[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1979, p1]
Also on this page: Obituary, Axel Wijk. The Spelling Game.

Late News.

Brief report on the 2nd International Conference of the Simplified Spelling Society

held at Nene College, Northampton, Eng. July 27-30, 1979. (reported by Helen Bisgard)

The Conference considered three aspects of spelling reform: need for change, devising an improved system, and means for implementing it.

All three considerations are interrelated, since a recommendation for change envisions something better which can be put into practical use. At this Conference, the three points were interwoven in the welcome speech by Treasurer Mona Cross, the keynote address by John Downing, the introduction by Vic Paulsen, and the paper by Emmett Betts.

The first consideration, NEED, was shown by the papers of nine contributors: Abraham Citron, Elsie Oakensen, Derek Thackray, Alun Bye. Cautions against unscholarly tampering with present traditional orthography were contained in the addresses given by: Fergus McBride, George O'Halloran, D. G. Scragg, Robert Baker, and Philip Smith.

The second consideration, DEVISING AN IMPROVED SYSTEM, was shown with various ingenious ideas by eight contributors, starting with a color sound motion picture film prepared for this conference by Hugh Jamieson, followed by papers by: Walter Gassner, S. Bakowski, Katherine Betts (presented in this issue of SPB), John Beech, Axel Wijk, S. S. Eustace, and David Moseley.

The third consideration, IMPLEMENTING A NEW SYSTEM, was given by two papers: Valerie Yule, and Helen Bonnema Bisgard.

Space limitations precludes our giving the titles of these papers now. However, we will report more fully on them in our Winter issue and hope to have abstracts of them then. We plan to print most of the papers in the coming year and hence will not have much space for other articles.

[Axel Wijk: see Bulletins.]


Axel Wijk, formerly Associate Professor of English at Stockholm Univ., died on July 2, 1979 at age 77. Prof. Wijk held several posts at various universities in Sweden and abroad. During 1928-1932 he was senior lecturer in Swedish at University College, London. For several years he was principal of Borgarskolan Language School, Stockholm. During 1948-1951 he was senior lecturer in Swedish at Columbia Univ, New York. Back from the States, he was for some years "lektor" of English at a girls' senior high school, then pedagogical lecturer in English at the Univ. of Uppsala, and from 1960-1968 when he retired, he was University Lecturer in English at the Univ. of Stockholm.

[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1979 pp2,3]

The Spelling Game, by Robert Seysmith*

*Toronto, Ont., Canada.

A true story, with a little revision, a little embroidering, but no apologies, based on The Mont Follick Story.

It's now after World War II. Was England going to change its spelling - at last? After centuries of inconsistent spelling that has caused school children much agony, and that has produced such things as spelling books and the classroom spelling bee, dictionaries with fonetic spellings beside nearly every word, spelling-aid books, and studies purporting to establish 'rules' in a hopelessly irregular spelling system, it looked as if English spelling was about to be reformed. English school-children would at last be able to learn to read as effortlessly as Russian, German, Italian kids.

It was on the news. Continental papers had headlines set up. A member of the British Parliament (Mont Follick) was out to bring order and sanity into the chaos of English spelling. No longer would 'height' look as if it rimed (a bona fide alternate spelling) with 'weight,' 'mood' with 'wood,' 'friend' with 'fiend.' Letter combinations would sensibly stand for only one sound, the way they do in German, Italian, Finnish and Turkish, etc. No longer would English look ridiculous with those UCB shibboleths - now you would see 'laf' and 'ruf,' 'thru' and 'tho.' And a continental visiting in Britain (or the U.S.A. or Canada, etc.) wouldn't get fooled like the German who went one evening to a movie which he thought was a comedy, only to find that it was a crime film. He had read manslaughter (due to the misplacement of the letters on the marquee) as Man's Laughter. At last the archaic, anomaly-ridden English orthography was being brought into line with the times - out of its 18th-century confusion and into a more rational form.

Britain's 'monumental disgrace,' someone had called English spelling. You never could be sure from the sound of a word how it was spelt, or vice versa. You never knew if it was IE or EI, or what OU might stand for, or EA. If you didn't have a dictionary handy, you just had to take a 4 chance when you were 'riting' something. Now you wouldn't have to 'rite' those absurd silent letters, especially K and W in front of certain words. CH would stand only for what it stands for in 'church.' Yes, at long last there was going to be some order in the spelling of the language of Shakespear and Milton - the literary geniuses of the English language, 'hu' took considerable liberty in spelling, it might be pointed out and duly noted.

It had been a long campaign - four years from the time when the Socialist member of Parliament had introduced the issue in a question and answer period in 1949. Every opportunity for airing the spelling reform question was seized. There had been support from a Conservative member whose family had long been active in matters orthographic and in pioneering shorthand (Pitman). Socialism and conservatism had come together in a common cause in two unlikely confreres, and in a land renowned for conservatism in language and social forms.

It was a critical moment, that May Friday in 1953. The spelling reform debate had been wound up after 13 speeches. Both front benches, the Government and the loyal Opposition, had vehemently opposed the Bill. It was back-bench David facing a Philistine power bloc. The Minister of Education's Secretary had flayed the Bill in the spirit of defending one of 'Britain's most cherished traditions. No one was going to let the kids spell it 'wun' and 'laf' and 'thru.' Let no one destroy the beauty of the English language. It was good for the kids to have a hard time learning how to spell the language.

Then the Socialist opposition's educational critic rose and tore into the Bill. It would undermine the entire educational system, and possibly the very fabric of society. It would be the end of one of the nation's most beautiful assets. The orthography was part of the basis of culture. It must not be allowed to be destroyed by misguided enthusiasts, however well meaning.

The Prime Minister arose with a very grim lip. "I missed - fortuitously in one sense and disastrously in another - having to preside over the dissolution of a considerable part of the British Empire, but let me say it very clearly that I am not about to preside over the dissolution - perish the thought - of the English language."

There was an uproar of applause on all sides.

The orthographer got to his feet as the acclaim died down. He cleared his throat. The opposition to the Bill, he said, amounted to a vertible travesty. Children were being denied the opportunity to read with that facility which a logical spelling would have provided them. Britain was known to have the highest illiteracy rate of any comparable nation. The products of public education in all the other nations of western Europe had much greater reading facility. The scholastic potential of the country was being reduced by at least a third because of reading difficulty.

He noted, looking at her, that the Minister of Education was "looking at the simplified reading procedures with sincere solicitude." But it was time for more than 'solicitude.' It was incredible, he 'continued, that some people still believed that making it difficult to learn reading was a good thing. We should 'encourage,' not 'discourage,' our children to learn to read.

He put it to the House: Did they want to listen to inexperienced people on this question, or to those with professional expertise?

Yes, the press had got a statement from him earlier, and it was true that the word from America was highly favorable to reform. They wanted him to carry on the work started by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, when the President sent an order to the Government Printer for the revision of some 300 words on the N.E.A. list. Unfortunately, this became a political football because Congress said that this was their prerogative. And typically, Congress couldn't agree on anything. So nothing was done about reform.

Someone asked if there was any word from Canada. No, there had been no word from Canada. The questioner continued - preserving English there was not 'very' Americanized.

Rumors rang round the House that the spelling reformers were winning. It was astounding, like a miracle. The Government looked on in helpless dismay. What had happened all of a sudden? Could the House be so fickle? All important Cabinet Ministers were rounded up and virtually pushed into the Chamber and into their seats. Then the perilous vote was taken. And reform won by a majority of 12 votes.

It was a resounding victory. And on second reading the triumph was sustained. The work of some 40 years - the long fight to get the issue into Parliament, and then presented as a bill.

But it would be a long time before the Bill would reach the statute book as an Act of Parliament, and some very dangerous obstacles lay in the way. The Minister of Education was determined that there would not be a victory in committee. The joke had gone far 'enuf.' But again the reformers managed to get it 'thru,' but by only one vote.

They faced closure on third reading. The Minister of Education was determined to smash the reformers. The travesty was going to be settled once and for all. And the way to do that was by 'compromise.' It worked. Spelling, reform was stalled in its tracks by a 'suttel? compromise. A committee would be set up to examine ways and means of implementing a new simplified system of teaching reading. And the House went for it.

The reformers didn't, or weren't inclined, to realize the significance of that action. They really thought they had won what they wanted. It would be a few years before a reform system could be worked out, but it appeared that their goal was in sight.

A sad illusion. Nearly 30 years later and no apparent change - making the parliamentary action little more than a hollow victory. The approval of the Minister of Education was for a teaching alfabet - and for the Government's non-interference in classroom - trials - tests of this i.t.a. The tests have come and gone - the results are known - but still no change.

In the U.S.A. they still regard 'thru' as an informal but frequently seen spelling, especially on the 'hiways.' And a British linguist who is unfavorable to any significant reform, purports to see a tendency in America to return to British spelling! (Editor's note: We contest that statement. There appears to be more frequent use of tho, altho, thru than ever before, and no return to colour or centre in U.S.A.)

And in Canada? There is an order-in-council dating back to Sir John A. Macdonald's day which makes the U in honour, colour, etc. mandatory. Even 'tho' the press drops the U, most advertising retains it, not to mention all official documents.

A professor has stated: "One of the most useful things just now is to break down the respect which a great foolish public has for the established spelling. Some have a religious awe and some have an earth-born passion for it. At present I don't much care how anybody spells, so he spells different from what is established. Any particular individual spelling is likely to be more rational than the ordinary."

English is unperturbed in its reputation as the worst spelt language in the Western world. No language has had more reformers working on it, trying to improve its orthography - always to no avail. But, to quote the onetime maverick Chicago Tribune (which pursued a kind of spelling reform for nearly 50 years), when it reverted in 1975 to standard spelling as a result of public pressure, "We hope that someday sanity may yet prevail in the spelling of the English language."

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