English spelling reform
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English spelling reform is the collective term [dubious — see talk page] for various campaigns to change the spelling system of English to make it simpler and more rationally consistent. There exists a controversial, 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.
English is often considered difficult to learn by ESL students. The written forms give relatively ambiguous clues to pronunciation, relative to the Spanish orthography, for example, which is highly phonemic.
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 such as shorthand and remedial literacy solutions such as synthetic phonics. It has recently been argued, for example, that the one-time presidency of the Simplified Spelling Society of shorthand heir Sir James Pitman represents a conflict of interests). The traditionalists' hold over the means of production of printed matter, and other key vantage points, moderated by the work of persistent spelling reformers and a public open to change where perceived necessary (their perceptions arguably largely determined by a manufactured consensus) has resulted in a slow rate of progress, but the advent of the Internet and cellphone texting rather opens up the field to surfers and texters spelling with a public freedom unknown for centuries in the English-speaking world.
Arguments for reform
Advocates of spelling reform point to the obvious difficulty that most native speakers have spelling relatively common words, difficulty that has created a huge market for spellcheck software to help writers conform to orthodox spelling. From there, they make six basic arguments:
- Pronunciations change gradually over time and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) gradually becomes corrupted. Spellings then need to adapt to account for the changes.
- Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and, as a result, today only haphazardly observes the alphabetic principle. The haphazard 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 are obvious barriers to reading comprehension, and common misspellings of accommodate, conscientious, occurrence, opponent, existence and personnel are obvious barriers to writing mastery.
- 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 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 . Similarly, doubt and debt have never been said with a /b/ sound.
- Spellings are changing, regardless of conscious public resistance, just slowly and not in any organized way. The US spelling jail is replacing gaol in the UK. Thru and lite are commonly found on public signs and commercial products. Alright is slowly becoming standard over all right. And minuscule is losing its long battle against miniscule.
- Almost all reforms would reduce the number of letters per word on average, thus saving time, money, paper, ink, and effort.
Well-known reformers and supporters
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 (smiley) accent.
- Rev Charls 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.
- Dr Johnson, poet, wit, essayist, biographer, critic and eccentric, broadly credited with the standardisation of English spelling into its current contentious form in his 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 dictionary.
- Sir Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used system of shorthand, known now as Pitman Shorthand, first proposed in Stenographic Soundhand (1837).
- President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a committee to research and recommend simpler spellings and tried to require the U.S. government to adopt them, but his approach in a then little-known or understood field, to assume popular support by 'executive order,' rather than to garner it, was a likely factor in the limited progress of the time.
- H.G.Wells, science fiction writer of world renown and one-time Vice President of the London-based Simplified Spelling Society.
- Andrew Carnegie, celebrated philanthropist, donated to spelling reform societies both sides of the Atlantic.
- George Bernard Shaw, playwright of international renown, willed part of his estate to fund the creation of a new alphabet now called the "Shavian alphabet."
- Melvil Dui, 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 controversial Initial Teaching Alphabet.
- Dr Mont Follick, Labour Member of Parliament and linguistician who assisted Pitman in drawing the English spelling reform issue to the attention of Parliament. Favored replacing w and y with u and i.
- HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, one-time Patron of the SSS. Stated that spelling reform should start outside of the UK, and that the lack of progress originates in the unsurprising discord amongst reformers (albeit speaking at a time of unpopular government and national discord, still ongoing).
Reformers recognize a number of obstacles in the reform of spelling and the implementation of new spelling systems.
- English is largely a melding of ancient Latin and Germanic languages, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Reforms tend to favor one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.
- The 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, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, 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 variances of pronunciation depending on locality makes it difficult to agree upon spellings which take into account most dialects.
The central criticism of spelling reform is that written language is not a purely phonetic analog of the spoken form. Because the English language is a mixture of Germanic language forms and Latin and other language terms, the spelling of words often reflects their origin. This gives a clue as to the meaning of the word by providing a historical marker for the origin. 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 (record, recorder) give clues to their own meaning, but respelling them could break that relationship (rekkerd, reekorder).
Critics say that instituting a large scale change in the spelling of English words could increase ambiguity rather than diminish it, because the morphophonic use of vowel sounds allows for better phonemic differentiation from a limited number of sounds, and hence makes the language more descriptive.
Also, spelling-reforms generally do not consider dialects and regional accents. For example: The first sound in the pronunciation of the word simultaneous can rightfully be as the first sound of psychic or as the first sound of cymbal, yet SoundSpel purports siemultaeniusly as the spelling indicating preference of the former.
Spelling 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:
- Cut Spelling
- Deseret alphabet
- Shavian alphabet
- Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet
- single sound per symbol
- Simplified Spelling Society
- Noah Webster on English spelling reform
- English spelling reform (a humorous view)
- Spelling Reform - And The Real Reason It's Impossible (a collection of entertaining remarks)
- A Chronology of Spelling Reform
- History of Spelling Reform
- Re-Romanization of English