SS8. 8pp. On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 4 (Supplement).
[Allan Campbell: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Spell 4 Literacy NZ.]

simpl speling March 1999 part 3.

[Jean Wilkinson: see Newsletters .]

Jean Wilkinson, USA, writes:

'Daddy, how do you spell air?'

'Well, that depends on what word it's in. If it's in chair, you're okay. But if it's in bear or care or where you're going to have a problem. If it's in their, there, or they're, you may be in for big trouble. And if it starts with p, you're in another homonym triple trap, with pear, pair, and pare.'

Why are we doing this to our kids?

With the homonyms, some people feel we need the different spellings to know which meaning we're writing about. But when we're talking, all homonyms sound the same. And 99.9% of the time, we know which one the speaker has in mind.

There are those who feel we must be loyal to meanings in common. We can't write thay (as children do) to match say, day, way, may. They must match their and them, because the meanings are related. But go and went are related, and so are be, am, is, are, were, and been. Language doesn't draw boundaries around related words.

Many people feel we must be loyal to historical roots. We must keep the silent g in sign to show it's related historically to signal and signature. But the three words are moving farther and farther apart in meaning. Which is more important: To know historical relationships or to be able to spell sign?

Children expect their language to make sense. When it tricks them, thay blame themselves for being dumb. Thay may rebel. Or thay may die inside. Thus the illiterate population expands and, with it, delinquency/crime and the drug population.

We don't have to do this to them. We can make it easier.

We need - thay need - a more practical system of spelling.

Can we work together, with capable leadership, to nail that system down?

Can we pin down the number of phonemes in English?

In her letter to The Express, Masha Bell said: 'We have 256 ways of representing the 45 basic sounds of our language'. According to Jean Hutchins, Diane McGuinness (1998) gives the figure for American English as 42. In Allan Campbell's letter to The Press (Christchurch, NZ), he said, 'There are 41 sounds in English and almost 600 ways of spelling them'. In PV7, Steve Bett said, 'There are 41 significant speech sounds or phonemes. In the traditional English writing system they are spelled over 500 ways'. Godfrey Dewey (1971) listed examples of 561 ways that 41 English sounds could be spelled. Allan asked, 'Is there any way to pin down these statistics so there is some consistency in our public claims?'

Steve Bett, USA, reports.

The quick answer is probably not. While we can be specific about the minimum number of pure (uncombined) phonemes required to fully describe English speech - 34 - it is nearly impossible to reach agreement on the number of phonemes when combinations are included. The key reasons for this are:

(1) There is no obligation for a particular orthography to list any combination or blend.

(2) An orthography that listed every combination or blend used in a transcription as a separate phoneme would have over 60 phonemes.

A phoneme is a range of sounds that are treated as equivalent by a speech community. The phoneme inventory for English was charted over 100 years ago by Pitman, Ellis, Jones and Sweet. They were all searching for the minimum number of phonemes required to graphically represent educated southern English speech, sometimes referred to as BBC English or R.P. While they agreed on 34 pure phonemes, the number with combinations, varied from 40 to 50.

The Longman Dictionary for American English recognizes 45 phonemes (21v, 24c). Longman recognizes schwa but merges a: and o. Longman does not single out the combinations hw and yu:. If the r-combinations are eliminated, the number of significant phonemes in the Longman inventory drops to 40.

The first two columns in the chart list the 12 pure vowels (6 chekt, 6 free). Chekt vowels are always short and always followed by a consonant. Descriptive orthographies include all 12 pure vowels. Pragmatic notational systems, such as Unigraf, may merge similar sounding phonemes such as the central vowels u = a' and u' or the back vowels q = o and a:.

Almost everyone agrees that the consonant combinations tsh [ch] and dzh [j] and the diphthongs ei, ai, ou, au, and oi are essential. These seven combinations added to 34 yields 41 essential phonemes.

25 vowel phonemes for English.
Sweet and Jones add four schwa combinations, increasing the number of phonemes in their inventory of 45. In their transcriptions Jones and Sweet used more than the 45 phonemes. Their list did not include combinations with consonants ju or triphthongs ai@ and au@. Chekt Spelling adds iu and three more schwa combinations, resulting in 50 essential phonemes.

The minimum number of pure phonemes required to accurately transcribe English speech is 34 (12 vowels + 22 consonants). Pragmatic orthographers have frequently chosen to merge a:/o, u/schwa, and th/dh, reducing the number of phonemes by three. Truespel and Globish also ignore ng. Eliminating any pure vowel tends to distort the description of RP and most other variants of English. However, a carefully pruned 30 pure phoneme version of English would still be intelligible.

A complete broad representation of spoken English requires 34 pure phonemes. The minimum number of essential phonemes (not counting r-combinations) in a descriptive orthography is 41.

[Steve Bett: see Journals, Newsletters, Personal View, Web links.]
[Web addresses have been omitted as they are unlikely to be valid now. Search engines may find the people or topics.]

Spelling on the net with Steve Bett, USA.

Henry Higgins' spelling ideas.

Henry Sweet, a frend of George Bernard Shaw and reputed model for Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, had some first class thoughts on how to reform English spelling. His proposal, developed before 1900, was similar to Jones' IPA notation.

The Perl Script on-line orthographic converter can be found online. U can cut and paste whole books of text into it on-line and get a reformed version in any of three proposed systems: cut spelling ALC phonetic, and Truespel.

Mark Twain wrote several essays and gave several speeches on the topic of simplified spelling.

References and notes for my article, Can we pin down the number of phonemes? can be found [on my web]. These include the results of Godfrey Dewey's analysis of the various ways that 41 basic English speech sounds are spelled in (1) an abridged dictionary and (2) in 100.000 words of actual writing. The information in this html document is drawn from Dewey's two books English Spelling (1971) and Relative Frequency of English Spellings (1970). See the bibliography on spelling. If you divide 461 spellings by 41 phonemes, it yields an average of 13.7 different spellings per phoneme. The last note references a page that shows how to map New Spelling, Fonetic, Broad Romic, Globish and other reform orthographies onto the 21 vowel (46 phonemes) IPA inventory of speech sounds.

For information on Society member John Reilly's Restored English Proposal visit his website.

If your surfing uncovers any other interesting sites, please let me know for mention in later issues of Simpl Speling.

Society seeking a second website.

At the January committee meeting Masha Bell was asked to continue to liaise with Bernard Sypniewski about a possible second SSS website, and to find out where this might be hosted. If the new site adopted a different style of presentation it would contrast with the Aston one.

Masha's idea of using the site mainly for presenting the problems of English spelling was seen as a good one. She felt that, after lengthy consultations with Bernard and several other members, she had a clearer idea how to present the difficulties of English spelling via a website, but that it would take her several months to put the material together.

There was a case for continuing with the Aston site in its present academic format, but its home page could perhaps be made more attractive.

Nick Kerr had constructed two alternatives about a year ago.

Opportunities missed with newsgroups.

David Barnsdale.

I have been puzzled why we have heated discussion on the emailing list yet I never see any of the other members of the group on an english.spelling.reform newsgroup.

Indeed several people have asked me questions which make me wonder if many of them have used newsgroups at all.

News groups are really just a sophisticated mailing list except that the articles are stored on your provider's disks, not your own. Subscribing to a newsgroup is far easier than subscribing to a mailing list. U use completely different software to read the groups so U don't get your mail box filled up with emails as U do with mailing lists.

A mailing list tends to be for the converted and the enthusiast. A newsgroup often have people wandering in who are just mildly curious about the subject. Hence they give excellent opportunities to try and convince people who would not otherwise meet the arguments for reform.

And on newsgroups that have no relevance to spelling reform U can do your bit for the cause by simply using a reformed spelling for your posting.

If U don't know how to use newsgroups ask your provider. Sometimes the groups are called Usenet but strictly speaking not all of them have that status.


On a TV show ex-vice president Dan Quayle, of potatoe fame, was interviewed on his plans to seek the Republican presidential nomination. 'How can U shake this image that U had during your vice-presidency as sort of a bumbling vice president who couldn't spell?' he was asked.

'I'll tell U what,' he replied. 'I'll let all the perfect spellers support Al Gore and those who have trouble spelling should support me.'

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On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 4 (Supplement).