Modernizing english spelling:
principles & practicalities
The Problem with Spelling.
Like all human systems, spelling occasionally needs modernizing. For optimal literacy, spelling should show pronunciation, and pronunciation should determine spelling. But over time, as pronunciation changes and new words enter the language, this match between letters and sounds can break down. Then learning to read and write becomes harder, and all education suffers. Most languages have therefore modernized their spelling in the 20th century. [See Themes1] English, however, has not done so systematically over the past 1,000 years.
The chaos of English spelling
Before 1066 English spelling was quite simple, but the next few centuries saw an influx of French, Latin and Greek words and major pronunciation changes (vowels shifted, consonants fell silent). As a result the spelling became incoherent. The advent of printing 500 years ago created some standards, but countless anomalies survived. America made a few improvements in the 19th century, eg, separating L/LL in modeling/compelling, OR/OUR in favor/devour and SK/SC in skeptic/sceptre, [see UK v US spellings] but English spelling is today reviled and ridiculed worldwide ('one of the world's most awesome messes', 'an insult to human intelligence', etc.) for its unpredictability.
The 40-odd sounds of English can be spelled in hundreds of ways, and one spelling can represent many sounds. Simple words like once, who defy all logic. The same ending has different spellings in burglar, teacher, actor, glamour, acre, murmur, injure, martyr. The same stem varies in high/height, speak/speech, precede/ proceed, defence/defensive (U.S. defense is consistent). The endings -ANT/-ENT, -ABLE/-IBLE switch bewilderingly. How can we tell which of afraid/affray, inoculate/ innocuous, omit/commit have double consonants? Letters are inserted for no good reason, eg, C in scythe, G in foreign, P in ptarmigan, S in island. Foreign words are altered: -ANCE/-ENCE are reversed from French correspondance/connivence, and Spanish M, RR often become MM, R in English incommunicado, guerilla. Several forms compete in loanwords like borshch, lychee, popadum, yoghourt. Inconsistency is rife because English has no strategy for ensuring consistency. No other language tolerates such alphabetic chaos.
The price we pay.
Yet learners must decode this chaos for reading, and memorize it for writing. Literacy is therefore far harder to acquire in English than in most languages: teachers and pupils struggle with it at every level, and many learners never master it properly. Even the most literate misread unfamiliar words (especially surnames and place names), and hesitate over spelling. Is it seize or sieze, concensus or consensus, paralleled or paralelled? Who has never misspelled receive or accommodate, or confused there/their? Non-native speakers face the further hazard of mispronouncing, eg, who sounded as woe, heart aligned with heard, or own rhymed with town. Perhaps most serious: research suggests irregular spelling may harm the development of children's minds more generally.
The human, social and economic cost of today's spelling is incalculable. All writing and publishing wastes materials, time, money. Learners spend years at public expense trying to crack the code, when they could be gaining useful knowledge. Education standards are of grave concern in English-speaking countries – not surprising when the spelling raises such a barrier to reading and writing in the world's leading language.
CLEANING UP THE SYSTEM.
How radical a change?
The problem with English spelling is that the letters do not correspond predictably to speech sounds. Any reform would therefore aim to improve their correspondence, but less clear is how big a change could, or should, be made. Some proposals are very radical. The dramatist G B Shaw actually wanted a brand new alphabet, as he thought today's Roman alphabet ill-suited to English. Less radical variants on this suggest adding a few new letters (eg, instead of the digraphs CH, SH, TH), or using accent marks to show which sound a letter stands for. Other proposals use only the present letters, but make sure that each spelling is always pronounced the same and each speech sound is always spelled the same.
Most modern schemes go less far. One ensures all spellings are consistently pronounced, though speech sounds can still have different spellings. Another regularizes consonants, but leaves most vowels as they are. Then there is a proposal to cut out unnecessary misleading letters, while substituting very few. Least radical are schemes that, as a first step, would regularize the spelling of a single sound, or sort out a single anomaly (eg, GH). However, immediate improvements are possible with no changes at all, just by taking the best spellings among present alternatives as the standard (eg, always jail, never gaol); by this procedure most American spellings would be preferred to their British counterparts (eg, favor not favour, plow not plough).
Choosing a scheme.
Those schemes pose a dilemma: the most radical improve the spelling most, but may be least practical, while the least radical may give least benefit. Radical schemes raise several difficulties: there may be no strong reason to prefer one over another; they might not suit speakers of different accents; a costly, worldwide programme of re-education would be needed; the transition would mean a typographical revolution; and the new spellings might be incompatible with the old. All reforms in fact have to consider the dangers of incompatibility, as would occur if today's readers faced warm rewritten as worm, or if future readers learnt kum but could not read come (except perhaps as comb). At worst, future generations might be cut off from everything written in the past.
Less radical proposals reduce such risks. They can be combined or introduced in stages. They may reinforce existing spelling patterns rather than invent new ones. They may target present difficulties (eg, I before E, etc) and enhance similarities with other languages. They may be confined to basic vocabulary. They may continue to distinguish some homophones (eg, meat/meet). But they imply further reforms in the future, once the first changes have been accepted, indeed that spelling modernization should be a continuing process.
A sample of New Spelling (1948) shows a more radical reform: 'We shood surtenly not kontinue to riet widh dhe prezent misleeding speling.' The less radical Cut Spelling (1996) has: 'We shud certnly not continu to rite with th presnt misleadng spelng.' Other schemes write hed, lepard, frend with simple E, or sauser, majik, advize with consistent consonants. Wi thout GH we might have tuf, trof, tho, thru, thoro, caut, flyt, and without double consonants we could write abreviate, batalion, comitee, inoculate, inocuous, paralel, satelite.
The peculiar situation of English.
English has never faced the practicalities of spelling reform, and many basic questions need exploring. Who could introduce reform, how, and what would the effect be? Other languages offer few parallels: their spelling is often well ordered, many have institutions responsible for setting rules (eg, academies, dictionaries, education authorities), and they cover a single country or just a few countries. English is very different. Its spelling is systemically disordered, and it lacks agreed standards. It has no machinery for planning or introducing improvements. It serves as a mother tongue in five continents, and is used worldwide as a lingua franca. And many of those who might have the power to organize reform do not appreciate the gravity of the English spelling problem and/or have little will to tackle it. The hurdles on the road to reform are thus considerable. Yet the demand for higher levels of literacy ensures continuing global dissatisfaction with the present position, and research (eg, comparing literacy standards between languages) is increasingly revealing the harm done by the erratic spelling of English.
Various routes to reform are conceivable, and all need to be pursued, as they may well interact, and Government involvement is likely with all of them. One route might be spontaneous simplification by individuals, as the new media such as e-mail encourage more relaxed spelling habits; but supervision would be required to guide this trend toward a common, more coherent system. Another route might see education authorities in different countries promoting simpler spellings in schools; but international co-ordination would be necessary to prevent written English fragmenting across the world. A third possibility might be a Style Council for World English set up by publishers and the press (led perhaps by dictionaries partly motivated by sales opportunities), with the aim of simplifying the preparation of text. A fourth possibility might arise from the impatience of non-English-speaking countries with the spelling of their world language: they might commission an international organization, such as the UNO or the ISO, to design a simplified English spelling system to meet their particular needs.
Public opinion, professional agendas.
The prerequisite for formal simplification of English spelling is greater awareness of its present problems and how they might be reduced. Children and adults struggling with literacy should realize their difficulties are not primarily due to stupidity, but to the archaic spelling of English, against which they should protest. Teachers frustrated by learners' endless battles with written English should lobby for the cause of the problem to be tackled. Teacher trainers need to ensure their students grasp both the phonic basis of literacy and its pitfalls in English. Research into literacy levels should examine the effect of unpredictable spellings both on standards and on the time taken to become literate.
Psychologists should investigate the impact of spelling irregularity on developing minds. Linguists should be comparing English spelling with that of other languages. Dictionaries should not just reflect usage, but promote better spelling by recommending simpler forms among current variants. Publishers could then adopt those dictionary recommendations in place of today's conflicting style-sheets. If such changes in understanding, attitude and practice came about, the long-term management of spelling could become an accepted part of the culture of the language, to the benefit of learners, readers, writers and print-producers everywhere.
The idea of spelling reform often provokes hostility, anxiety and questions, all requiring reassuring responses. Hostility is best disarmed by facts. Anxiety may arise from fear of being unable to handle change; but spelling reform can be a far gentler process than changing currency or measurements, which most English-speaking nations took in their stride not long ago. Small changes need hardly affect reading, and few adults (teachers and print-producers excepted) would have to master the new spellings – though many would enjoy the greater simplicity, and parents would want to follow their children's progress using easier spellings. Old books would not have to be reprinted, but today's technology allows publishers cheaply to introduce simpler, more economical spellings in newspapers, periodicals and books (both new titles and new editions). Many of today's spelling dilemmas (eg, American or British forms?) would vanish, and there would be the prospect of more improvements in years to come.