[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/1 p20-22 later designated J7]
[Thomas R Hofmann : see Journals, Newsletter, Bulletins.]

International Requirements for Spelling Reform.

Thomas R Hofmann

Thomas Hofmann is a Professor of English in the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Hokuriku University, Japan), as well as teaching linguistics at Kanazawa University. His recent book 10 Voyages in the Realms of Meaning [1] is popular in Japan. He has been long active in questions of spelling reform. An earlier version of this paper was submitted in absentia to the Simplified Spelling Society's 5th International Conference, July 1987.

Spelling reform: why & how?

For the last few hundred years, there has been a growing desire to reform the spelling of English, sometimes stronger & sometimes weaker. One reason is that greater portions of the people are expected to be able to read & write, & that the irregularities & conflicting aspects of standard English spelling cause serious problems for children & undoubtedly slow their education. Also, there are slow but unavoidable changes in the pronunciation of any language from generation to generation, so if its writing is based on pronunciation, but does not change, there is an ever increasing disparity between spelling & pronunciation, until eventually 'die dam breaks' & an entirely new system of spelling is adopted.

Many interested people have proposed changes, often specialists of language (e.g. O Jespersen), literature (e.g. G B Shaw), or education (e.g. G Dewey), or merely people who have suffered from the system as it stands. Sometimes the proposals are for radical change, as in Shaw's new alphabet, based on the belief that the dam must break soon. Others propose only minor, but planned, changes hoping that by letting some water over the dam in a controlled fashion [2], we will be able to relieve the pressure slowly, & keep as much continuity as possible in our written language, often fearing a complete break with the past. I will argue here that only this latter way is possible, from the present uses of English as well as from a more modern understanding of what language is & how it changes, with som additional notes on how its changes can be encouraged & guided.

In this last 50 years, English has become effectively the world language, a fact that is beneficial to the whole world as well as to people whose native language is English. However, it means that far more people that ever before devote much time & energy to learning it, with its archaic & haphazard orthography. This is annoying to many native English speaking peoples at least, for its inefficiency as well as its potential for increasing errors in communication. Nevertheless, this international character of modem English places definite limitations on the types of change that ar now possible.

Basic assumption: success as criterion.

In any proposal for spelling reform, success is the most critical thing: a reform without success might as well not hav been proposed. This can not be said too loudly or too often by anyone who is serious about wanting to actually get som reform. Even a perfect system or merely an ideal reform is only somthing to fill magazine pages or books with unless it has a chance of success. It will only take people's energy & time arguing about it, drawing them away from reforms that would be more likely to succeed, though perhaps less perfect.

For practical people who want to see improvement in our spelling, then, I think they must look first at the chances of success of a reform, & only if it is, conceivable in 10 or 50 or 100 years, will they bother about how good it is, & whether it can be made better. From this perspective, then, I want to consider what is possible, that is, what has a chance of succeeding, in the present era where English is used in many countries.


I am convinced that no thoro-going reform of spelling is possible for English at the present, with its present blush of success as the world language, & also because many different countries use it as a native language.

Rather, the only hope with any promise of success seems to lie in a series of small reforms that will take root & be adopted by other countries-reforms that make the present system more logical & remove at the same time som of the more confusing aspects of English spelling. Such reforms can be resisted only on the grounds of etymology (which few care about), or simple dislike of change. Yet with every such reform that is successful, i.e. it becomes the new standard & is preferred by most people under 30 years old, then the pressure for further reform, as well as the number of further proposals, will multiply.

Successful reforms.

As language is only a convention or agreement, existing in the form it does only because its users agree that it does (& because they do it by habit), a writing system can be modified quite radically if a strong government forces it on a people who ar willing to change. Thus Turkey changed from the Arabic script to a roman alphabet in very few years, as Korea has largely abandoned kanji ('Chinese' characters) in the last few decades in favor of the native script, or Vietnamese not so long ago. Less than radical changes can be effected quickly & easily by authoritarian governments, as in both Russia & China after their revolutions.

Factors that favor systematic reforms can be gleaned from these examples:
1. an authoritarian government
2. a largely illiterate populace
3. a shift of political power away from the literate classes.

These ar not conditions we can expect in English-speaking countries in the near future. It appears, indeed, that nowhere, at no time, has a systematic reform of more than 1 or 2 spelling patterns been successful, in any democratic country. [3] Obviously we cannot advocate dictatorships for the sake of spelling reform.

Moreover, even if we had dictatorships in the English speaking countries & illiterate populations that could look forward to a change, each country would undoubtedly choose to make different reforms. First, each country has identifiable differences in pronunciation, tho these ar not very significant. However, & 2nd, ther ar strong forces of nationalism that will lead many to want a distinctive brand of writing for their own country, as the US did partly to cut its ties with England & partly to make, more profits for its publishers. Even where overt nationalism & publishers' interests ar absent, it is easy to imagine a general feeling, for example in Australia, that ther is no need to write the way Brits write, if the UK alone makes a revision. And predictably ther will be a movement in Scotland (as well as other countries), to hav their own distinctive variety.

In contrast to this, Dutch has successfully pursued a series of reforms over many decades, in spite of being a national language in 3 countries (Netherlands, Belgium & South Africa [4]), multitudes of dialects, literate people & democratic governments. English, used in many more countries, has successfully reformed the spellings of many individual words (e.g. show, draft, jail [Am.]), but few systematic changes like <-our> to <-or> in colour &c) because they became associated with nationalistic feelings. The 'American spellings' wer successful in the US because of nationalism, but wer unsuccessful in the rest of the English world for precisely the same reason. The minor differences that resulted hav encouraged som (especially the French) to distinguish the 'American language' from the English language.

Because of the forces of nationalism, then, as well as a lack of a single authoritarian government over all the English-speaking nations, many reforms will hav the effect of splitting English into a family of languages, as Latin was split into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese & French. This excludes many reforms (especially for the vowels that ar pronounced differently in different regions, tho <-augh> & <-ough> should go, as well as nearly all thoro-going reforms.

English as the world language.

For fear of sabotaging the status of English as the world language (in spite of its atrocious spelling), we must & the people will resist any reform that might not be adopted in both major centers of English, namely the USA & England.

English is the world language today largely because it is the native language of so many people & so much money & so much science. If som extensive reform wer adopted on one side of the Atlantic Ocean that was refused on the other, neither variety would be so predominant over other countries of the world, & scientists in Japan would not be half so likely to publish their work in English, for far less people would read it - they might as well publish in Japanese, far easier for them, & still hav nearly as many people read it. The French & the Russians the same. Today, anyone, in any field, from commerce to politics, to science or sports, who wants to talk to the world, must do it in English. As a result, any world-class action is in English, & all aspiring people must learn English - even the Russian government. We & our children hav an advantage from this, for we don't hav to learn Russian or Japanese. True, English spelling is difficult, but the whole world is better off if it does not change too rapidly, for it saves everybody the need of learning several foreign languages.

If, on the other hand, ther wer 2 Englishes (as the French continually try to suggest), this whole structure will collapse like a house of cards. They would be 2 languages among many others, & we should hav to return to learning foreign languages (learning our horrible spelling is easier than that). Learning to read the other varieties of English might be easier than learning our present system of spelling, but we should also hav to learn Russian or Spanish or perhaps both, & Japanese for som purposes.

Practical reformers & practical people seem to sense this disadvantage inherent in reforms that might not be acceptable to all the English nations. Altho our present spelling is quite troublesome ther is considerable advantage to the whole world in not changing it too fast or in a way that splits the English nations into 2 or more ways of writing.


If the only reforms that can be successful while English is both very dominant in the world, yet split among many nations, ar small limited reforms, then we cannot hope to see a really rational spelling system in common use in our lifetimes. But we can make a start that will be followed by others if it is successful. My feeling is that altho it is a long journey, & one which may never be finished, we must start, & that means taking a 1st step, as small as it may be.

A note of hope, however. Linguistics has discovered in the last 20 years that altho languages change their pronunciation in simple & systematic ways over hundreds of years, the pronunciation changes 1st in one word, & then in an other, & so on thru the vocabulary, over several lifetimes. Over the centuries, a language changes in a systematic way, but only by changing one word, then an other, then an other, & so on. Ther ar powerful forces at work here, for nobody guides or pushes these changes, but the people as a mass keep at them until they ar complete. If we fight these forces, we ar bound to lose, but if we can harness them, they will do our work for us.

In fact, all the successful reforms of English spelling hav also been of this nature, word by word [5]. Thus we may suspect that the most immediate success would be for small groups of especially difficult spellings to be replaced by systematic spellings.


How to go about it? Because English is a rather democratic language, I once believed that the only way to go was to begin using a reform & encourage others to use it too. Precious little success hav I had, & the same result was obtained for reforms put into practice by the major educator G Dewey (spelling <-ive> as <-iv>), & a major Chicago newspaper (spelling freight as frate &c). Others hav advocated systematic reforms that touch nearly every word, & som make the language unrecognizable. They hav seldom gained adherents, & it is now more generally accepted that to be successful, a change must maintain the readability of present writing. I would now like to suggest a new, more promising way.

Suppose that a small reform (preferably as a list of 10 or so words, each obviously in need of reform) wer given legal sanction as being equivalent to the present-day standard forms for all laws &- government affairs in the US, & that these forms should be used in all governmental documents if & when the British Parliament approves the same list. We can see this (or vice versa, as the case may be) standing a serious chance of success of being approved on both sides of the Atlantic-within 3 or 4 years!

Law is a serious stumbling-block for reform. If ther is no enabling legislation to define the new forms as equivalent to the old ones, lawyers and law-makers must refuse to use a reformed word for fear that som sharp lawyer might argue that it is meaningless in som contract or business agreement, or to hav som other meaning (based for example on som Old English word). Without such legislation, then, a reform cannot be used in business correspondence, on traffic tickets, on road signs, & in short for anything that has financial consequences in daily life. This could condemn a reform to be a toy for personal letters & maybe som literature (especially comic books). Even newspapers might be sued for libel by misconstruing a reformed word! However, enabling legislation of this sort should not be hard to come by; the US has had laws allowing the use of metric measures for many years.

Once a reform is adopted by both the UK & US governments, it will soon be common in all English speaking countries, with the rest of the world following quickly. If a government uses an identifiable style, that alone accounts for much usage, &- the organizations that deal with the government will quickly fall into line. With a major government's adoption, even just legal sanction, dictionaries will begin including it, & if it is used & a good reform, people will fall into its use in private & public communication almost without noticing it. It will indeed be hard to resist.


Beginning from the position that it is worse than pointless to propose a reform that has no (significant) chance of success, I hav argued that any reform that will divide English into 2 or more camps has little chance of success for that reason alone. And if in spite of such resistance, a reform that split English wer adopted, then English would lose much of its status & use as a world language. We should not only hav to learn the other way(s) of writing English, but also the foreign languages that non-English people would use when they no longer hav English to write in, but must choose between American & British. This will be worse for us, as well as for non-English people, than learning our present atrocious spelling.

Instead, I argue that a short list of reformed spellings for words that ar universally seen as troublesom for everyone (e.g. laugh, laughter, cough & the like) should be proposed to parliaments, 1st as legal equivalents, & later as the forms to be used in governmental work, providing that the same list is adopted on both sides of the Atlantic. This will guarantee that English retains its status as the world language, & it matches closely the way that languages change naturally. Being a small change, ther can hardly be an easier pill to swallow, & being both small & well-defined, publishers & writers will find it easy to conform to. Further, it is the only kind of reform that has had notable success in democratic countries yet.

With one small success, the pent-up pressure for reform in English spelling will rise in all English countries, & the march to a better spelling system will hav begun. As much fun as it may be to plan a journey, no trip can begin without taking a 1st step, so I hope that we will be able to compromise on a short list of words that can be reformed similarly in all countries, that all people can be convinced need reforming.

In short, I believe that the time for grand schemes & plans is past, & to get any reform at all, we must settle on a small but realistic plans that will succeed.


[1] available from HokuShin, 1-1 Oh-machi, Toyama, Japan 920-30 for 2660 yen or $US 21.30 (or yen equivalent in sterling).

[2] One such moderate reform, DUE or Drop Useless E's, [See leaflet Tough & Pamflet 13] would revise systematically the spellings of all words that end in <e> where the <e> does not indicate the correct (modern) pronunciation, as are is not pronounced like care but like car, & should therfore be spelled as ar. In the remainder of this discussion, partly as a demonstration, I apply it to are, were, there, have & some, making ar, wer, ther, hav & som, as well as adopting the short, informal & phonetic (the so-called 'American') spellings of though, through & thorough, making tho, thru & thoro respectively.

[3] Japan might be seen as exceptional, for it reformed its phonetic writing & limited the use of kanji after having lost the Pacific War. Altho it was under US occupation, the occupation authorities apparently stopped encouraging reform after they discovered that illiteracy in Japan was significantly lower than in the US. That is, altho the 1st factor is true, it was more or less irrelevant in this case. More significant was the general feeling of failure of the old ways, & thus the willingness to change. This case might motivate a 4th factor: 'general desire to abandon the old ways'. This was surely contributory to other radical changes, such as in China & Russia after their revolutions.

[4] The South African variety, Afrikaans, is felt by its speakers to be a separate language, & becomes more so when it rejects the reforms in the Netherlands & its Belgian variety, Flemish.

[5] The change of <-ick> to <-ic> might seem to be an exception, but properly speaking, it was only a single suffix that was changed. More technically, we should state this fact as 'morpheme by morpheme'. Thus the British scholars wer replacing <-our> endings (not a suffix) by <-or> until the American rebels did it systematically, & blocked further reform in loyal areas.


Ref 1. [See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, Bulletin articles, about G B Shaw.

Ref 2. [See Journal, Anthology and Bulletin articles, by Godfrey Dewey.

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