N6. On another page: part 1.

Newsletter September 1993 part 2.

Towards the millennium.

A Profile of the Simplified Spelling Society in the 1990s.


The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in 1908 by a group of leading linguistic academics of the day - Skeat, Jevons, Pollard, Gilbert Murray and others - to promote the idea of planned change to English spelling, "in the interests of ease of learning and economy of writing" as they put it. For several decades before this, pressure had been growing for the language to be modernized and simplified, in order to make it easier to teach and learn literacy skills. The archaic spelling was seen as an unnecessary barrier to literacy acquisition - and it still is today.

Two years earlier, the United States government had formally confirmed the use of many spellings that we now think of as characterising its version of the language: color, center, fetus, etc. Andrew Carnegie had funded an organisation in the US to continue the rationalisation work, called the Simpler Spelling Board (now the American Literacy Council). The Simplified Spelling Society was intended to mirror its activities in Britain and the Empire. We still have cordial relations with our American cousins today.

The Society has enjoyed support from many well-known people in addition to its founders. Past Presidents include Gilbert Murray, almost from inception to his death in 1946, Daniel Jones (influential in establishing phonetics as a discipline), John Downing (the educational psychologist), publisher and MP Sir James Pitman, and ship-building industrialist Sir George Hunter. Its officers have included such well-known academic names as AC Gimson and David Abercrombie, as well as Archbishop Temple, Mr Speaker Horace King and HG Wells.

The Society over the years.

The years before World War I were a time of intellectual ferment and the Society had by 1910 developed an idealistic revised spelling system for English, as an example of what could be done, subsequently named New Spelling. New Spelling - still in print today - enables a good phonetic match between spoken and written English, independent of accent, by means of extending the principle of digraphs, the two-letter combinations already familiar in th, ch, ee, etc. New Spelling was promoted by the Society through its several thousand active participants and a permanently-staffed office. In the 1920s New Spelling was tested in schools and found a valuable aid to literacy acquisition.

But public opinion was shifting to take a more conservative position on language and teaching matters, so little headway was made in persuading people that change would be beneficial. The case was not helped by the rather radical change implied by a switch to New Spelling. Until fairly recently, authoritative opinion has tended to indifference, if not hostility, towards the concept of planned language change in English, despite it being successful in many other languages.

During the 1960s, a version of New Spelling using extra letters instead of digraphs was pioneered in schools in the main English-speaking countries as the Initial Teaching Alphabet (i.t.a.). This was intended as an introductory method of teaching children to read and write before switching them back to traditional spelling. The i.t.a. was shown to have many benefits but its use gradually dwindled during the 80s for a complex of reasons, such as lack of official support and changing fashions in teaching theory.

For many years the Society published New Spelling as its only model of a revised spelling system, but later came to realise that people also wanted to consider other approaches. Several other methods of spelling English have been devised and refined. For example, an important partial-reform approach called Cut Spelling - based on the principle of cutting redundant (and thus misleading) letters - was published in 1992 and has excited much comment because it achieves a far-reaching regularization with little disruption. Other approaches, with names such as System 2, Yurospel and Stages 1/2, have been experimentally devised and tested within the Society, which regards itself as a unique centre of expertise on writing systems for English.

As the 20th century moves to a close, we find the educational climate shifting again. There is widespread concern about poor literacy standards in English-speaking countries - witness the British government's current intent to "return to basics" in teaching it. At the same time, strong reactions against planning or managing the evolution of the language seem to be waning. We find today many more parents of young children willing to consider modernizing English than, say, in the 1970s - when the idea was thought plain daft - and even more striking when compared to the 50s, when it was though both potty and slightly subversive!

It is becoming clear that a gradualist approach to modernizing English spelling, not a huge upheaval, is both desirable and feasible. And today's Britain seems to have the institutions in place that, with a nudge, could organise it. Support is also beginning to emerge from all quarters. The Simplified Spelling Society is more buoyant about future prospects today than at any time in the last 60 years.

The Simplified Spelling Society today.

1 What we stand for.

The Society's constitutional aim remains "to bring about a reform of the spelling of English in the interests of ease of learning and economy in writing". We are much concerned by reports of poor literacy standards, because literacy is the bedrock for all other academic achievement.

There is also evidence that the English-speaking countries are developing large groups within the working population having impaired literacy skills - perhaps 10 million people in Britain - who are mostly not even aware that they are handicapped by inadequate reading and writing abilities. But the problem of constrained development potential remains, for them as individuals and for our economy.

We want to make learning English literacy skills easier for both native English-speaking children and those with other first languages. The Society is very aware that English is the pre-eminent medium for international communication.

2. Membership.

This is a democratic membership society, with officers elected by the members. The annual subscription has been pegged at £10 for several years.

Current membership is about 130, with about 30 of those outside the UK. Teachers and others with a professional interest in literacy acquisition probably predominate but membership is actually very broad-based. In addition to the members, the Society maintains cordial relations with similar organisations in North America (2) and Australia, and with academics world wide who have a special interest in the subject.

3 Officers and Committee.

All officeholders are elected annually, except the President who is elected every three years. The current President is Dr Donald Scragg of Manchester University, who is a leading expert on the history of English spelling. Committee members represent a wide variety of backgrounds and interests: there is an educational publisher, a computer expert, a modern linguist, a journalist, a dyslexia expert and several teachers, amongst others.

4. Finances.

The Society has an adequate endowment for the present level of activity but funds will need to be supplemented from grants and appeals if we are to bear the costs of a major research programme that is being planed at present.

5. Charitable status.

The Society is not a registered charity, for a combination of historical reasons concerned with its overtly political campaigning earlier in the century. We are seeking to change that now and register as a charity.

6. Activities.

The Society holds four regular meeting in London per year and occasionally organises international conferences. It publishes a scholarly Journal (usually two per year) and a less formal Newsletter (three per year). It also publishes books, pamphlets and discussion papers. It seeks to influence education policy by submitting statements to the teaching curriculum authorities and the like, which are usually invited. The Society is presently planning a research programme on the use of simplified spellings in remedial teaching.

We are working hard to increase membership out of which we hope more active campaigners will emerge. For example, we would like to participate more in relevant conferences and exhibitions but lack enough members at present able to sustain such commitments.

The above Profile is sent to anyone enquiring about the Society's aims and work. Any suggestions for improvement would be welcome, to the Secretary please.


The long-awaited software arrives from the American Literacy Council.

New York-based sister organisation, the American Literacy Council, has now issued its SoundSpeler software, which is "a computer-based tutor program that teaches writing, reading and pronunciation."

SoundSpeler allows the user to enter text using either traditional spelling, or the ALC's phonics-based American Spelling, or a phonic guess. The program interprets the guesses and displays two lines of text - traditional spelling and American. For example, it changes
Meny have trobl with rittun werk into
Many have trouble with written work on the top line and
Meny hav trubl with riten wurk on the second.
SoundSpeler has wide application in both first literacy teaching and in remedial situations, being especially useful with adults, due to its self-teaching method of operation.

Some members of the Committee are currently evaluating the effort involved to adapt the software for British English spelling and pronunciation. Members interested in this program are asked to contact the Secretary in the first instance, who will advise on progress towards a British English version. The American version costs $68 including postage from: American Literacy Council, New York. [See Links.]

General semantics.

Experimenting with E-prime.

The Society maintains a number of reciprocal memberships and information-sharing relationships with other organisations concerned with language matters. These include the International Society for General Semantics (ISGS) in the United States, with whom we have members in common.

General semantics concentrates on improving accuracy in the use of words so as to avoid confusion in both written and spoken communication. It owes much to the system of linguistic philosophy developed by the Polish-American scientist Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950). ISGS has about 2,200 members in more than 50 countries. It publishes a substantial quarterly called Et cetera, and a wide range of other books and educational materials.

The verb to be (in all its forms) comes in for particular criticism from the general semanticists, as encouraging absolutism and the idea that things always stay the same. As a result, they have a variety of English without to be, called E-prime.

Many ISGS members never write "I am ... " or "He is ... " Some very dedicated people have even trained themselves never to use forms of to be in speech, clearly a very difficult task. The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed that this short article has used E-prime.

Try it. You will find the exercise generally beneficial in improving the quality of written material - you cannot waffle by hiding behind the passive, for example!

Expect more about E-prime in subsequent issues. Membership of ISGS costs $30 per year. Address: ISGS, PO Box 728, Concord, Calif. 94522.

Meihem in ce Klasrum.

An extract (with some adaptation due to lack of space) from an article of this title in Astounding Science Fiction, Anthology 1946, by Dolton Edwards, courtesy of Nicholas Vince.

English spelling is much in need of a general overhauling and streamlining, but this plan can achieve it in a less shocking manner than Mr Shaw's proposals.

As a catalytic agent, we suggest a National Easy Language Week. Some spelling change would be announced, to be adopted in the coming year. All schoolchildren would be given a holiday, the lost time being the equivalent of that gained by the spelling short cut.

In 1946 we could eliminate the soft c, substituting s. This would be selebrated in all sivic-minded sircles. In 1947, we could substitute k for the hard c, as both letters would be pronounsed identikally. So two years of this prosess would klarify konfusion for students, and already we would have eliminated one letter from the alphabet.

By 1948 all skhool tshildren would be looking forward to the annual holiday, and, in a blaze of publisity, ph would be banned, henseforth to be written f.

By 1949, publik interest in the fonetik alfabet would allow a more radikal step forward - eliminating al unesesary double leters, whitsh, although harmles have always ben a nuisanse.

The advanse in 1950 would be to spel al difthongs fonetikaly. Tbough perhaps not imediately aparent, the saving in taime and efort wil be tremendous when we leiter elimineite the seilent e, meid posible bai the tsheinge.

In 1959 we would urg a greit step forward. As it would hav ben for yers sins anywun had used the leter c, we could substitut it for th. It would be som taim befor peopl would becom akustomed to reading buks wic sutsh sentenses in cem as "Ceodor cought he had cre cousand cistles crust crough ce cik of his cumb!"

So ce proses would go on, geting rid of y in 1952, alowing it to be reusd for sh from 1953. Kontinuing cis proses, we would eventuali hav a reali sensibli writen langug.

In fakt, by 1975, wi ventyur to sei, cer wud bi no mor uv ces teribl trublsm difikultis, wic no tu leters usd to indikeit ce seim nois, and laikweis no tu noises riten wic ce seirn leter. Even Mr Yaw, wi beliv, wud be hapi in ce noleg cat his drims fainali keim tru.

[But wud he hav ben GBY? Ed.]

[See later spoofs, probably derived from this one.]

Where are the Shaw Alphabet typewriters?

In the early 1960s, a number of type-writers were made by the Imperial company for producing text in Kingsley Read's Shaw alphabet, and member Keith Seddon would like to track them down.

One typewriter was certainly used by Read himself in publishing his regular journal which used the alphabet. Another was probably used by Peter MacCarthy, lecturer in phonetics at Leeds University, who had major involvement with Read, the alphabet and production of Shaw's Androcles using it. MacCarthy was also active in the Society and held various offices over the years.

If any reader is aware of the present location of any of these unusual machines, please write to Keith, who will be delighted.

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