English spelling reform

English spelling reform

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 of George 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 older pronunciations.

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 'old world' sensibilities to feared concrete financial losses by opposing vested interests (notably printers, and purveyors of rival solutions or palliative measures such as shorthand remedial literacy and synthetic phonics).

Arguments for reform

Advocates of spelling reform make these basic arguments:Fact|date=June 2007

* Pronunciations change gradually over time and the alphabetic 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 (combination).
* 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 phonemes 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 POV-statement|date=September 2008 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" [ [http://www.answers.com/island&r=67 island — Answers.com] ] (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.

Well-known reformers

A number of respected and influential people have been supporters of spelling reform.
*Orrmin, 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 accent.
*Rev 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 đe sound now generally received,' and espoused a system in which the h in digraphs was replaced with bars.
*Samuel Johnson, poet, wit, essayist, biographer, critic and eccentric, broadly credited with the standardisation of English spelling into its current form in his [http://newark.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/preface.html Dictionary of the English Language (1755)] .
* Noah Webster, author of the first important American dictionary, believed that Americans should adopt simpler spellings where available and recommended it in his 1806 [http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Compendious_Dictionary_of_the_English_Language "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language"] .
* Sir Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used system of shorthand, known now as Pitman Shorthand, first proposed in "Stenographic Soundhand" (1837).
* 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 adopt them;cite news |title=House Bars Spelling in President's Style |url=http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9B07E6DC1331E733A25750C1A9649D946797D6CF&oref=slogin |format=PDF |publisher=New York Times |date=1906-12-13 |accessdate=2007-12-17 ] however, his approach, to assume popular support by executive order, rather than to garner it, was a likely factor in the limited progress of the time. [cite web | url=http://www.johnreilly.info/alt20.htm | title=Theodore Roosevelt and Spelling Reform | author=John J. Reilly Based on H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558] [cite web | title=A Short History of GPO | url=http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/fdlp/history/macgilvray.html | author=Daniel R. MacGilvray | year=1986]
* H.G. Wells, science fiction writer and one-time Vice President of the London-based Simplified Spelling Society.
* Andrew Carnegie, celebrated philanthropist, donated to spelling reform societies on both sides of the Atlantic.
* Daniel Jones, phonetician. Professor of Phonetics at University College London.
* George Bernard Shaw, a playwright, willed part of his estate to fund the creation of a new alphabet now called the "Shavian alphabet."
* Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, wrote published works in simplified spellings and even simplified his own name from "Melville" to "Melvil".
* James Pitman, a publisher and Conservative Member of Parliament, invented the Initial Teaching Alphabet.
* Dr Mont Follick, Labour Member 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.
* HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, one-time Patron of the Simplified 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).
*Robert 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".
*Edward Rondthaler, chairman of the American Literacy Council.
*Reginald 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 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 dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).
* 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 remove.
* 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 "photography".
* Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural "-s" and possessive "-'s" are both prounced differently in each of "cat(')s" (/s/), "dog(')s" (/z/) and "horse(')s" (/ɪz/).
* Spelling reform would make classical literature harder to understand and read correctly in its original form.
* 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 Taalunie (Dutch), the Académie française (French) 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 IPA|/sɑɪ/, "or" as the first sound of cymbal, IPA|/sɪ/, yet SoundSpel 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 Broad Australian dialect), that dialect is likely to pronounce most if not all words that include the "long i" in the same manner.

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 pronunciations.

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" [George Davidson, "Improve Your Spelling", ISBN 0-141-01977-8] . 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.

pelling reform campaigns

Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing or introducing an entirely new alphabet:

* Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet Augmented Latin alphabet.
* Deseret alphabet Phonetic system with a non-Latin alphabet developed for the Mormon church.
* Shavian alphabet Non-Latin phonetic system created for George Bernard Shaw's reform contest.
* SoundSpel Regularization scheme offered by the American Literacy Council.
* Cut Spelling Mostly drops superfluous letters and redundancies, such as 'ph'.
* SR1 Step one of a proposed 50 stage reform plan.
* Unifon Augmented Latin alphabet.
* OR-E: Orthographic Reform of the English Language
* Interspel: proposal by Valerie Yule, designed to be implemented in stages.
* bRitic: 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.

See also

* English orthography
* False etymology
* List of English spelling reform proposals
* Phonemic orthography
* Regional accents of English
* Spelling reform
* Simplified Spelling Society
* American and British English spelling differences


External links

* [http://www.wyrdplay.org/reform-files.html Wyrdplay.org] has an extensive list of current spelling reform proposals.
* [http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/accents_spellingreform.htm "English accents and their implications for spelling reform", by J.C. Wells, University College London]
* [http://www.foolswisdom.com/~sbett/history-SR.htm History of Spelling Reform]
* [http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/DKitchen/new_655/webster_language.htm Noah Webster on English spelling reform]
* [http://www.OR-E.org The OR-E system] : Orthographic Reform of the English Language

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • List of English spelling reform proposals — There have been many proposals for English spelling reform:Proposals for English spelling regularity that conform to the basic Roman alphabetCommon features: *They do not introduce any new letters or symbols, thus facilitating ease of transition… …   Wikipedia

  • English language spelling reform — For hundreds of years, many groups and individuals have advocated spelling reform for English. Spelling reformers seek to make English spelling more consistent and more phonetic, so that spellings match pronunciations and follow the alphabetic… …   Wikipedia

  • English Spelling Society — Contents 1 Aims 2 Specific reform systems 3 Spelling bee protests 4 …   Wikipedia

  • Spelling reform — For spelling reform in English, see English language spelling reform. Contents 1 Arguments for reform 2 By language 2.1 English …   Wikipedia

  • spelling reform — noun : a movement to modify conventional spelling so as to lessen or remove the differences between the orthography and the pronunciation of words compare reformed spelling * * * an attempt to change the spelling of English words to make it… …   Useful english dictionary

  • spelling reform — an attempt to change the spelling of English words to make it conform more closely to pronunciation. [1870 75] * * * …   Universalium

  • American and British English spelling differences — Spelling differences redirects here. For other uses, see Category:Language comparison. For guidelines on dialects and spelling in the English language version of Wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Manual of Style#National varieties of English. Differences… …   Wikipedia

  • German spelling reform of 1996 — The German spelling reform of 1996 ( Rechtschreibreform ) is based on an international agreement signed in Vienna in July 1996 by the governments of the German speaking countries Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, a quadrilingual… …   Wikipedia

  • English orthography — is the alphabetic spelling system used by the English language. English orthography, like other alphabetic orthographies, uses a set of rules that generally governs how speech sounds are represented in writing. English has relatively complicated… …   Wikipedia

  • Spelling Society — The Spelling Society is an international organisation, based in the UK. It was founded in 1908 [Under the title The Simplified Spelling Society ] and celebrated its Centenary Conference at Coventry University in June 2008. Its aims are to raise… …   Wikipedia