English spelling reform
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English spelling reform is the collective term
for various campaigns and efforts to change the spelling
of the English
language to make it simpler and more rationally consistent.
There exists a small-scale movement among amateur and
professional linguists, but one with a long history and
some mixed successes.
Supporters assert that the many inconsistencies and irregularities
of English spelling lead to severe difficulties for learners.
They believe this leads to a lower level of literacy among
English speakers compared with speakers of languages having
a spelling system that more faithfully conforms to how
the language is spoken, and have, since at least the time
Bernard Shaw, pointed out costs to business and other
users in retaining traditional spelling, which can be
worked out by the casual observer as cumulatively massive.
English does in fact have a very poor phonemic
orthography, or correspondence between how the words
are written and how they are spoken. This is due in part
to changes in commonly accepted dialects of English from
There is opposition to spelling reform from traditionalists
who feel that something is to be lost from simplifying
the spelling of English — this can range from numinous
world' sensibilities to feared concrete financial
losses by opposing vested
interests (notably printers, and purveyors of rival
solutions or palliative measures such as shorthand
literacy and synthetic
Arguments for reform
Advocates of spelling reform make these basic arguments:
- Pronunciations change gradually over time and the
principle that lies behind English (and every other
alphabetically written language) gradually becomes corrupted.
Spelling then needs to adapt to account for the changes.
- Unlike many other languages, English spelling has
never been systematically updated and, as a result,
today only partly observes the alphabetic principle.
The non-regular nature of English spelling has created
a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.
The spellings through, though, thought, enough, cough,
daughter, and laughter could be seen as barriers
to reading comprehension, and common misspellings of
accommodate, conscientious, occurrence, opponent,
existence and personnel could be seen as
barriers to writing mastery. See also Ough
- Some words in English have different pronunciations
according to context, such as bow, desert,
live, read, second, wind
and wound. Ambiguous words like these make it
necessary to learn the correct context in which to use
the different pronunciations and thus increase the difficulty
of learning to read English.
- A new system that creates a closer relationship between
and spellings would eliminate most exceptions and ambiguities
and make the language easier to master for children
and non-native speakers without putting undue burden
on mature native speakers.
- Many exceptions in English spelling are the result
of misguided attempts by scholars to "correct" older
spelling by adding silent letters to reflect the word's
Latin or Greek origin, or create a false correlation
with those. The word island is not related to
isle, for example, and was once spelled iland
(compare with the corresponding Dutch
word eiland). Similarly, doubt and debt
have never been said with a /b/ sound.
- Spellings change, regardless of conscious public resistance,
just slowly and not in any organized way.
- Almost all reforms would reduce the number of letters
per word on average, thus saving time, money, paper,
ink, and effort.
- Leaving some unstressed vowels unchanged would allow
to link back to the original spelling or the foreign
language it came from, e.g. focus, robot,
A number of respected and influential people have been
supporters of spelling reform.
12th century Augustine canon who distinguished short
vowels from long by doubling the succeeding consonants,
or when not feasible, by marking the short vowels with
a superimposed breve
Charles Butler, British naturalist and author of
the first natural history of bees: 'Đe Feminin`
Monarķi`,' 1634. He proposed that 'men should write
altogeđer according to de sound now generally received,'
and espoused a system in which the h in digraphs was
replaced with bars.
Johnson, poet, wit, essayist, biographer, critic
and eccentric, broadly credited with the standardisation
of English spelling into its current form in his Dictionary
of the English Language (1755).
Webster, author of the first important American
dictionary, believed that Americans should adopt simpler
spellings where available and recommended it in his
Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.
Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used system
known now as Pitman
Shorthand, first proposed in Stenographic Soundhand
- U.S. President Theodore
Roosevelt commissioned a committee, the Columbia
Spelling Board, to research and recommend simpler
spellings and tried to require the U.S. government to
however, his approach, to assume popular support by
rather than to garner it, was a likely factor in the
limited progress of the time.
Wells, science fiction writer and one-time Vice
President of the London-based Simplified
Carnegie, celebrated philanthropist, donated to
spelling reform societies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jones, phonetician. Professor of Phonetics at University
Bernard Shaw, a playwright,
willed part of his estate to fund the creation of a
new alphabet now called the "Shavian
Dewey, inventor of the Dewey
Decimal System, wrote published works in simplified
spellings and even simplified his own name from Melville
Pitman, a publisher and Conservative
of Parliament, invented the Initial
Mont Follick, Labour
of Parliament and linguist
who assisted Pitman in drawing the English spelling
reform issue to the attention of Parliament.
Favoured replacing w and y with u and i.
Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, one-time Patron of the
Spelling Society. Stated that spelling reform should
start outside of the UK, and that the lack of progress
originates in the discord amongst reformers (although
his abandonment of the cause was coincident with literacy
being no longer an issue for his own children).
R. McCormick (1880-1955), publisher of the Chicago
Tribune, employed reformed spelling in his newspaper.
The Tribune used simplified versions of some
words, such as "altho" for "although".
Rondthaler, chairman of the American Literacy Council.
Deans, the creator of bRitic.
There are a number of barriers in the the implementation
of new spelling systems:
- English vocabulary is largely a melding of ancient
Latin, Greek, French and Germanic terms, which have
very different phonemes and approaches to spelling.
Reforms tend to favour one approach over the other,
resulting in a large percentage of words that must change
spelling to fit the new scheme.
- The unusually large number of vowel sounds in English
and the small number of vowel letters make phonemic
spelling very difficult to achieve without resorting
to unusual letter combinations, diacritic
marks or the introduction of new letters.
- Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently
strong, at least since the early 19th century, when
spelling was finally codified by the influential English
Johnson (1755) and Noah
- The sheer number of varieties of pronunciation depending
on locality makes it difficult to agree upon spellings
which take into account most dialects; furthermore,
some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation,
regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either).
- English contains numerous non-homographic homophones,
far more than non-homophonic homographs. Thus spelling
reform would introduce more ambiguity than it would
- Some very closely related words would be spelt less
similarly than they are at present, such as electric,
electricity and electrician, or (with
full vowel reform) photo, photograph and
- Some inflections are pronounced differently in different
words. For example, plural -s and possessive
-'s are both pronounced differently in each of
cat(')s (/s/), dog(')s (/z/) and horse(')s
- Spelling reform would make classical literature harder
to understand and read correctly in its original form.
- Spelling reform would reduce the flexibility of puns
and plays on words in all English literature but will
create new opportunities based on the new spelling.
- Spelling reform would make it harder for native English
speakers to learn French and German (and to a lesser
extent other European languages), as many identical
or related spellings would be changed.
- Unlike most other major languages, the English language
lacks a worldwide regulatory
body with the power to promulgate changes to English
spelling. Examples of such bodies that regulate other
languages are the Nederlandse
and the Accademia
della Crusca (Italian).
The establishment of such a body may be necessary before
any efforts to reform English spelling can succeed.
The central criticism of spelling reform is that written
language is not a purely phonetic analogue of the spoken
form. Because English is a West
Germanic language that has borrowed vocabulary heavily
from distant and unrelated languages, the spelling of
a word often reflects its origin. This gives a clue as
to the meaning of the word by providing a historical marker
for the origin, useful for readers familiar with those
languages. For example, Latin- or Greek-based word parts
are often reducible to their meaning. Even if their pronunciation
has deviated from the original pronunciation, the written
form of the word is a record of the phoneme, so derived
words give clues to their own meaning, but respelling
them could break that relationship. The same is true for
words inherited from Germanic whose current spelling still
resembles its cognates in English's sister language Dutch
or German, which a phonetic spelling reform could break
in some cases; example En. laugh - Ge. lachen.
Also, spelling reforms generally do not take into account
the main variants, dialects and regional accents. For
example: The first syllable in the pronunciation of the
word simultaneously can rightfully be as the first
sound of psychic /sɑɪ/,
or as the first sound of cymbal, /sɪ/,
purports siemultaeniusly as the spelling, indicating
preference of the former.
Neither of these objections is necessarily final. In
the case of the historical roots of morphemes, if the
conversion is consistent, there is no impediment to recognition.
If, for example, the common suffix "-ology" were spelled
"oloji," there is no increase or decrease in difficulty.
In the case of variations among dialects, in many cases
the variations are consistent. If one dialect pronounced
"like" in a manner that approaches something that might
seem to others to sound more like "loik" (such as the
Australian dialect), that dialect is likely to pronounce
most if not all words that include the "long i" in the
A pragmatic spelling system might even include some flexibility
in pronunciation. For example, "short" vowels are usually
pronounced with the central schwa
sound when not stressed. It would serve us well to use
the original vowels, with the understanding that they
become schwas when not stressed. While that might leave
us with some spelling bee challenges, it would make learning
to read much easier and still leave flexibility for alternate
Some proposed spelling systems allow limited variation
in spelling for words with variant pronunciations. Before
the introduction of standard dictionaries, many words
had several variant spellings. Variant spellings still
exist in English spelling today, for example banjos/banjoes,
volcanos/volcanoes and zeros/zeroes.
Other words have variant spellings due to variant pronunciations,
such as dwarfs/dwarves and aluminium/aluminum.
Thus, a reformed spelling system that allowed some variant
spellings would not establish a precedent in English spelling.
Spelling reform campaigns
reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation,
but some attempt genuine phonetic
spelling, usually by changing an alphabet or introducing
an entirely new one:
Franklin's phonetic alphabet Augmented Latin alphabet.
alphabet Phonetic system with a non-Latin alphabet
developed for the Mormon church.
alphabet Non-Latin phonetic system created for George
Bernard Shaw's reform contest.
Regularization scheme offered by the American Literacy
Spelling Mostly drops superfluous letters and redundancies,
such as 'ph'.
- SR1 Step one of
a proposed 50 stage reform plan.
- Unifon Augmented
- OR-E: Orthographic
Reform of the English Language
proposal by Valerie
Yule, designed to be implemented in stages.
created by Reginald Deans, and advocated by some movements
within the Simple
Spelling Society; reutilizes the latin alphabet
to give a one-to-one correspondence of sounds and letters.
Published - December 2008