[Also on this page: BBC Radio 4, Vivian Cook. See also Media and Spelbites.]

Inglish ( iz a tuf languaj to spel )

By Gabrielle Bauer, September 2004. Saturday Night. pp49-53. Extracts.

After a dozen years at school, barely half of all English speakers become competent spellers; Italian children can spell accurately by Grade 2. English-speaking adults consistently bring up the rear in international studies on literacy. In contrast, Swedish speakers, the beneficiaries of a graduated spelling reform over the past century consistently rank near the top.

In English-speaking countries around the world, a tireless group of people has been pushing for the reform of English spelling. Most have ties to the Simplified Spelling Society, a British organization founded in 1908.

Anyone who's studied other languages knows that English spelling is a dastardly thing. A student of Spanish, German or Finnish - phonetically consistent languages - can open up any adult book and read it without necessarily understanding all the words, A student of English, on the other hand, has to choose from among six different ways of pronouncing the ou digraph (dough, cough, double, round, rouge and glamour), an impossible task if he or she encounters the letters in unfamiliar words. Then there's the ee sound, represented orthographically in at least l0 ways: seem, team, convene, sardine, protein, fiend, people, key, ski, debris, quay. Enough said?

The media teem these days with alarmist discourse about the "literacy problem" in English-speaking countries. The statistics astound. In the U.S., 36 per cent of Grade 4s read below a basic level, with 40 million functionally illiterate American adults as the postscript.

According to the 2002 national report card on reading by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 64 percent of U.S. children are "less than proficient' in reading by the end of high school. Canada fares only slightly better, with 22 per cent of the population performing at the lowest quintile of literacy. People at this level have trouble reading simple texts such as drug labels or cookbook recipes.

Rauno Parrila, an educational psychology professor at the University of Alberta with expertise in literacy acquisition in both normal and disabled learners. ... Parrila brings a native Finnish speaker's perspective to the discussion table. "Learning to read and write my native language - and later, Swedish - was simultaneous and straightforward," he says. Not so with English.

Uta Frith of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, concluded that "mild cases of dyslexia may appear far worse in irregular orthographies like that of English," raising the possibility that what we call dyslexia may be, at least in part, the artifact - a spelling system gone mad.

Many other languages have revised their spelling to adjust to this predictable linguistic drift. Swedish spelling underwent such a revision in 1906. In the 1920s, Turkey replaced the Arabic symbols used to denote Turkish with Roman letters and diacritical mark, yielding a system with almost perfect letter-to-sound correspondence. Also in the early 20th century, Korea did away with its difficult Chinese script in favour of a custom-tailored phonetic writing system called Hangul. Finnish, German ... the reformed-spelling list goes on.

Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw and Robertson Davies are among the many famous and brilliant figures in history who have called for spelling reform. None of these individuals, however, was as dedicated or eccentric as Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal Classification system {used in libraries the world over) and spelling reformer extraordinaire. ... Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci and W.B. Yeats - notoriously crummy spellers, all.

Niall Waldman, [SSS] a spelling-reform advocate based near Peterborough, Ontario, has been mulling the question over for more than decade, between gigs as a mechanical designer. When I reach him, he's reviewing the galleys of his self-published book, Spelling Dearest. [See Waldman web on Links page.]

Jack Bovill, a former language-school owner and current chair of the SSS, ... "Can you tell me how receipt and deceit differ in spelling?" he asks me, his transatlantic tones losing none of their British crispness.

Roy Blain, a British engineer and SSS member living in Germany since 1970, seeks to combine the best of both worlds - accessible and radical - in his own spelling system, which he calls Saispel. [See Saispel web on Links page.]

Isobel Raven, [SSS] who now lives in Toronto, used to teach the early grades in rural school near Tavistock, Ontario. ... "If we had a sensible orthography, most children would learn to read with considerably less difficulty than they do now."

Meanwhile, in Victoria, a former Montessori teacher named Theo Halladay is working with other SSS members to develop a "house style" - a simplified spelling system they can all agree on. ... "Some of us went to the annual spelling bee in Washington, D.C., this year and handed out leaflets promoting spelling change."

An SSS member, Valerie Yule, appeared before an Australian literacy board and made a presentation. [See Yule web on Links page.]

While agreeing that regular spelling systems foster greater initial accuracy in dyslexic learners, Linda Siegel, a professor and Dorothy C. Lam chair in special education at the University of British Columbia, isn't so sure the benefit persists over the longer term.

Do we cater to the fortunate few (who have the spelling "gene") or the struggling many (who don't)?

And an international spelling reform conference, scheduled for 2006, will "hopefully attract enough media attention to put the issue on the political map."

And if it doesn't? The final word - make that wurd - may go to Blain. "I ges 70% ov th wurldz populaishn wil rimain iliturut indefinutli."



You and Yours. BBC Radio 4. Spelling.

12noon-1pm. Wednesday 15 September 2004. Summary with extracts.

There was a discussion of the German spelling and grammar reform situation for Germany, Austria and part of Switzerland. Publishers object to the work caused by a 1 or 2% text changes. A reform committee member said that schools are using it and are happy with it. However, parents complain that they can no longer help their children. A teacher of foreign students said it was easier to teach the new rules, but that she did not see any need for reform. She thinks it is an excuse to make people buy new publications. A foreign student, who started with the old rules, finds the new ones confusing. The reforms include a reduction of the length of compound words and a reduction of rules for commas from 23 to 7.

Q. So Jack Bovill. Is it time for a reform over here?

JB. It is time to introduce new guidelines, yes.

Q. And how would that work in practical terms, through legislation or one of these academies that they have in France, you know, which act as a sort of watch-dog?

JB. I think the universities could provide leadership in accepting that the spellings that they occasionally come across amongst their students are acceptable if they are phonetic.

Q. How root and branch would be your reform?

JB. I would not advocate anything other then a general guideline and leadership from the universities for example.

Vivienne Cook said that writing systems either link letters and sounds or have entire wholes of meanings like the pound sign and Chinese. English has become a mixture of the two systems as pronunciation has changed. She did not favor anything which says we should go more towards pronunciation, as that varies within England, let alone among the billion people currently learning and using English.

Jill Hunter said that spelling is difficult but the important thing in literacy is communication. She wants children to be given writing opportunity. She does not want children to concentrate so much on spelling that they do not use complex words. They can use spellcheckers later.

The interviewer mentioned the spelling contests in USA, featured in the film, SpellBound, which has inspired BBC1 to put on a spelling quiz program, HardSpell, this autumn. The producer said the participating children aged 11-14 found it addictive. Hardspell is raising awareness about spelling and about enjoying it.

The interviewer asked Jack Bovill if he would be tuning in.

JB. If u want to dumb people down, why don't u ask them to remember pi to 28 decimal points? Asking a child to spell a word 'onomatopoeia' which I would have difficulty with, without knowing its meaning, and how it can be used, is a complete waste of their time.

JB. I would encourage good spelling but of a more sensible variety. Think of people who cannot fill in means test forms, the 20% who are not competent in reading and writing.

The interviewer agreed that there is a stigma to bad spelling, e.g. on job application forms. He asked Jack what profound effect simpler spelling would have.

Jack said that illiteracy levels in prisons are high. People, who cannot read and write in a society that requires it, have no alternative but to turn to crime.

Before the end of the program, e-mails were already coming in.

A teacher said that the amount of time that has to be spent on spellings in schools is absurd. It causes heartache to dyslexic students.

A dyslexic student wrote, "I constantly struggle with English spelling. It should be made more simple".



Guardian Unlimited. September 15, 2004. Should we worry about English spelling?

Weird or wierd? Minuscule or miniscule? Spelling has stumped, intrigued and infuriated us for centuries. In his new book, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle, talks us through every aspect of the English spelling system, from silent letters and hyphenation to Americanisms and txt spk.

Extract from Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary : or, why can't anybody spell? by Vivian Cook (Profile Books). 2004.

[Extracts from the extract!]

Many people argue that English spelling is simply awful. Six out of 10 15-year-olds can't write 10 lines without making at least one spelling mistake and adults struggle with words such as accommodate and broccoli all their lives.

By contrast, Noam Chomsky, the greatest linguist of our time, claims the current spelling of English is 'a near optimal system'. He feels that spelling that departs from the pronunciation sometimes helps us to understand what we are reading. Silent letters like the 'g' in sign [and] signature; the fact the past tense ending '-ed' is said in three different ways, 't' (liked), 'd' (played), 'id' (waited) but written in only one, '-ed', makes clear their common meaning.

The difference between Shaw and Chomsky comes down to how they think spelling works. One of its functions is indeed to show the sounds of words. Italian or Finnish use such links virtually all the time. But in English the correspondence between letters and sounds is usually much less straight-forward.

With some written symbols, you either know what they mean or you don't have any idea, say '£', '#' or '%'. You do not have to know how they are said to get their meaning. The second function of spelling is then to show what words mean.

English spelling is far more systematic than most people suspect. The most well-known rule 'i before e except after c' applies to only 11 out of the 10,000 most common words of English - eight forms of receive, plus ceiling, receipt and perceive.

All this change and outside influence has meant that English spelling now presents a rich set of possibilities for our use and entertainment. Pop-groups call themselves: the Beatles, Eminem and Sugababes. Novelists hint at dialects. Text messages cut down the number of letters: Wot time r u goin 2 b home?

It is indeed important for the international use of English that it is not too closely tied to speech.

So do we need to get excited about the frequent mistakes that people make when using the English writing system? Mistakes don't necessarily prevent us understanding the message. ... The most talented writers make spelling mistakes. Keats once spelled fruit as furuit, W.B. Yeats wrote peculiarities as peculeraritys, and Hemingway wrote professional as proffessional. Does this detract in any way from their achievements?

Attempts to meddle with the spelling without this kind of factual basis have often been disastrous in the past, landng us with the 'b' of debt and the 'c' of scissors.

Rather than continually carping about the decline of the English language, as people have been doing since at least the 16th century, we should try to understand and develop the amazing resource that is available to us.

Back to the top.