[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/3 pp13-16 later designated J9]

A Sibilant Extravaganza, or How on Earth could Johnny Read?

Julius Nyikos.

Prof. Nyikos had the benefit of education in the phonographic Hungarian orthography, and soon mastered the writing of Latin, German and Finnish. He resumed learning English orthography on emigrating to the USA in 1949, and hopes to be comfortable with it by 2030. He is Prof. of German and Gen. Linguistics at Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, and founder-president of the New English Orthography Institute. He is now engaged on a major study, Complete Overview of the Enigmatic English Spelling System: the First Definitive Survey of the English Phonemes in Search of all their Graphemes, from which comes the following paper (given at the Society's 5th International Conference, July 1987). "Johnny" refers to Rudolf Flesch's critique of look-and-say teaching methods, Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It, Harper and Row, 1985.
Still-spreading and never-ceasing functional illiteracy can be eliminated only if a substantially simplified, circumspectly systematized and succinctly standardized spelling system is introduced.

The scientific term for spelling system is 'orthography'. A new orthography's assignment must be to sustain the suitable, simple and/or consistent, systematic written symbols of our speech sounds and its task to dismiss the thousands of exceedingly stupid and unnecessary idiosyncrasies of the existing obsolete nonsystern: to axe them mercilessly. This disastrously mixed-up nonsystem should be supplanted not in months but through years, step by step, so as to facilitate a sensibly slow and smooth switchover, absolutely devoid of any hustle and bustle. Nothing less makes sense and nothing else but sweet persuasion seems necessary, since such a new orthography's simplicity and conduciveness to learning are decidedly susceptible to enthusiastic acceptance. Good will ambassadorship, circumspect negotiations and expert craftsmanship can smooth its successful implementation, without any exhortations. No swords need be drawn: no danger of anyone going berserk in overheated debates.

We can certainly count on the students' massive support; in fact, a radically simplified system will be the answer to the sincere requests and SOS signals of countless hapless youngsters, all the way from Leicester and Worcester, Massachusetts and the Chesapeake Bay through Charleston, South Carolina, and Robinsonville, Mississippi, to Tucson, Arizona, and Crescent City, California. A truly systematic system will be a dream come true to foreign students of English from the isthmus of Panama to Szechwan Province and the Yangtze River of China.

The existence of the present spelling mess has been extended for centuries by arch-conservatives who sentimentally reminisced and considered all stuff inherited from deceased ancestors sacrosanct. Behind the façade of mostly pseudoscientific historicism, they obstinately refused to assess how unnecessarily immense Johnny's task was. With instinctive finesse and a selfish exclusive-club-philosophy, these phalanx-like forces persistently refused to exscind all that had obsolesced over time. The docile grass roots masses listened to them as meekly as serfs to the czar (also spelled: tzar and tsar).

Eventually the principle crystallized with icy clarity: whoever has the audacity to mess with English spelling is an iconoclast. This is how our spelling became an orthodoxy, nursed and pampered with the TLC usually reserved for a nice old granddad with Alzheimer's disease.

Most of us have acquiesced in this mess, largely, I suppose, because we have been persuaded by the school establishment - who likewise had been convinced by their teachers and the professors - that, since historic developments had forced this spelling complexity on our language, it is an unavoidable necessity ... We have been swallowing this doctrine like hungry sixth graders gulping down pizza or french fries smothered in catchup, like Oktoberfest beer guzzlers downing schnitzel or knockwurst.

Linguists whose speciality is the study of the essence of spelling systems, say this is grievously false and indefensible. English, as a language, has no weakness: certainly none which could prevent specialists from transforming the existing spelling chaos into an ABC system whose simplicity will make it easy to learn to read and write correctly. A simple - or complex - orthography can be devised and revised for any language. English is no exception. The magnificence and exquisite beauty of our richest language will only be enhanced by a streamlined, rule-governed orthography.

Let's face it: the disturbing schism that has been gaping betwixt English speech and English spelling is now at an impasse, brought about by the sudden and swift advance and expansion - one might say: blitz - of the deluxe TV and the fancy computer. This schizophrenia is concisely demonstrated by this treatise. Notice, please: these sentences, which have been purposely worded in what might boastfully be termed Nyikos' (spelled also: Nyikos's) self-illustrating style, effervesce with the constant emergence of the hissing s speech sound, but they are also cursed with 58 ways of spelling this simple sibilating consonant. Of these, some are easily recognizable; others are less obvious but readily substantiated. (For complete listings and explanation see pages 3-5.)

Surprised?... - Linguists' and lexicographers' surprise is almost as great. Only recently has all-encompassing refined research been able to approximate a comprehensive classification of nigh all letters and letter combinations English uses to represent its 40 speech sounds. The count to date is somewhere between 900 and 1,000. No wonder it took you and me twelve of our best years to master an incredible average of 23-24 unpredictable diverse ways of spelling each of our speech sounds. Fifty-eight ways of writing the sound s is just one gross example exhibited here to give substance to our question, "How on earth could Johnny read?!..."

Had the psychological warfare unit of the Nazis tried to devise something to cause a standstill in our ranks, they could scarcely have come up with a spelling non-system worse than the one in use. It's sad that blue ribbon commissions, which excellently assessed miscellaneous causes for much incompetence in our schools, missed assigning the greatest importance to substituting a sensible spelling system for the existing monstrosity. Not only was it not their principal concern, it totally escaped their probing X-ray vision. The density of the forest of problems hopelessly obscured the root cause...

Yet that is the crux of saving our schools from the menace of the ever-rising incidence of functional illiteracy and a subtly progressing bankruptcy of the learning process. A basic, simplifying restructuring of English spelling is our greatest chance for a stupendous reversal of the sadly sagging standards of America's schools. Its importance and urgency transcend all else.

It might serve as a postscript to say: Some oh-so-sensitive souls might suspect that a systematizing simplification of our spelling would make English script exsanguine, depriving it of its "rich Greek and Latin elements and its Shakespearean etcetera heritage". - All those in favor of keeping our spelling a collection of museum pieces should be consistent enough to exchange their state-of-the-art automobiles for chintzy chariots and their word processors for clay tablets and styluses. Only then should they venture to pontificate, about what Johnny's part should be in the preservation of exsiccated orthographical mummies of past centuries. Respect is due historical artifacts, but they should be on exhibition in our museums and archives and certainly not in our youth's spelling lessons.

You do not feel any remorse when discarding wastepaper into a wastebasket. But it should be felt as a grievous loss to keep wasting billions and trillions of man-hours of strenuous effort on rote memorization of thousands of whimsical, illogical and contradictory sequences of letters and letter combinations.

Curiosity for learning ought to serve higher purposes: incomparably higher ones. Our children should not have to go to such unnatural lengths to learn to read the words that they so effortlessly and joyously learned to speak. Nor should native speakers of all other tongues of the world have to endure such exorbitant exsertions in order to learn to read and write our beloved English.

Statistics of the 58 Letters/Letter Combinations representing the Speech Sound /s/ as used in this Article.

5 whole letters.

1) <s> The single letter <s> has occurred 245 times, representing the sound /s/ in altogether 216 words, counting prefixed, suffixed and compound versions as separate words. (Of these words, 14 were repeated once, 4 three times, one four times, six times and one - the word spelling - 17 times.)

2) <c> never-ceasing, illiteracy, circumspectly, succinctly, unnecessary, mercilessly, facilitate, necessary, simplicity, conduciveness, decidedly, acceptance, circumspect, successful, certainly, sincere, city, centuries, deceased, sequences, ancestors, historicism, unnecessarily, forces, docile, principle, audacity, necessity, certainly, magnificence, fancy, concisely sentences, recently, principal, concern, incidence, process, urgency, etcetera, pieces, processors

3) <t> negotiations: in the use of countless speakers of English who pronounce it 'negosiashunz' (rather than 'negoshiashunz')

4) <z> czar, tzar, pizza, schnitzel, blitz, chintzy: In schnitzel and in blitz the letter <z> and in pizza the second letter <z> clearly represents the sound /s/ schnitsel (or snitsel) and blits being their only recorded ways of pronounciation. The letter <z> represents the sound /s/ also in the words czar, tzar and chintzy in the use of most speakers of English who pronounce them tsahr and chintsee respectively.

5) <x> phalanx: in the use of countless speakers of English who pronounce it falans (rather than falanks)

2 apostrophized versions of a letter and one letter with a diacritic mark.

6) <s'> students', linguists', Nyikos'
7) <'s > let's, it's, youth's
8) <ç> façade

The first halves of 2 letters and the second halves of 3 letters
9) Letter C. Since the name of the letter <c> is pronounced see, it represents two sounds, namely /s/ and <ee>. Hence, the sound /s/ is symbolized only by the first half of the letter <c> in TLC and ABC.

10) Letter S with apostrofee. In the use of many speakers of English who pronounce Nyikos's Nikosiz (as they pronounce 'Venus's flytrap' 'Veenusiz flytrap'), only the first half of the first, apostrophized letter <s>, represents the sound /s/ because the second half of this letter <s> and the last letter <s> together symbolize the sound sequence iz in Nikosiz.

11) Letter S. Since the name of the letter <s> is pronounced es, it represents two sounds. Hence the sound /s/ is symbolized only by the second half of the letter <s> in SOS.

12) Letter X. Since the letter <x> represents two sounds, namely /ks/, in the following words, the sound /s/ is symbolized in them only by the second half of the letter <x>: mixed-up, expert, extended, exclusive, orthodoxy, complexity, complex, exquisite, betwixt, expansion, lexicographers, crux, exchange.

13) Letter Z. Since the letter <z> represents two sounds, namely /ts/, in the words Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, Nazis, the sound /s/ is symbolized in these words only by the second half of the letter <z>.

The last third of one letter and the first third of an apostrophized letter.

14) Letter X. Since the name of the letter <x> is pronounced /eks/, this letters name represents three sounds. Hence the sound /s/ is actually symbolized by only the last third of this letter in X-ray.

15) Letter S and apostrofee when followed by anuther S. The sound /s/ is represented by only the first third of the apostrophized letter <s> in the use of many speakers who pronounce Nyikos' as Nyikosiz (as they pronounce Saint Agnes' Eve as Saint Agnesiz Eev, e.g. in John Keats' poem) because the other two thirds of this letter <s> symbolize the sound sequence /iz/.

17 two-letter combinations, based on letter <s>.

16) <ss> assignment, dismiss, unnecessary, mercilessly, less, necessary, conduciveness, ambassadorship, successful, massive, countless, hapless, Massachusetts, mess, assess, grass, masses, professors, essence, weakness, hissing, all-encompassing, classification, gross, assessed, missed, assigning, hopelessly, progressing, process, lessons, effortlessly, loss

17) <se> sense, else, deceased, immense, nursed, false, concisely, treatise, purposely, please, cursed, diverse, worse, use, remorse

18) <sc> scientific, susceptible, Crescent City, pseudoscientific, unsusceptible, miscellaneous, transcend

19) <s's> The apostrophized letter <s> plus the following letter <s> in Nyikos's represent the sound /s/ together, whenever pronounced Nikos, the preferred choice of most speakers of English when using the possessives of many names ending in <s>, for instance, Venus's flytrap, when pronounced Veenus flytrap.

20) <st> hustle, bustle, listened, postscript
21) <sw> swords, answer
22) <sz> Szechwan
23) <ps> pseudoscientific, psychological
24) <es> Charleston, Shakespearean

No speakers of standard English pronounce certain letters which immediately follow or immediately precede the letter <s> in particular words. These so-called silent letters are silent now, but they were used to represent actual sounds which, through the centuries, became slurred over by increasing numbers of speakers. We just listed several such two-letter combinations based on the letter <s>: <sc, st, sw, ps, es> Countless speakers of today's standard English do not pronounce eight other similarly situated letters either, that is to say, they slur over eight other sounds in the same way that their forebears skipped over the /w/ sound in sword, the /t/ sound in listen and the /p/ sound in psychology. Most of these speakers are absolutely not aware of their slurring, (nor are their listeners), but precise recordings by lexicographers and linguists confirm not only the existence but also the extent of such habits. They are so widespread as to be considered within the limits of acceptability. This is why these variants are included in this survey. (Exclusively such variants have been quoted whose acceptability is unquestionably attested by the authoritative Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, 1984.)

25) <si> density, curiosity: pronounced by many denstee and kyooriostee respectively
26) <ts> craftsmanship, tsar: pronounced by many krafsmanship and sahr respectively
27) <sa> Chesapeake Bay: pronounced by many Chespeek Bay
28) <so> philosophy: pronounced by many filosfee
29) <su> suppose: pronounced by many spohz
30) <ns> Robinsonville: pronounced by many Robisunvil
31) <rs> berserk, knockwurst: pronounced by many beserk and nokwoost respectively
32) <t's> let's: pronounced by many in rapid speech as les

9 three-letter combinations and 2 four-letter combinations, all based on the letter <s>.

33) <sce> reminisced, obsolesced, acquiesced, effervesce
34) <sse> finesse, impasse
35) <ssa> ambassadorship, Massachusetts: pronounced by many, especially in rapid speech, as ambasdorship and Masschoosets, respectively
36) <ssi> necessity, classification: pronounced by many, especially in rapid speech, as nesestee and klasfikaishun respectively
37) <sch> schnitzel and schism: pronounced by many snitsl and sizm respectively
38) <sth> isthmus
39) <sts> postscript: pronounced by many pohscript
40) <ste> wastepaper, wastebasket: pronounced by many wasepaper - wasebasket
41) <ths> months, lengths pronounced by many mons and lengs respectively
42) <ssis> Mississippi: pronounced by many, especially in rapid speech, as Missipee
43) <rces> Worcester: Wooster - its only recorded pronunciation

7 two-letter combinations and one three-letter combination, based on the letter <c>.

44) <ce> introduced, since, acceptance, existence, nice, convinced, forced, essence, magnificence, enhanced, face, advance, notice, emergence, substance, scarcely, incompetence, menace, incidence, chance, importance
45) <ci> simplicity, principle, principal: pronounced by many, especially in rapid speech, as simplistee and prinspl respectively
46) <cc> succinct: pronounced by many susinkt
47) <ch> catchup: pronounced by many katsup
48) <cs> Tucson: Tooson, its only recorded pronunciation
49) <cz> czar pronounced by many sahr
50) <tc> bankruptcy: pronounced by many bankrupsee
51) <ces> Leicester: Lester, its only recorded pronunciation

4 combinations with one-and-a-half-letters, 2 with two-and-a-half, all based on the letter <x>.

Since the letter <x> represents the sound combination /ks/, only the second half of this letter symbolizes a component of the sound /s/, the other component of the /s/ sound being symbolized by the letter (or by two letters) following th letter <x> in each of these combinations:

52) Letters X, C. exceedingly, exception, excellently
53) Letters X, E. axe, deluxe
54) Letters X, H. exhortations, exhibition
55) Letters X, S. exsiccated, exsertions, exsanguine
56) Letters X, S, C. exscind
57) Letters X, T, H. sixth: pronounced by many siks

One two-letter combination, based on letter <z>.

58) <tz> Yangtze River: the only English pronunciation being Yangsee River, and tzar and chintzy: pronounced by many sahr and chinsee respectively.

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