[Spelling Reform Anthology §6.8 pp99-101]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1980, pp7-10]

[Valerie Yule: see Book, Journals, Newsletters, Media, Personal View 10, Anthology, Bulletins, Web links.]

A Transitional Spelling Reformed for Adults and Learners -

using 12 rules to regularise present English spelling,
by Valerie Yule, Aberdeen, Scotland. (SR-1 used).


Although everyone assumes that 'spelling reforms means phonetic spelling, other features may also need investigation to produce the 'best fit' orthography that can meet the sometimes conflicting requirements of learners, machines, and fluent users of English, of the educated elite and the 'educationally handicapped', of native speakers and second language learners, of the changing English language and of maintained continuity with past and present English spelling.

This paper presents the type of reform that might meet those conditions, although the final form would need to be based on empirical research, not armchair theory and informal observation. Its details are set out in a form that can be used to describe other proposals too, so that schemes can be more easily compared in their rationale and details such as sound-symbol representation.

A. A Summary of Proposals.

A highly regular 'transition' spelling can be used easily by both learners and fluent readers of present English spelling.

Learners start with a sound-symbol correspondence 'Learners' Spelling' following the lines of world English Spelling, and then modify it with 12 rules and 12 sight-words as soon as the basic principles of reading are comprehended.

Current print can modify present spelling in four stages, which unmodified by the 12 rules and 12 sight words, would lead directly to Learners' Spelling. With them, 80% of running text can remain unchanged - but the problem spellings are cleared up. As it is a reform by stages, enyone can begin now, with Harry Lindgren's SR-1, (short e always spelt with the single e), and later features can be modified according to research and experience.

Electronic machines can be programmed to write and speak using the 12 rules and 12 exceptions.

More effective techniques to teach reading and writing are included as proposals in the full scheme, once present 'unreliable' spelling no longer complicates 'the reading process.'

B. Assumptions.

i) Research rather than dogmatic assertion is needed about the optimum spelling for different needs - reading and writing, learners and fluent users, English-speakers and the foreign-born, machines, 'average people' and handicapped learners.

Details of the issues that need to be settled are given in the paper following this one: "How to implement spelling reform."

ii) Continuity with present spelling is essential.

iii) A perfect reform is humanly impossible. The question is not to reject reforms that are not perfect, but to work for one that will work, and that the public can accept.

iv) Spelling reformers will never he unanimous in agreement on the kind or extent of reform, and all must be prepared to make some concessions from their own preferences.

C. Specific proposals.

Specific proposals can fit on one page, or, in example form, on a card for the pocket, as can be done with most major languages - except English, French and Chinese. The first two rules produce the phonemic-based Lerners' Speling:

1. All consonants have one sound each, broadly interpreted (e.g., no distinction between voiced and unvoiced th). Digrafs are: ch, sh, th, wh, zh, ng, nk.

2. Vowels:

The next ten rules modify Lerners' Speling to produce Transition Speling. As the public gradually adjusts to the changes, these rules might be progressively dropped, starting from the last.

3. Standard formal speech is represented, as in dictionary pronunciation. Where there are regional differences, preference is for that closest to present spelling, e.g., after, dog, remember, exampl. Unclear vowels are written e or er, without distinction between stressed and unstressed schwa, unless there is a reason learners can be told, e.g., metal-metalic, aebl-capabl.

4. Represent diphthongs and tripthongs by digrafs only. Place in word affects pronunciation.
ai-dais, plaing
ea-real, iedea
ei-deity, seing
eo-peon, radeo
ia-dial, India
io-iota, Ohio
oi-oil, going

5. Medial and final vowels:

Long vowels.Within polysyllables spelt with single letters, e.g., inovation. -e construction in final syllables without consonant blend endings, e.g., hope, hopes, (but biend, fiena1).

Final vowels:


A 'pocket card' setting out the vowel rules through examples could look like this:

6. 12 homonyms shown to be confusable in real life are distinguished by spellings that are still arguably phonemic (legitimate), e.g., too, tuw (and sight-word to), bi, biy, ther, thair, thay'r.

7. 12 'sight-words' retained, with their related words: to/ into/ towards/together, of off, was what, who, put, -ful, I, you, -ion ending, one/onse/only. ?coud/shoud/woud?

8. Double consonants. rr if possible confusion with er/ar/or, e.g., carrot, erring. Other possible uses, e.g., for stress distinctions, e.g., comitty-comity, desert-dessert.

9. Verb endings standardised d/ed, e.g., lifted, jumpd, crepd.

10. s for sounds s/z and all plurals, except for initial z and words like buz, fiz, jaz. Voiceless final ce replaced by se, e.g., danse, silense, or ss, e.g., class, silenss?

11. c for sound k except to close word-roots, e.g., clok, basking, provoke.

12. qu and gu for sounds cw and gw.

b) Four stages for changing the printed word, and for adult users to change their written spelling, each at his own individual pace:

1. Spelling reform one. (the Australian Harry Lindgren's SR-1) Spell e for the short e sound, as in: bet, ded, sed, frend, meny, bery, gess.

2. "When in doubt (dout), cut it out." Simply omit unnecessary silent letters: gess, led.

3. Use sensible consonants, e.g., folograty, jeneral, enuf. For transition Speling, modify with rules 8-12.

4. Use a consistent vowel system. Lerner Speling vowels modified by rules 3-5.

For minimum disruption of the present appearance of English spelling, add the special spellings listed in rules 6-7, and use rule 3 for the standard of speech.

D. Rationale.

How meny rules are needed for a reformed spelling? Answers range from: "only one rule: one-sound-one-symbol," to Dr. Wijk's Regularized English, which accepts almost eny English spelling if a rule can be found to cover it, since the major problem is the 500 odd maverick words for which no rules are possible.

"12-rule spelling" tries to reconcile the needs and abilities of lerners and fluent readers. The key is "Easy to remember," hence the arbitrary limit, the systematic setting-out, and catchy slogans. A stage at a time for adults means minimal disruption of the appearance of English text, gradual acclimatisation of users, and reform that can begin concurrently with research.

a) Rationale of specific proposals.

1. "Diaphonic" broad-band rather than precise phonetic sound-symbol correspondence, to minimise lerners' difficulties in sound-discrimination and problems with regional differences. Spelling as reasonable conventions to represent sounds - not "photographs."

2. Vowels. World English Spelling is the guide, except that unclear vowels are spelt with e/er rather than u/ur on the grounds that excess of the less familiar letters produces more affront in the present readers. ue/uu/u are the suggested pattern for due/muun/tabu rather than ue/oo/oo, To avoid the print disturbance of puut and -ful which 'look shocking', put and -ful are sight-words in Transition Speling.

3. Children and foreigners learning to read English are often baffled in pronunciation of words when they do not follow the usual principle of stress on the first syllable. Written material for learners can therefore use underlining or italics to show how to read words with irregular stress.

Learners will naturally begin to write according to how they speak, but material for them to read will be as close as possible to standard formal speech. They may have reading books with large print Lerner Speling and small print Transitional, later reversed, but Lerner Speling remains for rendering pronunciation.

Everyone comprehends standard speech on the media and on tapes, whatever their own dialect English, and so it will be easy for children to lern to spell it as they become accustomed to transition reading and lern the reliable rules of transition spelling.

4. Diphthongs and tripthongs. Eny spelling reform will still leave a few odd words difficult to manage, but they are no reason for abandoning a partial reform. The best solution may be ellipsis of letters rather than excessive clumsiness, e.g., poetry, co-operation, dieresis, medieval.

5. Modifications to the basic vowel pattern seek to preserve as much as possible of the appearance of English text by using the most common patterns applying to different positions in words and following modern trends to economy. However, experiment is needed about the value of frequency as a guide to retention of spelling forms - and if frequency, what sort? Of letters, of blends, of rhyming forms, or position in words?

Since lerners' difficulty is known to increase with length of words, experiments may show that lerners as well as fluent readers identify polysyllabic words more easily if medial long vowels are spelt with single letters, e.g., education rather than educaetion.

A word-count might also show that Chomskian principles of representing 'lexical structure' operated as much or more often in transitional spelling as it does so haphazardly in present English spelling: e.g., fli-flies-fliet, apli-aplies-apliense-aplication, ferosity-feroshus-feerse, (fly-flies-flight, apply-applies-appliance-application, ferocity-ferocious-fierce). Note also the economy of paper, time, and memory.

"Magic e". The -e construction for long vowels is a clumsy strategy and troubles learners. It should be dropped as soon as adult readers can be acclimatised to an improvement that does not affect letter sequence.

6. Homografs. Should eny homografs, future or existing now, be distinguished to prevent possible confusion? (e.g. letter, or reader - the person and the book). Most suppositious confusions never occur in practice, e.g., you cannot say, "The sun's rays meet," and you don't say, "The sons raise meat," altho you could say, "The engine has a tender behind." The odds are a hundred to one that you have not noticed the homografs alredy on this page as typewritten. Even excluding verb-noun pairs and the multiple distinctions made by a good dictionary, there are 35 of them, from standard, speech, spell, rules, can, will, to present, distinguished, book, practice, page, type, even, and only 18 of them are homofones thretend by reform, e.g., their, so, be, for, to, no, all, by.

7. Sight-words. A major barrier to spelling reform is that some very common and very irregular words would look very odd for a while. The interim solution is to leave a few 'sight-words' that occur very frequently in running text. An arbitrary number of 12 is easy to remember, and dull learners who at present cannot cope with 40 sight-words, let alone thousands, can confidently learn and remember merely 12. The -ion construction is included because it occurs continually in newspapers and textbooks, and is shared in similar forms by all modem languages with Western links, particularly in the international relm of science. Lerners can be shown how our shn, schn, zhn pronunciations of -tion, -stion, -sion endings are slurrings from a more precise enunciation.

9. Some grammatical markers are retained pending research on the actual value for fluent reading and learner-ease. The latter point could be clarified by analysis of i.t.a. children's spelling, since they have the options of -t and -d for participles and a reversed z which looks like s for plurals and verbs. And how do they transfer to present spelling on these?

10. Experiments may support the observation that child and foreign learners who initially pronounce all s spellings of z sound as voiceless actually sound no worse than Welsh. But there is evidence that adult readers are affronted by the greater use of the relatively unfamiliar z in spelling reforms, and it may be expedient while first obtaining regularity to generalise more familiar letters except where the rarer letters are normally expected.

The expedient of using -se to indicate final voiceless s except in plurals, to avoid frequent confusions such as peace and peas, is a clumsy interim mesure to make the best of the current alternatives English readers accept at present -impasse, glass, rinse, dance, coalesce. What would be better?

11. In eny complete spelling reform, k will almost certainly be a significant letter, and so must be retained. However, at present it can affront, like z, since c is more familiar, so the attempt is to provide the most simple rule possible to govern maximum occurence in a familiar position. K should be used, insted of c, before e and i, when sounded as k.

12. In the interim, the present invariable rule of spelling the sounds cw and gw with qu and gu are retained to maintain the present appearance of print. However, anomalies like queue, lacquer and guess are changed, altho cue, racer and gess will appear as minor oddities while they are still unfamiliar.


This is a simple and economical reform, that requires popular support but not vast funds to be adopted gradually.

It maintains the basic appearance and continuity of English spelling while cutting out much of the unpredictability. The table below compares word changes in transliterated passages from:

A. Running text from the introduction to New Spelling, in transition spelling.

B. Running text from "the worst English spelling possible," collected in The story of the Beautiful Princess' (Appendix 1), i.e., maximum change needed.

C. New Spelling introduction, excluding repeated words, in transition spelling.

D. The same in Dr. Wijk's Regularized English (Wijk, p.324).

E. Transition spelling, excluding repeated words, 'The Beautiful Princess.'

F. The same for the first three paragraphs of the Gettysburg Address.

No change except omission of surplus letters
Total words shortened (including changed)
Total words lengthened
Total words with letter changes
Total words completely retained


Transition spelling is designed to be easily read and learnt from both directions, by those just beginning from an initial Lerners' Speling and by alredy fluent readers. It seeks to be as close to present spelling as possible with as few rules as possible. Twelve rules plus 12 sight-words can achieve close similarity to the appearance of the printed word today while cutting out the brambles and ded wood that, world-wide, hinder literacy in the English language.

Reform can begin now, by everyone, with Lindgren's e for the short e sound, as in bet, concurrent with action research on the next steps.

The scheme is set out in a form that could be a useful structure for the presentation and comparison of all schemes for spelling improvement.

Acknowledgements: This paper is the product of discussion and correspondence with meny spelling reform colleagues, including those at the 1979 Conference, where Dr. John Beech, particularly, influenced my thinking.

Key background reading:

Chomsky, N. "Phonology and Reading" in Levin, H. and Williams, J.P. (Eds.) Basic Studies on Reading, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1970.

Chomsky, C. "Reading, Writing and Phonology" Harvard Educational Review, 1970, v. 40, pp. 287-310.

Lindgren, Harry, Spelling Reform, a new Approach. Alpha Books, Sydney, Australia, 1969.

Pitman, Sir James, and St. John, J. Alphabets and Reading, London: Pitman, 1969.

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

Yule, Valerie. "Is there evidence for Chomsky's interpretation of English spelling?", Spelling Progress Bulletin v. 18, n. 4, 1978, pp. 10-12.

Appendix 1.

An example of Transition Speling, showing an average degree of change in running text:

"The worst spelling possible," the story of the Beautiful Princess, is recommended for spelling reformers in fun or ernest, to see the maximum change that their reforms could produce. Here it is in transition spelling:

"Onse upon a time the buetiful dauter of a grate majition wonted more perls to put among her trezhers. 'Look thru the senter of the muun when it is blu,' sed her muther in anser to her question. 'Yu mite fiend yor hart's desier.' The prinsese lafd becos she douted these werds. Insted she used her imagination, muuvd into the fotografy bisnese and took pictuers of the luuner sfere in culer. 'I perseve moest sertenly that it aulways aperes hoely white,' she thaut. She aulso found that she coud ern enuf muny in ate munths to biy herself tuw luvly, huje, enormus nue juwels tuu."

Back to the top.