English-language spelling reform

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For centuries reformers have advocated spelling reform for English. Spelling reformers seek to make English spelling more consistent and more phonetic, so that spellings match pronunciations better and follow the alphabetic principle.[1]

Common motives for spelling reform include making the language easier to learn, making it more useful for international communication, or saving time, money and effort.

Spelling reform proposals can be divided into two main groups: those that use the traditional English alphabet, and those that would extend or replace it. The latter may involve adding letters and symbols from other alphabets or creating an entirely new one. Some reformers favor an immediate and total reform, while others would prefer a gradual change implemented in stages.

Some spelling reform proposals have been adopted partially or temporarily. Many of the reforms proposed by Noah Webster have become standard in the United States but have not been adopted elsewhere (see American and British English spelling differences). Harry Lindgren's proposal, SR1, was popular in Australia for a number of years and was temporarily adopted by the Australian Government.

Spelling reform has rarely attracted widespread public support, sometimes due to organized resistance and sometimes due to lack of interest. There are a number of linguistic arguments against reform; for example that the origins of words may be obscured. There are also many obstacles to reform: this includes the effort and money that may be needed to implement a wholesale change, the lack of an English language authority or regulator, and the challenge of getting people to accept spellings to which they are unaccustomed.

History[edit]

Modern English spelling developed from roughly 1350 onwards, when after three centuries of Norman French rule English gradually became the official language of England again, although very different from before 1066, having incorporated many words of French origin (battle, beef, button) during the occupation. Early writers of this new English, such as Chaucer, gave it a fairly consistent spelling system, but this was soon seriously diluted by the Chancery clerks who had difficulty switching from writing French to English. They changed many earlier consistent spellings, such as "erly, hed, lern" and "beleve, reson, seson" to their still current less logical and phonically baffling versions. English spelling consistency was dealt a further blow when Caxton brought the printing press to London in 1476. Having lived on the Continent for the preceding 30 years, his grasp of the English spelling system had become uncertain. The Belgian assistants he brought with him to help him set up his business had an even poorer command of it. As printing developed, different printers began to develop individual preferences or "house style".[2] Additionally, type-setters were paid by the line and were fond of making words longer, but the very worst undermining of English spelling consistency occurred between 1525, when William Tyndale first translated the New Testament, and 1539, when King Henry VIII legalised the printing of English bibles in England, in defiance of the Pope's decree, which outlawed them. The many editions of Tyndale's NT and whole bible were all printed outside England by people who spoke no English, often changing spellings to match their Dutch orthography. Examples include the silent h in ghost (to match Dutch gheest, which later became geest), aghast, ghastly and gherkin. The silent h in other words—such as ghospel, ghossip and ghizzard—was later removed.[3]

There have been two periods when spelling reform of the English language has attracted particular interest.

16th and 17th centuries[edit]

The first of these periods was from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th centuries, when a number of publications outlining proposals for reform were published. Some of these proposals were:

These proposals generally did not attract serious consideration because they were too radical or were based on an insufficient understanding of the phonology of English.[5] However, more conservative proposals were more successful. James Howell in his Grammar of 1662 recommended minor changes to spelling, such as changing logique to logic, warre to war, sinne to sin, toune to town and tru to true.[5] Many of these spellings are now in general use.

From the 16th century onward, English writers who were scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to link English words to their Graeco-Latin counterparts. They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek akhos), and so forth.[6][7]

19th century[edit]

An 1879 bulletin by the US Spelling Reform Association, written mostly using reformed spellings (click to enlarge).
An 1880 bulletin, written wholly in reformed spelling (click to enlarge).

The second period started in the 19th century and appears to coincide with the development of phonetics as a science.[5] In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as color and center, would become hallmarks of American English. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. It was published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.[8]

In 1837, Isaac Pitman published his system of phonetic shorthand, while in 1848 Alexander John Ellis published A Plea for Phonetic Spelling. Both of these were proposals for a new phonetic alphabet. Although unsuccessful, they drew widespread interest.

By the 1870s, the philological societies of Great Britain and America chose to consider the matter. After the "International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography" that was held in Philadelphia in August 1876, societies were founded such as the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association.[9] That year, the American Philological Society adopted a list of eleven reformed spellings for immediate use. These were: are→ar, give→giv, have→hav, live→liv, though→tho, through→thru, guard→gard, catalogue→catalog, (in)definite→(in)definit, wished→wisht.[10][11] One major American newspaper that began using reformed spellings was the Chicago Tribune, whose editor and owner, Joseph Medill, sat on the Council of the Spelling Reform Association.[11] In 1883, the American Philological Society and American Philological Association worked together to produce 24 spelling reform rules, which were published that year. In 1898, the American National Education Association adopted its own list of 12 words to be used in all writings. These were: tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, program.[12]

20th century onward[edit]

President Theodore Roosevelt was criticized for supporting the simplified spelling campaign of Andrew Carnegie in 1906

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the United States in 1906. The SSB's original 30 members consisted of authors, professors and dictionary editors. Andrew Carnegie, a founding member, supported the SSB with yearly bequests of more than US$300,000.[13] In April 1906 it published a list of 300 words,[14] which included 157[15] spellings that were already in common use in American English.[16] In August 1906 the SSB word list was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered the Government Printing Office to start using them immediately. However, in December 1906 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution and the old spellings were reintroduced.[11] Nevertheless, some of the spellings survived and are commonly used in American English today, such as anaemia/anæmiaanemia and mouldmold. Others such as mixedmixt and scythesithe did not survive.[17] In 1920, the SSB published its Handbook of Simplified Spelling, which set forth over 25 spelling reform rules. The handbook noted that every reformed spelling now in general use was originally the overt act of a lone writer, who was followed at first by a small minority. Thus, it encouraged people to "point the way" and "set the example" by using the reformed spellings whenever they could.[18] However, with its main source of funds cut off, the SSB disbanded later that year.

In Britain, the cause of spelling reform was promoted from 1908 by the Simplified Spelling Society and attracted a number of prominent supporters. One of these was George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion) and much of his considerable will was left to the cause. Among members of the society the conditions of his will gave rise to major disagreements, which hindered the development of a single new system.[19]

Between 1934 and 1975, the Chicago Tribune, then Chicago's biggest newspaper, used a number of reformed spellings. Over a two-month spell in 1934, it introduced 80 respelt words, including tho, thru, thoro, agast, burocrat, frate, harth, herse, iland, rime, staf and telegraf. A March 1934 editorial reported that two-thirds of readers preferred the reformed spellings. Another claimed that "prejudice and competition" was preventing dictionary makers from listing such spellings. Over the next 40 years, however, the newspaper gradually phased out the respelt words. Until the 1950s, Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries listed many reformed spellings, including the SSB's 300, alongside the conventional spellings.[11]

In 1949, a Labour MP, Dr Mont Follick, introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons, which failed at the second reading. However in 1953 he again had the opportunity, and this time it passed the second reading by 65 votes to 53.[20] Because of anticipated opposition from the House of Lords, the bill was withdrawn after assurances from the Minister of Education that research would be undertaken into improving spelling education. This led in 1961 to James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet, introduced into many British schools in an attempt to improve child literacy.[21] Although it succeeded in its own terms, the advantages were lost when children transferred to conventional spelling, and after several decades the experiment was discontinued.

In 1969 Harry Lindgren proposed Spelling Reform 1 (SR1), which called for the short /ɛ/ sound (as in bet) to always be spelt with <e> (for example friend→frend, head→hed). For a short time, this proposal was popular in Australia and was adopted by the Australian Government. In Geoffrey Sampson's book Writing Systems (1985) he wrote that SR1 "has been adopted widely by Australians. Many general interest paperbacks and the like are printed in SR1; under Gough Whitlam's Labor Government the Australian Ministry of Helth was officially so spelled (though, when Whitlam was replaced by a liberal administration, it reintroduced orthographic conservatism)".[22]

In 2013, University of Oxford Professor of English Simon Horobin proposed that variety in spelling be acceptable. For example, he believes that it doesn't matter whether words such as "accommodate" and "tomorrow" are spelled with double letters.[23] Note that this proposal doesn't fit within the definition of spelling reform used by, for example, Random House Dictionary.[24]

Arguments for reform[edit]

It is argued that spelling reform would make the language easier to learn, raise literacy levels, and save time, money and effort.

Advocates note that spelling reforms have taken place already,[25] just slowly and often not in an organized way. There are many words that were once spelled un-phonetically but have since been reformed. For example, music was spelled musick until the 1880s, and fantasy was spelled phantasy until the 1920s.[26] For a time, almost all words with the -or ending (such as error) were once spelled -our (errour), and almost all words with the -er ending (such as member) were once spelled -re (membre). In American spelling, most of them now use -or and -er, but in British spelling, only some have been reformed.

Pronunciations gradually change, and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) gradually becomes corrupted. Advocates argue that if we wish to keep English spelling regular, then spelling needs to be amended to account for the changes.

Ambiguity[edit]

Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and thus today only partly holds to the alphabetic principle. As an outcome, English spelling is a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.

Most phonemes in English can be spelled more than one way. E.g. the words fear and peer contain the same sound in different spellings. Likewise, many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, such as the different pronunciations of the combination ough in words like through, though, thought, thorough, tough, trough and plough. These kinds of incoherences can be found throughout English spelling and pronunciation, and they cause extra difficulty in learning and practice and lead to uncertainty because of their sheer number.

Such ambiguity is particularly problematic in the case of homographs with different pronunciations that vary according to context, such as bow, desert, live, read, tear, wind, and wound. In reading such words one must consider the context in which they are used, and this increases the difficulty of learning to read and pronounce English.

In theory, a closer relationship between phonemes and spellings might eliminate most of the exceptions and ambiguities and make the language easier to master. If done with care, such a reform would not impose an undue burden on mature native speakers.[citation needed]

Undoing the damage[edit]

The epitaph on the grave of William Shakespeare spells friend as frend.

Some proposed simplified spellings already exist as standard or variant spellings in old literature. As noted earlier, in the 16th century some scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to make English words look more like their Graeco-Latin counterparts, at times even erroneously. They did this by adding silent letters, so det became debt, dout became doubt, sithe became scythe, iland became island, ake became ache, and so on. Some spelling reformers propose undoing these changes. Other examples of older spellings that are more phonetic include frend for friend (see Shakespeare's grave, right), agenst for against, yeeld for yield, bild for build, cort for court, sted for stead, delite for delight, entise for entice, gost for ghost, harth for hearth, rime for rhyme, sum for some, tung for tongue, and many others. It was also once common to use -t for the ending -ed where it is pronounced as such (for example dropt for dropped). Some of the English language's most celebrated writers and poets have used these spellings and others proposed by today's spelling reformers. Edmund Spenser, for example, used spellings such as rize, wize and advize in his famous poem The Faerie Queene, published in the 1590s.[27]

Many English words are based on French modifications (e.g., colour and analogue) even though they come from Latin or Greek.

Redundant letters[edit]

The English alphabet has several letters whose characteristic sounds are already represented elsewhere in the alphabet. These include X, which can be realised as "ks," "gz," or Z; soft G, which can be realised as J; hard C which can be realised as K; soft C which can be realised as S; and Q ("Qu,") which can be realised as "kw," (or, simply, K in some cases). However, these spellings are usually retained to reflect their—often Latin—roots.

Obstacles and criticisms[edit]

There are a number of barriers in the development and implementation of a reformed orthography for English:

  • Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently strong, at least since the early 19th century, when spelling was codified by the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).
  • English vocabulary is mostly a melding of Germanic, French, Latin and Greek words, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Some reform proposals tend to favor one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.
  • Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural -s and possessive -'s are both pronounced differently in cat(')s (/s/) and dog(')s (/z/). The handling of this particular difficulty distinguishes morphemic proposals, which tend to spell such inflectional endings the same, from phonemic proposals that spell the endings according to their pronunciation.
  • English is the only one of the top ten major languages that lacks a worldwide regulatory body with the power to promulgate spelling changes.
  • The spellings of some words – such as tongue and stomach – are so unindicative of their pronunciation that changing the spelling would noticeably change the shape of the word. Likewise, the irregular spelling of very common words such as is, are, have, done and of makes it difficult to fix them without introducing a noticeable change to the appearance of English text. This would create acceptance issues.
  • Spelling reform may make pre-reform writings harder to understand and read in their original form, often necessitating transcription and republication. Today, few people choose to read old literature in the original spellings as most of it has been republished in modern spellings.[28]
  • There are many regional differences in pronunciation which make uniform spelling reform virtually impossible. Thus "head" is pronounced "hed" in most areas, but as "heid" in most of Scotland.

Writing conveys meaning, not phonemes[edit]

The main criticism of many purely phonemic reform proposals is that written language is not a purely phonemic analog of the spoken word. While reformers might argue that the units of understanding are phonemes, critics argue that the basic units are instead words. Some of the most phonemic spelling reform proposals might re-spell closely related words less alike than they are spelt now, such as electric, electricity and electrician, or (with full vowel reform) photo, photograph and photography. This applies a fortiori to technical words that appear more often in writing than in speech, and to words which are similar to or identical to the corresponding words in other languages.

Cognates in other languages[edit]

English is a West Germanic language that has borrowed many words from non-Germanic languages, and the spelling of a word often reflects its origin. This sometimes gives a clue as to the meaning of the word. Even if their pronunciation has strayed from the original pronunciation, the spelling is a record of the phoneme. The same is true for words from Germanic whose current spelling still resembles its cognates in other Germanic languages. Examples include light/German Licht, knight/ German Knecht; ocean/French océan, occasion/French occasion. Critics argue that re-spelling such words could hide those links.[29]

Spelling reformers argue that, although some of these links may be hidden by a reform, others would become more noticeable. For example, Axel Wijk's 1959 proposal Regularized English proposed changing height to hight which would link it more closely to the related word high.

In some cases, English spelling of foreign words has diverged from the current spellings of those words in the original languages, such as the spelling of connoisseur that is now spelled connaisseur in French after a French-language spelling reform in the 19th century.

The orthographies of other languages do not pay special attention to preserving similar links to loanwords. English loanwords in other languages are commonly assimilated to the orthographical conventions of those languages and so such words have a variety of spellings that are sometimes difficult to recognise as English words.

Accent differences[edit]

Another criticism is that a reform might favor one dialect or pronunciation over others. Some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either). Some distinctions in regional accents are still marked in spelling. Examples include the distinguishing of fern, fir and fur that is maintained in Irish and Scottish English or the distinction between toe and tow that is maintained in a few regional dialects in England.

Reformers point out that a spelling reform would only affect how we spell words, not how we say them. After a reform, English would still allow multiple pronunciations of a standard spelling, as it has always done. Some reformers also suggest that a reform could actually make spelling more inclusive of regional dialects by allowing more spellings for such words.

False friends[edit]

Some reform proposals try to make too many spelling changes at once and do not allow for any transitional period where the old spellings and the new may be in use together. The problem is an overlap in words, where a particular word could be an unreformed spelling of one word or a reformed spelling of another, akin to false friends when learning a foreign language.

For example, a reform could re-spell wonder as wunder and wander as wonder. However, both cannot be done at once because this causes ambiguity. During any transitional period, is wonder the unreformed spelling of wonder or the reformed spelling of wander? This could be resolved by using the old wander with the new wunder. Other similar chains of words are devicedevise → *devize, warmworm → *wurm and ricerise → *rize.

Reformers argue that, even if this cannot be resolved, the resulting confusion would be less than what we suffer under today's spelling system, and furthermore, would be only temporary.

Spelling reform proposals[edit]

Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing the basic English alphabet or making a new one. All spelling reforms aim for greater regularity in spelling.

Using the basic English alphabet[edit]

Common features:

  • They do not introduce any new letters, symbols or diacritics.
  • They rely upon familiar digraphs.
  • They try to maintain the appearance of existing words.

Notable proposals include:

Extending or replacing the basic English alphabet[edit]

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia written in the Deseret alphabet

These proposals seek to eliminate the extensive use of digraphs (such as "ch", "gh", "kn-", "-ng", "ph", "qu", "sh", voiced "th", voiceless "th" and "wh-") by introducing new letters and/or diacritics. The impetus for removing digraphs is so each letter represents a single sound. In a digraph, the two letters do not represent their individual sounds but instead an entirely different and discrete sound, which can sometimes lead to mishaps in pronunciation, in addition to much lengthier words.

Notable proposals include:

Historical and contemporary advocates of reform[edit]

A number of respected and influential people have been active supporters of spelling reform.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling (HarperCollins, 2009).
  2. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling. Simplified Spelling Board, 1920. p.3
  3. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.4
  4. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 17–18. 
  5. ^ a b c d Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 18. 
  6. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, pp.5–7
  7. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  8. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.9
  9. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 20. 
  10. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.13
  11. ^ a b c d "Spelling Reform". Barnsdle.demon.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  12. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.14
  13. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 21. 
  14. ^ "Simplified Spelling Board's 300 Spellings". Retrieved 12 July 2009. 
  15. ^ Wheeler, Benjamin (September 15, 1906). "Simplified Spelling: A Caveat (Being the commencement address delivered on September 15, 1906, before the graduating class of Stanford University)". London: B.H.Blackwell. p. 11. 
  16. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  17. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt's Spelling Reform Initiative: The List". Johnreilly.info. 1906-09-04. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  18. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.16
  19. ^ Godfrey Dewey (1966), Oh, (P)shaw! 
  20. ^ Alan Campbell, The 50th anniversary of the Simplified Spelling Bill, retrieved 2011-05-11 
  21. ^ Ronald A Threadgall, The Initial Teaching Alphabet: Proven Efficiency and Future Prospects, retrieved 2011-05-11 
  22. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey. Writing Systems. Stanford University Press, 1990. p.197.
  23. ^ Taylor, Lesley Ciarula (30 May 2013). "Does proper spelling still matter?". Toronto Star. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  24. ^ "an attempt to change the spelling of English words to make it conform more closely to pronunciation." Spelling reform at dictionary.reference.com. Merriam-Webster dictionary has a similar definition.
  25. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "[c]hange ... has been almost continuous in the history of English spelling." 
  26. ^ "English Language:Orthography". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 July 2009. 
  27. ^ Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen (Book I, Canto III). Wikisource.
  28. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "We do not print Shakespeare's or Bacon's words as they were written" 
  29. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 63–64. 
  30. ^ a b Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 17. 
  31. ^ "The Poetical Works of John Milton – Full Text Free Book (Part 1/11)". Fullbooks.com. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  32. ^ a b "House Bars Spelling in President's Style" (PDF). New York Times. 1906-12-13. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  33. ^ John J. Reilly. "Theodore Roosevelt and Spelling Reform".  Based on H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558
  34. ^ Daniel R. MacGilvray (1986). "A Short History of GPO". 
  35. ^ http://www.simpelfonetik.com

Further reading[edit]

  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Twisted Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman. Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-136925-4. [1]
  • Bell, Masha (2004), Understanding English Spelling, Cambridge, Pegasus
  • Bell, Masha (2012), SPELLING IT OUT: the problems and costs of English spelling, ebook
  • Children of the Code An extensive, in depth study of the illiteracy problem.
  • Crystal, David. Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling (St. Martin's Press, 2013)
  • Hitchings, Henry. The language wars: a history of proper English (Macmillan, 2011)
  • Kiisk, Allan (2013) Simple Phonetic English Spelling - Introduction to Simpel-Fonetik, the Single-Sound-per-Letter Writing Method, in printed, audio and e-book versions, Tate Publishing, Mustang, Oklahoma.
  • Kiisk, Allan (2012) Simpel-Fonetik Dictionary - For International Version of Writing in English, Tate Publishing, Mustang, Oklahoma.
  • Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park (Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2009)
  • Marshall, David F. "The Reforming of English Spelling." Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts (2011) 2:113+
  • Wolman, David. Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. HarperCollins, 2009.

External links[edit]