Personal Views are the self-expression medium for Society members. The views expressed here are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the Society, or a majority of its members.
[PV 1 stated an earlier version of SSS Aim and Objectives.]
[See also Tribute to Bob Brown J20.]

Personal View 1.

by Bob Brown.

Bob Brown is Marketing Manager with a computer software company. He has travelled extensively and lived in several countries.

He has been a member of the Society since the mid 1970s and is presently its Secretary. He has written several articles and Pamphlet 13 Spelling reform in context.

He has had three books published and is currently researching one on the Basic English movement, and another on the use of English worldwide in business.

Literacy & the way we spell English.

Are they linked? Would changing the spelling improve literacy achievement? Could it be done anyway?

This article examines the links between our spelling and literacy achievement levels --- a timely exercise as a recent Gallup poll found that 73% of adults cannot spell "accommodate", and 49% struggle with "separate". The review concludes that spelling ought to be changed. It then discusses the practicalities of changing English spelling by central planning, so that the spoken and written forms of the language are more in accord. It considers how a process could be established to permit natural evolution of the spelling in line with inevitable later changes in the spoken language, as is done in many other languages.

On the way it presents facts on literacy problems, spelling evolution in other languages, samples of what a better English spelling might look like, which countries in the world use English --- there are about 80 of them --- and how change could be coordinated across such a diverse community of interest.

The first part deals with some basic and general questions: Is there a literacy problem? Is it linked to spelling? If change to the spelling is desirable, what form should it take? How could it be done? What about the international nature of English?

Literacy in a modern society.

We accept literacy as a basic human right, and we pay our government to provide a system of public education for all children to learn it. Those who do not achieve a level of literacy adequate for their chosen career or calling are permanently disadvantaged. If a significant proportion of the population had low literacy skills, the economic development and potential of the nation would obviously be held back.

There are no direct statistics on the literacy skill levels of the British working population. In fact, very few developed nations directly measure this key factor. One can speculate why they do not, but that would lead us into controversy and a political discussion that is not directly relevant to this article.

Only three developed countries --- USA, Canada and France --- have undertaken large scale sampling of their workers on this issue. All have shown up a larger-than-expected number of people with distinct literacy-related difficulties.

Perhaps more significant still, they have revealed a very large group --- perhaps around 20% of the working population --- with adequate but still poor literacy skills. One can surmise that such individuals might have problems in developing their careers to do more challenging work. For the nation as a whole they therefore pose a problem: they have restricted capacity to accept re-training for the more complex jobs we require people to do in our ever-more-complex society.

I believe there could be more than 6,000,000 people in this category in Britain, in addition to another 4,000,000 with definite literacy problems.

An appendix discusses this issue in more detail, and derives these figures. Let us accept for now that the general raising of literacy levels is a very desirable objective.

A possible cause?

The basic principle behind alphabetical writing is that letters should represent sounds. The way the alphabet is conventionally used to represent English words is clearly very far from being an efficient application of the principle. Our usual way of spelling, or traditional orthography (TO) as it is usually called, is notoriously inconsistent. For example, there are at least 15 spellings used to represent the short /i/ sound --- hit, pretty, women, busy, lynch ... Then there are though, thorough, through, trough, thought, and the rest. Thousands of other anomalies could be listed where spelling provides no reliable guide to pronunciation. For over 400 years people have been suggesting that TO should be adjusted to improve the way it relates the written and spoken languages, but little has been done.

There are three main causes: (1) English has forty-odd sounds but we use only 26 letters (and those very inconsistently) to represent them. (2) English, in common with all languages, slowly changes and adapts its pronunciation over time. For example, we now normally rhyme profile with mile, rather than meal, as was usual earlier this century. Suave usually rhymed with wave in the 1920s. (3) The spelling system also slowly changes --- musick lost its final letter about 1880, and we usually nowadays prefer fantasy to phantasy (since about 1920) and show to shew (since World War II). These slow changes in pronunciation and spelling are unplanned, random effects of fashion, and a host of other influencing factors.

But does all this matter?

There is a significant body of evidence that children can be taught to read and write much more easily --- quicker, and with a higher success rate --- using an orthography that more accurately relates to the sounds of its language than TO does to spoken English. This is as true with English-speaking children in England as with Italian children in Italy. A recent comparative study of British and Italian children has shown how much better the Italian children get on, because their spelling --- though not a perfect application of the alphabetical principle --- is much more predictable. There have been extensive experiments to teach British children using a consistent spelling, with beneficial results.

The extent of literacy-learning difficulties in British schools has attracted much attention. The implication of this can be seen in the adult literacy statistics --- a very large group whose lives and opportunities are constrained (without their being aware of it in many cases) by poor literacy skills.

The need for change.

One cause of this situation must be the learning difficulties imposed by TO, because the learning process is measurably easier in a consistent English spelling. And we rarely hear of literacy learning difficulties in languages that have coherent spelling systems. Educationists are slow to identify TO as the problem, however --- because the logical consequence of blaming TO is then to say "Well, change it!".

I believe that the need for change is indisputable. This means both (1) a change to bring the normal written form of English more in line with the spoken language --- reapplying the alphabetical principle --- and (2) a mechanism to manage the evolution of the resulting orthography so as to keep it in line with inevitable changes in the spoken language.

More bluntly, we need to:

Is spelling change feasible?

Most languages other than English periodically change their written forms to match better their spoken forms. The panel following lists just some such changes. Admittedly some of these reforms were relatively minor because the updates occur regularly, implying that the written and spoken languages have less chance to get out of step. By contrast, in English we have hundreds of years of cobwebs to sweep away, but is that any reason not to make a start on the job?

Some spelling reforms
in other countries
Soviet Union
Germany (planned)

On February 15, 1971 Britain changed the way its currency is subdivided, from a wonderfully historical method based on 20 shillings and 12 pence, to a decimal approach where 100p = £1. Because of the all-pervading nature of money, and the changes implied to equipment and automated systems, this change had to be made all at once. Of course there were howls of protest at the time --- but would anyone seriously now argue for going back to shillings and pence?

At about the same time Britain started to introduce the Metric system for some weights and measures. This was deliberately a gradualist programme, with minimal enforcement. Metrication can hardly be held up as a good example of planned change but it has still been reasonably effective. Another decade or so should see the switch all but complete. One problem with metrication has been the often lukewarm commitment of the government to it, for example by refusing to change road signs to show kilometres. This can teach us a valuable lesson, as you will see later.

Whilst change to our spelling system would be of a different nature to these two examples, I believe decimalisation of currency and metrication of our weights and measures proved that an organised or orchestrated evolution of a fundamental social system can be arranged. Most of our European neighbours are incredulous that we have never grasped the nettle of adjusting our language in a planned way, while they do it almost routinely.

The scale of change.

Assuming you accept the need to change our spelling, the next question to be considered is: how much change should there be?

Because TO is so out of step with today's spoken English, to switch to an orthography that is logical and consistent implies a radical change. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of alternative spelling schemes devised for English over the last few hundred years aiming at complete regularity. My booklet Spelling Reform in Context lists many of them, and identifies the several different theories behind them. Whatever their nature, if they aim at complete regularity then the difference compared to TO is startling at first glance. The New Spelling system published by the Simplified Spelling Society is an example based on the consistent use of the existing letters, and is based on moderately strict phonological principles. It never fails to surprise people on first acquaintance.

Other workers have favoured partial reform, or step-wise progress towards a "complete" adjustment, Generally such projects are not so startling to those unfamiliar with them. Cut Spelling, also published by the Society, can be considered as this kind of proposal and is based mainly on principles of cutting redundancy in the use of letters.

Still other proposals are even less radical, targeting only some of the "worst-offenders" in TO or lesser irregularities.

For example, an Australian suggestion called SRI only recommends representing the short /e/ sound with e, as in helth, eny. Another proposal from within the Simplified Spelling Society (Stage 1/2) suggested tackling five main problem areas with TO. An interesting proposal called Regularized English suggested rigorous application of the symbol-sound rules already present in TO.

Clearly there is a spectrum of possibilities on the scale of change proposed: from minor rectification of TO, through partial adjustment, to "total" reform. An organised programme of spelling change would have to make a decision where it wanted to start on this range of options.

In fact this is one of several ranges on which a decision would have to be made, and the decisions interact --- they can only be made together. We will return to this question when we have seen the other ranges.

The method of change: recommendation or enforcement?

The method of change to be adopted also needs to be selected from a range of possibilities. The spectrum in this case, starting at the "softest" end, is something like this:
There is clearly scope for several of these options to be used in combination. Most countries that periodically adapt their spelling are towards the soft end of this scale, by the way, perhaps getting as far as making the changes mandatory in schools in some cases.

The stance of an English spelling adjustment on the issue of enforcement would be crucial to its acceptability, and thus it is a difficult decision.

The kind of target orthography to be adopted.

More decisions needed here, this time to be taken on a "technical" basis.

As the primary purpose of a change of spelling would be to make literacy and language teaching easier, we need to decide on the target spelling system based on its utility for teaching and learning. There are three broad approaches that alternative spelling proposals have taken to date:
A good deal of practical research in schools has been done with high-phonetic-match writing systems --- with near universally beneficial results, by the way --- but very little with less radical spelling proposals of the other kinds. There is some kind of trade-off to be made in this decision between utility for teaching and acceptability to the already-literate. Much more practical research needs to be done.

Precisely which target system should be adopted?

Once the kind of target orthography is decided upon, then comes the final decision on its precise form. As Spelling Reform in Context points out, there are a variety of approaches that can be adopted for each of the several main classes of revised orthographies for English.
Sales of UK Book Publishers (1990).

Sales of UK Book Publishers (1990)
Sources: Overseas Trade Statistics;
Jordans; Keynote.

The international dimension.

It would be arrogant to believe that any one English-speaking country could implement a change in spelling alone -- and then have the other countries using English follow it. Depending on how radical a change was planned, this may not matter. For example, the only successful spelling reform in English was that implemented in the United States in 1906. This introduced the now-familiar American spellings such as center, labor, fetus, etc. and was a unilateral action by the USA. Few other English-speaking countries except those heavily beholden to the USA have adopted these spellings, though, to be honest, they have the character of tinkering with the problems of TO rather than significantly improving on it. But this does not matter because the spelling differences between American and British English inconvenience almost no-one.

English is important to about one billion people in the world today. It is spoken by about 350 million people in roughly 30 countries as a native language. Another 50 or so countries and territories use English in some official capacity, adding perhaps another 300 million to the number who are competent in it. Then we have the large group of people who have learned or are learning English as a foreign language.

They are thought to number in excess of another 350 million, although statistics are hard to find. English is today a lingua franca for international communication --- for diplomacy, cultural exchange (popular music as well as Shakespeare), travel and transportation, commerce and trade, and many other purposes. It is by far the most popular language to study for those with a different mother language.

The key point to remember from all these facts is: there are more people using English as a second or foreign language than native speakers. We cannot ignore them. And a significant part of Britain's exports are dependent directly or indirectly on our ability to work with our trading partners in English. In some cases, such as publishing, it depends on being able to sell them the same products we produce for home consumption.

All this militates against too radical a spelling change --- as a first step anyway --- and implies that we must co-ordinate carefully with our overseas friends. If they are not consulted, they surely will not follow us, or buy our books.

So far our discussion has concentrated on the general questions to be answered and the decisions to be made about spelling development. In the rest of this article, I get off the fence and present my personal views on specifically what should be done.

Is radical change possible?

Let us consider the feasibility of a radical spelling change, say to a system such as New Spelling. Enforcement of such a change on a large part of the population will never happen. The decision to enforce would ultimately be made by politicians, and no politician would ever risk such an obviously unpopular move, however strong the rational case for it.

Forcing people into social change, especially one benefiting a mostly unenfranchised minority, is just not a course of action in keeping with the times. Persuasion, and development of a broad consensus favouring change --- or at least not too worried by it --- must be the approach.

Consensus in a practical sense means convincing a large number of people, in several countries, most of whom would receive no direct benefit from the change. Many of them would also worry about being in some way disadvantaged by a change. I believe all this works against the idea of a radical orthographic reform --- it is just unfeasible to persuade enough people to go along with the idea.

A suggested programme.

I believe the following suggestions for a programme to modernise English spelling to be feasible, enormously beneficial and practical:

(1) An impartial body, operating with the full support of the government, should decide on an eventual target orthography for English, or, at the very least, the type of preferred eventual spelling system. It is assumed that the target system would still be readable by those literate in TO, although they may need practice to regain reading speed.

(2) The same body could then recommend a modest initial step towards the target, or perhaps a series of steps. This "first stage" would present no difficulty in being read by people already literate in TO, although they may not be able (or willing) to write it.

(3) The first-stage recommendations would be widely publicised by the government, and perhaps specified for some official publishing purposes. There would be a continuing programme of promotion, encouragement and support for the groups most affected.

(4) Schools would immediately be authorised (but not forced) to use the target orthography, or an interim one close to it, for initial literacy teaching. There should be some positive discrimination in favour of schools adopting it.

(5) Publishers would be encouraged to bring out specialist material in the target spelling, for example magazines and books aimed at children in the early stages of literacy learning, and publications for the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL) market, simple dictionaries, etc. Demand for such material would be limited and specialised in the early years.

(6) The use of the target system would be encouraged for EFL teaching, although this would naturally happen by action of market forces.

(7) At some later time (as late as 10 years after the change) legislation may be necessary to prohibit discrimination, for example in hiring staff, against those not using TO.

(8) This programme should be carried out in Britain but within a consultative framework with the other English-speaking countries.

(9) This first stage of change should continue for a period of at least 20 years, with both TO and the first stage towards the eventual target being used in parallel.

(10) At that time, a second step towards the eventual target should be authorised and implemented by a similar process. Or maybe public opinion, familiar with the target system in teaching use for many years, would permit a direct move to it.

(11) Once transition has been made to a rational spelling system, it needs to be updated on a regular basis, say roughly once per generation. The same mechanisms put in place for the "big transition" can continue in guiding the further evolution of the orthography.

 The six pillars of the suggested approach are therefore:
persuasion and recommendation;
unwavering public-sector support;
international co-ordination, but not at the expense of side-tracking the task;
allowing time and demographic change to do much of the work;
allowing market forces to do the rest;
remembering to allow for periodic updates.

The first 20 years.

During the 20 years or so of the first stage of this process, three spelling systems would be in use -- TO, the first-stage revised orthography and the full revised system. These would have different uses within different groups of society, although many people would no doubt become familiar with all three over the years. The composition and size of the groups using each spelling would change over time, as the children grow up and the older people cease to be so active in society.

For example, about 10-12 years after the change-over the first children taught by the new spelling start to become economically active, although they may have been spending their pocket-money on materials in revised spelling for some years. At that time they then become a serious target market for newspaper and other publishers. Magazines and sections of newspapers would begin to appear in revised spelling, because a demand would exist. These new adults would also begin to want "proper" dictionaries in the revised spelling at this time, thus stimulating publishers to produce them if they had not already done so.

Political challenges.

Two essential prerequisites for this programme to be successful are
(1) international consultation and general accord with its aims, if not with its specifics, and
(2) continuing support from the British government and public bodies.

International concurrence with the programme would ensure that it is observed by cautious nations, emulated in some braver ones, and directly copied in others who see the same belief it for themselves. The whole exercise could be regarded as a long term, joint enterprise of the English-speaking nations, to the mutual benefit of all.

Detailed agreements between many countries are notoriously difficult to achieve, so it is almost certainly not worth holding back to wait for them. I assume that it does not matter particularly if slightly different target systems are adopted in different countries. Provided none has too radical a first step, they are all likely to be mutually readable, and thus cause no-one any real hardship, like the present differences between British and American spelling. There is no evidence that having a few more orthographies for English would seriously hamper international publishing, although I believe the economics of publishing would be a powerful brake on more being developed.

The real political challenge is to mount a very long term programme such as this in a democracy, where government tends to have its eye on closer horizons. As the fits-and-starts, often half-hearted introduction of the metric system to Britain has demonstrated, public sector support needs to be positive, continuing and coordinated if the programme is not to flounder. An even more pertinent example was the use of the Initial Teaching Alphabet in British schools. Though generally judged a success at the level of individual child and school, it represents a classic case of a good idea being killed by lack of continuing support from government and other public bodies.

One way of organising it all.

Proposed organisation.

To conclude, let us look at the question of the specific Organisation needed to generate and co-ordinate the suggested programme. The suggestions here are very much one way to do it. Others will certainly want to propose alternative approaches.

Starting from the top, so to speak, there should be a World English Summit every five years or so, bringing together the Heads of Government of all countries where English has official status. Together with their international experts and advisers, this meeting would set broad goals for co-operation on a range of language issues, one of which would be the orthography.

Reporting to the Summit, and thus meeting with it, would be an Advisory Council for the English Language. This would meet, in addition, say every two years. Its composition would be the national ministers with responsibility for language affairs and representatives of the main interest groups: publishers, media, academics, educationists and other specialists. Its objective would be to put more flesh on the pronouncements of the Summit in setting targets for national governments.

Now we come to the level of the individual country. I propose that there should be a Minister for English Language Affairs. A logical home would be within the Department of the National Heritage, rather than in Education or some other ministry. The two main roles of the Minister would be:
The English Advisory Council, chaired by the Minister, would mirror its international equivalent at national level. It would include representatives from publishing, the media, relevant academics, spelling experts, the teaching profession, educational psychologists and curriculum designers/authorities, etc.

EAC would be charged with designing, then coordinating, the programme outlined earlier. It would thus have various working groups concerned with orthography design and testing, implementation in schools, publishing and the public sector, etc.


This article has reviewed many of the theoretical and practical questions about updating our orthography --- a suggestion first strongly made over 400 years ago! Many of the issues demand further study, and in some cases practical research. Aspects of the specific programme suggested for a reform, and the organisations postulated as necessary to define and implement it, all need much further thought. As presented here, they are definitely not complete and fully-formed.

The purpose of the Simplified Spelling Society is to encourage thought, study, research and debate on these issues. The author would be pleased to hear anyone's views, particularly from those willing to do some work! A reasonable presumption, if you have read this far, is that you are a member of the 60-odd percent group of the population that has no significant literacy problems or limitations. Why don't we work together to help the other 30-odd percent?


What might an improved spelling look like?

Well, straet in at the deep end!

Menshond abuv wos the revyzed orthografi kauld Nue Speling (NS), wich wos sed to be "moderatli strikt" in uezing egzisting leters, combined with the so-kauld dygrafik prinsipl, to repreezent the sounds of the langwej. Inishali developt by the Sosyeti in 1910, the sistem is shoen in this paragraf in its moest reesent vershun as publisht in New Spelling 90 (SSS 1991).

Dhis paragraf and dhe nekst uez dhe preevyus vurshon ov NS, publisht in 1948. Dhis vurshon iz much strikter in traking dhe soundz ov dhe langgwej, and its ues ov "dh" for dhe voist "th" (az in "then" in tradishonal speling) iz a noetabl feetuer.

U wil aulsoe hav noetist bei nou dhat NS results in a hie degree ov chaenj in dhe look ov wurdz, wich moest peepl fiend disturbing --- or eeven repugnant --- on furst akwaentans.

By way of contrast, we hav now swichd to Cut Spelng (CS, SSS 1992), a wel-thot-out exampl of a posibl partial revision. It is based mainly on th principl of cutng redundnt --- and thus usuly misleadng ---leters, plus limitd letr substitutions. Th resultng chanje in th apearance of words is not nearly so intrusiv as with NS.

Wethr or not CS or NS as demonstrated here ar found acceptbl, som action is seriusly needd to make english esir to use.

Defining & measuring literacy.

The term "literacy" is actually not particularly useful. You can only unequivocally class as "illiterate" those who cannot read a single word, so everyone else is then "literate" --- but with wide variation in skill levels.

Literacy is a form of social behaviour so modern studies have preferred the more useful concept of functional literacy, that is, the contextual measure of literacy needed to function in society. Some definitions from various sources follow:
Most third-world countries collect literacy statistics, partly as a precondition for securing aid funds to assist with education programmes. Perhaps because results could be politically embarrassing, or lead to calls for increased expenditure, most developed economies do not directly measure functional literacy levels. Only three --- the USA, Canada and France --- have done so. The exercise has shown up a larger-than-expected number of people with definite literacy problems, but also a large group in the population who have adequate but still poor literacy skills --- enough skills for current purposes but probably not enough in many cases to develop careers, or accept retraining for more complex work.

There are no population-wide direct studies for Britain. The results from Canada are recent and the most detailed, so let us attempt to use them on British basic data, at least to get a feeling for the possible size of the problem groups. This exercise has some validity, and may even be optimistic given that a much larger proportion of the Canadian workforce has received tertiary education, 33% against 13% in the UK.

% of total
 Level of Functional Literacy. ... or, in brief Cautious estimate for UK using Canadian proportions
('000 people)

51. Have difficulty dealing with printed materials. Probably class themselves as unable to read.Illiterate or 1,410
102.Can use printed materials for limited purposes, such as finding a familiar word in a simple text. Recognise themselves as having reading difficulties. reading problems2,820
3. Can use reading materials in a variety of situations providing the material is simple, clearly laid out and the tasks involved are not too complicated. Do not think of themselves as having difficulties but tend to avoid situations requiring reading. Limited
634. Can meet most everyday reading demands. A large and diverse group exhibiting a wide range of reading skills. Normal

100  UK data:1988 28,199
Source: Centre for Educational Research & Innovation: Adult Illiteracy and Economic Performance Paris: OECD 1992.

Where is English used?

Countries where 50% or more speak some variety of English as mother tongue
American Samoa
British Virgin Is.
Cayman Is.
Christmas Is.
Cocos Is.
Falkland Is.
Pop. (-000)
Marshall Is.
New Zealand
Puerto Rico
St. Kitts-Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent
Turks & Caicos
United Kingdom
United States
US Virgin Is.
Pop. (-000)

Countries where English has some official status
Chago Archipelago
Cook Is.
Hong Kong
Pop. (-000)
Norfolk Is.
North Marianas
Papua New Guinea
Sierra Leone
Solomon Is.
South Africa
Sri Lanka
Western Samoa
Pop. (-000)

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