a good thing therefore to just leave out the vowels in English writing? Or just to leave out or to change only those which cause bother? Arabic (for Arabs) does omit vowels at an early stage in reading - although for non-Arabs, especially in African countries, they are retained much longer in Arabic and are never even partially abandoned when writing local languages in Arabic scripts. Is there a lesson for us here? Should we set up experiments to test the effects of leaving out or changing some or all of the vowel letters in English. After all, the various kinds of shorthand have usually omitted the vowels. One successful brand of shorthand called Speedwriting whose proponents read a paper for us at our first conference uses ordinary letters and omits vowels only. It seems to work very well but is, of course, usually only taught to adult students.

Or should we go for a syllabic system? Here there must be careful thought. Classical English syllables are quite primitive, very difficult and numerous. Languages which have developed further phonologically than English have greatly simplified their syllable structure. For example, the Eest African language Mandika has reached a very high stage of syllable development. It has now only three types of syllable: V (vowel), CV (consonant+vowel), CCV (consonant+consonant +vowel). It is doubtful if a language can get more stream-lined than this.

But English is already developing along similar lines, although it has a long way to go. The following TV advertising jingle shows what has already been achieved as part of current oral usage: It is shown in the International Phonetic Alphabet:
jʋl nɛvə gɛʔ ə bɪ ə bʌʔə ɔn jʋə naif
you'll never get a better bit of butter on your knife.
This development needs only to be used in print, perhaps as under, to effect a very much quicker reading result in all English-medium schools.
Yu'll neve ge a be'e bi o' bu'e on yu naif.
Most folks will be surprised to learn that English is, in its usually spoken form, already nearly a syllabic language. Think what an acknowledgement of this could mean to literacy. Children learn to read in syllabic languages with great speed. In The Gambia we set a period of two months for the attainment of complete fluency in reading. Hardly any children failed to achieve it. This was, of course, in the Gambian vernacular which is written as an open syllable language. Is this the shape of things to come in English? Are we going to follow the Mandinkos down the road of easy literacy instead of persisting with the outworn, outmoded system we borrowed from the Romans and never allowed to develop?

Do we need very great vowel accuracy in everyday writing? Again we may perhaps look to Africa for Guidance. The Mende people of Sierra Leone and Liberia (relatives of the Mandinkos already mentioned) in pre-colonial days evolved a system of writing to fit their language. This was a syllabary of a very special kind. It was written from right to left. I give a few characters to show how it worked:
A syllabary from Africa.
Don't forget the right to left reading. But the script could just as easily read from left to right or even boustrophedon. Unlike the ancient syllabaries where discrete syllables like ki, ka, ku would usually be written as completely different shaped characters, the very competent orthographers of the kikaku recognised the separate nature of vowels and consonants. But these were also understood (in the ancient fashion)as an integral part of the syllable. This can be seen from the non-writing of a separate /i/ sound in syllables like ki, wi, mi. It was a change of vowel that was registered by dots as above.

Another interesting fact is that modern Western-trained linguists regard Mende as having a seven-vowel system. These seven vowels are in I.P.A. written as: a, e, i, o, u, ɔ, ɛ. But the Mendes found their own locally evolved three-vowel system quite adequate for all purposes. Do we really need all those extra vowel signs to write Mende nowadays. Or are they there for the benefit of foreigners rather than natives? A quite small number of foreigners will learn Mende. Should all the Mendes be burdened with superfluous letters to accomodate a few outsiders?

Come to that, do we really need all those vowel signs and combinations of vowel signs for English' The more signs there are, the greater the difficulties of learning them, and the greater the possibilities of confusion. Redundancy is not a virtue here. My elementary manual of phonetics claims that standard British English has need of over 21 different vowel signs. Maybe it's fewer vowel signs we need - not more. Should we perhaps try out the Mende three-vowel system to see how it goes? After all, the Arabs don't seem to suffer too much from the use of their three vowel system. (Ed. comment-!!!?)

Or should we go further and persue alongside, or even instead of, our Romanic script a completely new system of expressing our ideas. Should we go for same system of purely ideographic writing such as Blissymbolics? Bliss is gaining adherents in many countries. Originating in Australia, it is now supported by the Canadian Government which has financed the production of a full colour talking film to explain the system. This film can be had on loan free of charge from the Canadian High Commission. Such a system, being purely ideographic, would over-ride both class and national barriers. There are also Bliss books available. This year there is a course on Blissymbolics at the National College of Speech Sciences in Hampstead on October 1st.

Or should we not just go straight to the fountain head and adapt the 2,000 ideographs of the Chinese as these are used in Japan. It seems a lot to learn but the Japanese manage it and it does not seem to have kept them backward in any way. Perhaps the extra learning load would have a therapeutic effect on naughtiness in schools. As a bonus, we should be able to read a good deal of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Viet-Namese. It is worthy of taking note of the fact that there is a very much higher standard of literacy in Japan than in Britain. A few years ago there was an experience in New York teaching the backward to read. They apparently learned much faster in this script. (Ed. comment: This is unbelievable!)

Do we ask for too much definition in our script? Is it not enough for most purposes, perhaps after all, that our writing signs should just stimulate the memory into the correct response? Or is this script business strictly a psychological thing: a kind of master/servant complex? We seem to want to tie other folks down: we have no good will to men and expect none. So we try to register every nuance and every comma into a forcing situation of spelling and rules. Are we manifesting our own character defect in our alphabet? - inherited with the writing from the Romans?

But for us who are in the E.E.C., it seems that we must not move too far away from our Euro-compatriots. English shares with most European languages a very large number of spellings exactly the same as those of other E.E.C.languages. Could we combine these into a form of simplified spelling? It could be a grievous mistake to move too far away from that of our Euro-compatriots and thus perhaps create greater division in our first real hope of unity with our neighbours. Are there echoes of Axel Wijk in this? Was the underlying unity of Euro-scripts another, if underlying, reason for the failure of i.t.a.?

It is true that the printed common forms of Euro-words often conceal very great differences of sound, but at least we have the shape of the words in common and often the meaning as well. The beginnings, perhaps, of a rather cumbersome pasigraphy. Also many of these words have become international in the correct export of European and North American culture and manufactures to fill gaps in third world countries. It could be a mistake to depart too far from these word-shapes. Would it be a good thing to produce a common Euro-vocabulary from these shapes? No work has been published on this task up to now. Used ideographically, such a vocabulary could have a unifying effect an the European communities.

-o0o-


[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1982, p20]

To

NEWELL W. TUNE

in recognition of more than two decades
of self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of spelling reform
through managing, publishing, and single-handedly producing

SPELLING PROGRESS BULLETIN

and compiling the scholarly source book

SPELLING REFORM

ADVANTAGES, EDUCATIONAL BENEFITS, & OBSTACLES TO ADOPTION



Frends and supporters of spelling reform join in

An Accolade of Admiration. & Appreciation

JOHN V. ANANASOFF
WALTER W. BARBE
HARVIE BARNARD
JOHN L. BARNETT
EMMETT A. BETTS
HELEN BONNEMA BISGARD
ROBERT BRAZIL
JOSEPH E. BROW
KENETH R BROWN
JANE BUTTERS
ANITA CARSCALLEN
JOHN CHAPPELL) Jr.
EARL CHEEK
AYB F CITRON
JOHN W. COLLERSON
W.F COOK
J. MICHAEL COUGHLIN
FERGUS CRONIN
MONA CROSS
LEO G. DAMS
CHARLES F DENNISON
C.E. DIXON
IVOR DORREG
JOHN A. DOWNING
PATRIC DOYLE
FRANK T. du FEU
JAMES A. DUVALL, Jr.
STANLEY ELAM
RAYMOND ELSUR
RICHARD E. FERRY
JAMES L. FIDELHOLTZ
RACHEL FINAN
HENRY H. FISKE
CAROLINE J. FRANKHAUSER
LARRY GENTRY
CLAUS C. GERBER
WINIFRED B. GINYARD
EDWARD P. GOTTLIEB
A. FRANK GUBOS
ELIZABETH C. HAGNER
ALBERT J. HARRIS
S.I. HAYAKAWA
JACK E. HAYNES
GERTRUDE HILDRETH
LOTTE HIRSH
THOMAS R HOFMAN
JOHN N. HOWARD
BETTYALLEN ILES
KENNETH IVES
HUGH V. JAMIESON
FRANK JENNINGS
IMOGENE JOHNSON
CHRIS J.H. JOLLY
MARTIN J. KARENS
GEORGIA KLASEK
CHARLES F. KLEBER
MARJORIE KOMINEK
WILBUR J. KUPFRIAN
HARRY LINDGREN
ROBERT LAUBACH
JAMES G.W. MacLAMROC
JOHN HENRY MARTIN
JOSEPHINE K. MOSBY
WILLIAM W. MURPHY
GEORGE O'HALLORAN
JOHN I. ORENA
VICTOR P. PAULSON
SIR JAMES PITMAN
EDWARD RONDTHALER
ELISE ROWS
ARNOLD RUPERT
WALTER SCHNEIDER
ROBERT SEYSMITH
LYDIA R SMILEY
G. STEVENSON
PETER B. STOLES
HAROLD J. TANYZER
BETTY THOMPSON
KEN TILLEMA
DEWAYNE TRIPLETT
HELEN TUFFIN
KENNETH VANDERMUELEN
PIA WIJK
FRED W.C. WINGFIELD
BEN WOOD
MERALD E. WROLSTAD
VALERIE YULE

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