Victoria News, Canada, Wednesday April 7 2004.

Fonetik speling sene az kee to literasee.

By Rudy Haugeneder, Victoria News

Picture of Theo Halladay
jessica kerr/victoria news
Theo Halladay, like George Bernard Shaw, is an ardent advocate for simplifying English spelling.
The statistics don't lie. North Americans aren't as educated as most people assume.

Nearly one-quarter of Canadian adults and more than 40 per cent in the U.S. are functionally illiterate - unable to read a bedtime story to their children.

The reason is simple, says artist and retired teacher Theo Halladay.

It's the weird way the English language is spelled.

And that also makes English hard to understand, said Halladay, a member of the international Simplified Spelling Society, formed in 1908 to reform English spelling.

English is the only language that resists spelling change, says Halladay, 77, who was born in Victoria but lived most of her life in the U.S. where she taught school.

Despite a century of compulsory education "we have a higher rate of illiteracy now than we did 100 years ago," she complains. All other languages, from German to Italian, routinely modernize their spelling.

The problem started with the Norman conquest of the British Isles in 1066, said Halladay from her View Royal home.

Norman French became the official language of England and nobody, apart from a few monks, continued to write English.

By the time English again became the official language, around 1400, the people in charge of re-inventing the English writing system had only written in French or Latin, and used the spelling rules of those languages.

The results were crazy and continue to plague the language today, she said, pointing out that English often spells identical sounds in several different ways.

The worst part of the mess is that "most children who struggle with reading blame themselves."

Teachers and pupils struggle with it at every level, and many never master it at all.
- Theo Halladay.

The battle to reform English spelling is not new, she said.

Charles Darwin, Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, George Bernard Shaw and Noah Webster - founder of the Webster's dictionary - were advocates of spelling reform. Modern voices include the British Royal family spearheaded by Prince Philip.

Spelling should reflect the way words are spoken, says Halladay. "Pronunciation should determine spelling."

But over time, as pronunciation changes and new words entered the language, this match between letters and sounds broke down, she says. That makes learning to read and write harder - and all education suffers.

The statistics are the proof, she says. Even after 11 years at school, barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers, compared to Italy, where children learn to spell Italian accurately after just two years of school.

The 40-odd sounds of English can be spelled hundreds of ways and one spelling can represent many sounds, says Halladay. Since there is no consistency, it's difficult to become fully literate.

"Teachers and pupils struggle with it at every level, and many never master it at all," she said, adding "even the most literate people misread unfamiliar words and hesitate over spelling - is it seize or sieze, concensus or consensus. And who has never misspelled the words receive or accommodate, or confused their/there?"

The problem with English spelling is that the letters do not correspond predictably to speech sounds, says Halladay, who favours a moderate approach to correcting the problem.

However, because English spelling lacks agreed standards and has no machinery for planning or introducing improvements, she admits finding an internationally acceptable way to clean up the system is as big a challenge as getting people to publicly accept the language is imperfect.

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