[Spelling Reform Anthology §15.5 pp216-220]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin Fall 1977 pp15-19]
[Edward Rondthaler: see Journals, Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins Personal View, ALC web.]


by Edward Rondthaler

TINKERING with English spelling - simplifying it to make it easier - has been a scholarly pastime for centuries: a sort of parlor game not taken too seriously by anybody because even the stupidity of our traditional spelling is no more absurd than expecting the hundreds of millions who now read and write English to go back to school and learn how to spell all over again - or hoping that children with a brief exposure to phonetics will some day rise up en masse and demand spelling reform.

Such hopes, such utopian dreams do not square with the facts. Our human nature is not easily changed - even for so worthy a cause as better spelling. The big writing reform in Turkey fifty years ago did not spring from public demand. It came as a dictatorial decree rammed down the throats of millions. Where, in an English speaking democracy, will you find a leader powerful enough to issue such an unpopular edict, and make it stick?

Dr. Godfrey Dewey calls our erratic spelling the Roadblock to Reading. Let's put it more bluntly: the real roadblock to reading is the impossibility of persuading millions to change their writing habits. Were it not for this we'd have had spelling reform long long ago.

No amount of wishful thinking will push this roadblock aside, but thanks to recent typographical developments we can detour around it and simplify our reading matter before we change our writing habits!

Impossible? Consider this:

Traditional typesetting methods are undergoing their greatest change in 500 years. It is a revolution of giant proportions, shaking the printing industry from top to bottom. Typesetting is now turning itself inside out as it changes from a 3-dimensional mechanical process to a 2-dimensional photo-computerized process. Most of the printed matter you read today is a product of this revolution. No layman casually looking at the printed page can see any difference; but what goes on behind the scene is quite another matter.

Today's newly trained typesetter taps out words on a computer-compatible keyboard connected by punched or magnetic tape to a computerized photo-typesetting machine. As the computer receives words from the tape it digests them, relates them to pre-coded technical instructions, and sends amended signals to the photo-composing mechanism telling it what words to set and precisely how to set them. If, for example, the operator taps out the letters a-n-y, the computer will signal the composing machine to set a-n-y in a specific type style, size, width and spacing. It will also precalculate the justification, quadding, centering or indentation, and when a full word fails to fit on the end of a line it checks back into memory and finds out where the word should be divided! This sleight of hand takes place at astronomical speeds.

Now comes the key that unlocks the door to spelling reform. If the machine's computer were a little larger it could do even more. It could receive words in traditional spelling, simplify the spelling automatically, and pass them along for typesetting in the new simplified form! There is nothing particularly novel about this concept except its application: for years computers have been unscrambling secret coded messages of far greater complexity. What is new is that the typesetting revolution makes it possible for computers to take over the hitherto impossible job of simplifying the spelling of printed English - to do it as a routine - automatically, consistently and uncomplainingly. Every time a keyboard operator taps out the letters a-n-y the computer will send out the signal e-n-y - or even e-n-i, depending on the system of simplification finally agreed upon.

And so, without any change in our writing habits, without any re-schooling of authors, editor, copywriters, reporters, or typesetters, we are on the threshold of being able to simplify the spelling of printed English with an instant flip of the switch. If spelling reform is ever achieved, automatic transliteration will spearhead the change. Indeed from this day forward we should look to the computers of the typesetting industry to solve a problem for humanity that will never be solved otherwise.

Computerized transliteration lends itself equally well to an instant change, or to a gradual "step-by-step" shift as currently proposed by Harry Lindgren of Australia. With automatic transliteration leading the way, the "50 steps of change" that Mr. Lindgren suggests could probably be covered in far less time than the fifty years he foresees. Fifty steps in 50 or 100 months might be a better estimate. If after taking a few of these steps we found it advisable to go no further we could end reform at that point and be considerably better off than we were before. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons why spelling reform is less of an all-or-nothing commitment than the change to Metric.

But what about personal or business letters and handwritten notes that never get into print? What about Aunt Sophia, and Grandmother, and Uncle Amos? What about all the retraining? Lose no sleep over such matters. When computers lead the way the rest of us can follow at our own pace - if we want to. Many of us will pick up the new spelling from the printed page. If it makes sense we'll adopt it, as fast or as slowly as we wish. Others will continue to write traditionally. No matter. We need no drive for converts. No one should ever be urged to update his spelling. Those who from childhood have spelled traditionally will always be able to read both ways and to write traditionally - until our quaint orthography dies a natural death. That's how it's been in Holland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Russia, France, Turkey, Korea and other countries where improvements in spelling have taken place.

So much for spelling and writing. How about reading? Readers cannot be computerized.

Here we come face-to-face with long established habits, and we may meet big resistance. We won't know how much until we try, but since we can end the reform steps at any point we have nothing to lose by making a start. To minimize reading resistance we must do everything possible to make reformed reading easy. The changeover must be so gradual, so inconspicuous, so natural, so logical and sensible, so comfortable for the reader, and introduced so subtly that he is hardly aware of being wooed away from his childhood spelling. And this is precisely where computers rise to the occasion. They can slowly but surely feed new spellings into the mainstream of printed matter, feeding them in so gently that the man-in-the-street should have little reason to be upset. He should be given every chance to adjust comfortably. Month by month we will monitor public acceptance through a series of opinion polls, enabling us to introduce each new step from coast to coast or worldwide with the very best of timing.

There is, of course, a good chance that acceptance will come much faster than we anticipate. Graphic change is now quite commonplace. You can test this for yourself by comparing typical posters, magazines and advertising today with a similar sampling from a decade or two ago. You'll be impressed at how quickly we've adjusted to new visual presentations without even knowing it. Or look back at the late '20s when printers introduced a rash of typefaces with newly designed g's and a's based on a single circle. The new shapes of these two upright lowercase letters changed about 40% of our "word-pictures" as traditionally printed and read by successive generations. Yet the change brought no whimper of public protest. It is worth noting that typesetters of the '20s willingly accepted the newly shaped letters because, as far as they were concerned, the shift was purely mechanical - as it will be with computerized transliteration. These examples of graphic change are not as formidable as those of spelling reform. Nevertheless the public may take it in stride and surprise us.

But before any of this can come to pass the ball must be started rolling. That will take a big push from a big giant. Who is the most likely giant?

We're told that reading and writing failure is the chief cause of school dropout. We're told that youthful dropouts are, to a large extent, the fuel of our anti-social problems: juvenile delinquency, crime-in-the-streets, hard core unemployment, poverty and, to some extent, drug abuse. Yet nobody with a big voice is saying that we should attack these titanic social evils by reforming our haphazard, frustrating spelling - the major cause of dropout. Why not? Why aren't our social agencies, our police, our prisons, reform schools, "Head Start" programs, BOCES, our welfare workers, and our schools - why aren't they out in front fighting for simplification? A good guess is that up to now they've regarded the task as far too formidable. And up to now they were probably right.

But no longer. Our Federal and State social agencies could easily take the lead. Their problems are enormous, their work load is growing heavier every day, and in the long run they stand to gain a great deal from reform. Commenting on the fact that over half of the country's prisoners cannot write, Chief Justice Berger of the Supreme Court says! "The percentage of inmates in all institutions who cannot read or write is staggering . . . figures on literacy alone are enough to make one wish that every sentence imposed could include a provision that would grant release when the prisoner had learned to read and write."

When our social agencies begin to see how transliterating computers can be used to spearhead spelling change - so "we the people" can just fall in behind - they may speak up for reform. Their voice is big. It is big enough to get the job done. Their giant push could start the ball rolling.

Another big push might come from those engaged in areas where English has become a "second language": foreign trade and commerce, international communication, and negotiations between nations. A simpler spelling of English has much to offer here.

And finally we have the parents of our school children, 25% of whom are two to six years behind grade in reading and writing; the mothers and fathers of 700,000 dropouts each year, and the friends of 20,000,000 functionally illiterate U.S. adults.

While we're wooing concerned parents, social agencies, international business men, the U.N. diplomats and others, we should not overlook the importance of winning the printing industry to our side. Printers - particularly graphic designers, type directors, and typographers - have spent their lives studying the legibility, and artistry, the graphics and mechanics of the printed page. They, better than anyone else, know what makes a page easy to read, what interferes with reading, what gives a page warmth, what makes it cold. They are experienced at cushioning the impact of change and know quite a bit, in a very practical way about reader psychology. If they cannot be won to reform, reform is not likely to be won without them.

What then, will the first transliterating computer be able to do, and when will it be doing it?

An experimental transliterating computer is now programmed with the 44,000 most-used words in written contemporary English. This collection of words comes largely from a study completed in 1961 by Dr. W. N. Francis of Brown University's Department of Linguistics. It covers a million-word sampling of running text selected from a wide variety of subjects: news, editorials, the arts, hobbies, skills, religion, science, biography, memoirs, general fiction, science fiction, humor, romance, mysteries, mathematics, humanities, natural sciences, annual reports, government documents, etc. Proper names and unusual technical terms have, for the present, been deleted from this list, but for each deletion a word has been added from the Merriam-Webster list of 35,000 most-used words or from the McGraw-Hill list of 20,000. The total is substantially a composite of all three lists. These 44,000 words have been transliterated into Soundspel, placed on magnetic tape (with traditional and simplified spellings in parallel) and programmed so that traditionally spelled input tape will generate a matching output tape in simplified spelling. The output tape is compatible with photo-typesetting machines. Complete typeset pages may now be produced without individual transliterating or manual re-keyboarding.

The Soundspel phonetic system used for the transliterating program is a merger of Ripman-Archer "New Spelling," Godfrey Dewey's "World English Spelling," and certain modifications suggested by the Typographic Council for Spelling Reform. The pronunciation standard is the broadcasting industries "NBC Handbook of Pronunciation," the "Random House Dictionary of the English Language." or "Webster's New International Dictionary," whichever sanctions the least deviation from traditional spelling.

As soon as the first series of tests is completed the Council will, if the need arises, make its program available for experimentation with other systems of English orthography. Such systems need not be limited to the conventional Roman alphabet since the program and typesetting facilities have enough flexibility to accommodate unique letters.

The project's computer facility is located at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey. The phototypesetting and design facility is the combined equipment and resources of Photo-Lettering Inc. and the International Typeface Corporation in New York. Ed Lias is in charge of the former, Edward Rondthaler of the latter. The Council enjoys the confidence and support of the institutions just mentioned, it seeks to broaden its contacts with all who see the need for spelling reform or can in any way be influential in stimulating progress toward that end, and it hopes that the project will serve as the typographic industry's contribution to wider use of written English for the enlightenment and benefit of mankind.


Bender, J.F & Crowell, T.L, Jr. NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, 1964.

Betts, E.A. (Ed.) Collection of 44 proposed English orthographies. Phonemic Spelling Council, Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables Fla., 1973.

Dewey, Godfrey. English spelling: Roadblock to reading. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 1971

Dewey, Godfrey. Relative Frequency of English Spellings. Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 1970.

Dewey, Godfrey. World English Spelling Dictionary. Simpler Spelling Assn., Lake Placid, N.Y. 1969.

Grandgent, Chas. H. Handbook of simplified spelling. Simplified Spelling Board, Lake Placid, N.Y. 1937.

Haas W. Alphabets for English. Manchester University Press. Manchester, 1972.

Hecht, Geo. J. English needs a phonetic alphabet. Parents Magazine (Monthly), New York. February 1962.

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Lewis, Norman. Dictionary of Modern Pronunciation. Harper & Row, New York, 1963.

Lindgren, Harry (Ed.) Spelling Action. (Monthly). Spelling Action Society, Narrabunda, Canberra (Australia). 1970-

Lindgren, Harry. Spelling reform: a new approach. Alpha Books, Halstead Press, Sydney (Australia), 1969.

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Murray, J.A.H. (Ed.) A new English dictionary on historical principles. (11 volumes) Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1888-1928.

Paulsen, Vic. Improved Orthography. Torscript Publishers, Box 297, San Francisco 94101, 1971.

Reimer, George. How they murdered the second R. W.W. Norton, New York, 1969.

Ripman, Walter. A dictionary of new spelling. Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd., London 1941.

Ripman, Walter & Archer, William. New Spelling. Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd., London 1948.

Scragg, D.G. The history of English spelling. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1974.

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Shaw, Bernard. Shaw Alphabet edition of Androcles and the lion. Penguin Books Inc., Baltimore, 1962.

Sheils, Merrill. Why Johnny can't write. Newsweek (weekly), New York, December 8, 1975.

Tune, Newell W. (Ed.) Spelling Progress Bulletin. (Quarterly) North Hollywood, Calif., 1961-

Urdang, Laurence (Ed.) Random House dictionary of Eng. language. Random House, New York, 1969.

Venezsky, R.L. Notes on the history of English spelling. Visible Language X-4 (Quarterly), Cleveland, 1976.

Wijk, Axel. Regularized English. Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm, 1959.

Wrolstad, Merald E. (Ed.) Visible Language (Quarterly), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1967.

See diagrams below:



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