[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 7, 1988/1 pp9-12]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15 and Cut Spelling by Chris Upward.]


Edited by Chris Upward.

Tom McArthur's talk was followed by extensive and wide-ranging discussion both of matters he raised and of other issues concerning spelling reform. The main points made are here presented in edited, anonymous form, but the chief contributors to the discussion were, beside Tom McArthur himself, Govind Deodhekar, Edgar Gregersen, Patrick Hanks, Chris Jolly, Julius Nyikos, Edward Rondthaler, David Stark, Ronald Threadgall, Chris Upward.

1 The origin of printing.

Gutenberg's genius was not so much the invention of the printing press, which already existed, as of moveable type cast from a single matrix. He put the binding machine used for binding codices together with the use of matrices in a cyclical rhythm. If we look at cuneiform in ancient Sumer, we can see the ancestry. Archeologists have dug up some of the tokens which were the ancestors of cuneiform. If we look at Egyptian hieroglyphics, we can see the pictographic ancestors. In the same way we can go to China and Korea, and find antecedents for what Gutenberg and his friends did. The term printing press is interesting because both words come from the same Latin verb, meaning 'to squeeze'. One might argue that the cyclic squeezing process is the earliest stage of the industrial revolution, although it was not automated. It was mechanical, but it was much later before it could be properly automated, that is, driven by anything other than human arms. However it was a cyclic, repetitive, industrial process.

There is no evidence that the Chinese proto-press itself ever reached Europe; it was news of that press that reached Europe. The Moslems were not interested in it because they didn't want to go beyond script: they had the words of god and the hand could handle them. They didn't want to use the Chinese technique for printing the Koran, which was by and large the main thing they wanted to publish. They had the opportunity: they used paper, good paper, but not the press. The Europeans got better paper from the Moslems among other things, and they heard about the Chinese press. They recreated it, put it together with the bindery, introduced the metal letters, and created a cyclic activity. And of course the consequences were so enormous that we take them for granted. Because we take them for granted, we don't think about the impact of the page on our minds and the idea of constant, continuous, perfectly structured lines.

2. The invention of the alphabet.

On the question of whether the alphabet was invented only once, there is some evidence it was really invented three times, independently. One of course was the famous middle-eastern Greek alphabet. But there was also an invention in the Sudan by the Meroitic-speaking people, which of course had no consequence for the rest of mankind; but it was in fact an instance of a real alphabet. Egyptian writing was probably the dominant influence on the development of the alphabet, and there are pre-alphabetic qualities in the late hieroglyphs, hieratic script and so on.

Then the Koreans also invented an alphabet. Its origin is evidently rather like that of printing press. The Korean king who is credited with their alphabet is believed to have heard of, if not seen, European lettering. That is what we call stimulus diffusion, and reminds one of Sequoya, the Cherokee who created a syllabary after seeing alphabetic writing. There is a form of writing found in West Africa which is speculably a form of diffusion from the Sequoya syllabary. But it is perfectly possible that there were two peoples who didn't know about each other but who were moving along the same lines. Discussion of this whole question must always carry the qualification "as far as we know".

3. Japanese.

The Japanese have a great advantage. Some Japanese claim that Japanese writing gives them an advantage over everybody else because it uses both cerebral hemispheres. Language is located in the main in the left hemisphere if you're right-handed. In Japanese it is a matter of the spatial, physical layout, the calligraphic, artistic aspect of their writing system, which must in all probability also make use of aspects of the right hemisphere which is concerned with vision and space.

4. The keyboard. past, present and future.

We may regard the keyboard as a late development in the third shift in the use of printing. It arose when an American, Christoper Latham Sholes, invented the typewriter. The keyboard of course is crucial to the fourth shift. The history of the typewriter is interesting socially. The word typewriter was also used for some time for the typist, of whom the vast majority were women. They became modern versions of scribes and copyists. They were not creative in terms of content, but in terms of presentation, which was a lower grade activity. Secretarial work needs touch-typing, but most other people, journalists included, don't touch-type, they bash. Perhaps they bash because they don't want to be associated with typists as such. There may ultimately be an element of sexism about it. In the early days the keyboard was an ancillary tool: text was first handwritten, it was then handed to an intermediary who typed it, who handed it to another intermediary who set it, who handed it to the publisher who smiled, and it was the author and the publisher who got all the glory. But you hear managers, who run everything, say, "and thanks of course to my secretary, who runs everything". Similarly we find "the person without whom this book could never have been produced" mentioned in small letters at the bottom of the page or credits. However on the whole upper management won't touch the keyboard, because it seems to be beneath their dignity.

But the keyboard has been revolutionised and is becoming more and more important. Hitherto when we talked about literacy we meant using something like a pen. But in France they now have a means of interfacing with the computer where you don't need to type. They call it a 'slate' and it is a means of using a computer for idiots. And the idiots are the managers, in this respect, because the managers sit there and handwrite, and up it goes on the screen, because these fellows haven't got round to the remarkable idea of actually pressing down keys with their fingers. Not because that is difficult, but because of the status of the person at the keyboard.

But the keyboard is going to win. Oval lights and tracker balls and slates and other things will no doubt be very important, but the keyboard is going to be very central and important for quite some time. That I think will be part of the literacy we now require. My friend and colleague David Crystal wrote an article on literacy in English Today, and he said the problem of people who are not literate is that the literates constantly raise the ante. Literacy is becoming constantly more complex. Whereas even at the beginning of this century, to be literate it was sufficient to be able to read a book and produce handwriting. Today to be wholly functionally literate, there is a host of things you have to be able to do, and do well. To be orally articulate, people are regularly expected now to be able and willing to take part in phone-ins, to use the phone, to be on radio, to be in a television studio audience, if not out front, to be met in the street and asked for an instant opinion. That is the degree of spoken articulacy that is now expected. A similar extension of expectations applies to literacy, and many present-day literates are frightened by the prospect.

5. Spelling and elitism.

The idea has been suggested that spelling reformers have been too much involved in spelling invention and alphabet invention, when probably it's society that needs changing. By making reading and writing easier we expect to democratise society. Yet paradoxically the two languages which have advanced democracy most have been French and English which are probably the most difficult alphabetic languages to learn. Perhaps this is no coincidence: if only certain people who have the ability or the means or the privilege are able to become literate in French and English, it stops too many people getting to the top, and it would not do for too many people to be vying for power at any one time. The same might apply to Japanese. Because English is full of syllabic and morphographic elements, literacy has a strong visual component, and is not just phonetic. Thus, it is suggested, perhaps the type of people who get to the top in British society can visualise things in an abstract fashion.

6. Do phonemes exist?

Roy Harris, who is a professor of linguistics at Oxford, has written a book The Origin of Writing, published by Duckworth, in which he says some most interesting things about writing. People assume that writing is a simple parallel to speech, and he argues that writing is really something rather different, although it happens to be analogous to speech on occasion. He says that the alphabetic achievement conditions our way of thinking about sound: because the sounds of language were once separated out into between twenty and thirty letters, we assume there are analogous units in sound, which we call phonemes, and that they number between twenty and fifty. Harris even says it would be difficult to create a theory of phonemes unless you were already alphabetic. This however would imply that the Chinese could never have conceived of phonemes.

7. Phonemes and spelling.

Perhaps spelling reformers put too much emphasis on the phoneme-grapheme relationship, whereas regularity should be their prime target, which can also be achieved by means of morphographic and syllabic elements. It is in the nature of communication that you must be able to handle it atomistically, or in clusters, and that even if you set out to produce a perfectly phonemic script, there would develop clusters in due course in relation to psychological assumptions about how elements work in the language. We would end up with iconographic and other elements, whatever we tried to do, because we communicate in part in that way. If you have a message, consisting of element, element, element, element, element, you will always cluster some of the elements, and then interpret them holistically, without atomising them. This appears to be inherent in human thought-patterns.

8. Text layout: spaces and directions.

Another development in the use of the alphabet concerns spaces between words, which were not part of the earliest writing. We regard words as separate entities today because we're used to seeing them in writing, but the spaces do not exist in speech, they are just aids to reading. Reading Ancient Hebrew for instance is difficult simply because there are no spaces. Spacing came into its own with the printing press, although it existed before.

The arrangement of text in lines all going the same way was a development from the middle of the second shift, the scribal period. Previously there was no set direction - alternate lines might be written in opposite directions.

9. Women and literacy.

Among the Tuareg in the Sahara - a little ethnographic detail - it's the women who are literate. Evidently Hiragana, the dominant syllabary in Japan, developed among women in the Han period. The men in Japan were too busy struggling with Chinese.

The novel, one might argue, is the product of the printing press in the third shift, but the novel is not easy to define. The word itself, which means new, came in a little after the printing press. But the novel has appealed very much to women, who were kept out of education and the learning of Latin and various other fields in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It's only now that we're beginning to rediscover the early women novelists, like Aphra Behn in the seventeenth century, who were very literate, and you notice that the novel nowadays is very much something by and for women. It would be interesting to pursue the ethnography of male and female approaches to a variety of things.

We may recall the title page of Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604), which says it is intended for "gentlewomen or any other unskilful person." He was not necessarily being condescending, but he represented the social fabric of the time, because the Latin words were only known by the male population, who'd been educated in it.

In fact, he was one of the people who was opening education up, and literacy in the third shift has been an enormous benefit to women, although we're not necessarily aware of it because so much of their history has been submerged over the last 300 years. Women's presses and groups are rediscovering a large number of women who were quite prominent in their day, and who have for one reason or another been overlooked since then, leaving just Jane Austen and the Brontës.

10. Romanisation of Chinese, Japanese.

The question of whether there are technical reasons why Chinese and Japanese have not gone over entirely to the roman alphabet is one thing. General MacArthur wanted to impose it on Japan after World War II, and it does take the Japanese a long time to learn the prescribed number of kanji characters. But when languages adopt the roman alphabet, they may do so not primarily because it is efficient for them, but rather because it is the dominant writing system worldwide. Alphabets are pretty efficient, but then so can syllabaries be.

11. Debating the advantages of simpler spelling.

The inconvenience of a highly irregular orthography such as English is particularly apparent to those who have been educated initially in a highly regular orthography such as Hungarian or Finnish, with their one-to-one relationship between phonemes and graphemes. In such languages learning to read is a relatively straightforward business. Not merely does English spelling lack logical transparency, but learners are subjected to the learning of illogic. To make matters even more complicated, in English the names of the letters often do not correspond to the sounds they represent, thus introducing a third level of inconsistency. To overcome this, many English-speaking children are taught letters by their sounds and not by their traditional names.

It is however sometimes asserted that in languages such as Hungarian there is no literacy problem whatsoever, except where schooling may be inadequate; but this claim is also challenged, on the grounds that the evidence is anecdotal. Such was the case quoted of the American boy educated in Mexico, who on being asked how he learned to read and write in Spanish reported that at the beginning of the year the teacher explains the sounds of letters, after which the children can read or write anything they can say.

One should not think that there is a true analogue between symbols on paper and the sounds of a language. Literacy may well come more easily to Hungarian or Spanish children as well as in a number of other languages. However the difference is relative. There are inherent problems in recognising communicated material visually from symbols, no matter how well they are supposed to correspond to the analysis of a language. Some people, who are educationally disadvantaged in whatever way, will have problems in any language.

We can see a continuum from the languages which have a neater system to the languages which have abominable systems, with innumerable intermediate degrees. But one cannot argue that there is no illiteracy whatever in any language, because the problems are much more complex than that, even though such a view may be denounced as arrogantly anglocentric.

Two further instances of the advantages of a highly phonographic orthography like Hungarian are cited. Hungarian children read translations of Dickens, Mark Twain, etc., years earlier than English-speaking children can read them in the original. (One would need to be confident the style of the translation was of equivalent difficulty to the original. Thus modernised Dickens would also be easier to read in English than the original text.) A second instance is of the Hungarian grandfather with fading eyesight asking his six-year-old grandchild to read him an article about nuclear physics: the child will read it fluently and correctly, and the grandfather will understand everything he wants, even though the child does not.

Apparently 70% of Spanish children learn to read and write before they go to school, which must also be significant.

It may come as a revelation to English-speakers when they first try to learn a language with a relatively regular orthography such as Greek or Hebrew: they may realise for the first time that logic can be applied to writing.

Likewise it makes a great difference in teaching English if the learner can rely, as with the Initial Teaching Alphabet, on being able to use a given symbol to represent a given sound. Children who are i.t.a.-trained enjoy reading more, and therefore they go on reading - and one 'must not forget that a lot of English people only read and write because they have to, not for the sheer joy of it, in fact large numbers of children give it up before they leave school.

It is only to be expected that a simpler system will achieve its effects faster, but it is not necessarily easy to believe that many people will turn to reading and writing with pleasure simply because the writing system no longer places such barriers in their way.

Even if one accepts many objections to the arguments in favour of simplified spelling, such as that the Germans only read more Shakespeare than the English because their translations are modern and they don't need an explanation for every other word, or that the Cambodian and Hungarian writing systems are modern, nevertheless one must concede that in some countries there is an enormous amount of illiteracy. If we confront an average child with a writing system that is basically consistent and another average child with a system like that of English, the first child will be able to read much more quickly and read much more advanced kinds of writing.

Those with experience of teaching adult illiterates will know the frustration of having to spend two years teaching somebody written English, and only to make limited progress. That is reason enough to want spelling reform. Another argument is precisely that English is an international language, and the world needs it to be simpler.

Much of the resistance to the idea of spelling reform comes from the widespread but mistaken idea that the writing system is the language.

To test the validity of the criticism of English spelling, an experiment was carried out. A selection of reading pieces from one of the most used American 6th grade readers was translated into German, and it was found that German- speaking children from the sixth grade, the fifth, the fourth, the third, the second and even the end of the first grade could read them. The results are all recorded on tape, and even without understanding a word of German, one can hear the fluent, beautifully intonated reading. And then all these children were able to answer questions on the passages that were designed for American sixth graders. There is a vast quantity of such evidence. Korean children did exactly the same, and the same experiments are to be conducted for French and Italian and Polish.

One may ask what effect the different dialects of Hungarian have on the acquisition of literacy. Dialect speakers have to learn the literary language, which is then consistently represented in the writing system, and is in turn perpetuated in the writing system.

12. Standards, norms and strategies.

Part of the problem of English spelling is that it was based upon the elevated form of the East Midland dialect, as used around about the time of Caxton and Shakespeare, and was more or less fixed by people like Addison and Steele and Pope and Dryden. But for a reformed orthography today we probably need a standard English which is roughly agreed with the nations of the English-speaking world. And that is a problem. Perhaps such a standard is only likely to be achieved if there's a technological impetus behind it. If on the other hand reforms are introduced which are not based on such a standard, there is a danger of breaking up the English language community, and dictionaries would need different spellings for different dialects. A standard on the other hand need not be based on any one dialect, nor need it be considered as a dialect itself.

A standard is a norm, in this case a literary norm, a print norm, a script norm, whatever one wishes to call it. And undeniably the current norm for written English is exceedingly difficult, in fact it is 400 years out of date. But if the norm is to be changed, the problem is to decide what it should be changed to. Should it be changed to match an existing pronunciation, and if so, how is a consensus to be obtained? The problem is very nearly, but not quite, insoluble. One might think in terms of omitting most of the vowels, which is where most of the variations between accents lie; but probably that is not the answer. Probably it will be economic and technological pressure that will bring about the breakthrough.

13. Pronunciation norms.

To allow speech-recognition by machine, people would need to speak to the machine clearly, with each syllable distinct. And then it would be necessary for the speaker to accept a standard, regular pronunciation, such as RP, Especially for the vowels. But as we know, it is not easy to teach people to reproduce a given pronunciation. It is much easier to design a machine to speak with a given pronunciation than to get people to use one in such a way that the machine can recognise their words.

Dryden and Addison believed spelling could standardise speech, and Johnson believed it when he started his dictionary, though not when he finished. Speech changes independently, even RP has changed within living memory. RP is disintegrating in terms of the pronunciation taken by Daniel Jones in 1917 in the English Pronouncing Dictionary which for many years was a kind of bible. One can tell that that RP isn't spoken any more by listening to the old second world war newsreels. Very few people have that clipped way of speaking any more.

There is an argument that such changes have occurred because there is no regular orthography which can be used as a yardstick. There are observable tendencies to spelling - pronunciation, and speaking 'proper' means speaking more closely in line with the spelling, rather than in dialect. On the other hand an example from the foreign learner's point of view shows how great the divergence is: a foreign learner is generally persuaded that the following sentence is spoken English: "You should not have done that." Now what native English speakers in fact say is: "You shouldn't 'v done that." That has to do with the rhythm of the language rather than the orthography which does not depict rhythm.

14. Speech synthesis.

A computer will believe in writing, but not in speech. And that's part of the problem. At the moment computers are taught speech backwards, if you like, in terms of writing, but the sound is like the voice of a Dalek. A lot of work has been done on this speech synthesis, and a lot of the most successful speech synthesis doesn't deal in phonemes. It deals in what we call parameters, which produces something like this. You have a basic rhythmic sound such as eu-eu-eu-eu, and then you put another parameter on top of it, and it becomes heu-neu-beu-keu, and then you put another one on and it becomes hau-nau-bau-kau, you take out the nasality, and you get how now brown cow. That is possibly how we create speech too.

15. Political and technological dimensions.

As well as a technological motivation for spelling reform, there is a political dimension, in the sense that decisions have to be taken, perhaps by individuals in their private writing practices, but particularly by policy-makers and professional decision-makers. And here, besides possible pressure from industry, science, technology, there can also be pressure from the educational sector, where the shortcomings of the present spelling of English are most acutely felt. It is here perhaps that the traditional spelling reform movement feels most at home, and where its campaigning role is most obvious. The biggest obstacle to reform at present is the sheer weight of public ignorance about the nature of the problem and the possibilities of reducing it, if not of completely overcoming it. If the spelling reform movement can now enlist a new constituency of support, that of technology, it will have taken an important step forward.

Back to the top.