7. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO IMPROVE SPELLING

Given these multiple problems with spelling in English, there is a strong need to reform English spelling. The Williams Respelling System to be proposed here rests on seven principles:

1. SPELLING SHOULD REFLECT THE SPOKEN FORM RATHER THAN SPEAKING REFLECTING THE WRITTEN FORM

A guiding principle of the Williams respellings is that the spoken form of a language is more important than the written form, and words should be spelled the way they are pronounced. This principle privileges spoken English over written English. There are two reasons why I make this choice.

First, human beings have been speaking much longer than they have been writing. From an anthropological perspective, the time from the origin of modern homo sapiens over 200,000 years ago, to the origins of writing a mere 3,000 years ago, gives the vast majority of time to spoken communication. When writing systems first emerged, only a few professional scribes knew how to write. That remained true through the time of the Roman Empire, the Medieval era, and the Early Modern Period. Only in the nineteenth century did public education systems reach large numbers of people in society, with a goal of teaching the masses to read and write.  Yet this trend occurred in only a few countries. It was only in the late twentieth century that the majority of human beings in the world became literate.

Many people alive in the world today cannot read, and they go through their entire lifetime without ever writing a single word. Even many who were trained to read in school do not like to do so. In both Britain and America, the majority of people find the process of deciphering spelling to be so mentally taxing that in their free time they much prefer to receive information in spoken form rather than by reading. On any given evening, the number of people who are watching television and listening to radio dwarf the number of people who are reading. The contrast between reading / writing and listening / speaking is overwhelming. Humans are the speaking animal!

The recent emergence of reading and writing within such a short time period of human existence means that spoken communication remains the prime means by which human beings communicate.

A second reason for privileging speaking over writing is the theoretical position that writing is a tool which should be an efficient facilitator of spoken communication. The  emphasis of my teaching in Indonesia and Thailand has been to teach people to speak correct and clear pronunciation of English. I realize this is one among several ways to teach a language. In my view writing should reflect speaking rather than the reverse.  With this position, then, the written form should reflect the way people actually speak a language. Spelling is a technological means of accomplishing the purpose of effective communication. Just as with any other technology, spelling needs to be adjusted and improved to accomplish its purpose more effectively. Every technology being used by humanity today changes rapidly, except spelling. If a mechanic tried to repair a car by using only tools that existed a century ago, most people would think them foolish. Yet, people rigidly hold to the tools of written communication—the way words are spelled—that have changed little in the last three centuries! No technology is effective for that long a time. It is time for a change.

 

2. PRONUNCIATION SHOULD BE BASED ON MIDWESTERN AMERICAN ENGLISH

Following phonetic form, words should be spelled in the way that they are most commonly spoken by contemporary native English speakers. Because accents differ among English speakers worldwide, and thus English pronunciation varies from region to region, it is necessary to choose one pronunciation over others as the basis for spelling. On what basis should such a choice be made?

Some would say that the choice should be the accent of the people living in England itself. England is, after all, the historic home of the language. But the accents of England vary greatly by area and by class, so it becomes a problem to try to choose one of these accents over others. Even British Received Pronunciation, the style of speaking that is common among well educated people in the area around London in southern England, and that is the choice for broadcasters on the BBC television network, has been criticized as elitist and prejudiced against the rural people of England and those who come from working class families. British Received Pronunciation has itself changed from the way English was spoken in past centuries. So the “historic” argument does not hold much weight in terms of a choice for a standard way to spell English for worldwide communication in the 21st century.

Some linguists say that even trying to make a single choice among English accents is prejudicial, and that this is an insurmountable problem facing spelling reformers who want to change the current way of spelling. “If spelling is to reflect pronunciation, whose pronunciation will be privileged over others?” they ask as a rhetorical question to undercut any move toward spelling reform.

I reject that argument. People make choices all the time, and they have to choose one alternative over another. In doing so, there may be things that are lost, but it has to be done if anything is going to be accomplished. If I am starting a construction business, I have to decide which kind of tools I am going to use in my factory: traditional measurements or metric. No matter which choice I make, there will be losses. Each kind of tool has advantages as well as disadvantages. But do I decide on those grounds that this is “an insurmountable problem” and therefore I should not open my factory? No, I make a choice and then proceed. It is no more insurmountable a problem to make a choice for which spelling “tools” to use, than for making a choice of what kind of mechanical tools to use.

On what basis are choices to be made? The 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who made many wise statements that were far ahead of his time, suggested that the best basis for making a moral choice is to choose that which will be of greatest benefit to the greatest number.

With a nod to Bentham, I decided to base my respellings on mainstream American English, as represented by an inland northern and Midwestern United States accent. This is not my own accent (which is Southern U.S.), and I chose this accent mainly because it represents the style of English that is actually spoken in everyday conversation by the largest number of speakers who use English as their native language.

I made this choice on the same basis that I would choose metric tools if I were starting a construction business, because metric is the most common type of tool being used in the world today, and any products made with metric tools would have the advantage of being more easily repaired anywhere in the world.

In addition, though, there are advantages to using mainstream American English as the basis for spelling, beyond the fact that it represents the largest number of English speakers of the largest English-speaking nation. Because mainstream American English is less singsong than British English, with a narrower range of pitch, it is more readily intelligible to others and thus easier to learn. For both of these reasons, a choice of general American English seems to be the easiest for the most people to speak and understand this style of pronunciation. It is the greatest good for the greatest number, not only for the specific individuals who want to learn English, but also for humanity in general. Improved spelling will bring about greater global communication, which is vital to human progress in the 21st century. I want the Williams respelling system to become for communication what the invention of metrics has done for measurement. Both metric tools and spelling tools are tools in the literal sense, which with careful design can bring about great advances and progress in human affairs.

 

 

3.  SPELLING SHOULD BE CONSISTENT

Words should be spelled consistently.  Thus, all words that sound alike (for example, “ to, two, too; cent, sent, scent; know, no; seen, scene; bury, berrie; be, bee” ) should be spelled alike, and their various meanings can be discerned from the context of the sentence. Conversely, if words are pronounced differently, they should be spelled differently.  For example, both the present and past tenses of the verb “read” are spelled the same way in traditional spelling, even though the past tense is pronounced “red.”  Since the Williams respelling system is based on pronunciation, when using the past tense of this verb it should be spelled just like the color “red.”

No other factor than pronunciation should be used to determine the correct spelling of a word. The Williams respelling system rejects the idea that the history of a word should determine its spelling. If the pronunciation of the word has changed over the last several centuries, it should be spelled in the way that the word is actually pronounced today. I also reject the idea that “related” words (for example, “music” [myu-zk] and “musician” [myu-zi-shun]) should be spelled similarly even though they are pronounced differently. The goal of the Williams respelling system is consistency and ease of learning.

To be consistent, all endings of words like “uncle, apple, animal, conventional” should end in –l  while all endings of words like “leader, author, pleasure” should end in –r and all endings of words like “instance, sentence, appearance and experience” should end in –uns.

 

 

4.  EACH LETTER SHOULD HAVE ONLY ONE PRONUNCIATION

To make spelling consistent, each letter should ideally have one and only one pronunciation. This pronunciation should be used in every occasion when that letter appears, and the pronunciation should not change depending on its place in a word or in relation to other letters. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to follow this principle with letters like “a o t” simply because those letters have so many different sounds. But for all the other letters, that have only one or two sounds, having consistent pronunciation for that letter will make the learning process much less difficult. Once people have memorized how a particular letter is pronounced they will be able to look at a word and tell its pronunciation easily. Reading will become much less onerous, and more people will become literate in English.

 

5.  LETTERS THAT ARE NOT SOUNDED IN A SPOKEN WORD SHOULD BE DELETED

Silent letters that are not needed to communicate the pronunciation of a word should be dropped. This includes unnecessary vowels. The Williams system rejects the spelling rule that a vowel must be contained within every syllable. The minimum number of spelling rules, and the minimum number of letters, should be used to communicate sounds. Whenever there is more than one way to spell a word, the version with the least number of letters will be used. For example, the words “peace” and “piece” can be spelled either “pEs” or “Ps.” The word “Little” can be spelled either “Littul” or “Litl.” In cases like this, the shorter spelling will be used.  This is the reason why the Williams system retains the use of the letters Q and X, which most spelling reformers discard. It is true that the sound of Q can be spelled “kw” and the sound of X can be spelled “eks” but since the Williams system favors fewer letters in a word these letters are retained. While there is no reason for the superfluous “e” in the first syllable of the word “expert”, the letter x is especially useful for this common sound. Thus, “expert” is written “xprt” and “sucks” is written “sux” to be consistent with the other vowel sounds in the similar words “sax, sex, six, sox.”

 

6.  APOSTROPHES SHOULD BE DELETED

Likewise, besides silent letters, the use of apostrophes in word contractions should also be dropped. Apostrophes are confusing and difficult for learners of English to know when to use an apostrophe or not. Even native speakers find it difficult to distinguish its from it’s, their from there and they’re, and your from you’re. Under the Williams respelling system, because all words that sound alike are spelled alike, these problems and difficulties are eliminated. The various different meanings can be discerned from the context. For common words like “don’t, can’t, we’re, I’m, I’ll, it’s, wouldn’t, shouldn’t,” there is no reason for English learners to have to use an apostrophe. After all these hundreds of years of use, they should be accepted as words in and of themselves.

In addition, to eliminate the need for an apostrophe to show possession (confusingly written as ‘s ‘es s’ with the apostrophe placed sometimes before the letter and sometimes after the letter) the use of a capital “Z” at the end of a word can be used to indicate possession, without having to add an apostrophe. See the discussion in the chapter on simplified grammar for examples like the words JohnZ and teacherZ. The “Z” is pronounced in these nouns because their root ends in what linguists call a “voiced” sound. In contrast, for words that end in a “voiceless” sound, an “S” sound is triggered, as in “the bookS cover is the same color as PatS book, and the topS binding of both books is the same as well.” A linguist would argue that representing possession with a Z for all words is confusing, but for most people—many of whom would not even notice the slight difference in pronunciation between a “Z” sound in JohnZ and an “S” sound in PatS—the consistent use of one letter Z for all possession references would be easier to learn and remember. Since the overriding purpose of the Williams respelling system is to make English easier to learn, the advantage of using one consistent letter to indicate possession outweighs the slight disadvantage.

 

7. ONLY STANDARD LETTERS OF THE ROMAN ALPHABET SHOULD BE USED IN SPELLING

If apostrophes are confusing to many people, the introduction of unfamiliar new letters and diacritical marks by linguists and spelling reformers becomes even more confusing. The most accurate pronunciation system becomes useless if it is not adopted. In acknowledging this reality, the Williams system rejects the invention of new letters and the kind of strange unfamiliar marks used by linguists and most spelling reformers. The Williams system uses only the standard familiar letters of the Roman alphabet.

This restriction has the major advantage that Williams respellings can be typed easily on any standard typewriter or computer keyboard. The main problem that spelling reformers have faced is that English has more sounds than there are letters in the Roman alphabet. As a consequence, the only way that all these different sounds can be expressed is by putting together the letters in different ways. Because traditional spelling of English does this in so many inconsistent ways, spelling is extremely difficult to master. Spelling reformers have called for letters to be put together in consistent ways so that each syllable is always spelled the same way. But there are still problems with the existing respelling proposals that have been offered. These problems are the basic reason why spelling reform has not been successful in persuading most people to change the way they read and write the English language.

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About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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