BBC World Service: Chris Upward 1990

This is a slightly edited transcription of an interview broadcast on the BBC World Service's Megamix programme on 24 September 1990.

JM. Now, if you're still grappling with written English, you've had first hand experience of the idiosyncratic rules when it comes to spelling our words - words like idiosyncratic for instance. Why is there a <y> in the middle, instead of an <i>? And it's not even just the big words that have the strange spellings. If you go through the dictionary, you might wonder why the word through is spelt <t-h-r-o-u-g-h> when <t-h-r-u> would do just as well, and it would be just as clear. Well, there is an organization who think just that. They're called the Simplified Spelling Society, and, founded in 1908, they campaign to radically change the way we spell the English language. Jonathan Mayo spoke to Chris Upward of the Society, and asked if they'd approve of a 'spell-it-how-you-like' free-for-all.

CU. Oh, absolutely not. One of the most important things about writing systems is that people should learn to write a language in an accepted way, so that readers are not disturbed in any way, not surprised by peculiar spellings. So, we're firmly convinced there do have to be firm spelling rules. The trouble with English is that there really aren't too many firm spelling rules at the moment, and that's the cause of the greatest difficulty.

JM. Now your Society believes that words should be spelt pretty much as they're pronounced, but there is no standard pronunciation for English, and I think of the very many English accents there are in this country and around the world. So, how could there be a standard spelling?

CU. Well, I don't think it is true any more that most people in the Simplified Spelling Society simply say, "The language should be respelt as it is pronounced". There is that very difficulty that you have mentioned that there are the different accents round the world, and in addition to that one finds that individual people will sometimes pronounce the same word in different ways on different occasions. So there is this difficulty of trying to pin down the pronunciation. What a lot of people in the Society are now particularly interested in is looking at the way English words are spelt today, and asking, well, are these spellings sensible, or do they contain certain difficulties that people constantly stumble over? And if you consider a word like accommodation, you find that it is written with one <m> instead of two probably more often than not. Clearly it is a great difficulty for people to remember that accommodation has both two <c>s and two <m>s. And that is a case where it would make life a lot simpler for everybody if a word like that could be written with one <c> and one <m> - people would never get it wrong again.

JM. Are there any other examples you have of spellings you have you would like to alter?

CU. Yes, well I suppose one of the most notorious of all the features of the English writing system is the use of <gh>. With most words with <gh> in, one can simply leave it out. A word like daughter could much better be written <d-a-u-t-e-r>, and not with the <gh> at all.

JM. Uniform word-endings would be useful, wouldn't they, for learning to spell English? I'm thinking of words like burglar, teacher and doctor.

CU. Definitely. We do have in fact something like ten different spellings with a vowel letter or more than one vowel letter followed by <r> at the ends of words. You've mentioned some examples, but there are a lot more, words like glamour with <o-u-r>, martyr with <y-r>, injure with <u-r-e>, centre with <r-e>, and there are several more. And they all have to be learnt separately.

JM. Could people's names be simplified too? I mean, my name Jonathan escapes, I think, but your first name Christopher...

CU. Well, I wouldn't be too sure of that, because I have noticed that there are some people whose names are Jonathan who spell it <j-o-n-a-t-h-a-n>, and others spell it <j-o-n-a-t-h-o-n>. So even with a relatively straightforward spelling of a name like Jonathan, you can't always be sure how people write it.

JM. Well, I was thinking, with Christopher, you could lose that first <h>...

CU. Certainly.

JM. ...and the <ph> could become an <f>?

CU. That would be helpful, yes, and the <e-r> at the end could be reduced to just <-r>.

JM. Now, have you had any opposition from English grammar teachers?

CU. Well, occasionally people do object. I had a postcard this morning from somebody who said "I hate the whole idea", but I think most people, when they have explained to them the reasons why all languages in fact need to adapt their writing systems from time to time, and when people have it explained to them just how out of date English spelling is and the enormous difficulties it causes, we find that most people say, "Well, that's really a very sensible idea".

JM. Time to put you [listeners] on the spot again, I'm afraid: what do you think? Is this a sensible idea, now that you've heard the case for simplified spelling? What are the difficulties you've had in learning to spell English?