Spelling reform has long been on the agenda. English spelling is notoriously irregular, and by way of example of some of the difficulties, the Oxford English Dictionary records over 120 variant spellings for privilege.
Reform goes back a long way. In his Elementarie (1582), Richard Mulcaster claims it a matter of national pride, adding that "Forenners and strangers do wonder at vs both for the uncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters." Among the spelling rules he advocated is the "silent e" to distinguish made from mad.
The lexicographer Noah Webster successfully introduced new spellings in the US, although not all his proposals caught on. He was responsible for traveler, color, and center. His suggested medicin and examin and others without the final "e" didn't work out, but removing the final "k" from music and logic etc., actually became standard on both sides of the Atlantic. However, as Webster's reforms are the main cause of the spelling differences between the British and American versions of English one may wonder if they actually provided any global benefit.
One oft-cited example of some of the absurdities of English spelling, erroneously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, is the spelling for fish could quite easily be ghoti according to the following "rules":
- gh, pronounced [f] as in tough [tʌf];
- o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women [ˈwɪmɪn]; and
- ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation [ˈneɪʃən].
Arguments in favour of spelling reform
- For historical reasons, spelling and pronunciation no longer match, and spelling needs to be adapted to take into account the changes that have taken place.
- As an example of the problem, the pronunciation of some words may vary with context. Examples include: read, wind, bow and sow. See Heteronyms. If heteronyms didn't exist, screen readers would be more accurate.
- In fact spellings do change - just very slowly.
- It would make learning the language easier for foreign students.
- It would make learning to read and write easier for English-speaking schoolchildren. A regular spelling would make children attain fifth grade reading proficiency by the end of the first grade.
- Syllabification or hyphenation, separating a word at the end of the line, is not very useful in English, because we need the full word to know the pronunciation. For example, if we hyphenate material /məˈtɪəriːəl/ as mater- ial the partial word mater- seems to sound like /ˈmeɪtər/. With a phonemic spelling partial words would immediately be recognized.
- New words would have an obvious spelling. For example currently the shortening of microphone can be mic or mike. In a phonetic spelling the shortening of miikrufoen would be obviously miik.
Arguments against spelling reform
- The majority of the (adult) English-speaking population has consistently been against the idea. Presumably because they do not want to learn a new way to spell.
- There is no single "correct" dialect within any one English-speaking country - much less any accepted "correct" international form of the language. Would the citizens of the USA accept a spelling system based on an English pronunciation? Would the Scots? Would the Australians accept a spelling system based on American pronunciation? The advantage of the present system is that it is acceptable to all, the alternative would be to have a multiplicity of different spelling systems for each country. There is already some disparity between the British and American systems - ironically caused by an earlier attempt at spelling reform - and sufficient confusion is caused by that. Note, however, that an accent independent spelling can be easily achieved using lexical sets.
- If we suggest that we could agree on an international standard - who would be in charge of introducing such a hypothetical new spelling system? Most other languages have national or international regulatory bodies which are charged with setting standards and enforcing (if they can) some form of prescriptive grammar and spelling. No such body exists for the English language, and creating one and giving it authority over the new international language would probably be a larger task than the spelling reform itself.
- The existing spelling system gives some clue to the origin of the word. This is surprisingly helpful when learning some foreign languages.
- However the same proponents of this argument wouldn't spell color or iland which are more etymologically correct than colour or island. Andrés Bello, a Venezuelan linguist said, "keeping useless letters for the sake of etymology is like keeping rubble in a new building so as not to forget the old building".
- There is an immense literature, both printed and on the web, which uses the existing system. Spelling reform would put existing literature beyond the understanding of all but experts (unless it were "translated") and would involve major inconvenience in updating the web.
- English has over twenty vowel sounds which must be expressed using only five vowel letters - AEIOU (a similar situation occurs with consonants). Any reformed spelling system would either need to:
- introduce new letters or diacritic marks to indicate these sounds (e.g. "ð", "â") - something which would hardly represent a simplification or
- add digraphs to indicate these sounds - many of those digraphs would be uncommon (e.g. "dh", "aa").
Arguments in favour of partial spelling reform
Many arguments against spelling reform in sum say "it can't be done". However it is argued that the following partial spelling reforms could probably be carried out with few problems.
- Supress the "u" in words which etymologically don't have it. "Colour" derives from Latin colōrētur and "neighbour" derives from Old English nēahbūr. These cases could be changed into "color" and "neighbor" (or "neighbur").
- When the etymology of a /z/ sound has a "z" letter, change the current "s" by "z". For example, "organise" comes from Medieval Latin organizāre, and consequently could be spelt as "organize".
- Replace "ae" by "e" in words like "aether", which would become "ether".
- Replace "oe" by "e" in words like "oecology", "foetus" or "diarrhoea", giving "ecology", "fetus" and "diarrhea" (or better, "diarea").
- Suppress silent final "ue" in words like "catalogue" or "dialogue", giving "catalog" and "dialog".
- Suppress silent final "me" in words like "gramme" or "programme", giving "gram" and "program".
- Replace "ea" by "e" when followed by two consonants in words like "health" and "feather" which would become "helth" and "fether".
- Suppress misleading silent e in words like "determine" or "opposite" wich would become "determin" and "opposit".
- Suppress double consonants if they follow an unstressed vowel. For example "effect" and "community" would become "efect" and "comunity". The words "difficult" and "letter" would remain unchanged.
- Replace "ph" by "f". For example "sulphur" would become "sulfur" and "photography" could become "fotografy".
- Replace "g" by "j" when it sounds /dʒ/. For example "gynaecology" would become "gynaecolojy" (or "gynecolojy").
- When "ch" sounds /k/ change it by "c", except before "e" or "i". Examples: "mecanics", "corus", "tecnology" (or "tecnolojy").
- When "ch" sounds /ʃ/ change it by "sh". For example "shampagne" (or "shampane"), "mashine", "parashute".
- Replace individual words, such as "business" by "bizness" or "gaol" by "jail". Phonetician John Wells agrees with The Guardian that a hundred or so words could have a simpler spelling. Wells argues for both spellings to be competive and not forcing anyone to change. Examples are "bild" instead of "build", "cubbard" instead of "cupboard" and "canoo" instead of "canoe".
Of course, these partial reforms wouldn't solve all the problems of English spelling, but they would leave the current situation better than it is now (except for adults, as it was said in the previous section).
- American English v. British English
- English Spelling Society
- History of the English languages
- Spelling reform conversation questions
- Crystal, D. Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling Profile Books ISBN 978-184668567 5
- Zimmer, Ben, "Ghoti" before Shaw. Retrieved 25th September 2012.
- Albert J. Mazurkiewicz, The Initial Teaching Alphabet for Reading? Yes!, March 1965
- (in Spanish) Real Academia Española, Ortografía de la lengua española (prologue).
- Susan Baddeley, Anja Voeste, editors, Orthographies in Early Modern Europe, page 17.
- John Wells’s phonetic blog, bilding a cubbard, 7 March 2011.
- Unthinkable? Simpler spelling, The Guardian, 25 February 2011.
- Or didn't.