Reformed Views on Spelling Reform

Back in college, I obsessed over English spelling reform. Why deal with silent gh’s, I figured, when things can be so much cleaner? So I started inventing phonetically-precise alphabets, ending up with results like this:

Tu bii or not tu bii, that iz dhy kweschn!

Or sometimes I’d get fancy with the diacritics:

Tú haushóldz bóth ëlaik in dignití…

Or I’d mess around with phonemically contrastive capital letters and punctuation marks in place of vowels:

D.-kw:l.t’-.v-mrs’-’z-n:t-str!nd–

That last one is from Portia’s monologue in The Merchant of Venice. Clearly!

Alas, I was unaware at the time that a Germanic cousin was attempting widespread spelling reform, and the results were mixed, to say the least. Here’s Robert Lane Greene on what happened in Germany:

One state had 60% of voters reject the reforms in a referendum; two others announced they would ignore the reform, which had been the product of 10 years’ work. One of Germany’s most venerable papers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reverted to the old spelling in 2000, and the Spiegel and the entire Springer-Verlag followed.

Keep in mind that these reforms were extremely minor compared to the top-down reboot I imagined in my late teens. I would probably agree with said reforms, were I a German speaker. And if modest attempts to regularize the grapheme /ß/ has the potential to cause such a ruckus, one can only imagine the outrage if we added unfamiliar double vowels and umlauts to English.

As I started studying dialects, I began to wonder just whose dialect my fantastical systems would emulate. To avoid any prejudice, I started using Wells’ lexical sets. But this caused problems in its own right. My American eyes would need to scan constructions like dauns for “dance” and aufter for “after.” A Northern Englishman would have to contend, likewise, with a different letter for “put” or “but.” And while a Glaswegian, say, probably sees nothing wrong with using the same double-o in “book” and “loot,” she would have to adjust to these words having different spellings in a phonemically exhaustive system.

As I became more of a book-reader, grand spelling reform started to rankle the bibliophile in me. I enjoy perusing dusty volumes from the 1700s with a fairly good idea of what the author is describing. And what about purposefully fanciful spellings and eye dialect? Hardy, Stevenson, Lawrence, Twain, and Hurston all require an understanding of orthographic standards to comprehend their characters’ non-standard English. Good luck creating an OCR algorithm to translate Hardy’s West Country into a new system.

So sorry, 19-year-old me, I don’t think your goofy alphabets are such a gud aidiia. That’s not to suggest that minor changes in spelling are a bad thing; it may very well be that “women” and “enough” will one day be spelled wimin and enuff. Spelling will change, just as everything in language changes. But adopting standards to fit the natural evolution of language is always preferable to overhauling everything in one fell swoop.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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29 Responses to Reformed Views on Spelling Reform

  1. I have always been a huge proponent of spelling reform, but alas, I’m still young. Perhaps that, too, will fade. That said, I think that English could really benefit from some light reforms, and the first thing to go would indeed be those damn -gh-’s. Through could just as easily be thru, though should be tho, and so on. I actually did a presentation just yesterday about why English orthography is terrible. I feel like a reform starting here could do wonders. I doubt the general English-speaking populace would have that much trouble adjusting to lite for light and so on, but I feel that more ambitious reforms to bring the orthography in line with the phonetics (ai for I? Hwai?) would be a Sisyphean endeavor.

    • Mike Ellwood says:

      The trouble is that “thru” is no more logical than “through”.

      Do you pronounce “cup” to rhyme with “up” or “coop”?

      Do you pronounce “thrush” to rhyme with “whoosh?”

      The “gh”‘s in English usually imply a relationship with German “ch”, e.g.

      “might” = “Macht” in German.
      “through” = “durch” in German.

      Your “thru” would destroy that relationship.

      Of interest to historical linguists only? Well, English learners of German find them quite useful, and perhaps the other way round as well.

      Be careful what you get rid of. If it evolves away, that’s another thing, but “reformers” who think they know best….hmm. that’s another thing.

      • NJH says:

        “might” = “Macht” in German.
        “through” = “durch” in German.

        Looks like the relationship has already been destroyed or at least strained. I think “might” is OK as it belongs to a family of words with long i’s that have some regularity about them even though the etymology is (as in “light”) dubious.

        Whereas the “ough” letter string is notorious and in need of reform.

      • Thru is inherently much more logical than Through if for no other reason than it reduces the number of silent letters which we’re forcing people to type out. It is more logical in that no native speaker has pronounced that gh in hundreds of years, and unlike in light/might and so on, it provides no clues about the pronunciation of the word in question. Etymological relations are of much more interest to language aficionados and foreign-language learners than the millions of monolingual English speakers who could truly benefit from simpler spelling.

        Additionally, obviously no spelling reform will be able to accurately depict ALL dialects in a language as varied as English. But I bet we could come up with one that fairly accurately depicts the most important contrasts in the language without needing to stress ourselves over having every letter correspond to one sound. Even if we say that this is a pipe dream, I see no reason why we couldn’t reform the spellings of words which have been English for hundreds of years to fit their updated pronunciations. Surely no one now claims that “hiccough” is preferable to “hiccup”? Or plough to plow? So why weigh ourselves down with these archaisms without good reason?

      • biggles says:

        I’d choose “throo” in any case. I’m not aware of any one-syllable words in English that end with ‘u’.

  2. Mike Ellwood says:

    hmm…..Glad you are not now such a spelling reformer. G.B. Shaw was a spelling reformer as well, but he also had some very odd ideas, so the fact that he supported spelling reform does not necessarily signify.

    My argument against reform is that it destroys the historical relationship between words.

    With your “wimin” – well, I for one don’t pronounce it that way (and that’s the biggest argument against spelling reform – not my pronunciation, but because it doesn’t allow for accent / dialect, for one thing).

    But it destroys the relationshop between man – woman and men – women – or are you going to make the plural of “man” “min”? I don’t know anyone who pronounces it that way.

  3. Dan E. says:

    And yet, languages like Spanish have a long history of centrally managed orthographic reform. They even drop letters from the alphabet! Do you feel like the English language, or Anglophone culture, is different in important ways that make reform less practicable?

    • @Dan,

      I don’t have have a problem with modest, common sense changes (as I said, I suspect I would have actually been okay with some of Germany’s reforms). I can also see the value in overhauling a complicated (or colonially-imposed) system in cases of widespread illiteracy. But completely revamping a system that goes back centuries at a time when literacy is fairly widespread in the English speaking world seems unnecessary to me.

  4. Kendra says:

    kidnapping or kidnaping?
    benefitting or benefiting?
    levelling or leveling?
    cancelling or canceling?

  5. dw says:

    @Ben — if you haven’t already, you may be interested to read John Wells’s article on the subject.

    • Great article. He makes a good point about /-ed/. I would rather keep explicit the shared morpheme in “bared” and “missed” than alter the latter to reflect pronunciation. I would also be wary of reforming spelling to reflect contrasts greatly in decline (e.g. LOT-CLOTH, NORTH-FORCE, WIDE-WHITE) just for exhaustiveness’ sake.

  6. Dee says:

    Makes me think of old Colonel McCormick in Chicago–he was a huge spelling reformer, and since he owned the Chicago Tribune, he was able to put his beliefs into practice. But I found it very jarring to read things like “grafic,” “foto,” “iland,” “burocrat,” etc, in the old papers. Some of his spellings did make it onto the accepted list, however: catalog, dialog, harken, to name a few.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-01-29/site/ct-per-flash-simplespelling-0229-20120129_1_spelling-texting-tribune

  7. Ellen K. says:

    If you want to have a single written language with phonetic spelling, then there has to be a standardized version of the language for the spelling to match, and so people still we have to learn how to correctly spell words.

    Languages vary enough (within each language) that you really can’t have a system where each speaker can just write it how they pronounce it and they will all write the same thing. And I do think standardized spelling is easier to read than if each writer spelled phonetically for their own speech.

    • biggles says:

      You can remove letter combinations that no speaker has, however. ‘gh’ isn’t a bad example of that. “Thow”, “Thruw” wouldn’t be unrecognizable for any widely spoken forms of English, would it?

      • Pedro A. says:

        Another example would be removing the “o” in colour or favour.

        Oh, but this has been done and the world didn’t end!

  8. Nico says:

    I simply think there is too much variation in the English-speaking world to develop a single, phonetic spelling reform that every single Anglophone nation can agree on and adopt. It’s not like American or British spelling have any real logic, though one could argue American spelling is the more simplified spelling system. Anyway, vowels and diphthongs vary too much from country to country and even within regions of each country. But then something like an abjad (Arabic, Hebrew) wouldn’t really work either because of too many ambiguous possibilities when going only by the consonants.

  9. Tom says:

    Obviously the second word in your third (Merchant of Venice) example should be spel’d Koalatea…

  10. Di says:

    I wonder what the reformers would do with “derive” and “derivation”, “nature” and “natural”, “photo” and “photography”, “trivial” and “triviality”, “real” and “realism” and “reality”, etc.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Easy:
      derív, derivásion
      nátùr, natùral
      fóto, fotografy
      trivial, triviality,
      réal, realizm, reality

      ;-)

  11. Rodger C says:

    Di points out one of the major problems with spelling reform, the large differences between phonetics, phonemics, and morphophonemics in English. What level do you want to represent?

  12. English spelling is weird, irregular and, frankly, an insult to intelligence. But it is highly standardised, making written English very easy to understand.

    It`s main shortcoming is for learners of English as a second language: when you read something you don`t know exactly how to say it.

    I suggest that phonetic spelling should be used more in learning English, using material like this https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/social-english-live/id848156674?mt=11

  13. Mike Haseler says:

    I came across this website whilst looking for a list of words in British phonetics.

    Over Easter I was arguing with my kids over whether we could do away with “c” and as they wouldn’t believe me I decided to write a program to do it automatically. From researching that I remembered several other redundant letters (e.g. Q).

    Finally I produced the following which converts everything phonetically, but I faced exactly the same problem as you (which I’ve put on a totally irrelevant website I had lying around: http://ukipper.co.uk/).

    This is still “under development”, but as it seemed so relevant I ported the website especially for you.

  14. MarceloVC says:

    If I could cast a foreign light on this subject. I’m too much of a language conservative to try to suggest drastic changes in a language. English for me always sounded beautifully surprising. I loved to learn and pronounce words like COLONEL and HICCOUGH. It was amazing how a language could have a nearly unrelated form between spelling and pronunciation. But I admit that it causes natives and non-natives some trouble. Spelling is always going to be a problem in English as it is in Portuguese, because of different accents, perceptions and, why not, origins of the language. Nevertheless, recently there have been some changes to my language that puzzled me, but made me automatically think of English. For example, in Portuguese, traditionally “ei” is pronounced as /ej/ and “oi” as /oj/, and the exceptions, here in Brazil, were spelled “éi” and “ói” respectively, so even if I’d never seen a word before, I could immediately identify if I’d read /ej/, /oj/ or /ɛj/, /ɔj/. But then I realized that I could (almost) always tell the difference between “sede” /’seʤi/ and “sede” /sɛʤi/ in a context (‘thirst’ and ‘headquarters’ respectively). And, in English, between read (present) and read (past). What I mean to say is that if there is a reform and words like “buck” and “book” end up being written the same way, one could (almost) always tell the difference by context. Furthermore, if a word like “comfortable” would need to have two different spellings, according to people’s pronunciation, that’d be also OK. So something to bear in mind here is that, whether you like it or not, changes will happen and someone’s not going to be OK with it, so you just have to choose if you’ll try to catch up on your spelling rules and laugh with them or if you’re going to bitch about them and insist on keeping old standards.

  15. Phinumu says:

    I know I’m late – I just found this site – but I thought it should be pointed out that “hiccough” is not a historical spelling; it’s a pseudo-etymological spelling based on the assumption that the word is derived from cough. Some other counterintuitive spellings are also etymological; e.g. debt, from French dette; Latin debitum.

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