[Spelling Reform Anthology §15.3 p215]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1979, p4,5]

Modern Technology and Spelling Reform,

by Helen Bonnema Bisgard, Ed.D.

* Secretary, Phonemic Spelling Council, Aurora, Colo.

Last winter when Fergus McBride corresponded with me about speaking at this conference, he suggested that I include information about the Phonemic Spelling Council, of which I am the Secretary. If we had a few hours time, we could profitably review the history of the Council starting with its antecedent organizations, The American Philological Association organized in 1874, the Simplified Spelling Board 1894, the Simplified Spelling Association 1946, and finally the Phonemic Spelling Council in 1971.

During those one hundred years there were encouraging periods interspersed with disappointing ones. At all times the lack of progress was ultimately caused by public lack of awareness, indifference, or actual opposition.

The by-laws of the organization states: "The purpose of the Phonemic Spelling Council is to encourage investigation of all aspects of phonemic spelling of the English language. Its Board of Trustees shall consist of not less than 8 nor more than 15 members, and elects its own successors."

At present there are 13 trustees. They are all committed to the goal of making easier the learning of writing and reading but are divided in their recommendations as to the means for reaching the goal.

One group believes that the present conventional orthography will be the accepted system for so long in the future that all efforts should be directed toward making initial learning of standard spelling emotionally satisfying. Others urge that rather than a short initial period, the length of time for putting into use a phonemic alphabet should be increased in order to prove the advantages of the system for permanent use. They believe that the positive results of such projects should be used for convincing the public of the need for simplification of spelling. They press for a permanent reform. Such promotion includes urging computer manufacturers to select and market an appropriate product.

There are no clear lines dividing these two groups and both see the need for devoting time to seeking funds from sources such as educational foundations.

Present undertakings include experimentation. A first grade writing-reading learning center in a public elementary school in Stuart, Florida is being conducted by Dr. John Henry Martin, formerly Vice-President of the i.t.a. Foundation. A similar project is being conducted at Nova Univ. in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Martin emphasizes to teachers and parents that "children who can write can read" and "all children can write once they learn to encode what they say." His "technological system" as he calls it, emphasizes the importance of the encoding process. His pupils use a recently invented microphonograph, typewriters, sand, clay, felt pens, chalk, rubber stamps, pencils, and paper to facilitate the children's writing.

Also, the Council continues to serve like its predecessor Association as a clearing house and distribution center for people who are interested in spelling reform. It encourages publication of articles such as Abe Citron's "Psychological Child Abuse" and is revising for publication Dr. Abraham Tauber's 1958 History of Spelling Reform in the United States. Members write articles for the Spelling Progress Bulletin which has been published continuously since 1961 by the editor Newell W. Tune of North Hollywood, Calif. I am pleased to show you the 1961-70 and 1971-78 contents indexes, and this summer's issue. I am distributing to you samples of the front page. Additional Spelling Progress Bulletins have been placed on the display table by Mona Cross for your perusal.

The PSC Trustees discuss the feasibility of securing funds for establishing an international academy for the English language, and for a seminar to find reasons for the lack of language skills by juvenile delinquents.

In studying the papers which cross my desk as secretary of the Council, I have come to realize that English writing will likely not be reformed because of the public's insistence but because of the pressure for profit created by commerce and industry. The computer may be the agent for this change.

At Colorado University library recently I used an oral-reading computer invented for the blind. It transforms magazine, book, and newspaper print into spoken words. Its robotlike voice sounds out any printed material laid on its surface. There were some mispronunciations upon the first reading which were corrected after I pressed the "learning" button at the end of the selection: machine /chine/instead of /sheen/, page /pāg/, number /bair/, magazine /zin/, spelling /speel/, cooperation /koop/, book /bok/, break /brek/, reading/redding/. The oral reading of the machine was mysterious magic.

By a reverse process, a device now being developed for the aurally handicapped will "hear" spoken messages and write them on paper. However, the commercial production of such a sound-to-print machine is blocked by its inability to spell traditional orthography correctly. When confronted with an English sound such as the vowel in dough (ough), low (ow), foe (oe), go (o), yeo(man) (eo), and beau (eau), it spells all the word endings with the same "long o." The machine shows the same consistency when writing any of the approximately 44 sounds which are heard in the 561 [1] different spellings of English. The words it writes look like the respellings in a dictionary, e.g., antique (anteek). It could equally as well be programmed to print words in World English, if there was a market for such a system.

If the inventors decide to market this voice-activated typewriter in spite of its limited capacity to spell only phonemically, its users can communicate complicated directives on to paper without the intermediary use of pencil, typewriter, or secretary. Not only the disabled, but also writers in commerce, business, and industry will find this shortcut invaluable.

Learning to read phonemically written computer sheets will require little instruction, yet some training will be given in high schools and business colleges to make sure that graduates can scan them efficiently. As students and business people become accustomed to seeing the easy-to-read machine spelling, they will realize that it can be helpful in the initial teaching of young children and foreigners. Eventually it will be used in primers. The books will be so easy to read that a pupil will quickly figure out the sound of any word in his lessons, and also of any word in the encyclopedia. He will not spend the endless hours his parents did in learning to read but instead can use that time in reading to learn. With his easily acquired reading skill, the pupil will master aspects of science, literature, mathematics, and social studies now delayed until junior high school.

Best of all, from the viewpoint of certain diachronic linguists, he will be able to study the history of the English language and the etymology of words. Because the frustrating inconsistencies of the traditional spelling system have been eliminated, the beginner will experience less psychological stress and have less need for remedial assistance. He will write fluently any word in his own vocabulary and in the speech of those about him.

After his first year in school he will need no further spelling lessons nor rote memorization of word lists. His creative writing will be colorfully descriptive thru the use of polysyllabic words.

[1] Dewey, Relative Frequency of English Spellings, p. 3.


[Spelling Reform Anthology §15.3 p214]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1979, p5]

(The following section appears in the Anthology as part of an article by Ivor Darreg on Automation for Libraries, Part 2, but in the Bulletin as part of the above article by Helen Bonnema Bisgard.)

By whose standard of pronunciation shall the computer spelling be established? By the same standard now used by a dictionary when it indicates the generally accepted punctuation. For example: pheasant is shown as (fez'- ənt). The pronunciation in parenthesis is a broad transcription and does not represent regional or individual practice. If, perchance, an Alabaman says (faz'-ənt), a Polynesian (fiz'-ant), or a lisper (feth'-nt), each of these speakers will nevertheless use the machine' s standard spelling. He will unconsciously assign a modified sound just as he does now to the examples shown in the dictionary's pronunciation key. His pronunciation is not so different from the standard that he cannot read standard spelling, or conversely, that he cannot understand speech as presented in Voice of America broadcasts. Listeners throughout the world now tune into these newscasts. Travelers comprehend English whether spoken by native people in Asia, Europe, Africa, Ireland, Texas, or the Bronx. After the change which was triggered by computer technologists has been effectuated, the opposition of historical linguists and the man in the street will be forgotten. Economic urgency will determine what course is followed by technologists. It will determine whether they use a reformed spelling system or continue to be restrained in accomplishments by our discouraging spelling.

The foregoing speculative prediction about future developments makes the process sound predetermined, leaving little for us to do but complacently watch as our dream of sensible spelling comes true. However, as you have likely noted, there are IF's in the prognostication: If the inventor decides to market his computer regardless of its inability to spelling in the customary manner, and if the public adjusts to these unusual word forms. Then there's a possibility which I should like to only whisper. I am a bit worried that we may alredy be too late. A computer programmer tells me that simpler spelling will not be necessary because the machine will soon be able to handle traditional orthography.

Consider the phrase to be. Although there are six possibilities, three for the word to: (t-o, t-w-o, t-o-o) and two for the word be: (b-e, b-e-e), t-o-o can be eliminated since it is not good English, neither is t-w-o b-e, because after two, only the plural bees would be correct, not the singular b-e-e: so the machine can be programmed to write t-o b-e as the only correct spelling.

The task of organisations such as the Simplified Spelling Society and the Phonemic Spelling Council is to ensure the certainty of success in the use of a reformed spelling. They must recommend the most practicable improved system not only for the computer but also for the general public, and not forgetting that an initial learning medium will be useful for a long time. We must also present effective procedures for showing the desirability to business, education, and government.

We must immediately develop our strategy for becoming experts on computer linguistics.

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