Spelling reform

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

Spelling Reform was a much debated issue in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Various schemes were put forward for simplifying English spelling, which was thought to be difficult and obscure. These schemes often involved phonetic spelling, and some even went so far as proposing the creation of new alphabets. George Bernard Shaw funded one such scheme. A more recent example is Sayspel, devised by hydraulic engineer Roy Blain. None of these ideas came to anything – for very good reasons. This is also the period which gave rise to Esperanto, a totally artificial, invented language which nobody except enthusiasts actually speaks.

The famous short passage that follows is a satirical response to this idea attributed to the American humorist Mark Twain.

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez — tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

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26 Responses to “Spelling reform”

  1. Spelcek pliz??? « Ramblings From a Wandering Mind says:

    […] Would you like to see what our language would look like if these reformers had their way? Take a look. […]

  2. peter says:

    I know old folks have a tough time with change, but it is well know that English spelling is atrociously illogical and unpredictable. Illiteracy rates in English speaking countries (all things being equal) are as much as twice as in those countries were languages are more phonemic or phonetic if you prefer like Italian or Spanish. Many intellectuals have and do agree that English spelling has to change not the learners who are learning it. The above texts are some of the ways that things could be made better. It looks funny to you. It might be sacrilegious to you, but for kids who would have not seen anything else, it would be EASY! The real sacrilege is not doing anything! The real sacrilege is asking logical kids to learn an illogical system! Educate yourself on this! A spelling reform in English makes sense! And, BTW, most reformers would not be in favour of you having to adopt the new spelling system! That would be illogical!

  3. mantex says:

    Peter – Many attempts have been made in the past to simplify, ‘improve’, and regularise English Spelling. Some of them have been lavishly funded and endorsed by well-known writers and intellectuals. All of them have failed. English spelling is irregular because the language itself is made up of elements of several other languages – Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, and others. The spelling might be irregular, but fortunately it is simplified in other ways – such as not being inflected and not having gendered nouns.

  4. Kishi-keahi says:

    I don’t know who I’m quoting but “the English language is the language that hides in dark alley ways waiting for other languages to pass so it can jump them and go through the pockets for loose grammar.”

  5. mantex says:

    I had not come across that one before, but from a quick Google search it looks as if it could be Oscar Wilde. Perhaps someone else could comment?

  6. The Judge says:

    English is logical. Using “ate” as an example: “at” is pronounced as expected, but adding an “e” Makes “ate”, which is pronounced as expected. “e” adds another function to the word, like a gear, and effects the outcome of the word as a whole, like an algebraic equation. Like a machine. That is why it is logical, and should stay the way it is. It requires brainpower to master.

  7. mantex says:

    Lots of people have WISHED that English language was consistent, logical and like ‘an algebraic equation’ Patrick. But the truth is, it’s very IRREGULAR – because it is built from so many other languages (Greek, Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon). And both it’s spelling and pronunciation are the most irregular of all – which is what makes the Mark Twain piece so funny.

  8. Milka says:

    English is my 3rd language and I must say, I find it hard to imagine a language with a more inconsistent spelling.

    I remember back in 4th grade I was asked to read a sentence out loud in my English class. The sentence included the word ‘bear’. I assumed the vowels to be pronounced the same way as those in the word ‘hear’ – why not? – so instead of polar bears I ended up talking about polar beers. My teacher laughed; I understood the joke much later. 🙂

    I can imagine that for people to whom English is the first language spelling is the difficult part because they learn to talk before learning to write or read. For me it’s not an issue, because my brain automatically reads text the way it would be pronounced in my native tongue – thus creating an artificial difference between the pronunciation of ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘their’, for example.

    It’s still difficult to pronounce words I’ve only read and never heard in a conversation, though. It was only yesterday that I learned how to correctly pronounce the word ‘exaggerate’; I falsely thought the double-g would be pronounced the same way as in the word ‘aggression’. Yet another inconsistency spotted!

  9. Roy Johnson says:

    Many thanks for your comments. I can easily understand your frustration. The reason for this difficulty with English spelling and pronunciation is that our language is made up of several other languages – Anglo-Saxon, Old English, French, Latin, and Greek. There is also no one-to-one relationship between speech and writing: they are quite separate systems, even though one appears to be a mirror reflection of the other.

    There are other famous examples of difficulty – some of which even give native English speakers difficulties. For instance, the problems in spelling and pronouncing – through, though, thorough, tough, thought, thoroughly.

    We have guidance notes on some common spelling problems here – http://www.mantex.co.uk/2009/11/17/how-to-improve-your-spelling/

    And our software program English Language 3.0 covers all aspects of English language, grammer, spelling, and pronunciation – http://www.mantex.co.uk/shop/english-language-3.0/

  10. JW says:

    Twain’s spelling reform may have been meant as a satire, but to me it seems reasonable and desirable. English would be better off with a coherent system like Twain’s than with the current jumble of unpredictable letters.

  11. Roy Johnson says:

    Many people would agree with you – but we are stuck with the present system for very complex historical reasons – the main one being that the English Language is a mixture of several other languages. Many attempts have been made to ‘reform’ and simplify the rules spelling – and all of them have failed.

  12. Yves Feitu says:

    My mother-tongue is French and I also speak Spanish and some Italian. Spelling in French is just as diabolical and absurd as it is in English and the excuse of a multicultural background is NO excuse. Spanish adapts foreign words to its own logic (“football” is spelt “fútbol”) and unpronounced letters are often dropped (like in “septiembre” or “setiembre”). Little by little, the spelling is corrected and simplified (“psychology” is spelt “psicología” or even “sicología”). We need to follow the Spanish example.

  13. Roy Johnson says:

    Maybe French spelling is complex for the same reasons as English – the language has been ‘built’ (or influenced by) other languages – Latin and ‘old’ French for instance. I agree (as a part-time resident) that the Spanish certainly simplify their approach to spelling. It’s quite rare to find the doubling of consonants that are so common in English.

  14. JO 753 says:

    I agree that a direct reform of English will never happen. You can update your ‘failed’ list with the efforts of Roy Blain with his Sayspel system for about 12 years. He passed away and his website disappeared soon after.

  15. Roy Johnson says:

    Thanks for the tip. I had not heard of this one before, even though Roy Blain was from Manchester (Salford, actually). But his web site is still available at http://www.sayspel.com

  16. JO 753 says:

    I’m glad they put it back up. His hydraulics corporation can certainly afford it and it was important to him.

  17. JO 753 says:

    I think I have the plan.

    Instead of reforming spelling, the Nooalf Revolution is about a spelling system for Earth that covers most languages.

    The plan is to get the system into general use before there is an official international language. Since it appears virtually certain that English will be that language, basing the spelling on English makes sense.

    So English spelling doesn’t really get reformed, it gets supplanted, becoming a less and less common local tradition as English takes over the world.

  18. Roy Johnson says:

    I had not heard of Nooalf before, but I’m sure it will fare just the same as all the other proposed systems, which are discussed here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-language_spelling_reform

  19. Tanya Roberson says:

    I feel like spelling reform culd work and Twain just didn’t do it rite. Only make smal chanjes and fewer chanjes, like get rid of al double leters that don’t need to be there, and get rid of the leter c but keep y. Each letter shuld only have one sound so the g’s that sound like j’s wuld all be chanjed to j’s. Words with long vowel sounds like feet could be changed to fete or have a macron over the e. Words like fetch with the eh sound, would stay the same.

    So circumcise would be spelled sirkumsyze. So much easyer. Tomorrow would be spelled tamarowe. Don’t take out al the vowels, but take out as many consonants as posibul.

    Ther wuld hav to be lots of experiments to see what is easyest.

  20. Roy Johnson says:

    That’s a very witty response Tanya – but I notice that your suggestions include the introduction of diacritical marks. Otherwise, how would feet (spelled ‘fete’) be distinguished from the word ‘fete’ meaning a gala? Perhaps you could run tests in New Zealand, and see if it catches on 🙂

  21. JO 753 says:

    Thats OK az a tranzitional stratejy, Tanya. I’v been doing similar ‘fonetisizationz’ in forumz for yirz. (like this) But its not really good enuf az a permanent solution for the entire planet.

    Really, 1 letter = 1 sound iz the only worthy goal. The objection that creating new letterz will kill acceptance iz false, since current native English literates will accept No chanje at all, so trying to cater to them iz futile.

    And creating new letterz iz a relatively trivial project theze dayz.

  22. Karl Dehm says:

    Why enter life with one hand tied behind your back trying to learn English spelling when anything else would be a far improvement. English would become the world language if only the spelling made haf sense. What’s wrong with adding new letters; we already have sounds for which there are no letters. other languages have changed the Latin alfabet to meet their requirements. Additional letters have also been added to the original Latin alfabet such as u and y.

    Not trying to fix something you know is wrong seems illogical, but then again I’m not English.

  23. Roy Johnson says:

    You raise an interesting point here Karl. Most people argue for simplifying English spelling – usually by removing letters that appear to have the same function, such as C and K [and I stress – APPEAR to have]. But your suggestion of ADDING letters is unusual. However, you have to ask yourself, what SOUND in spoken English would they be representing, even in conjunction with other letters?

  24. A. N. says:

    You guys give up too easy 🙂 I don’t care if a million people failed before me. I’m gonna keep trying to make it happen!

  25. Sprite says:

    I think a gradual spelling simplification will eventually occur in a natural way. The spelling ‘pwnt’ for the word ‘owned’ has caught up (this example actually complicates things because it’s meant as a joke, but I’m showcasing the fact that even completely artificial spelling can quickly be adopted), there is no reason why actual simplified spelling can not be adopted in a similar fashion.

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