MoreBites 2: Contexts of SpellBites 2.

13 April 2005. The Toronto Star.

Letter from SSS member Niall Waldman.

Friday [15 April] marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Samuel Johnson's famous "Dictionary of the English Language."


Locked in our spelling.

Dr. Samuel Johnson created a work of art, said to be the first dictionary that can be read with pleasure.

Re Anniversary of Dr. Johnson's dictionary.

This Friday is the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first great English dictionary. April 15, 1755, was the date that Dr. Samuel Johnson released to the world his famous Dictionary of the English Language. Surprisingly for a reference work, this publication was (and is) a creative masterpiece. It gave us amusing definitions such as: "Patron: ... wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery." It also gave us entertaining quotations from famous authors such as William Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift. Some of these quotations are almost too entertaining to print: "So from my lord his passion broke. He farted first, and then he spoke." - Swift.

Johnson's dictionary was indeed a work of art. It is said to be the first dictionary that can be read with pleasure. This is true - apart from a couple of aspects: First, if you are not a bodybuilder, you will probably get limited pleasure from carrying this dictionary's two giant volumes to your armchair for a relaxing perusal. Second, if your spelling ability leaves a lot to be desired, you will generally despise this work. This dictionary, like all dictionaries, can be extremely useful for helping us to spell complex words. It is, however, partially responsible for these words being complicated in the first place.

Johnson did not create the mass of inconsistencies that we oxymoronically call a "spelling system." For instance, he did not insert the p in receipt or the b in debt or even the g in sovereign as many have suggested. What he did do, however, was legitimize their existence by recording them in a commanding way in his authoritative dictionary.

Before Johnson, our spelling system still had a chance for change. Our spelling was only stable before he got hold of it, not crystallized. It had been in the process of stabilization a number of times before and had always managed to break free. Johnson's authority killed any possibility of that ever happening again. His dictionary locked our spelling in place before the the really outrageous combinations had a chance to be simplified, or before the needless complexity of the whole system was brought to the attention of someone who could do something about it. There have been some minor modifications since Johnson. These changes, howver, are only a tiny fraction of what could have occurred if he hadn't carved our spelling in stone in his two gigantic documents.

As intellectually respected as Johnson was, he was not an overly endearing individual. He dressed like a pauper, he could julienne you with his sharp tongue at the drop of a knife, and he is reported to have physically assaulted a few people who pressed one of his many buttons. (He wasn't a snappy dresser but he had buttons galore.) He was a prickly man who wasn't to be messed with; consequently, very few people messed with him. That's why we ended up with this dog's breakfast of a spelling system - no one had the courage to criticize him.

Niall McLeod Waldman, author, Spelling Dearest, Lakefield, Ont.

7 April 2005. House of Commons Education and Skills Committee.

Teaching Children to Read.

Report, with formal minutes, oral and written evidence HC 121.
The 121.pdf file is 1,325kb. 192pp, hard copy £22.

SSS member Chris Jolly's submission is in the written evidence.
The list of unprinted written evidence includes the SSS and members Valerie Yule, Masha Bell and James Houldsworth.

The conclusion includes: "79. It is unlikely that any one method or set of changes would lead to a complete elimination of underachievement in reading; however it seems that at present around 20% of eleven-year-olds are not reading at an age-appropriate level. We recommend a review of the NLS to determine whether its current prescriptions and recommendations are the best available methodology for the teaching of reading in primary schools. Further large-scale, comparative research on the best ways of teaching children to read, comparing synthetic phonics 'fast and first' with other methods (for example analytical phonics and the searchlights model promoted in the NLS) is also necessary to determine which methods of teaching are most effective for which children. It may be that some methods of teaching (such as phonics) are more effective for children in danger of being left behind. This research should be commissioned by the DfES."

Dr Rhona Stainthorp presented an analysis of the PIRLs data (The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and said, "In England, we do much better by our good readers and much worse by our poor readers. To some extent, this can be explained by the fact that English orthography is the most opaque alphabetic orthography of all, and therefore might present relatively more difficulty particularly for the least able children". This was not mentioned in the conclusions and recommendations.

30 March 2005. USA.

English Orthography (If That's What You Call It)

By Thomas Keyes.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the distinguished Irish playwright and socialist, was also an advocate of spelling reform of the English language, and bequeathed a sum of money for the best alphabet that could be invented for it. Years ago, an American man, as I recall, was awarded the prize, but of course his proposed reform came to nought.

There are two approaches to the whole question, depending on the restrictions you wish to propose.

If transcribed with a one-to-one correspondence between spoken phonemes and written letters, the English language would take an alphabet of about 40 letters in order to be committed to paper properly. If using 40 letters is not reckoned a problem, one can merely adopt the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), or those parts of it that are applicable specifically to English. Actually, the IPA can reduce all languages to a single alphabet of about 200 letters, but the additional 160 wouldn't concern us. Currently, American dictionaries use a wide variety of pronunciation schemes, which is very annoying, because you have to keep consulting different pronunciation keys as you go from dictionary to dictionary, unless you can memorize 6 or 8 of them. The Oxford English Dictionary and most bilingual dictionaries already use the IPA, which is really convenient once you know it. The next step would be to eliminate the traditional spelling and use only the IPA spelling. Of course, with this scheme, all our keyboards would become obsolete and computer technology would become a mess. An alternative scheme might replace capitals letters by using a prefixed slash, for example: /a for A. This would free the capital letters to be assigned new values, giving us up to 52 letters, but it would look weird.

If transcribed so as to use only the customary alphabet of 26 letters, the English language would have to rely on a number of digraphs. A digraph is a pair of letters that is given a special single value it would not otherwise have. Examples are: sh, th, ng, ch, au. This method can also be used, but it has to be done in such a way that the two letters in a digraph never come together as independent letters. Is it "di-sheveled" or is it "dis-heveled"? Is it "hea-then" or is it "heat-hen"? Such a system can be devised though, as, over the years, I personally have created several such alphabets, as a pastime. While less pleasing from the philological and esthetic standpoint, such a scheme would preserve the existing alphabet. In a transition period, books and newspapers might appear in either orthography, with the older one gradually phasing out.

It has already been done in many languages. Spanish orthography is very good. One can always read a Spanish word, without looking up the pronunciation, if he knows the basic rules. German and Greek are almost perfect too. Russian would be perfect if it had an accent mark, so it remains problematic, but could be corrected quite easily. Italian, Portuguese and Hindi have a few flaws, so for about 25% of the words, you have to look up the pronunciation. French is often unpredictable. English is very poor, but in some cases one can guess correct pronunciations. Hebrew, Arabic and Persian are very bad too, as the vowels aren't written at all. And of course, Chinese and Japanese are the worst of all.

English orthography is really a nuisance when you get to technical terms - biological nomenclature, medical jargon, names of pharmaceuticals and so forth. If you think you can always pronounce English words as sight, try these: psittaciformes, charadriiformes, gadofosvesetum, alemtuzumabum, syngnathiformes, malesherbiaceous, silasesquiazanes. And there are thousands of such words, as remote as they may be from everyday life.

The situation gets worse all the time. Every year Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's International Dictionary issue supplements of new words, 10,000 words or so, many of them just as unpronounceable as those listed below.

To mention a couple of down-to-earth absurdities, why is it that these words rhyme: word, whirred, bird, burred, heard, sherd, shirred, curd? How many ways can 'ea' be pronounced: bread, knead, hear, heard, react, reality, reagent, nausea? What about these homonyms: rose, rows, roes, rhos? And these: right, rite, write, wright? And finally, the most famous group: though, through, bough, enough, cough, hiccough, slough, hough. "Slough" rhymes with "cow" or "coo" when it means "swamp", but it rhymes with "cuff" when it means "shed skin". "Hough" is a variant of "hock" as in "ham hock", and is pronounced the same way.

I'm too realistic to expect reform, but I thought I'd at least do some wishful thinking online.

About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far. I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

21 February 2005. The Washington Post. [Excerpt]

Why Stevie kan't spel by Steve Hendrix.

Tough language to crack.

Ours is a Gordian knot of a language, a tangled skein of threads pulled from dozens of alien dialects and balled into the richest, most expressive and downright maddening lingo on the planet. There's plenty of blame to go around - curse you, Greeks, Saxons and Normans - for the fact that oven doesn't rhyme with woven, laughter does rhyme with rafter and colonel is identical to kernel.

The combination o-u-g-h variously makes the sounds of tough, through, though, thought and plough. O-e serves goes, shoes, does and amoeba. This is like an arithmetic in which 5 plus 3 sometimes equals 8, and sometimes 11, 23 or 75, for no particular reason that you can learn other than memorizing hundreds of irregular equations.

It doesn't need to be this way. Did you know they don't really have such a thing as misspelling in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries with a more straightforward orthography? Ask a fellow on the streets of Lima how to spell abogado, and he'll simply repeat the word more slowly. It's like asking someone in Washington to spell FBI. "Those are simpler, phonetically based systems," says Gentry. "They enjoy something much closer to a one-to-one correspondence of a single letter or letter combination to a single sound. In Italian, they have 33 letter combinations to spell 25 sounds. In English, we have about 1,120 letter combinations to make 44 sounds." It isn't confusing just for bad spellers when there are at least a dozen ways to spell the long e sound: peel, key, tea, phoebe, tangerine, protein, fiend, she, people, ski, debris and quay. The bizarro spelling makes English incredibly difficult to learn, particularly for adults studying it as a second language, and acts as a drag chute on efforts to boost literacy. Ever since a 13th-century monk named Orm, no doubt tugging his halo of hair in frustration at the unholy mess he was forced to transcribe, became the first evangelist for spelling reform, men of letters have called for some serious tidying up of the English lexicon. They've included Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, the editors of the Chicago Tribune and George Bernard Shaw, who famously pointed out that "ghoti" could logically be pronounced fish using familiar English letter combinations (the g-h from rough, o from women and t-i from motion).

19 February 2005. Dallas Morning News.

Spelling out the difficulties.

By Paula LaRocque.

Maybe you've heard of "ghoti," an alternative spelling of fish, according to certain English pronunciations: GH as in "laugh," O as in "women" and TI as in "nation."

In the same vein is this spelling of potato: "ghoughpteighbteau": P as in "hiccough," O as in "though," T as in "ptomaine," A as in "neigh," T as in "debt" and O as in "bureau."

The "ghoti" construct is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but Shaw biographer Michael Holroyd writes that it was another, now nameless spelling-reform advocate. But whether in fun or in earnest, efforts to reform English's notoriously chaotic spelling have failed. It remains a language whose spelling seems in disarray.

It's not that there are no rules in English spelling. There are many - and almost as many exceptions. The only real defenses against misspelling are memorization and a good dictionary to tell us which spelling is the preferred form. (Alternative spellings are interesting and informative but often considered substandard by many. It's best to rely on preferred forms - in most dictionaries, the first listing. Dictionaries vary, though; yours will tell you in which order it lists its spellings and definitions.)

A computer spell-checker also helps, but it has a weakness - it usually will not flag words in its dictionary. So if your typo or misspelling happens to spell a word in the computer's dictionary, it will not protest.

Nor will it make a peep about homonyms such as here and hear; to, two and too; it's and its; or who's and whose. Many such words often are misspelled not because the writer doesn't know the difference, but because of a moment's careless typing. More homonyms or near-homonyms: your and you're; there, their and they're; led and lead; principal and principle; then and than; lose and loose; were, we're and where; which and witch.

In short, we can't stop with running a spell-checker - we still have to proof our writing carefully. This is especially true of e-mailed messages in the workplace, which too often seem dashed off without thought and therefore contain errors that reflect badly on the writer's competence. It's one thing to e-mail flawed personal messages to one's forgiving friends, and quite another to send them to colleagues in a professional setting.

It also helps to know which words are most often misspelled. Among the most common misspellings, readers find three especially annoying: confusing it's and its, the two words a lot written "alot," and all right as "alright."

Here's a handful of other common misspellings.

accommodate, not 'acommodate' or 'accomodate'
acoustic, not 'accoustic'
anoint, not 'annoint'
barbecue, not 'barbeque'
believe, not 'beleive'
calendar, not 'calender'
canister, not 'cannister'
Caribbean, not 'Carribbean' or 'Carribean'
category, not 'catagory'
commitment, not 'committment'
consensus, not 'concensus'
definite, not 'definate'
dependent, not 'dependant'
develop, not 'develope' espresso, not 'expresso'
friend, not 'freind'
graffiti, not 'grafitti'
grammar, not 'grammer'
harass, not 'harrass'
irrelevant, not 'irrevalent,' 'irelevent,' or 'irrellevant'
irresistible, not 'irresistable'
judgment, not 'judgement'
license, not 'licence'
Mediterranean, not 'Meditteranean'
misspelling, not 'mispelling'
mortgage, not 'morgage'
niece, not 'neice'
notable, not 'noteable'
occasion, not 'ocassion' or 'occassion'
occurred, not 'occured'
occurrence, not 'ocurrence' or 'occurrance'
persistent, not 'persistant'
personnel, not 'personell'
persuade, not 'pursuade'
piece, not 'peice'
possess, not 'posess'
prerogative, not 'perogative'
privilege, not 'priviledge' or 'privilage'
receive, not 'recieve'
recommend, not 'reccomend'
rendezvous, not 'rendevous'
renown, not 'reknown' or 'renoun'
repetitive, not 'repetative'
restaurateur, not 'restauranteur'
rhythm, not 'rythm' or 'rythem'
sacrifice, not 'sacrafice'
satellite, not 'satelite'
separate, not 'seperate'
sergeant, not 'sargeant'
siege, not 'seige'
similar, not 'similiar'
sophomore, not 'sophmore'
souvenir, not 'souvenier'
surprise, not 'suprise' or 'suprize'
tattoo, not 'tatoo'
tendency, not 'tendancy'
tongue, not 'tounge'
unnecessary, not 'unneccessary'
until, not 'untill'
useful, not 'usefull'
villain, not 'villian'
weird, not 'wierd'
writing, not 'writting'

Paula LaRocque, former Dallas Morning News writing coach, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, and Championship Writing.

20 January 2005. New Zealand.

Spelling changes sought.

By Mike Crean
Learning to reed is eesy for peeple who hav English-speeking parents but a big problem for uthers.

Masha Bell [SSS member] wants to make it easy for all.

The author of Understanding English Spelling is on a crusade to demonstrate the "idiocy" of how the language is spelt.

Bell does not want wholesale change. She says minor alterations, usually involving one letter in some of the 2000 most commonly used words, would make the task of learning to read far easier.

Often the change would be to a vowel - for example, "treet" for "treat" and "hav" for "have".

"I do not want to change the language, just the spelling," she said.

Everyone knows English spelling is "stupid", Bell says. But when children fail at reading, everyone blames the teachers, which is unfair.

She says English derived its spelling from the whims of illiterate and non-English-speaking printers in the 15th century who inserted letters randomly in early books and Bible translations. These became the standard.

Bell says English-speaking peasants who could not read or write had the most profound impact on the development of the language. The spelling system was imposed from above. Today their equivalents are modifying that system, at last, through the texting revolution.

Bell loves English and its history. This love brought her from Germany to England to study the language in 1964.

Raised in Lithuania, she spoke Russian and German fluently as second languages.

Reaching England, she found English difficult to read because of its inconsistent spelling.

Later, teaching English at high schools in England, she noticed others had the same problems. Bell and her husband are holidaying in New Zealand, hosted by members of the Simplified Spelling Society.

7 January 2005. Times Educational Supplement. Letters.

Hed for hights?

Masha Bell [SSS member] is right that words with irregular spelling make learning to read harder (TES, December 17). The mechanism for such a change is likely to follow the pattern that changed words like shew and grey to show and gray: that both forms are accepted and coexist, with the more regular one slowly becoming the norm.

As adults we need to be willing to accept as alternative forms such spellings as friend/frend, they/thay, height/hight, believe/beleve, and head/hed.

Christopher Jolly, Managing director, Jolly Learning Ltd. [SSS member]

Older quotations discovered during 2005.

9 Dec 1907. Mark Twain. "The Alphabet and Simplified Spelling."
(Twain's address at the dinner given to Andrew Carnegie at the dedication of the New York Engineers' Club,)
"... If I ask you what b-o-w spells you can't tell me unless you know which b-o-w I mean, and it is the same with r-o-w, b-o-r-e, and the whole family of words which were born out of lawful wedlock and don't know their own origin. .... There is the whole tribe of them, 'row' and 'read' and 'lead' -- a whole family who don't know who they are. I ask you to pronounce s-o-w, and you ask me what kind of a one. If we had a sane, determinate alphabet, instead of a hospital of comminuted eunuchs, you would know whether one referred to the act of a man casting the seed over the ploughed land or whether one wished to recall the lady hog and the future ham. ..."

Back to the top.