[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter, Spring 1996/1. p24,25. Later designated Journal 2]

'Spelling Reform Now'.

H. W. Herbert.


[H. W. Herbert, Brisbane, writes for the Queensland Sunday Mail and is convenor of the Advocates of Simplified Spelling Australia. He submitted this paper to the Society's 1985 Conference.]
'Spelling Reform NOW!' What does that intriguing word NOW mean? Does it mean 1985? Does it mean that this is the year of opportunity for spelling reform, that after 80 years in the wilderness the promised land is within sight?

Many of us think it is. I will now outline the 'toe in the door' strategy that we believe can succeed.

Spelling reformers are devoted intellectuals who often forget how conservative the general populace is. Hence spelling reformers have chronically been too ambitious, proposing changes the public will not accept, such as Bernard Shaw's 42-letter alphabet.

'Toe in the door' strategy means proposing changes that the public will accept right away, while foreshadowing further changes. After intense discussions, spelling reform groups in Canada, the United States, Australia, and perhaps Britain are agreed on a list of 20 <ough> and <augh> words for immediate reform, as listed:

 Present SpellingNew Spelling  Present SpellingNew Spelling
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
enough
rough
tough
though
dough
through
thorough
plough
drought
cough
enuf
ruf
tuf
tho
do
thru
thuro
drowt
plow
cof
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
ought
bought
brought
nought
sought
thought
caught
taught
draught
laugh
aut
baut
braut
naut
saut
thaut
caut
taut
draft
laf

It so happens that the above list of 20 coincides exactly with the question I asked my newspaper readers at New Year. In place of my regular column on economics, I wrote on the advantages of spelling reform, and requested readers to write in, saying whether they agreed or disagreed that the <ough> and <augh> words should be made phonetic. Over 100 people wrote.

As far as I know this is the first time a specific spelling reform has been tried out on the general public, so we should pay attention to the result. A surprisingly high 85% were in favour of making <ough> and <augh> phonetic.

Of the 15% who wanted no change from present spelling several said the answer was to discipline the children more firmly - make them learn the traditional spelling. This is of course just what spelling reformers want to avoid - children (and teachers) wasting time and effort learning unphonetic spelling. Others objected to the strangeness of the phonetic spellings. True, new forms take some getting used to.

Traditional spelling is less founded in scholarship than its adherents imagine. The early type-setters were not scholars, they were semi-literates who spelt any way they fancied, including using <ough> for several sounds. So when Dr. Johnson froze our spelling '<ough> had 7 different pronunciations and still has.

Traditionalists do not object to having to use a glossary to read Chaucer; they do not think any less of Milton's splendid epitaph on Shakespeare because Milton spells in pre-Johnson form dramaticke and conceaving.
Sympathize with the traditionalists and assure them they will soon get used to the new spelling.

Spelling reform NOW and now is 1985. One small toe in the door, one giant step for spelling reform.

In announcing the first step reform of 20 <ough> and <augh> we must also foreshadow changes to be included in Step 2. Here we must exercise restraint, selecting unphonetics that will have the greatest appeal to the public.

My selecton of foreshadowed changes would be three groups:- ridiculous unphonetic words like one, once, tongue, yacht; SR1 (hed for head) because it is a simple rule; and silent letters as in would, dumb. Foreshadowed changes do not have to be given in full detail with Step 1.

Let us now look at the three solid propositions on which spelling reform rests. Everyone here is familiar with the first - that spelling reform would save an immense amount of time and effort that children and teachers now put into learning unphonetic spelling, time that could be spent learning useful arts and crafts.

The second proposition on which reform rests is the need to make it easier for people with non-English mother tongues to learn to read and write English. Many of these people now speak English surprisingly well, especially in Northern Europe. English has also become the business language of Asia. Learning to read and write it, however, is quite a different and difficult matter.

These people in Europe and Asia can hardly credit that such a simple, expressive language, so uncomplicated in its structure - no genders, no suffixes - should be spelt in such a crazy ridiculous way.

It is nearly as bad as the frustrated German who complained 'You inglisch haf this name C-H-O-L-M-O-N-D-E-L-Y and you call it 'Marchbanks'. Progress will be slow, but continuous, as we progressively phoneticize English spelling and thus help foreigners write it.

The third proposition is the urgent need to help the under-achievers. There is a widening gap between the under-achievers and the average and above-average school-children. The underachievers suffer much more unemployment; only a few small countries have managed to correct this. In the United States unemployment among blacks and Latinos is shockingly high and persistent.

Many of these ethnics, and other under-achievers in Canada, Britain and Australia are rebels against normal social values, frustrated rebels, who demonstrate it occasionally in orgies of destruction. In Australia it takes the form of vandalizing and befouling classrooms and equipment and setting fire to wooden schools.

I cannot of course prove it but I suggest that there is a link between the under-achievers being hounded through unphonetic stupid spelling at an early stage, and the destructive behaviour they develop - they hate schools.

Years of low unemployment (until 1974) hid the problem of illiteracy, and the under-achievers were slotted into process work and other jobs requiring low literacy.

No longer. Economic development is widening the gap between the average and above-average people, who get jobs, and the under-achievers, who don't.

There is no easy answer to this problem. We are going to have to provide jobs for the under-achievers, simple jobs as reafforestation, manufacturing goods at present imported in large quantities, fetching and carrying for service industries like tourism. The greater the degree of literacy the under-achievers can acquire, through phonetic spelling, the easier they will find it to read labels and instructions, and write messages. A slow process, but certainly worth doing.

How can we ensure that Spelling Reform NOW has a big impact on the public in 1985? It would be unprecedented and newsworthy for groups in 4 English-speaking countries to agree on a program of reform. This would also be newsworthy - a Boston Teaparty in reverse, with the erstwhile colonies trying to persuade the mother country to have greater representation!

How do we follow up the first impact of the <ough> and <augh> reform? I like the idea of putting the list of 20 into verse (with as few other words as possible). Such lines as 'Enough's enuf, ruf tuf tho do is', 'cof caut braut to naut'. Is there a word-weaver among us? Can we find one? Do we ask word-master Alan J Lerner, who owes Bernard Shaw a debt for My Fair Lady?

Then we could put the verse to a memorable tune - like Blowing in the Wind. It would help children and foreigners to keep the list of 20 well in mind.

Spelling reform NOW, and NOW is 1985. Seize the opportunity.

I must finish with a warning. Miss this opportunity and editors will write off spelling reform as a good idea that failed.

We won't get another chance. Our efforts will contract into interminable debate on spelling niceties, in which the public isn't the slightest bit interested.

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