[SSS Newsletter N1. April 1991 part 2 from Chris Upward (Membership Secretary & Editor]
(Efemeral membership matters have been omitted.)

A role for dictionaries in spelling-reform: a French example

by Chris Upward

Spelling reformers have imagined a number of scenarios for the implementation of spelling reform in English. They have imagined the creation of an Academy with the power to decree a reform; and they have imagined voluntary schemes so attractive that individuals world-wide would spontaneously adopt them; or schemes that governments would impose on their education systems; or schemes that commercial enterprises would leap at for commercial profit. While these scenarios may seem in varying degrees utopian, it is worth considering in particular those that have operated in other languages.

Which brings us to a possible role for dictionaries as agents of reform. People get their spellings from reference books such as dictionaries, and if dictionaries change their recommended spellings, so in due course will people - or so the expectation goes. The English-speaking world has no shortage of dictionaries, ranging from the most compendious of all, the OED, to Webster in America (whose first edition in 1828 actually makes it a century older even than the first full edition of the OED), and the more recent Macquarie in Australia, to say nothing of the competing single-volume dictionaries that emanate from the various publishers especially in the UK and USA. The alternative spellings which these dictionaries list - and so at least implicitly recommend - are symptomatic of the disorder of English spelling generally.

That is why the little book brought out in 1988 by the Conseil International de la Langue Française entitled Pour l'Harmonisation Orthographique des Dictionnaires should be of particular interest. Founded in 1967, the Conseil was in 1968 asked by the French Ministry of Education to 'normalize' the spelling of French, a task which it soon realized was beyond its powers at that time. In 1980 therefore it set itself the more modest and realistic aim of trying to co-ordinate the spelling policies of the various dictionaries.

The first step was agreement by lexicographers from the different dictionary-publishers and other interested parties to meet regularly and study the discrepancies between the spellings found in dictionaries, in order to produce a list of agreed forms. Although the representatives of France were numerically dominant in the group, both French-speaking Canada and Belgium were represented, and participants included academics, educationists, a newspaper proof-reader, and a translator with a special interest in terminology, as well as a dozen or so lexicographers.

Some 50 meetings were spent surveying the discrepancies found in nearly a dozen different dictionaries, and a list compiled of acceptable alternative forms (eventually published in the volume now under discussion). Often a single form was recommended as 'correct', such variations as were found in the dictionaries having been rejected. But often a preferred form would be shown in plain bold type, with other spellings or pronunciations given in italics as acceptable. Some alternative spellings were noted as out-dated or representing a different pronunciation or form of a word. None of the forms published in the list was to be considered 'wrong'.

The following principles were adopted in compiling the list (here summarized from the preface of the book):

1. Listing conventions. Plain bold for preferred forms, bold italics for acceptable alternatives. A good example is kayak (the preferred form), with kayac as an acceptable alternative; some dictionaries had also listed forms such as cayac, cayak, but these were not recommended and therefore omitted from the published list.

2. The main criteria for preference were usage and analogy, especially sets of parallel spellings. Etymology was occasionally a factor, as was reliable indication of pronunciation. Alternative pronunciations were taken to justify alternative spellings in some cases; thus both paiement, pavement were given as acceptable. When none of the above criteria was decisive, a simpler form was shown as preferred, e.g. aruspice, haruspice.

3. Compound words have always caused uncertainty in French, with the three possibilities of separation, hyphenation, and joining as single-word forms ('agglutination'). The Conseil followed common usage in most cases, though trying to establish generally applicable rules and patterns that could apply to future word-formations; in practice this meant a preference for single-word forms where possible, which have the advantage of clarifying the plural form Oust add <s> to the end). Use of the hyphen could sometimes be determined by meaning. Inflection of compound words according to gender and number was also analysed and some regularizations proposed.

4. Abbreviations should add <-s> to form their plurals in the normal way.

5. Foreign words. Several potentially conflicting criteria were applied here: usage, simplicity, spelling in language of origin, indication of pronunciation, familiar French spelling patterns.

6. Recent decisions of the Académie française. In 1975 the Académie proposed some alternative spellings, involving accents and doubled consonants, but in 1987 rescinded almost all its recommendations. The Conseil therefore did not generally include in its list the new forms suggested by the Académie in 1975.

We append a sample of the Conseil's listing below.

The implications of the Conseil's work should clearly be considered for English. What potential is there for collaboration of lexicographers etc in the English-speaking world? They would certainly have plenty to talk about. We may at least note the meetings of the Australian Style Council in 1986 and 1988, as reported by Valerie Yule in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J7 1988/1, pp.28-30 and J10 1989/1, p.31. The Simplified Spelling Society may well wish to cite the above example of international co-ordination between French dictionaries in its own campaigns in the future.

abadir, on écrit aussi abbadir.
abatage : V. abattage.
abatée : V. abattée.
abatis : V. abattis.
abat-son (un), des abat-sons : V. p. 9.
abattage, on a écrit abatage.
abattée, on a écrit abatée.
abattis, on a écrit abatis.
abbadir : V. abadir.
abrasax : V. abraxas.
abraxas, on trouve parfois abrasax.
abrègement, uns seule forme.
abside (architecture), une seule forme.
accon, on écrit aussi acon.
acertainer, une seule forme.
achaine : V. akène.
achar : V. achard.
achard, on écrit aussi achar.
achène : V. akène
achopper, une seule forme, acon : V. accon.
acuponcture, on écrit aussi acupuncture.
acupuncture : V. acuponcture.
dieu vat !, on trouve de nombreuses autres graphies avec ou sans t, avec ou sans traits d'union, adieu étant parfois en un mot.


See Lobbying UK Literacy Policy Makers in Journal Topics and Government in Newsletter topics.

Open Letter to the DES
from the Simplified Spelling Society

Such have been the political and educational controversies surrounding spelling standards in British schools in the past year or two that the Society decided it should formally present its views to the Government. On 25 March 1991 it addressed the following letter to the Secretary of State for Education and Science in London.

Dear Secretary of State

The Simplified Spelling Society welcomes the Government's concern for spelling standards and especially its recognition of the importance of phonics.

However, although phonics is necessary for the acquisition of literacy skills, it is far from being a panacea for the fundamental difficulties of English spelling. As the DES's Cox Report acknowledged in 1989 (§17.33), English spelling is too unsystematic for many learners to master properly. Examiners' unwillingness to penalize spelling mistakes in most subject examinations is a further symptom of a profoundly intractable problem.

If we are to require correct spellings (as we should), we must ensure they can in fact be learnt by most pupils. This means modernizing (i.e. simplifying and regularizing) English spelling, as it has not been modernized for centuries, though most other languages have modernized theirs since 1900. It is because our systems of currency and measurement were inconveniently antiquated that we decimalized the pound and moved towards metric weights and measures. Similarly, we need to stop wasting pupils' time with an even more antiquated system of writing, and redirect their time and energy to the acquisition of substantive knowledge, understanding and skills.

We will give just two examples of the educational handicap imposed by the irregularity of English spelling:

Different endings have to be learnt for rhyming words, as when assistant, insistent, persistent, resistant vary arbitrarily between <-ant> and <-ent>. French children learn that these words all end in <-ant>, and German children that they all end in <-ent>.

Our children have to learn arbitrary patterns of consonant doubling, as when abridge has one <b>, but the related abbreviate has two. French children learn single <b> for both abréger and abréviation, while Spanish children easily learn that consonants in their language are rarely doubled at all (e.g. acomodación).

Not merely do our children face countless examples of such confusion in English, but their confusion is worse confounded when they learn foreign languages.

Even if they learn that dependant/dependent have different meanings, such learning is undermined when they meet French dépendant for English dependent. And learning Spanish acomodación makes it even harder to remember which consonants are doubled in English accommodation.

The Government's concern to raise educational standards needs to address not just the best methods of teaching literacy, but the problems of English spelling itself, which hold all our children back, including the most able, but especially the less able. However it is not only British children who suffer: the world as a whole looks above all to the UK, the original source of the English language, for initiatives in this field. If appropriate steps are taken, the status of English will be enhanced to the benefit of the world in general, but of the UK more than anywhere else.

The Simplified Spelling Society (founded 1908) has developed an expertise which recognizes the difficulties of modernization (taking public acceptability and the need for continuity into account), but nevertheless sees

it as both necessary and feasible. At this stage, we would merely ask the Government to accept in principle that

We would be grateful for an opportunity to discuss the practical implications of this diagnosis with you.

A copy of this letter is being sent to the Press Association, to the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Times, and to members of the Simplified Spelling Society.

Yours sincerely
Christopher Upward, Editor. Christopher Jolly, Chairman. Robert Brown, Secretary.



Publications available to members

(The Lindgren book is the only one of which printed copies are currently available: April 2003.)

AIROE: Leaflet on the work of the Society's opposite number in France, the Association pour l'information et la recherche sur les orthographes et les systèmes d'écriture.

Adam BROWN Homophones and Homographs in Thai, and their Implications, pp.117, Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988. An illuminating and detailed account of some salient features of a writing system not based on the Roman alphabet.

Harry LINDGREN Spelling Reform - A New Approach, pp. 152, Sydney: Alpha Books, 1969. Exceptionally lively (not to say polemical) plea for English spelling reform, including some wickedly witty cartoons, leading up to a proposal for a multi-stage reform, of which the first stage is SR1 (=short /E/ always to be spelt <e>). Two spelling systems of striking originality (Phonetic A & B, the latter using numerous diacritics) are then suggested as long-term possibilities.

James PITMAN & John St John Alphabets and Reading - the Initial Teaching Alphabet, pp.349, London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1969. The first third of this substantial book discusses the psychology of reading (and especially reading failure) and gives one of the fullest available accounts of the evolution of English spelling and ideas for its reform; the rest then describes the evolution of and experience with the i.t.a.

Arnold RUPERT School with less pain, 12 page pamphlet on a system for reforming English spelling by adding 14/15 extra letters to the alphabet.