Why English Spelling is Difficult

6. WHY ENGLISH SPELLING IS SO DIFFICULT

Even more than the inconsistencies of English grammar, the characteristic of English that most holds it back from being an effective means of global communication is its chaotic spelling. English has more spelling inconsistencies than practically any written language in the world today. This chapter is meant to illustrate these problems, and to show why the solution to these problems is the respelling system that I came up with. If you accept that English has bad spelling and simply want to try the Williams respellings, then you may skip this chapter and go to the end where the Williams respelling pronunciation guide is held.

If you are reading this book in English you obviously know enough of the language to be familiar with the way words are spelled, but forget for a moment that you have memorized the way to pronounce the words below. Imagine that you only know the general way that particular letters are pronounced. Now try to figure out how to pronounce these words by the regular pronunciations of those letters strung together in this order:

Circle  [“kirk” + “le” =  kirk’ le ]

Laugh  [“la” + “uh” + “ga” + “ha” =  la uh’ga ha ]

Quotient  [ “quo” + “ti” + “unt” = quo’ ti unt ]

Disguise  [ “dis” + “gah” + “uh” + “is” + “e” =  dis’ gah uh is e  ]

Choir  [ “see” + “ha” + “o” + “ear” = see’ha o ear ]

Weight  [ “wa” + “ei” + “ga” + “ha” + “te” = wa ei ga ha’ te]

Conscience [ “con” + “sci” + “uns” = con’ science ]

Century [ “ken” + “tu” + “ry” = ken tu’ ry ]

Phase  [“pa” + “ha” +”se” = pa ha’ se ]

Neighbor  [“nei” + “ga” + “ha” + “b” + “or” = nei ga’ ha bor ]

dictionary.  [ “dic” + “ti” + “o” + “na” + “ry” = dic ti o’ na ry ]

Imagine a person first trying to learn this language, and trying to figure out a logical pattern to pronunciation.  How do they know that the “w” is silent in “who, whose” but the “h” is silent in “hour”?  Most words with “–tion” at the end, like “nation, condition” are pronounced as “shn” which is crazy enough by itself, but that is very different from the pronunciation of “question” which ends in a “chn” sound.  English has complex spelling rules that will let someone know when adding a single letter to “us” makes “use,” when “are” makes “bare,” when “tub” makes “tube.” And then teachers have to explain which words do not follow the rules. The only way people can learn these exceptions is to memorize them. Who can figure out by logic how a slight difference in spelling makes a very different sound, as with these words:

this / thin     though / through       sugar / suggest

lone / long / lose / loud       study / student      is / island

There are so many inconsistencies that English almost defies logic.  Why does the same sound get spelled so many different ways?  Why is the winner said to have “won” but the first number is spelled “one,” and the nearest star is the “sun” but a male child is a “son”?  Why is “defense” spelled with an “se” ending but “instance” with “ce,” and “heresy” with an “sy” ending but “agency” with “cy?”  How is an English learner expected to know that the exact same sound in the words “fade, grade, invade, jade, made, trade, wade” is spelled differently in the words “aid, laid, paid” but the similar spelling of “said” is not pronounced the same way?  Try to find a pattern in the spelling of the following words that all end with the same sound but have different spellings:

shoe, blue, Jew

me, key, agree, flea, debris

concur, defer, were, stir, purr

assure, detour, amateur, your, you’re

calendar, customer, janitor, massacre

rain, reign, cane, chowmein, campaign, cocaine

pupil, able, several

rule, school, beautiful

week, speak, unique, batik, chic, eke, sheik, shriek

The ultimate inconsistency consists of many words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, as in:

ate / eight      bear / bare       gray / grey          hay / hey         I / eye

maid / made       their / there / they’re        weigh / way            your/ you’re

Beyond this problem of multiple spellings for similar sounds, there is also the opposite problem that some words that are spelled the same way are pronounced differently.  For example, three words with only one letter difference are pronounced very differently:  comb, tomb, bomb. The word for the hearing organ “ear” is pronounced as “ir”, but by adding the two letters “ly” at the end the pronunciation is changed to “ur” in the word “early.” Consider how difficult it is for people trying to learn how to spell and pronounce words in English when they see sentences like these confusing examples:

1. It is hard for farmers to produce enough produce, but it is equally hard for them to refuse to see much of it as refuse.

2. We must take the lead in reducing the content of lead in paint, or the claims of the invalid will be invalid.

3. The Polish subject had to subject herself to the strong smell of shoe polish before deciding to desert in the desert.

4.  I could not close the door because my clothes were too close to it.

5.  Since you are my intimate friend I will intimate to you that I will not object because the object I wanted to present is not present.

6.  He shed a tear because the bandage had a big tear and was not wound well around the wound.

7.  She wanted to record a record, but because a dove dove into the wind tunnel, they had to wind up their session without recording anything.

Some related words are spelled alike but pronounced differently, as with music (pronounced  myu-zk) / musician (which if English were consistent would be pronounced as myu-zk-e-un, but is actually pronounced myu-zi-shn).  If English were consistent, one who performs music would not be called a musician at all, but should be called a musicter, just as one who sings is a singer, one who acts is an actor, one who directs is a director, and one who writes is a writer.  If these words were spelled the way they sound, and for the sake of consistency, they should all have “r” at the end and be spelled as myuzktr, singr, aktr, direktr, ritr.

In terms of spelling, whether of different sounds spelled the same way or similar sounds spelled differently, English is truly awful!  American and British schoolchildren have to spend years doing rote memorization of all the myriad ways that similar words are spelled.  Spelling tests and spelling bees are major subjects in schools. It takes students many years of study to achieve good spelling. And many people do not succeed at spelling. This lack of success has a terrible impact on literacy levels. A 1998 study sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy, titled “The State of Literacy in America” [at http://nifl.gov online, and reported at http://www.americanliteracy.com online] found that twenty percent of Americans cannot read adequately. That is, one in five adult Americans cannot perform even simple reading-writing tasks, such as reading a children’s book to their child, filling out a job interview form, finding locations on a map, understanding written directions to get to a specific location, or being able to use written instructions to assemble material items.

Dyslexia is diagnosed as a major mental health problem in America and Britain, with many people not being able to read well.

In contrast, in nations like Italy and Spain that have phonetic alphabets, literacy rates are higher and dyslexia is much lower. Yet, schools in these nations spend much less effort to teach reading. Spelling is not even taught as a subject in schools, and the idea of spelling bees is absurd because basically everyone is a good speller. Once people learn the basic rules of pronunciation (for example that the letter “j” is always pronounced as an English “h” sound, and “i” is always pronounced as an English “ee” sound), it is very easy to know how to pronounce a word.

Since I remember quite clearly how difficult spelling was for me to learn in my childhood, I can only begin to imagine how much more difficult it must be for a non-native speaker to learn English. As an anthropologist, I never became much interested in linguistics. All those jargon-filled linguistic terms, like glottal stops and fixated aspirations, rather reminded me of those stressful spelling tests from my youth. Yet, the more I have learned about other languages, and can see how much more simple and consistent they are than English, I am more and more driven by the need to reform English.

Why is English spelling so inconsistent, and so divergent from the regular sound of the alphabet? Part of the reason is due to this language’s history of multiple influences from other languages, on spelling as well as on other aspects of English. But the English language was made even worse in its spelling due to the influence of early publishers of books and pamphlets. Printers in England were paid by the page, and so from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century it was common for printers to insert extra letters into words for no other purpose than to make words longer and thus to reap more profit. For example, a body pain that had previously been spelled as “ak” became “ache.” The sound of the letter “f” started being spelled as “ph” in some words, even though a word like “philosophy” is still pronounced like the “f” in “fill.” Extra silent letters were added into words like the “s” in island, “b” in crumb and thumb, “g” in foreign and sovereign, “h” in ghost, and “a” in team, head, road, beauty, yearn, roar. These letters did not alter the way the words continued to be spoken, but with other changes in pronunciation over time, the way a word was spelled diverged ever more widely from the way it was spoken.

It is impossible to estimate how much money has been wasted over the centuries, in terms of extra printing costs for all these needlessly added silent letters, and how many trees lost their lives for printing the extra pages. As English spreads around the world, it is an ever expanding tragedy as these same wasteful practices of needless letters are extended globally.

In Italy, in contrast, printers were paid by the amount of time they worked rather than by the page, so there was no financial incentive for Italian printers to add useless letters into words. The Italian language, having evolved mostly from the single source of Latin, is also much more consistent in its spelling than English. When a person who knows Italian looks at a word, it is very easy to know how it is pronounced because each sound is always spelled the same way.  English, in contrast, has an average of fourteen different acceptable ways to spell a particular sound! This means that a simple word, for example “scissors,” might be spelled over a hundred different ways. The only way to learn which of these possible spellings is correct is to memorize the spelling for every single word. So, as a result, English learners have to remember that, for example, the word “beautiful” is spelled this way, as opposed to “buetifl, biutiful, butifel” or any number of  other possibilities.  English learners have to remember that the “oo” sound in the words “too zoo” is spelled differently in the words “you, to, two, view, cue, due, few, jew” even though it is the exact same sound.

This process unnecessarily taxes the brain. The memorization process takes a lot more time than simply learning one spelling for one sound. As a result, children in Italy can learn to read and write much quicker than children in English-speaking nations. Despite the popularity of “Spelling Bee” contests in Britain and America, which do not even exist in Italy because spelling is so easy, both children and adults make many more mistakes in English spelling.

Most alarmingly, English-speaking nations have much higher rates of functional illiteracy and of dyslexia. Economic studies have shown that this impairment in literacy costs the British and American economy many millions of pounds/dollars in lost income due to spelling mistakes. It is not that English-speaking people are less intelligent than Italians. The problem is with the language itself. Studies show that only about forty percent of English words are spelled consistently. Spelling reformers are asking only that English reduce the number of acceptable orthographic options, so that there is always one acceptable way to write one sound, and that each sound should be consistently spelled the same way in all words. This is not a difficult thing to accomplish, as Italian and other alphabetic languages show.

G. Dewey,English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. Ken Ives, Written Dialects and Spelling Reform New York: American Literacy Council, 1979. James Pitman and John St. John, Alphabets and Reading. London: Pitman Publishing, 1968.  The scholar’s edition of the American Literacy Council, Dictionary of American Spellings. New York: American Literacy Council  provides an excellent analysis of the problems of English spelling.  Good internet sources include Steve Bett’s “English Spelling Reform”  http://victorian.fortunecity.com/vangogh/555/Spell/spel-links.html

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:

A. 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.

B. 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.

C.  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.

D.  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.

E.  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.”

F.  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.

G. 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 the standard familiar letters of the Roman alphabet, but of necessity due to the lack of enough letters has to use one number (3 which is the IPA symbol for “zh”) and two symbols ( <>  []  ) that are easily made on a keyboard.

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.

 

8. WHY SPELLING REFORM HAS NOT BEEN SUCCESSFUL

THE HISTORY OF SPELLING REFORM AND THE REASONS FOR ITS FAILURE

In order to understand why the Williams system uses the principles above, and the pronunciation guide suggested below, it is necessary to analyze why spelling reform has not been successful in becoming the standard way of spelling for speakers of English. Other languages have undergone successful spelling reform in recent decades, and have been modernized in their spelling. For example, both Sweden and Germany deleted inconsistent spelling and grammar within their languages, making it much easier for students of those languages to become literate. Studies have shown that, once spelling reform is introduced into the schools and print materials, most people adjust fairly quickly to the improved way of spelling.

CHINA

The world’s most significant spelling reform in the twentieth century was not, literally, spelling reform but character reform. Nevertheless, what occurred in China in the 1950s is a testament to the socio-economic importance of spelling reform. The communist government under Mao Ze dong did some horrible things, but it also made some very good and overdue changes to improve Chinese society. One of Maoism’s most important positive legacies was to reform the complex Chinese traditional way of writing. Maoists’ Marxist perspective, which emphasized class conflict, saw literacy as a tool used by China’s traditional upper class to retain its power. Maoists believed that the Chinese upper class had intentionally kept writing complex so that only the elite would be able to become literate.

Wanting to empower the masses of people, Mao’s government decreed that the intricate strokes needed to write Chinese language characters should be simplified. In 1956, after a group of Chinese linguists had studied the best way to accomplish this goal, the government of China enacted the simplified Chinese literacy program. Instructions were given for the new way to write each common character, and schools began to teach this new simplified version of Chinese. All government documents, including all newspapers in the state-owned press, began to be printed with the new simplified characters. Before long, China successfully changed its way of reading and writing.

As a result of this reform, within the next decade literacy levels jumped tremendously in China. With a more simple and consistent way of writing, many more people were able quickly to learn to read and write. China’s upward trajectory in the world in recent decades is due in no small measure to this writing reform movement. For those naysayers who claim that spelling reform cannot work, China is the preeminent example of the success of spelling reform as the most effective way to promote literacy.

Why hasn’t a similar reform occurred in English-speaking countries? Again, it is a product of the unique history of writing in English.

The way that words in English are spelled today is based mostly on the way words were pronounced in the 15th century. But even then, an early printer named William Caxton, who established a printing press in 1476 in Westminister, advocated spelling reform. Significant changes in pronunciation occurred over the next two centuries, leading to much disagreement in the way literate Englishmen (and they were mostly men, since women in England were denied an education until the 19th century) spelled their language.  This untidiness led Samuel Johnson to compile his Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755.  Unfortunately, Johnson did not care much about consistency, and he mostly continued to use the old spellings in his massive work. With the publication of an authoritative dictionary the English language lost a major opportunity to modernize spelling.  As printers in England consulted Johnson’s Dictionary for the standard spelling, reform came to a standstill.

The standardization of English spelling prompted calls for spelling reform. For over two hundred and fifty years Johnson’s critics have called for the elimination of silent letters and consistent spelling. Some of the more prominent thinkers who advocated spelling reform included Benjamin Franklin, co-author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and one of the most prominent founders of the United States of America. Franklin was also one of the most prominent intellectuals of the eighteenth century, with interests ranging from the study of electricity to the study of language.

Prompted by the ideas of Franklin, the movement to reform spelling began in North America. In 1783, the very year that the independence of the United States was recognized by the British government, American patriot Noah Webster declared the need for Americans to decide their own standards for the English language. In the euphoria resulting from the improbable victory of the American rebels in establishing their independence, Webster wanted Americans to be culturally independent as well as politically independent.  In 1783 Webster published his first American Spellling Book, which went through many editions and became famous for its blue cover as Webster’s Blue Backed Speller. In 1828 Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language.  He made several changes in the way words were spelled, dropping silent letters so that words like “musick” became “music,” “judgement” became “judgment,” and “traveller” became “traveler.”  He was consistent in removing the superfluous “u” in words like “labour, colour, honour, behaviour.” He criticized the British spelling of words like “theatre centre” and changed them to “theater center” which more closely reflect the actual pronunciations of those words. Other letters were reformed to accord with pronunciation, so that “cheque” became “check,” and “realise” became “realize.”

The changes first suggested in Webster’s Dictionary have been incorporated into American English, and remain today the major difference between American and British spellings.  Noah Webster was the first successful champion of spelling reform in modern English. Unfortunately, by 1828 Webster had become more conservative, and though he kept his reformed spelling of words like “labor, color, honor, behavior,” Webster’s Dictionary did not incorporate some of his more radical early ideas for spelling reform. If he had retained his earlier spellings, Americans today would spell words like “definit, examin, fether” without their silent letters, as the standard way of spelling.

After Webster, though, the same pattern occurred in America that happened in England following the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary.  Printers and literate people in general used Webster as the authoritative source for correct spelling. New ideas for spelling reform were dismissed and soon disappeared from public discourse.

During the times of immense American growth through the tumultuous years of the Civil War, there was little organized interest in spelling reform. In 1876, however, at the end of Reconstruction, a group of reformers founded the Simplified Spelling Board. It eventually evolved into the American Literacy Council (ALC), which remains quite active up to the present. The ALC suggests that a major reason for low literacy rates among Americans is due to inconsistent and complex spelling. They lobby the publishers of dictionaries to include as alternative acceptable spellings simplified words like “nite, thru, donut.” They have staged mock protests of the National Spelling Bee while dressed in honeybee costumes. Though done in lighthearted fun, the ALC sees spelling bees as the glorification of a bad system, with contestants being rewarded for memorizing the most arcane and inconsistently spelled words. “Enuf is enuf” read the protest signs of the ALC protestors.

It was the popular writer Mark Twain who next brought spelling reform to the public eye. In a number of essays and speeches, Twain made fun of the ridiculous inconsistencies in English spelling. Though his writing was humorous, Twain had a most serious purpose in mind. He wanted to extend the approach of Webster to many additional words.

THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET  (IPA)

The next impetus for change came not from America but from Europe. Spelling reform began to be discussed in great detail in the 1890s, when an international body of linguists came up with a consistent system to transcribe and describe languages. This alphabet was intended to help linguists learn and record the pronunciation of languages accurately.  They isolated phonemes, or sounds, that exist in numerous languages, and made a graphic symbol for each of these sounds. They applied these symbols consistently to various languages, and came up with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). By using standard symbols the IPA avoids the confusion of a multitude of human writing systems and inconsistent spellings. IPA uses Roman, Greek, and borrows characters from other scripts, along with diacritical marks to show minor distinctions in sounds, and to show nasalization of vowels, stress, tones, and lengths of sounds.

As the foundation for linguistics as a field of study, the IPA was a resounding success. Linguists within the past hundred years have used the IPA to transcribe languages that have never been written down before, and the IPA is used by linguists to compare and analyze languages. Every linguist in the world today is trained in the IPA as the most effective way to communicate in written form.

Linguists have come to a consensus that English has about forty-three sounds. There is slight disagreement about the exact number, depending on whether certain minor sounds are considered as their own unique sound or whether they are so close to another sound as to be undistinguishable.

While the IPA has become an important basis for the emergence of linguistics as an academic discipline, it did not accomplish its founders’ major objective. Those linguists who developed the original version of the IPA hoped that their way of writing would become the new basis for international communication. They wanted every literate person to learn the new symbols, so that people would be reading books and newspapers, writing letters and reports, and doing everyday written communication with the IPA letters. However, its multiple special symbols have proved to be too complex and detailed for the average person to understand. IPA uses a series of diacritical marks, like accent marks, dots above and beside a letter, as well as the invention of new letters, like a backwards “c” and an upside down “e,” to represent a sound. IPA has the significant advantage that each one of these symbols represents a unique sound, and that symbol always sounds the same way. Its disadvantage is that these marks are hard for many people to remember, difficult to read and reproduce in writing, and they are not keys on the standard computer keyboard.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Nevertheless, the IPA did have a significant impact on the thinking of Theodore Roosevelt, who became the most powerful advocate of spelling reform in the early 20th century. He was the author of several books, and saw himself as an intellectual as well as political pioneer. When he was President of the United States, from 1901 to 1909, Roosevelt promoted many ideas of reforms that were intended to improve America. Among his concerns, Roosevelt wanted to improve the literacy rates of Americans. He became convinced that the reform of the English language—like other reforms he championed—would help to build a more powerful and influential America.

In 1903 Roosevelt tried to kickstart a spelling reform movement by ordering government printers to start using more rational and consistent spellings when printing official U.S. government documents. Roosevelt specified changes in spelling for 304 words that he considered most badly spelled. For example, his list included “aline” to replace “align.”

If Congress had acted on Roosevelt’s suggestions, and ordered these new spellings to be the legal basis for all public documents, those more rational spellings would have become the standard, and generations of Americans (and now, people throughout the world) would have greatly benefited.  In 1906 Roosevelt’s supporters founded the Simplified Spelling Board, which got off to a great start. They won a major grant from the Carnegie Foundation, and official endorsement by the National Education Association. The board later changed its name to the American Literacy Council. The ALC has done great work over the last century, publishing a dictionary with fonetic spellings and an excellent analysis of the problems of traditional English spelling. [ibid] Despite this good work, though, the United States Congress has never taken any action. Many Congressmen did not see the value of simplifying English spelling, and they did not pass Roosevelt’s spelling reform law. No other American president since Roosevelt has taken an interest in spelling reform.

Why, it must be asked, did the movement for spelling reform have so little success? Why did the International Phonetic Alphabet become only a tool for specialized academic linguists, rather than a new way for everyone to read and write? My analysis is that IPA failed to gain popular support because most people were confused by the multiple marks and strange shapes of the enlarged IPA alphabet. Most people had no idea what a “schwa,” an upside-down “turned e,” or a letter with two dots above it or after it, sounded like. Most people could not even spell IPA words like “diphthong,” much less know what they mean. Rather than try to learn all those strange symbols contained in the IPA code, the mass of the public chose simply to ignore the IPA.

Where the IPA has had the most influence is due to their influence with publishers. IPA marks are used in all standard pronunciation guides in dictionaries and encyclopedias. After the entry of a word in its conventional spelling, a version of the IPA is inserted within parentheses. These respellings provide a good basis for reform of spelling and are a good guide to the way a word is actually said.

The problem with this approach is that the editor of each dictionary has come up with their own variation on the IPA. The currently existing dictionary which is closest to the goal of avoiding unusual symbols is the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. It also has the advantage of being freely available throughout the world on the internet.  See Merriam-Webster Online http://www.m-w.com/ But, unfortunately, even this excellent respelling system uses a double-dot German-like umlaut over the letters  A  and  U  that most English speakers do not understand.

Presented with this confusion of symbols, in which even the experts who write dictionaries cannot agree on the exact symbol to be used for a number of sounds, the public at large has simply chosen to ignore these new spellings.

THE SPELLING SOCIETY, NEW SPELLING:  THE INITIAL TEACHING ALPHABET

With the failure of spelling reform in America, the central locale for spelling reform in the 20th century has been in England. In 1908, a number of spelling reformers in Great Britain founded The Simplified Spelling Society. Though the organization later simplified its own name to The Spelling Society, it has continued to be the leading champion of spelling reform to the present. Its website is http://spellingsociety.org

An early influence on the Spelling Society was a Swede named R. E. Zachrisson who invented a new spelling system in 1930 that he named “Anglic.” In contrast to the IPA emphasis on creating a unique symbol with diacritical marks to represent each sound, Anglic depended on different combinations of letters to make each sound. .” Zachrisson’s respellings got rid of silent letters, and focused on combinations like “ae” as in “maet” (mate), “ee” as in “yeer” (year), “ie” as in “liev” (live), and “oe” as in “boet” (boat), to show long vowels. The basic vowel sounds of the letter “a” for example included:  ae as in mate,  aa  as in father,  au  as in all. He used K for many words spelled with C, th for words like thank, and dh  as in  whether. The problem with Zachrisson’s new spellings is that he was not consistent. He allowed some common words like “is, the, that, this” to continue to be spelled in the conventional way, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his system for new learners. Nevertheless, his focus on combinations of different letters to make standard sounds became the major approach of the “New Spelling” movement.

The most prominent president of The Spelling Society in the 20th century was Sir James Pitman. With the help and input of other members Pitman came up with an alternative to the complex IPA. Eventually Pittman’s “New Spelling” approach resulted in the creation of the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) which was designed to introduce reading and writing to young children. Pitman isolated 44 sounds which he said are the basic phonemes of English.  With less precision than the IPA,  ITA contains 44 letters, using the Roman alphabet (except for the letters Q and X, which have no sound of their own) plus fourteen other letters.  Some of these new letters are combinations of Roman letters that are run together:  ae  au  ie  oe oi  ou  ue  wh .  In addition, ITA includes other letters that are redesigns of a double letter e, an r with a diagonal mark, a backwards Z, a letter that is similar to the number 3, four original designs based loosely on a combination of the letters ch, th, sh, ng, plus two other original designs that have no counterpart in the Roman alphabet.

The ITA is the most successful of any of the spelling reforms since the invention of the original IPA. The ITA has been used successfully as a teaching technique to introduce writing to many children. Several school systems in England and in the United States adopted it in the 1960s. In contrast to the IPA, though, the ITA tries to simplify spelling without using the confusing diacritical marks contained in the IPA.

ITA ELIMINATED CAPITAL LETTERS

The ITA also introduced a new way to simplify English spelling by eliminating the use of capital letters. The inventors of ITA pointed out that learners of English have to memorize four sets of letters: capital upper case letters in both printed and handwritten forms (which are significantly different in the case of the capital letters A, F, G, I, J, and L), as well as lower case letters in both printed and handwritten forms.  To decrease the number of letters that students need to learn, the ITA uses only lower case letters. The only lower case letter that differs significantly between the printed form and the handwritten form is the letter “a”, and ITA uses both of those forms to represent different sounds.  Using only lower case letters makes it much easier for learners of English to remember the letters.

A number of studies have proved that children learn to read and write much faster using the ITA than the traditional alphabet. One of the most important contributions of the ITA is that it shows the lack of necessity for capital letters.

Though the Initial Teaching Alphabet is the most effective system currently existing, it creates its own problems in trying to come up with a way to represent all the sounds of English. ITA presents 44 sounds, and besides using the 26 letters of the lower-case Roman alphabet, it is forced to combine existing letters into one sound, and to invent new letters. A number of prominent respelling systems take this approach, to avoid the difficulties of IPA.

The ITA and its offshoots invent a number of letters, but these have several disadvantages. First, two of the new letters are very similar to two letters “u” written together, as “uu” which in handwritten form can be confused easily with the letter “w”. Second, one of the new letters looks like the Arabic numeral 3. This use of 3 is confusing to young people who are also learning to read numbers at the same time.

The third disadvantage of the new letters is that they are not included on a standard typewriter or computer keyboard. That fault alone makes the ITA, and many other similar respelling systems, practically useless in the computer age. It is true that computers can be recoded to produce such letters, but in the meantime until such use becomes prominent this fault prevents most people from going ahead and starting to use the new spellings right now. This fault, by itself, prevents the easy spread of ITA and other respellings, just as much as the upside-down “turned e” and backwards “c” of the IPA limit its practical usefulness for the majority of people. Most people are not going to request a retooling of their computer keyboard as professional linguists do. For spelling reform to become a reality, reformers must recognize and accommodate this reality.

Besides inventing new letters, ITA also deals with the issue of more sounds in English than there are letters in the Roman alphabet, by combining certain letters. To represent different and unique sounds, ITA places an “e” after all vowels, a “u” after the letters “a” and “o,” an “i” after “o”, and an “h” after the letters “c s t.” Though ITA is better and more consistent than many other respelling systems, its use of these combined letters make for other disadvantages.

First, as with the ITA invented letters, the two combined letters cannot be connected when typing on the standard keyboard. Second, it is complex for learners to have to remember that “e” combines with “a e i o u” while “u” is only combined with “a” and “o,” “i” only with “o,” and “h” with “c s t.”

Third, the combined letters have a different pronunciation than the same two letters pronounced separately. Thus, according to the ITA pronunciation guide:

ae   is pronounced as in the name of the letter A, and not as  “a” plus “e” are pronounced.

ee   is pronounced as in the name of the letter E, and not as  “e” plus “e”  are pronounced.

ie   is pronounced as in the name of the letter I (eye) and not as “I” plus “e” are pronounced.

oe  is pronounced as in the name of the letter o (owe) and not as “o” plus “e” are pronounced.

ue  is pronounced as in the name of the letter u (unit use) and not as “u” plus “e” are pronounced.

ch  is pronounced as in “chair, chicken” is not as “c” plus “h” are pronounced.

sh  is pronounced as in  “she, should,”  is not as  “s” plus “h” are pronounced.

th (with a backwards t) is pronounced as in  “the, this”  is not as “t” plus “h” are pronounced.

th  is pronounced as in  “three, thank, thin” is not as “t” plus “h” are pronounced.

With this ITA system, a reader typing on a standard keyboard cannot be sure if they are supposed to pronounce the word spelled “foe” as “fa” plus “ah” and “eh” = “fa-ah-eh” or as “f” plus “owe” = “foe.” A reader cannot be certain that the word “lie” is not pronounced “la” plus “i” [as in the word “ill”] and “eh” = “la-i-eh” or as “l” plus “eye” = “lie.” The first two letters of the word “chair” might be pronounced “ch” or separately as “kah” plus “ha.” These are only a few examples of the confusion that results from trying to use combined letters for different sounds.

Several other writing systems have been designed by linguists over the years, probably the best of which are Axel Wijk “Regularized English” (1959).  The most famous advocate of spelling reform was the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, who when he died in 1950 left a bequest in his will to promote spelling reform.  The Shaw alphabet that resulted from this collaborative effort has 48 letters. All these other respelling systems present different problems than ITA. For example, the system “e-speec” at its website http://e-speec.com perceptively criticizes those respelling systems that invent new letters and use complex and confusing diacritical marks. But e-speec runs up against the same reality as the IPA, ITA, and other spelling systems: there are more sounds in English than there are letters in the Roman alphabet. While e-speec has a laudable goal in wanting to use only standard letters of the Roman alphabet, the way in which e-speec deals with this conundrum is flawed.

The solution that e-speec proposes requires many instructions. Its website contains a complex set of spelling rules. The following quote gives an idea of what e-speec demands of its practicioners:

“Long vowels a, i, o and u are indicated by an ‘e’ on the end of the word. But long ‘e’ is spelt ‘ee.’ At the end of a word, long accented ‘e’ is spelt ‘ee’; long ‘a’ is spelt ‘ay’. Short unaccented ‘i’ at the end of a word is spelt ‘y’…. A consonant is doubled when the preceding vowel is short, and when the syllable is stressed…. In cases where the preceding vowel is long (except for ‘ee’), this fact is indicated by adding ‘e’ before a final ‘i.”

In its long and confusing list of rules, e-speec has a discussion of the difference between long vowels and short vowels. E-speec changes the pronunciation of a vowel by adding an “e” to the end of the word. For example, “mat” is pronounced “ma” plus “t”, but “mate” is pronounced “may” plus “t.” This can be very confusing for a non-native speaker, who in looking at an unfamiliar word spelled m-a-t-e cannot be sure if it is  pronounced in one syllable or in two syllables as “ma” plus “te” = “ma-te.” With these rules, e-speec violates the principle of the IPA that a symbol should be pronounced the same all the time, irrespective of its location within a word.

Given all these problems inherent in the respelling systems that have been offered, many linguists have reacted against even the attempt to reform spelling. The consensus among linguists today is that drastic reform is impracticable, undesirable, and unlikely.  There are three main objections to spelling reform:

  1. There is not one criterion for correct pronunciation because several standards exist in the English-speaking world.
  2. Pronunciation is not static, but continues to change with each new generation.
  3. If spelling were changed drastically, all the books in English in the world’s public and private libraries would become inaccessible to readers without special study.
  4. People do not like to use the new alphabets that have been offered.

In the following posts I will introduce the Williams Respelling System, which is designed in light of these critiques. In my opinion, the main reason spelling reform has not caught on with the general public is because people do not like to use the new alphabets that have been presented.  The major objection is that the average person does not have a clue how to pronounce an upside down letter “e” or any of the other strange symbols that have been presented.  Linguists, who are familiar with the IPA and other systems of notation of phonemes, seem to forget that all the world does not share their specialized knowledge.

Spelling reform has been stymied because each existing respelling system has weaknesses as well as strengths. IPA has the advantage of offering a system by which every sound has its own unique symbol, but the disadvantage of requiring people to learn many unfamiliar symbols. I am convinced that the main reason spelling reform efforts in the past have not been accepted is because linguists tried to introduce these strange symbols that are familiar to them. But most native English speakers have no frame of reference to identify these markings.  Presented with various squiggles and diacritical marks that they cannot read, people simply ignore the spelling reformers and continue on with the old antiquated traditional spellings despite their disadvantages.

In addition, IPA symbols—as well as the new and combined letters introduced by ITA—are not contained on standard typewriter or computer keyboards and thus are not easily utilized. The ITA and similar systems have the advantage of not using confusing diacritical marks, but the disadvantage of introducing strange letters that are themselves confusing.

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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).
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