N9. On other pages: part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5.

Newsletter. August 1995 part 2.


The inevitability of phonetic spelling.

An open letter from Stanley Weatherall.

In a recent letter to the Secretary, Stanley Weatherall included a compilation of extracts from a wide variety of sources on the topic of phonic-based or phonetic spelling. His contention is that only phonetic writing systems make sense. The heart of the letter is reproduced here as it may be of interest to other members.

The Minutes for the AGM refer to Chris Jolly's work in promoting phonic methods of literacy teaching (presumably before returning to the hotchpotch of current orthography), but nowhere has there been any reference to my work in taking phonetic (alphabetical) spelling to its logical conclusion.

The following appeared in the article "Rescue bid for bad spellers" by the Society's Editor-in-Chief on page 28 of The Sunday Times - Wordpower Part 1 Literacy. The paragraphs are numbered for ease of reference.

"Have the anomalies of English spelling finally had their day?"

1. Other countries have taken the plunge. All is not well with English spelling. A recent test showed that 83 percent of British people could not spell six common words correctly (necessary, accommodation, sincerely, business, separate, height). Office workers misspell key words in daily use. A British education minister would penalise children's misspelling, but is caught writing advise for advice. Even dictionaries, the ultimate authority, dither, allowing choice between organize/organise, encyclopedia/encyclopaedia, yogurt/yoghourt/yoghurt, though not between accommodate/accomodate, where millions would welcome it.

2. The English language has about 40 different sounds, but only 26 letters to spell them. Yet it uses the letters in over 400 unpredictably different ways. Freaks like one, who, friend, busy break every rule. A common pattern, sh in ship, competes with almost 20 others, as in sugar, champagne, schedule, conscious, ocean, special, issue, ration, passion, pension, Russian, negotiate, luxury, anxious. Many spellings stand for other sounds too, like ch in chip, chef, chaos, loch spinach, yacht.

3. Why is delight spelt like light? The earlier spelling, delite, came from the French, which has no gh. Chaucer's yland took s from the French isle to give island. French then dropped the s as misleading leaving English with an even more misleading s. The word ptarmigan has a p because someone apparently thought the Gaelic tarmachan derived from Greek. Dr Johnson respelt ake as ache for similar reasons.

4. Yet such irregularities are often treated as sacrosanct. Where do our priorities lie? Should our spelling be primarily a museum of ancestral errors or a practical system of communication, easily learned and used by all?

The Society's own leaflets include the following:

The need to modernise.

5. Spelling is a system for giving words recognisable visible form. If it uses letters of the alphabet consistently to represent the sounds of a languages such a system is easy to learn and to operate, but the more inconsistently it uses letters, the more difficult it becomes.

6. For two reasons, spelling systems tend to become out of date: pronunciation changes in the course of time, so that sound and spelling cease to match; and technological and social changes create new requirements.

7. Most languages have modernised their spelling systems this century, but English has scarcely done so for the past 300 years and its written form is antiquated.

Does English spelling need simplifying?

8. In fact, it is nearly 1,000 years since English had a fairly coherent, consistent spelling system. Its spelling today is more of a hotchpotch of contradictory minisystems which are laboriously drilled into learners until they accept them uncritically.

9. Unfortunately success in the modem world depends on literacy, and English spelling is so complex that even after many years of schooling most people still have only a shaky command of it, and tens of millions are functionally illiterate.

10. Even in the hands of professionals it is a cumbersome, uncertain instrument and it is less than ideal for the new technologies.

11. Now new demands are being made on it: as the prime medium of world communication, English has to be learnt by hundreds of millions of non-native speakers. Their access to the language is seriously hindered by the mismatch between speech and script, which arouses ridicule, anger and frustration. Native and non-native speakers alike stand to gain from its simplification.

Introducing simpler spelling.

12. Such a complex, world-wide system of communication cannot be revolutionised overnight. Awareness first has to be spread of the benefits of simplification. Greater consistency would make learning easier and more effective. There is a strong incentive for schools to teach a new generation a range of simplified spellings and for publishers to provide texts using the simpler forms. In this way, simplified spellings could enter into general use.

The following extracts are taken from "Writing systems: why and how they need to be studied" by Christopher Upward, the Society's Editor-in-Chief, included in the Aston Papers in Language Studies and Discourse Analysis No. 3

13. Just as polluted air reduces the physical efficiency of the body, so systematically polluted text reduces the intellectual efficiency of the mind.

14. Here we have another general message for the study of writing systems in all times and places, that literacy gives power and leaves the illiterate relatively powerless; opposition to its spread has thus often been explicitly associated with opposition to the dispersal of power.

15. This innovation [the alphabet] had revolutionary implications for human literacy in the long term. Firstly it offered a writing system whose few symbols (its letters) could be quickly learnt by anyone without years of apprenticeship. Secondly, the use of the signs was determined not by some mysterious law handed down from on high, but in a transparent and predictable way by the speech sounds that were part of every person's experience.

16. What the alphabet meant was that if you know the sound values of the phonographic signs, you can in principle write down any word you wish to communicate and read any known word you come across in writing.

17. Certainly, once a well-designed alphabetic writing system has been learnt, it gives the learner untrammelled scope for self-expression and written communication: whatever can be thought and spoken in words can also be written and read without reference to a higher scriptorial authority.

18. Such individualism is an aspect of the story of ancient Greece and Rome, and in modern times alphabetic writing systems are a medium through which literacy, mass education, economic liberalism and democracy are achieved.

19. The critical examination of writing systems thus implies asking what function they have in a society, both in theory and in practice. If they permit universal literacy, they provide the foundation for a civil society in which all can participate. If they obstruct universal literacy, those who are denied its full fruits are imprisoned within more limited horizons and are ipso facto deprived of the rights of active citizenship.

20. English spelling is recognised worldwide as constituting a severe problem for learners and users generally, attracting verdicts like 'The world's most awesome mess" (Mario Pei) or "An insult to human intelligence" (Mario Wandrusclika).

21. From straightforward origins over 1,000 years ago, English spelling has steadily degenerated ever since, above all thanks to massive admixtures from other writing systems, most notably French and Greek (as transliterated through Latin) which both use letters according to quite different rules from native English (the alien use of letters in the spellings blancmange and psychology well illustrates the point).

22. The few examples of unpredictable spelling just given are in no way exceptional, but are fundamentally characteristic of the way the English language is written; and the categories of irregularity described represent merely the tip of a large iceberg. No other major language has a writing system that uses the alphabet with remotely comparable unpredictability.

23. The prime motivation for the study of writing systems needs to be the conviction (commonplace enough one would have thought) that literacy is of critical importance for the fulfilment of individual lives and for the attainment of social well-being.

24. There have been comparative studies showing that standards of education in English speaking countries lag behind those elsewhere. There have been comparative studies showing that individuals find the acquisition of literacy skills far harder in English than in other languages.

25. There is widespread, indeed growing, concern about standards of literacy in English speaking countries, alongside profound and bitter disagreement as to the best way to teach literacy skills in English. Indeed this disagreement might be better described as confusion, as methodological fashions swing from one extreme to another (from phonic to visual and back again) without, it appears, solving the problem of effectively teaching the young the skills of literacy in an alphabetical writing system whose chief characteristic should be its simplicity.

26. An incidental finding of the research into effects of the i.t.a. (Initial Teaching Alphabet) was perhaps more disturbing than its main conclusion that regular writing systems are more easily mastered than irregular: it was the suggestion that being forced to learn a fundamentally irregular writing system actually damages the intellectual development of the young learner, by comparison with the training in accurate observation and logical thinking which mastering a regular writing system entails.

27. The specific problems of English are of enormous importance, in the first place for standards of education in English speaking countries, but perhaps no less importantly for the future of English as the prime medium of international communication.

28. The lack of a predictable correspondence between the written and spoken forms of words causes difficulty, especially for learning the correct pronunciation of words.

29. This paper has implicitly argued that the study of writing systems should be undertaken in a humanistic spirit and with a sense of social responsibility.

30. Writing is a way of representing language, whose ultimate manifestation is the spoken word and the pronunciation of words changes through time, sometimes very slowly, sometimes with bewildering rapidity (as English did in the 15th century). If a writing system was originally designed to match the sounds of speech remains unchanged despite such changes in pronunciation, then it loses the transparency of reflecting the spoken word; and then difficulties begin to set in.

31. So even the best designed, most modern writing system requires careful monitoring to ensure it can be kept up to date.

The Society's Newsletter of January 1993 included the "Ten Axioms (self-evident truths) on English Spelling as follows:

32/1 Alphabets provide the simplest way to write most languages.

33/2 The alphabet works by the principle that letters represent speech sounds.

34/3 Literacy is easily acquired if the spelling tells readers the pronunciation and the pronunciation tells writers the spelling.

35/4 Pronunciation changes through time, undermining the match between spelling and sound.

36/5 Spelling systems need modernizing periodically to restore the sound/ spelling match.

37/6 By not systematically modernizing over nearly 1,000 years, English spelling has lost touch with the alphabetic principle of spelling matching sound.

38/7 Neglect of the alphabetic principle makes English spelling exceptionally difficult.

39/8 The difficulty of English spelling wastes time and produces unacceptably low levels of literacy in English-speaking countries.

40/9 To improve literacy, English needs to modernise its spelling as other languages do.

41/10 There are no quick or easy solutions. As a first step, the idea of "managingj English spelling, that is, controlling it rather than letting it continue on its own arbitrary way, should be adopted.

I add the following from Linguistics by Jean Aitchison:

42. Clearly, the conventional written forms are most unsatisfactory, since they often provide little guide to pronunciation.

Also from an article by Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mail:

43. The purpose of writing is to communicate and bad spelling hampers communication in that it makes the head swim. Reading is there to be read, not translated from a jumble of letters apparently drawn at random out of a Scrabble Set.

It is quite clear that paragraphs 1 to 41 set out the Society's views as to (a) the anomalies of English spelling, (b) the need to modernize, and (c) that literacy is of critical importance for the fulfilment of social well-being.

I should explain how my own very deep interest and conclusions on the spelling mishmash developed over many years.

At the age of 3 years, I lost my right ear drum as a result of complications after measles, with the consequent need to jockey for position in order to hear clearly and the constant switching from good to poor hearing gave me some understanding of what a handicap is really like, hence my very real concern for the sufferings of the tens of millions of functionally illiterate people.

In my teens, I learnt a system of shorthand in London. The Pitman's record is 300 words per minute over a 5 minute period. It is impossible to write at the more general speed of 120 words per minute and above if hindered by irregular spellings, hence the need to spell as instantly comes to mind, in other words, phonetically.

During the second world war I spent a lot of time decoding corrupt signals, which concentrated my mind on the need for accurate coding and transmission.

Afterwards I devised Alphahand, my own system of phonetic shorthand starting with the Roman alphabet, immediately followed by signs for the missing sounds in the English language. This entailed an in-depth study of the sound/sign relationship and enabled students to see through the system from day one.

The realization that phonetic spelling was entirely regular and free of inconsistencies led me to devise a complete English alphabet using familiar longhand symbols in place of shorthand signs in such a way as to correspond with the primary pattern of our language as spoken.

Writing systems are derived from vocal sounds and there is no justification for meaningless attempts to force English spelling into a series of foreign mini-systems.

With reference to paragraphs 4 and 12 above, I cannot believe that anybody would disagree with the need to have a practical system of written communication, easily learned and used by all; also that awareness first has to be spread amongst the main body of people as to the need for a complete alphabet to mastermind our spelling.

I would modify paragraph 17 by substituting "alphabet" for "alphabetic writing system". All that is needed is a once-only assimilation in early childhood of the complete alphabet to integrate symbol usage into the same mental process as prompts the spontaneous expression of sounds in fluent speech. In reverse, readers can then interpret written words in the same effortless way as when spoken. In other words, the spelling of every word in our vocabulary is already in the mind for the taking and there is no further need for textbooks and spelling classes.

Cut Spelling simply adds more confusion to current spelling and is most unsatisfactory, since it provides no guide to pronunciation. New Spelling 90 has not been carried through to a logical conclusion and lacks the consistency necessary for the compilation of a complete alphabet.

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On other pages: part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5.