Chapter Eighteen: A History of English Spelling Revision

A number of scientific studies have proved that, all other things being equal, children learn to read more easily and quickly when the spelling system of a language is regular and logical. They have also shown that the incidence of dyslexia is correspondingly reduced. Needless to say, the English language has long come out badly in these comparisons, as it has wherever orthographic regularity is an issue. People have been complaining about English spelling for centuries - why has nothing been done? A cursory look at history might help to answer this question.

Idiosyncratic English spellings arose in the 12th Century from the difficulty of trying to reconcile the very different orthographic conventions of England and France. The introduction of printing from the Netherlands in the 15th Century promoted new orthographic practices; but spelling became even more according to the fancy of authors, influenced by the phenomenon of "line justification", which encouraged compositors to vary the length of words, or adopt alternative spellings, so as to fill out the text to the right-hand margin. Another theory is that printers often preferred to use longer words, e.g. "delight" for "delite", because they were paid for linage. During the "English Civil War" from 1642-9 the propaganda machines on both sides turned out broadsheets at an enormous rate. There was no time for line justification; but this mass-production effectively standardised many irrational spellings which had been perpetuated by its requirements, or for other arbitrary reasons, just at a time when English pronunciation underwent considerable changes, especially in its vowels (the "Great Vowel Shift"). Dictionaries from Dr Johnson's onwards have perpetuated or even compounded these errors.

Most other major languages have undergone official revisions to remedy this problem of irrational spellings becoming immortalised in print. Thus, spellings like "ch" in "chasm", "ph" in "phantom" and "ps" as in "psalm" are notorious in English, but were replaced by "c", "f" and "s" in Spanish and Italian centuries ago. However, from the international point of view, the absence of a thoroughgoing reform of English at an earlier stage of its history should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing because, although such rationalisations tend to iron out extreme discrepancies, the employment of national norms can militate against international acceptability.

Spanish and Italian are also among that group of languages, headed by Finnish and including Hungarian and Malay, which are relatively straightforward to spell from speech, or vice versa. This is because a simple phonology, especially in the case of vowel sounds, allows phonemic spelling, i.e. close correspondence between phonemes and letters of the alphabet. English, on the other hand, has the problem of attempting to cram over 40 phonemes into 26 letters - a few of which, like [q], [x] and [j], are greatly underused. This undercapacity has partly arisen because, unlike most other tongues using Roman script, English does not employ diacritics to increase phonemic representation. English has also suffered from the tendency of neologists to incorporate etymology into words, influenced by a French Academy which has vacillated between etymology - laying claim to the glories of Rome - and logic. For example, a [b] was restored in "debt" and "doubt" to show the derivation from the Latin "debitum" and "dubitare".

In the absence of official action to remove such redundant features, there have been numerous private attempts since the 16th Century to set in motion a process of English reform. A representative early figure was James Elphinston (1721-1809), who drew attention to the link between the international dominance of French, and reforms previously instituted by the French Academy. To the scorn of critics, and amused tolerance of friends like Dr Johnson, he sought to advance English by the same means: publishing a number of books in his phonetic spelling system including eight volumes of correspondence "between Geniuses ov boath Sexes and James Elphinston".

Noah Webster (1758-1843), the patriotic publisher of the "American Dictionary", is widely regarded as the most effective of the early reformers; but most of the spellings associated with him were current in Britain at the time. However, because of Webster's success in establishing them as "American", many logical spellings ceased to be extant in Britain. In this way, Webster's dictionary established the original Latin "-or" ending in words like "colour, labour, authour and mirrour", the reversal of the last two letters in words like "centre" and "metre" (as in "enter"), the elimination of the final [k] from words like "musick and logick", and the substitution of [k] in "risque" and all but one kind of "cheque". Dr Johnson expressed his "horrour" at such barbarities as "author and music".

Organisations for the improvement of English spelling have existed for at least four hundred years. In the 16th Century the Royal Society investigated the need for orthographic reform, and eventually formed a committee which included the poet John Dryden. In 1869 the Philological Society endorsed the cause; and the British Spelling Reform Association, which included famous writers like Tennyson and Darwin as well as philologists, was founded in 1879. The Simplified Spelling Society, which had links with an American counterpart, was inaugurated in 1908. In its earlier days the S.S.S. attempted to unite behind a single scheme of reform; but in recent years it has turned more to providing an educative forum for various viewpoints. These range from corrections of only the most extreme inconsistencies in English orthography, to radical reforms which attempt to phonemically rationalise the alphabet.

In 1984 the S.S.S. published the following moderate list of suggested reform proposals, which had some qualified support within the society:

             (1) short [e] as in: "eny, meny, frend, hed, etc."

             (2) replace [ph] with [f] as in: "foto, telefone"

             (3) delete [gh] as in: "caut, dauter, bou, drout, plou"

             (4) replace [ugh] with [f] as in: "laf, draft, cof, trof"

             (5) drop redundant final [e] as in: "hav, giv, relativ, opposit".

However, as anyone concerned with the problem may discover for themselves, at least four fundamental difficulties arise with any reform of English. The first is that almost any disturbance of traditional orthography immediately throws other discrepancies into relief. Even the five proposed revisions listed above, however reasonable they might appear at first glance, raise as many questions as they answer:

             (1) "eny, meny" or "enny, menny" and, if "eny", why not "peny"?

             (2) "sapfire, saffire or safire"; "fotografy or fotograffy"?

             (3) Why not "cawt, dawter, bow, drowt, plow" or something else?

             (4) Why not "laff, cawf, troff"?

Likewise, substituting other short vowels where appropriate may seem like a positive step; but if "plait, women" becomes "plat, wimmin", then "plaited" must become "platted", and we are immediately up against not only homographs but also the modernising tendency to use single rather than double consonants as in "enrol, skilful, fulfil" (British) and "traveled, marvelous, woolen, worshiper, carbureted" (U.S.). Similarly, the question arises whether short [u] should signify the vowel as in "put, foot", or that as in "putt, flood, bud, run". (Standard English differentiates these from the schwa as in "random, element, infant": a tripartite distinction which is not recognised by Welsh and other languages.) Numerous other examples might be given: all demonstrating that English has developed into a precarious edifice which it would now be practically impossible to repair without destabilising the entire structure.

A second difficulty concerns homonyms. Most reformers would see the eventual deletion of extra or silent letters to be desirable; but although the initial letter might simply be dropped from "knife", "knock" or "gnat", omitting it from "know", "knit" or "write" would produce homographs: and to delete the one but not the other would be widely regarded as inconsistent. Any thorough programme of orthographic reform would turn numerous homophones e.g. "ate, eight" or "rain, reign, rein" into homographs. It would be difficult to solve this problem of homonyms without introducing a large number of substitute words from other languages: in which case it would cease to be a recognisably "English" reform.

A third major problem with English reform has simply been a shortage of symbols to represent all the phonemes. For eminently sensible reasons the S.S.S. has mostly been against extending the alphabet or using diacritics; but the result has been a lot of words that are longer or less elegant than the originals. Thus, in "New Spelling 90", "almost, paper, motion, accumulation" become "aulmoest, paeper, moeshen, akuemuelaeshen". Moreover, none of the S.S.S. schemes are entirely orthographic: "New Spelling" (1948) often refrained from distinguishing the schwa, and "New Spelling 90" usually employs [e]: both use short common words like "the, to, so, be, he" and the affixes "re-, -ful" conventionally, i.e. without regular orthographic spellings.

Attempts have been made to reduce the length of these regularised spellings by employing under-used letters, e.g. [x] for /sh/, /th/ or /kh/, as in other languages; but there are not really enough spare letters to go round. Another response has been "Cut Spelling": which is presented by the S.S.S. as an alternative to "New Spelling 90". Cut Spelling is more regularised than T.O., but is still conventional rather than orthographically consistent, as the following sentence shows: "As yet, th question of english spelng reform, tho ocasionly atractng public atention, has not convinced th relevnt authoritis that it requires serius, informd considration." Cut Spelling represents a 10% print saving, but its conventionalised forms necessarily appeal more to the present than to the future users who are, by definition, the greater constituency of any major language. For instance, one problem with Cut Spelling is that children learning to read must place the missing schwas correctly.

However, the fundamental problem for spelling reformers has never been wholly dependent upon QWERTY keyboard limitations which might be entirely removed by extensive computerisation anyway; public attitude has always been equally fundamental. There is probably just as much chance of the present arbiters of the English language adopting Kingsley Read's radical new alphabet (which won G B Shaw's competition in 1958) as any modest reforms. Even piecemeal alterations are always going to be impossible so long as there is an unwritten contract by the already-literate to maintain traditional orthography at the expense of future generations and foreign learners. In such a climate the most unambiguously useful revisions, e.g. of = ov, off = of, are pounced on as "spelling mistakes", and the most arcane usages, which have long ceased to relate to any known orthography, are perversely valued since they reinforce the cultural shibboleth. It would be difficult to change this attitude except in a new internationalist context. 

A fourth difficulty is that the principles of orthographic and grammatical regularity are often in conflict. For example, "talked, edited, banned, landed" are grammatically regular on the page, but in speech they tend to be "torkt, editid, band, landed"; likewise "banks, cats, dogs, foxes" usually become "banks, kats, dogz, foksiz". Inevitably, the sound of an inflection is changed by the nature of the adjacent phoneme: a tendency which even the recorder of the international standard accent might not be able to resist, without making the word sound artificial and unreal.

Since inflections are at the root of this conflict, one response would be to reduce them to a minimum. As we have seen, the creoles have shown the way here, by greater use of the word-order principle; but beyond a certain point there is an inevitable loss of semantic capacity. An artificial language like Glosa may be potentially 100% orthographically regular, which is an advantage, but one which must be traded against the value of inflections. Another possible solution would be to change either the vocabulary or the nature of the inflections. For example, inflections like short [a] or [i], or long [o], tend to sound the same, whichever word they are attached to. No doubt they are found in Esperanto and a number of major languages for this reason.

A fifth reason why English reform has not proceeded since Webster is the variety of pronunciations worldwide. There are numerous words, like "vase, clerk, potato, tomato, harass, genuine, fertile, schedule, simultaneous", which are normally pronounced differently across the Atlantic. Millions of English speakers do not differentiate between /w/ and /wh/ in words like "which, when, what"; but many others use the aspirated pronunciation /wh/ or /hw/. Likewise, the English-speaking world divides between those who pronounce the /r/ in words like "word, bird" (generally the U.S.A., Canada, Ireland and the Philippines), and those who do not (usually the rest of the English-speaking world). For every word the question might be asked: upon which variety of pronunciation should an orthographic spelling be based?

Merely substituting words from other languages would not solve this problem because accent differences affect vowel sounds, and to a lesser degree consonant sounds, in so many words that "culturally impervious" alternatives would not readily be found. This is the very situation which the notional pronunciation and standard accent described in Chapter 20 are designed to address. The creation of a single international standard accent, unified but not uniform, is absolutely vital because English orthographic reform depends upon the close definition of vowel sounds. This would allow the reallocation of symbols or redefinition of the semi-vowels (l, r, w, y), the substitution of single for double consonants, and the removal of many superfluous letters.

It becomes apparent that a proper reform of English could not take place without a comprehensive overhaul of the alphabet, which would in turn necessitate an international standard pronunciation, as an orthographic benchmark, and also the incorporation of numerous words from other languages to replace all the consequent homonyms. The language undergoing such a process would soon pass a point at which it was no longer "English" according to any objective standard, so it might as well change its name to one signifying "international auxiliary language". 

Endeavours to reform English on less than a global scale failed earlier this century when a "national" outlook was still the norm, and would be even less likely to succeed now. In 1949, and again in 1953, an attempt to get a scheme for English reform through the British House of Commons was defeated: extraordinary luck having twice permitted a Member of Parliament to present a Private Member's Bill on the subject. The second bill actually passed its second reading; but further progress was halted by the implacable opposition of the Ministry of Education.

This was a historic missed opportunity because, at the time, British Received Pronunciation was still more or less the accepted standard accent throughout the English-speaking world. It was the front-of-house accent favoured by large corporations in America, diplomatic circles in various countries, and educational institutions everywhere. Such a bill would not even pass its first reading today. The notion of reforming British English apart from the other "national" varieties of the language would now be totally unacceptable.

An enormous amount of money has been thrown at the cause of English reform; but with very little result. Andrew Carnegie donated nearly $300,000; and there have been other substantial donations and legacies. Another sign of enthusiasm, shortly after WW1, was a petition to set up a Royal Commission, which attracted around 15,000 signatures, including those of many prominent academics. Why has it all come to nothing apart from a few minor revisions in America?

Firstly, English reform is unlikely as long as the language still largely centres upon a country whose social order is greatly influenced by class, as well as wealth, religion etc.. Thus the divergence between spelling and pronunciation functions as an educational and cultural shibboleth, to the despair of students from societies where such a device is irrelevant, and the difficulty of children learning to read. This observation is equally valid if the upper-middle class accent is deprecated and proletarian ones are fashionable.

Secondly, the social forces which have been transforming the English-speaking world since the 1960s, shaking many ancient institutions, customs, mores and beliefs to the foundations, dispossessing much of the old aristocracy and middle-class, and raising up previously disadvantaged sections of society along with new media interests and extensions to state sovereignty, have not operated primarily through the traditional rational arguments of literary culture. Rather have they fashioned their emotional appeals into images, focused via the new electronic media directly into the heart, using the spoken form of language about which rational orthography has very little to say.

Thirdly, the majority of people are simply not interested in spelling reform, because there is nothing in it for them. Since the advent of mass electronic entertainment most people seldom read anything much other than magazines and tabloid newspapers anyway. They had difficulty learning to read at school; but it never did them any harm - so their children might as well experience the same! In fact, within the English-speaking world, the idea of language reform is inconvenient or irrelevant to nearly everyone except primary schoolteachers and the organised English Language Teaching (E L T) industry, with its T E F L (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) and T E S O L (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualifications.

However, the same people who are totally unmoved by the idea of the reform of English for use within the English-speaking world, may be enthused by the prospect of an international auxiliary language - because it stands to benefit them personally. Their children would only have to learn one "foreign" language at school: and it is one they would be likely to actually use afterwards! All free peoples would have access to a world-wide literature and media. When "abroad", a concept that would cease to have much meaning, since the world would become as one country through the common language, everyone would be able to talk to the locals, read the press, and listen to the news.

And last, but not least, we would all spend less in taxes through an international language. In a world which is becoming more and more united every day, whether by desire or necessity, the consequently increasing number and scale of international conferences, simultaneously translated into several languages, is not taking place without exorbitantly rising costs. The European Parliament and other agencies now spend most of their budgets on translation. For example, in 1994 (even before Austria, Sweden and Finland joined), the European Union spent £1,200,000,000 on 72 translations.

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