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What are the main objectives of the English Spelling Society at the present moment?

The aims of the English Spelling Society are:

  • To raise awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling
  • To promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform

At the present moment the English Spelling Society, while raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling, is promoting a conference to persuade people and Governments of the economic and social costs of Traditional Spelling (TS) rather than to advocate specific solutions (Countries where English is the maternal tongue of the majority have a proven disadvantage compared with countries where less irregular spelling systems are used“ up to three years of extra learning is required on average.)

If one achieves an environment in which the desirability of reform becomes better understood, then it will be easier to discuss possible solutions.

If the English Spelling Society does not promote specific alternatives to TS, does it have a view on the kind of principles that any reformed system(s) should follow?

The English Spelling Society considers that the fundamental justification for any reform of TS is that it will improve literacy and cut learning costs in English among children and adults, thereby opening education to all disciplines. So the basic requirement for any new system must be that it is faster and easier to learn than TS. Moreover, in addition to being easier for children and foreign students to learn, it must not place unnecessary obstacles in the way of those already familiar with TS. Reconciling these two objectives requires compromise and imagination, but the spelling of the written language should as far as possible conform to its pronunciation.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to the various alternative spelling systems that have been produced over the years? Is it promoting any specific scheme?

The English Spelling Society does not currently advocate specific solutions. However, it does provide a forum in which the authors of alternatives to TS can expose their work to peer review. Numerous alternative ways of spelling English have been devised over the years. They run anywhere from respelling a few words to a 100% phonemic dictionary key type spelling. Others fall somewhere between the two positions.

Does the English Spelling Society consider that any reform of TS must be undertaken by Government(s) or does it see reform as a bottom up and evolutionary process – down to individuals and private initiative?

We think that there is a role for governments, NGOs, educationalists, lexicographers, businesses, publishers and the general public. Our message is addressed to all of them. No Government initiative for spelling reform is likely to bear fruit unless there is a more receptive audience among the general public of those who speak English as their maternal tongue. Conversely, Government action can accelerate and bring to fruition the aspirations of a public that has begun to see the advantages of a more regular spelling system.

Should there be an International Commission to pave the way for reform of English Spelling?

At some stage there may be a role for such a commission, perhaps charged with assessing the usefulness and acceptability of various spelling solutions and identifying a preferred option. (The American Law Institute might provide a suitable model.) However, for the work of such a commission to have any chance of success, there would have to be a more open minded attitude to reform among English speakers – as well as among Governments. It is this more flexible attitude that the English Spelling Society is currently seeking to promote.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to the argument that regional differences in pronunciation (British, American, Australian etc) make it impossible to develop a common alternative system, or even an agreed list of relatively minor changes of general application?

Although there are differences of pronunciation throughout the ESW, English in broad terms is still mutually intelligible wherever it is the maternal language of the majority. The danger of promoting radically variant spelling systems for different regions is that this might reinforce differences in accent, vocabulary and grammar, and thus hasten the divergence of regional dialects into separate languages that were mutually unintelligible. The history of language is full of such divergences born of geographical distance and separate development - we would not wish to see English go down that route.

So essentially we would tend to favour one reformed spelling system for all English speakers, while not unduly delaying reform in the UK. Differences of pronunciation are a factor to be taken into account in considering alternatives to TS. We do not see them as an insuperable obstacle to reform, any more than differences of pronunciation require different spelling systems for the regional versions of Spanish or German (whose written forms are much more regular and phonemic than English). One written formula can be pronounced differently in different countries or regions.

Texting: Are we for it, against it, or neutral?

Texting, which has become so popular throughout the world due to the development of mobile phones, is essentially a form of shorthand, or telegraphese and one which does not follow particularly consistent conventions. So on both counts we do not see it as a potential replacement for TS per se. However, it can be argued that some of the devices used in popular texting (eg the reduction in the number of unnecessary consonants) reflect consumer impatience with the irregularities of TS and at the same time an openness to experiment and change.

Are we in favour of freedom to spell as we wish (Free Spelling)?

We wish to encourage a move to more regular spelling conventions rather than allow a free for all, which would probably lead to no overall improvement of literacy and might even impede written communication throughout the ESW. So the short answer is that we do not favour totally free spelling. At the same time it is important to remember that English spelling is continuously evolving. We hope that educational and other authorities will not penalise English speakers who wish to simplify irregular and unnecessarily complicated spellings. Bottom up reform of English spelling should not be resisted, provided it makes for greater regularity and improved literacy.

What is the attitude of the English Spelling Society to teaching methods aimed at improving spelling (eg i.t.a, look-see, phonics, synthetic phonics). Don’t these remove the need for spelling reform?

Various teaching methods have been invented over the years in an attempt to reduce the problems faced by those learning to read and write English, on account of its irregular spelling structure. Such methods appear to be peculiar to English. Other major languages do not need them because their spelling is far more regular. There is little evidence that any of these methods has so far achieved a major breakthrough on a national scale in any country of the ESW, although there have been some local successes (often assisted by additional teaching resources). We appreciate that teachers want to find better ways of helping children cope with the learning difficulties which are caused by English spelling irregularities. But our concern is that the never-ending advocacy of new teaching methods for reducing literacy problems detracts from the fact that spelling reform is the only certain means of making a substantial reduction in the persistently high rates of literacy failure in all English-speaking countries. They stop people paying attention to what is really needed.

Does the English Spelling Society see a role for more consumer research with regard to spelling reform?

We accept that there is always a need for research when advocating change. No doubt if it were decided to promote a particular alternative solution (perhaps through an international commission) it would be desirable to carry out prior research to assess (i) its acceptability to those familiar with TS (ii) its ease of learning for those who have not yet learned to spell English (eg children and those learning English as a second language), and (iii) its overall impact on literacy.

There is in fact already plenty of research evidence showing that learning to read and write English would be much easier and less time-consuming if its spelling were more consistent, but people are either not aware of it or choose to ignore it.

What is the Society’s view of the differences in British and American spellings?

Noah Webster’s reforms only went so far - he would have liked to promote additional changes, but his further proposals were not implemented. Those reforms that were adopted in the USA did not do a great deal to simplify TS and consequently have not had much effect on literacy in the USA or other countries that use the system. the English Spelling Society would not oppose adoption of American spelling in the UK, Australia or other English speaking countries, but would hope that such a development might be accompanied by a programme of further spelling reforms aimed at improving literacy.

Did You Know:

• Ask your friend what Y-E-S spells. They won't have any difficulty saying yes. Then ask what E-Y-E-S spells. It's easy when it's written down, but surprisingly difficult when it's spoken. See a YouTube video of this.

• Who has not heard i before e, except after c. A University of Warwick statistician put it to the test. He plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out. It didn't.

• When Adam met Eve for the first time, he said Madam, I'm Adam. This is a palindrome — a phrase or sentence in which the letters, words or even lines read the same in either direction. Adam hoped to impress the most beautiful woman in the world, but she more than matched him by replying simply, Eve. Not bad given that writing, and therefore palindromes, and English ones in particular, had not yet been invented! More palindromes, and a wonderful palindromic poem.

• How would you pronounce ghoti? Pronounce it like this:

and you get ... fish! Thanks to Charles Ollier for writing this in 1855 — and for showing that English spelling has been ludicrous for quite some time.

• One of the arguments in favour of keeping English spelling unchanged is to show the etymology of words. For example, the silent s in island shows the link to the Latin insula. But island actually derives from the Old English íglund, not from the Latin at all. More examples at Mental Floss.


Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.

​Spelling reform is not a new idea!

Benjamin Franklin "The same is to be observed in all the letters, vowels, and consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever company, their sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous letters used in spelling, i.e. no letter that is not sounded [...]"  Franklin proposed a spelling scheme with 6 new letters. (Franklin 1806 p359)

Theodore Roosevelt "It is merely an attempt [...] to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic." Theodore Roosevelt promoted the Simplified Spelling Board's gradual reform (see Twain below). (Roosevelt 1906, p3)

Mark Twain "It is my belief that an effort at a slow and gradual change is not worth while. [...] It is the sudden changes [...] that have the best chance of winning in our day. Can we expect a sudden change in our spelling? I think not. But I wish I could see it tried. [...] By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed and the substitute spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog." (Twain 1997, pp208-212)

Page editor: N Paterson. Contact by email or form.