[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 27 2000/1 pp19-22]

Spelling Reform - arguments against and for

Justin B Rye

Justin B Rye has an MA in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He still lives in that city, and is currently a computer systems administrator at Datacash Ltd. A somewhat longer version of this article appears on his website. See Links.


I believe that the flaws of the standard orthography are indefensible - but I recognize that it has the advantage of an extensive Installed User Base. Thus, it can afford to ignore criticism, in exactly the same manner as Fahrenheit thermometers, QWERTY keyboards, and certain software packages, which rely on conformism, short-termism, and laziness for their survival.

That said, though, just what is wrong with the idea of switching to something better? Anti-reformists come in thirteen basic flavours, which I summarize below, along with possible replies:

Objection 1: The Status Quo Fan.

Our spelling system is traditional; if it was good enough for my grandparents, it's good enough for everybody! I refuse to learn any new system, whatever its supposed merits!

Reply: I'll have to try to persuade you it's a good thing. The old style gives GH over a dozen pronunciations: CallaGHan, cauGHt, doGHouse, EdinburGH, eiGHth, ginGHam, hiccouGH, houGH, KeiGHley, lonGHand, louGH, bouGH, straiGHt, touGH, yoGHurt. The new version is quicker, easier, more logical, and less cruel to children (or indeed the billions of adults doomed to learn English as a world language). Please try to be a bit more open-minded!

Objection 2: The Fonetics Phreak.

Giving English a phonetic script, with one symbol for each sound, would produce a range of ridiculous ill-effects, such as: compound sounds like J (which is phonetically D + ZH) would have to be clumsily spelled out in full (so jay becomes dzhey). Trivial phonetic distinctions, as between the two kinds of A in champion's swag, or of T in tea strainer would require distinct spellings; and subtle dialectal vowel distinctions - as between Glaswegian and Bronx versions of cat - would further confuse matters. Do you want to? would have to be spelt the way it's pronounced - as one word, dzhawonnuh?.

Reply: Who said anything about a phonetic system? All we need is one that's roughly graphemic ("one reading per grapheme") and preferably phonemic ("one spelling per phoneme") and/or morphemic ("one spelling per morpheme").

In a phonemic system, the compound phoneme /ʤ/, which functions as a unit in the English sound system, can conveniently be spelt with the letter J. Phonetic variants of /a/ or /t/ are no concern of a well-designed script; dialectal cases - especially ones as inconsequential as that quoted above - are easy to handle (see Objection 11). If the individual words are pronounced in isolation as 'du, yu, wont, tu', nothing forces us to put the reduced versions in the dictionary (any more than we need glottal stops in the alphabet).

Objection 3: The Homophonophobe.

If we spelled words as they're pronounced, confusion would reign (or rain) since homophones like fisher/fissure, minor/miner, two/to and session/ cession would become indistinguishable.

Reply 1: These words already are indistinguishable when spoken, but when did this fact last cause you any inconvenience in conversation? People naturally avoid ambiguities in speech unless they're trying to contrive a pun, so if you write as you speak homophones are no problem. Contrariwise, ambiguous spellings like bow, close, does, lead, live, minute, read, use, wind, wound currently are a problem; and such misleading homographs (or do I mean heterophones?) could be sorted out by the most moderate of spelling reforms.

Reply 2: There will be plenty of slack in the system to distinguish between fisher/fisyur, maynor/mayner; and as for cession, what does it mean, anyway? I'm not making these examples up, you know.

Objection 4: The Remington Salesman.

Any phonemic script would need to provide distinct graphemes for each of the forty or so phonemes of English, which means seriously expanded typewriters! We'll need either ugly diacritics or entirely novel letters - for instance, shown (three phonemes, /ʃ/ + /oʋ/ + /n/) will have to become something like $Ùn!

Reply: At present, almost every letter of the alphabet is overstrained - A as in beAuty, B as in numB, C as in musCle, D as in hanDkerchief, E as in siEvEd, F as in oF, G as in Gnomonic, H as in Hour, I as in busIness, J as in Jaeger, K as in Knee, L as in coLonel, M as in Mnemonic, N as in damN, O as in peOple, P as in Pneumonic, Q as in Quay, R as in comfoRtable, S as in iSle, T as in husTle, U as in bUild, V as in Volkslied, W as in Wry, X as in rouX, Y as in mYrrh, Z as in capercailZie! But in a reform, why not use two-letter graphemes (as in 'sh-ow-n'!)? That way there are more than enough possibilities; we can even retire Q, X, and that ugly diacritic, the apostrophe! One new vowel symbol would be handy; I'd go for Scandinavian-style slashed Ø as in Bjørk.

Objection 5: The Culture Vulture.

This revised spelling scheme looks completely alien to English orthographic traditions. If schoolchildren are taught only the new version, we'll lose touch with our literature; our cultural heritage will be lost unless kids can read Shakespeare in the original!

Reply 1: Aren't you overreacting? We'll phase it in slowly, so there's plenty of time to reprint the classics - most of the editing required is simple search-and-replace work. Compare the gradual process of metrication. Other languages manage spelling reforms once a generation; and the Japanese manage several very different writing systems in parallel.

Reply 2: Try to read Shakespeare "in the original". Henry VI Part 3 (III/2 91--2) goes:

I am a subiect fit to ieast withall,
But farre vnfit to be a Soueraigne.
The sixteenth-century pronunciation was:
And remember, he never once spelt his name Shakespeare!

Objection 6: The Speed-Reeder.

Adult readers recognize whole words by their overall silhouettes, not by decomposing them into the sounds. What's the point of improving the correspondence of sounds and symbols? It'll only mean we have to relearn the silhouettes! (And then of course we'll have to go through the whole thing all over again the next time the language changes...)

Reply: Fluent reading involves three skills:

(1) Word-anticipation, guessing what will come next on the basis of context. This is what speed-reading really depends on, and it's essentially independent of the writing system involved.

(2) Word-recognition, treating words (or occasionally syllables) as arbitrary units to be memorized. This can be a useful skill once mastered, but a painful one to acquire - ask any Japanese kid. The way the current orthography forces learners to handle many common words as single arbitrary glyphs (doesn't one though?) is a stumbling-block many schoolchildren never really get over.

(3) Word-analysis, handling words as collections of sounds. Even though English makes it unreliable, this is the basic strategy for beginners, and still a constituent of any truly literate adult's reading skills - does the word squilliform give you any trouble? You may not consciously spell out (eg) the word handbag as H-A-N-D-B-A-G, but if it was just a silhouette you'd have to learn it separately from handbag (look closely at those letter shapes!).

The upshot is that spelling reform might be briefly awkward for word-recognizers, but would eventually help even them - if only because it allows more hieroglyphs on a page! For children (and many, many adults), it would be a huge, immediate, and permanent improvement. Or at least, as good as permanent: the current orthodox system has already outlived its best-before date by half a millennium, so we can leave the next reform for Buck Rogers to worry about.

Objection 7: The Crossword-Puzzler.

What about a spelling reform's incidental effects on word-games, abbreviations and so on? If the dictionary contains more K's and Z's than D's and H's, the scrabble-players are going to riot!

Reply: Ah, yes, a much more intelligent point. (OK, I admit it, it's a plant; I've never seen it considered before, but I thought it deserved airing.) Scrabble-players will have to choose between "historical" or "recalibrated" Scrabble; the rest of us will just have to get used to E.U. as the Y(uropian). Y(union), K.O.s as N(ok)-A(wt)z, the C.I.A. as the S(entral) I(ntelijens) E(yjensi), and a G.H.Q. as a J(eneral) H(ed)-K(worterz). A.I.D.S. may still be A.I.D.S., but this is no longer the same as the word eydz. Since any serious reform would also change the names of the letters, even the unaltered initialisms may be hard to recognize in speech. A.I., for instance becomes, Ah Ee. If you think that's confusing, count yourself lucky I'm not reforming the Phoenician-derived alphabetical order!

Incidentally, I.D., O.K. and many others (especially tradenames) are already anomalies, not standing for any particular real series of English words; and acronyms such as laser, quango or ufo are effectively independent of their original forms too. Do we make it aydi, leyzer or I.D., L.A.S.I.R.? And as for G.N.U. ("Gnu's Not Unix"), I don't particularly care what happens in these cases; but the marketing director of I.C.I. might.

Objection 8: The French Teacher.

The orthodox system, which spells qualifications and changes exactly as in French, is very useful for those who know French and want to learn English, or vice-versa. Writing those words as, say, kwolifikeysyonz, ceynjiz will make polyglottism even rarer!

Reply: True, our Norman-influenced orthography is a bridge between English and French. But why force everyone to learn it as the only spelling system for English? Most Asian (or even Scandinavian) learners of English care little for French; and Texans would be better off with a bridge towards Spanish. Personally, I would have been happy to learn a bit about Anglo-Norman during French O- and A-level, but nobody wanted to tell me anything about it then!

Additionally, remember that:

(1) Medieval French isn't Modern French. The pronunciation of the two examples above are barely recognisable: "Kali-Feekass-Yawng, Shahngzh".

(2) Mediaeval English isn't Modern English. The biggest change is the Great Vowel Shift, which is responsible for our pronunciation of A E I O U as "Eh Ee Eye Oh Yew" (as in no other writing system on the planet), rather than approximately "Ah Eh Ee Oh Oo" (as in Old English, Finnish, Latin, Indonesian, Swahili... etc). The first hurdle for Latin teachers is usually to persuade pupils that (eg) dei is "Day-Ee", not "Dee-Eye". A spelling reform that made English less insular would be a great help here.

Some medieval Norman spellings did not make sense even at the time, by the way. Witness the Norman scribes' use of: Cosmetic O in place of U in cOme, lOve, tOngue, and many others where they thought a U would look ugly in clerical handwriting (too many consecutive vertical strokes). Even worse was the way the Normans applied Romance spelling habits to a Germanic language. "Soft C" as in Cell would make sense in French, because the hard Latin C had come to be pronounced /s/. Germanic /k/, represented by C in Old English, didn't soften like this. This gave us confusions such as Celt, sCeptic, Coelacanth! The list goes on.

Objection 9: The Bon-Mot Aficionado.

English is full of vocabulary items borrowed from other languages - some fully naturalized, some just temporary visitors. This is largely because its anything-goes attitude to spelling places no restrictions on words like cinquecento Fräulein or connoisseur. If we reform these, their sources will become unrecognizable! Besides, what are we going to do with names like Einstein, Munich, or Caesar (and come to that, Rye)?

Reply: English is hospitable to immigrant words because it has simple morphology, rich phonology and a cosmopolitan tradition. Spelling is irrelevant - witness the words fatwa, glasnost and futon, taken from languages that don't even use the same writing system as we do. My policy on imports would be:

(1) Words that retain foreign citizenship are immune to English spelling rules, and are spelt as in the source language, but italicized to tell naive readers that (for instance) Fräulein isn't pronounced "Fraw-Leen". They may not be able to guess the pronunciation, but that problem will if anything be reduced by the reform. Some imports may have debatable transcriptions, either because of changes Back Home (technically it's chateau - no circumflex accent since the recent French reform) or doubt about the best roman form (Koran or Qur'an? Shinto or Sintoo?).

(2) Words which have made English their permanent home must conform to its rules. If there really is such a word as connoisseur, it's an English one with no special right to a funny spelling - the French say connaisseur. The same applies one way or another to all the "French" words and phrases in the following list: blancmange, bon viveur, double entendre, epergne, locale, morale, nom-de-plume, papier-mâché, resumé, table d'hôte. Foreign-language placenames can ignore the reform, but many places have English names independent of the forms used by their inhabitants. Spain, Munich, Peking are English words, and so get reformed (Speyn, Myunik, Piykinh) no matter what the locals call them.

(3) Archaisms can be treated as foreignisms, and personal names can be included in this class. Your birth certificate may be regarded as definitive. Mr Geoffrey Ewan Quinn won't necessarily have to re-monogram all his possessions as the property of Mr Jefri Yuan Kwin. However, new names should be spelt sanely; and anyone who wants to avoid constantly telling people 'Well, okay, it's pronounced "Fanshaw" but it's spelt Featherstonehaugh should switch. I for one would be perfectly happy to become a romanized Ray.

Objection 10: The Etymological Determinist.

Spelling wrestling as we do is a useful guide to the word's provenance. In its Old English form, the word was indeed pronounced with an audible W, T and G. If we change our spelling, we'll lose all these clues!

Reply: If etymology is so important that primary school children are forced to master a Medieval Reenactment writing system on this basis, why are they never actually taught even the basics of linguistic history? Surely any kid who has gone to the trouble of learning an etymological spelling for wrestling (etc) should be entitled to go on and take the subject at GCSE level! But somehow I suspect that most people find etymology supremely unimportant in their lives. If anyone ever needs to know the origin of the word resling, there will still be dictionaries about. Come to that, they will be easier to use (you can find the word under R) and have more room for etymologies. (They will need less room for pronunciation guides!)

Besides, the "etymologies" in English spellings are often wrong, in addition to misleading readers about pronunciation. Consider the list aCHe, agHast, aiSle, aLmond, ancHor, bUry, (musical) cHords, coLonel, couLd, crumB, deliGHt, dingHy, foreiGn, gHastly, gHerkin, gHost, hauGHty, iSland, lacHrymose, postHumous, Ptarmigan, QUeue, rHyme, rHumb, roWlocks, Scissor, sCythe, sovereiGn, spriGHtly, thumB, tongUE, Whole, Whore. All the capitalized letters are spurious, having often been deliberately added as "improvements" by incompetent scholars. I'm not saying we should necessarily wipe out such etymological traces as the specific unstressed vowels in nonadministrative or even the 'Greek' Phs in philosopher (which can all convey useful morphological information); just that etymology isn't one of an orthography's main concerns.

Objection 11: The Cockney Patriot.

The trouble with a more phonologically representative spelling system is that it would reveal how nonstandard dialects interpret the graphemes of written English. Tutor for instance is "TOODUR" to a Nebraskan, "TEWTRR" to an Aberdonian and "CHOO'AH" to a Cockney; woe betide any speaker of BBC English wanting to impose a lah-di-dah "standard spelling dialect" on the inhabitants of the East End!

Reply: At last we're getting to the non-trivial arguments! Yes, there's an important problem here that the system has to deal with carefully. But its nature is still obscured by several layers of misunderstanding, which I'll try to handle quickly:

Misunderstanding 1: This is a spelling reform, not a speaking reform!

Misunderstanding 2: Currently, everyone has to learn a "standard spelling accent" that has been dead for centuries. (If it's only pronunciation we're talking about, rather than grammar, the linguistics term is "accent", not "dialect".) At least becoming bilingual in Cockney and BBC English might be useful.

Misunderstanding 3: Why assume the spelling accent would be a posh one? It would have to be a sort of artificial "Highest Common Factor" archiphonology everyone could agree on.

There are four ways in which accents can vary, all of which can be accommodated in a reasonably phonemic spelling system:

In summary, then: as long as people understand how accents vary (a body of knowledge which will clearly be one of the main influences on the system's rules, but which any Cockney already needs for communication with non-Cockneys), there is no reason to imagine any insurmountable problems here - how many of the people who claim that creating a pandialectal scheme is impossible have ever even tried?

Objection 12: The Morphophonologoster.

A purely phonemic system (obeying the principle of One Spelling Per Phoneme) would often mean giving divergent spellings to different forms of a single morpheme, concealing relationships between words in contexts such as:

One of the few merits of the old style is that it makes obvious the connection between nation and national, which will be disguised if they're respelt neyshn and nash'nal.

Reply: Absolutely - the morphemic principle (One Spelling Per Morpheme) conflicts with the phonemic system and is worth making concessions over. Affixes that still work as productive processes, like plural -S or past tense -ED, should be given consistent single spellings wherever possible (including words such as pianos/potatoEs, publicly/toxicALly, forty/foUrteen where the conventional spellings are flagrant breaches of this principle). Likewise, compromises can be found for the stress-shift and consonant-softening cases, though there is room for debate about how far it should be allowed to complicate things.

Foreign languages - even those with exemplary orthographies - flout this principle all the time. Portuguese doesn't exactly signpost the link between naçäo and nacional - and Welsh doesn't even enforce stable initial letters: nation is cenedl, but in a nation is yng nghenedl! Stress-shift is troublesome only if the unstressed "schwa" sound is treated as a phoneme in its own right needing to be uniformly represented with a special unique symbol. But accents vary widely in where they use schwas - for instance mine keeps the I-sounds in bIzarre, pidgIn distinct from the schwa-sounds of bAzaar, pidgeOn (a distinction rarely allowed for in US spelling reform proposals).

It makes more sense to write unstressed syllables with the normal range of vowel symbols, and rely on the reader to apply appropriate schwaing rules. While I'd be happy to compromise on fuSion and its many relatives, which are easy to accommodate, I am unconvinced by the idea of special treatment for "softening" C and G. Are they really live phonological processes? The suffix -IC hardly deserves a special spelling rule of its own to cover "IKAL/ISSITY".

Vowel-shifted doublets in particular need no special privileges. With so many cases - I could also quote natural/nAture, recess/recEde, senility/senIle, colony/colOnial, humble/hUmility - it should be self-evident no matter how we spell it that (eg) "short I" is often related to "long I". It would be a step forward if English-speakers recognized this explicitly, rather than just vaguely taking the two sounds to be "the same thing". Where do we stop? There are plenty of morphemic links that are concealed by the Anglo-Norman orthography. Should we insert rules into the spelling system to connect such crypto-doublets as abound/abundant, destroy/destruction, fool/folly, join/junction, ordain/ordination, receive/reception, solve/solution, voice/vocal?

Objection 13: The Politician.

All this talk is pointless. The Anglophone nations are too lazy, ignorant and superstitious; even if you were world dictator, you'd never get them to cooperate on a project that involved this much work and was this insulting to all their ludicrous national traditions. Americans think any attack on their honor is un-American, Brits are still stuck in the Middle Ages, and Australians of course think literacy's for poofs... Besides, none of them can think straight about phonological issues, largely because their brains are hopelessly clogged with Anglo-Norman delusions.

Reply: Well, I'm certainly glad I didn't say that ...

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