(Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Autumn 1985 pp3,4. Later designated Journal J1]
[Laurie Fennelly: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Pamflet 12.]

Spelling Reform Now.

Laurence Fennelly.

[Laurence Fennelly is treasurer of the Simplified Spelling Society and is leading the Society's working party which since Summer 1984 has been preparing a revised version of New Spelling as the Society's definitive reform proposal. See New Spelling 90.]

In New Spelling the Society has had for many years a complete, coherent system for reforming English spelling. It was prepared by some of the most famous names in English language studies, and all its recommendations are supported by a statistical analysis of current spellings. However it does not discuss how the scheme is to be implemented, and apparently assumes that it would be introduced as a whole, at one given moment. The scheme won wide support especially in universities, and the Society reached a peak in its activities about 1953, when a resolution in favour of spelling reform was only narrowly defeated in the House of Commons. But after that New Spelling (NS) seemed to fade from view and the Society was active in other directions.

The time has come now for a fresh start, and a working party was set up to prepare a revision of NS, and also to draw up a plan for its introduction. A 'once-and-for-all' introduction would have many advantages, but as it is widely accepted now that an introduction by stages would be more practicable, the working party was instructed to draw up such a scheme.

When we, that is to say the working party, began our work, we had in mind that it might be possible to reduce the number of changes suggested by NS, so that our revised NS would not look so strange or shocking. We were to be disappointed, english traditional spelling is just too erratic.

Our second concern was to ensure that all suggested changes are presented in a way that is comprehensible to laymen. We cannot assume that the layman, whatever his education, is familiar with long and short vowels, let alone voiced and unvoiced consonants. He does not even hear sound differences which are not critical for meaning. So reforms must be expressed in terms of specific changes to specific spellings.

We decided not to use diacritics or new letters, but this does not preclude their eventual use. Indeed once the spelling is reformed it would be much easier than it is now to replace digraphs by new symbols.

English already has many homonyms. Any reform would increase the number, but we see no difficulty here. "I peer at the peer on the peer" is instantly understandable to Britons who have been to the seaside. In any case it would be difficult to work out a consistent system for differentiating homonyms. (Try and work out a scheme, everywhere applicable, to cover 'here/ hear/ hair/ pear /pare /pair/ peer/ peer/ pier'.)

We decided that the greatest of all virtues was not phonetic exactness, but consistency, both grammatical and phonetic. The world-wide variety of pronunciations makes in any case such a decision inevitable. We use RP as a basis, but we take into account, so far as we know them, other pronunciations current in the British Isles. We have tried to pay attention to American and Australian English, but here we shall be heavily reliant on our American and Australian members for their comment when we issue our first draft.

We began our work with the vowels. The series 'hop/hope/hopping/hoping' is at the heart of English spelling, and causes great trouble because of its many inconsistencies. It is a sleeping dog that wakes up when you try and make other spelling changes. Consider for example trying to get rid of final Es and double consonants, both reforms that are often put forward as being simple and easy to implement. You immediately come up against vowel lengths.

For these long vowels, or in some cases more accurately diphthongs, NS recommends AE/EE/IE/OE/UE. We are considering four of these, but we substitute Y for IE, and we use I consistently for the vowels in 'piti'. NS is surprisingly elaborate in its treatment of Y and I, but we have found as we have gone on, that our proposal has many advantages. A disadvantage is the use of Y for the pronoun I. Of other smaller changes we have made in the use of these digraphs we may mention here substituting U for UE in unaccented syllables, e.g. 'occupation'.

We have abandoned the NS difference between A and AA, as in fat/ father, and we use A for both sounds. The variations between these two sounds are rarely critical for meaning.

A change that caused us much more discussion was the treatment of the vowels in good/food. NS has good/fuud, and the former American Society had the opposite, guud/food. We are considering OO for both. Only in words with identical consonants can this cause trouble - compare full/fool, pull/pool. But these might be treated as special cases if it is felt to be necessary.

Fur/word/fir/her: NS recommends UR for this vowel when stressed and ER when unstressed. We recommend the same spelling for both, e.g. 'fer'.

The sound represented by the second E in 'secretary', or the French 'le' we left to last, and we have not yet reached agreed conclusions. NS, recognising the problems caused by this sound, changed the spelling of a few suffixes in which it occurred to E but otherwise left the current spellings. This was scarcely consistent, and it left some of the commonest causes of spelling mistakes untouched, e.g. final -ant/-ent.

There are two points to be considered. Firstly this sound occurs in very many words of more than one syllable. Secondly ordinary people are probably unaware that they do not pronounce the full vowel at the end say of a word like 'acceptance'. This means that setting out the necessary changes will be exceptionally difficult.

Our first decision was to keep the t.o. letter wherever the sound occurred before the stressed vowel, as in consume/obtain/suggest/assert. This obviates the need to distinguish the initial vowel in pairs like allege/ allegation, and it also helps with reading recognition, as we have found out with a spelling like 'sejest' ('sujest').

For the post-accentual sound we are considering two ideas. The first is to use E, e.g. lugej/deliberet. The second is to take advantage of the so-called syllabic consonants, and use no symbol at all, e.g. tunil/kornr. This method does not apply to all cases however. And of course there might be groups of words where it would be advantageous to keep the present vowel letter, providing it could be done consistently.

Consonants: although consonants are more important than vowels for reading recognition, we found them in fact easier to deal with.

Firstly as an absolute rule we retain R wherever it occurs in current spelling. It may not be pronounced in RP, but it is pronounced in many other accents, even if in differing ways.

We discussed at length K, C, and S, and finally decided to retain K for /k/. However changing C to S where appropriate is a far more important change, and need not wait on changing C to K.

S and Z: NS insists on keeping the difference between these two, and we continue to do so in words like faes/faez, but we have made a radical change where inflexions are concerned. Cats/dogs are phonetically /kats, dogz/, but it is far more important to maintain the grammatical link between the two words. We therefore thought at first of keeping S in all inflexions, but then we decided on using Z for all plurals and present-tense endings of verbs, e.g. my lykz/ he lykz. I have chosen this example to shock, but in most cases the sound is voiced, /z/, e.g. 'ragz'. However the important thing is that this spelling frees S for use in place of CE in words 'fence': compare fens/fenz for t.o. fence/fens.

The Society had already discarded DH for TH and we continue this. But we also no longer recommend the double G in fingger' which is then spelled like 'singer'. X and CC are where appropriate replaced by KS, and use is not made of GZ in words like 'example'.

What we have done with S, TH and X in fact is to discard the differentiation between voiced and unvoiced consonants where it is not essential to meaning.

The working party has only now reached the point of discussing a staged implementation of spelling reform. There are many problems to face. One is exemplified by a word like 'phase'. It could very well be changed three times: phase ->fase ->faze ->faez. And a word like 'fight' might have to go through a change that was only temporary: figh->fit->fyt.

Where adults are concerned the use of a revised spelling must clearly be voluntary. But the government would have to be involved from an early stage. One cannot imagine the Civil Service acting without instructions. And primary school teachers would not be allowed to act without specific authorisation from, ultimately, the government. Reading material would have to be prepared for initial learners, and later a special course might be needed for teaching the reading knowledge, not writing knowledge, of present spelling.

To begin the task of preparing 'stages' we have listed all the changes involved in Revised NS. These will then have to be grouped together - but into how many stages? It would seem some three or four. Twenty or thirty small stages would simply lead to a state of perpetual chaos.

For discussion one can suggest two possible first stages. One is to reform the long vowel system, including with it the abandonment of final silent E and double consonants. This long-vowel change is what strikes the layman as most strange. But if it was introduced with the familiar consonants left unchanged, then it might be acceptable. Alternatively the first stage could be the removal of all 'useless' consonants, as in debt/wrap/gnome. This would be easy to understand and would strike the public as sensible, and thus be a good introduction to spelling reform. Dropping 'useless' vowels is not so simple. 'Head' can lose A, but 'heap' cannot. Here the digraph EA has to be changed.

The working party's task is to produce a complete programme of spelling reform that can be the basis of an effective propaganda campaign now. We envisage the Society publishing a pamphlet that opts clearly for one scheme, but which can include, by way of appendices, a discussion of alternative solutions to the various problems of English spelling.

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