[Spelling Progress Bulletin Spring 1980 pp19-20]
[Also on this page: Letter from Wilbur Kupfrian.]

A Practical Approach to Spelling Reform,

by Walter F. Cook, Phoenix, Az.

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute some new ideas for implementation of a spelling reform. As a businessman running a small computer company, I am undoubtedly in a very small minority among a group of educators. Yet I have been irritated by the difficulty of English, spelling and have been interested in spelling reform for many years. I had actually started an independent development of a set of rationalized rules for spelling before I became aware of the large amount of work done by this group and other groups.

As a person with a considerably different background, I believe I can provide a measure of some of the types of responses that may be encountered when these "radical" ideas emerge and are presented to the general public.

The real thrust of much of the work done in the name of spelling reform has actually been the introduction of simpler methods of teaching reading to school children. There is a large area of overlap in the areas of ease of spelling in that if words were spelled rationally, it would be much easier to learn to pronounce them. However, there is a difference between reading and spelling. When you consider the population that must be "sold" on spelling reform, it will be the adults and not the school children that must be sold. In fact there is some danger in starting the reform with children since the reformed spelling may become labeled as a "children's spelling" and not proper for adult communication. The person who is going to have to be sold on the reformed spelling undoubtedly has a speaking and reading vocabulary much larger than his spelling vocabulary. His real problem is to accurately spell the words he already can pronounce and read. Once this is accepted as the primary problem to be solved, it may be possible to simplify the spelling reform problem and ease the acceptance by the public. The specific point to be made is that if selling "rationalized spelling" is the primary goal, the basic criteria must be that each easily identifiable phoneme must be consistently spelled the same. Note that the requirement was not made that each sound be spelled differently. This is a reading requirement. Clearly, it is aesthetically more logical to require a truly reversible, unique mapping of phonemes and graphemes and, in general, this should be the objective. However, in practice making this an absolute objective will make the spelling reform more difficult to sell. It may actually produce spelling problems for those sounds that the general public may not recognize as different. As an example (not necessarily as a proposal), the WES distinction between "th" and thh" is required from the learning reader's standpoint but possibly not from the standpoint of the spelling writer. From a practical acceptance standpoint, the compromise of combining these two phonemes into one grapheme would probably enhance the acceptance of the rationalized spelling. [1] A similar situation may exist for the "er" and "ur" phonemes in WES.

The primary point in the preceding discussion is to emphasize that rationalized spelling must be the primary focus of a spelling reform effort and that possibly certain minor compromises in ease of reading could be made to improve the acceptance of the rationalized spelling. These compromises would certainly not seriously detract from the case of learning to read. In any case, these significant reading benefits accrue only if the rationalized spelling is accepted by the general public.

A separate point that seems absolutely obvious to me is that any rationalized spelling must be designed to utilize the existing English letters in a manner that is similar in general style to current usage. Asking the general public to make spelling changes will cause more than enough disruption and controversy. Requirements such as the introduction of strange new characters, the necessity of throwing out old typewriters, and retraining typists would unconditionally and absolutely doom any effort to introduce a reformed spelling.

If a rationalized spelling plan is to be accepted by the public, it must provide the following features:

1. Rational and Logical.

  It must remove most of the inconsistencies and replace them with a set of simple, relatively uniform spelling rules.

2. Easy to Learn.

  The public, who is accepting this plan, has already learned (presumably) existing spellings. They are being asked to learn or at least recognize many new spellings of words. So it must be easy!

3. No Mechanical Disruption.

  The introduction of new characters is not acceptable.

4. Transition.

  No attempt should be made to define the rationalized spelling as "correct" and the old spelling as "incorrect". The public is the customer. They should be given a rationalized alternative spelling and they can switch as they desire. It will be much easier to learn to recognize new forms of words than to learn to write new words. For an extended period of time, it will be possible for the public to read the new and to write the old. Any pressure for the use of rationalized spelling should be directed toward dictionaries, style manuals, newspapers, and government agencies.

5. Standardization.

  There is a period of time during which study and change are desirable. After that time, stability of a well accepted rationalized spelling is a primary requirement. Lack of consensus or significant change among the experts will certainly prevent acceptance by the public. Also, if there are multiple proposals from different spelling groups, there will be confusion and no acceptance. There must not be several different ways to spell common words.

6. Minimize Change.

  Considering the state of the English spelling, significant change is certainly necessary. However, within the above objectives, deference should be given to current spelling forms. A program that is designed to introduce groups of new words periodically will cause continual turmoil and will undoubtedly be stopped after the second or third phase. Introduction of a set of spelling rules with the resulting new alternate spelling word forms means the public can make transition at their own pace.

An implementation plan could include the following major phases:

1. Study commission to select a good plan of rationalized spelling.

2. Academic review of commission recommendations.

3. Expanded review of results by publishers, editors, and other "experts."

4. Publish rationalized spelling rules.

5. Fund raising activity via direct contributions and government grants.

6. Publish comprehensive cross reference dictionary with old-to-rationalized and rationalized-to-old spelling lists.

7. Promote acceptance into existing dictionaries and style manuals the rationalized spelling of words as an acceptably correct, alternate spelling.

8. Media public relations campaign.

9. Promote the introduction in the state and federal legislatures of resolutions approving the rationalized spelling.


Clearly each succeeding step will depend upon the results of the preceding steps. As such, the first step is the most crucial. The study commission must be a relatively small group. It must effectively represent the input of the interested parties in the academic community who have been contributing in this field. The group must have a very well defined scope and charter, and a reasonable but challenging time limit for completion of Phase 1 (possibly 9-12 months). It appears that much of this work has been done and that the primary effort will be to adopt or make minor modifications to existing proposals. Of course there must be an active chairperson who is dedicated in time and belief to the commission's objectives. The chairperson and the commission must be able to make the effective compromises that undoubtedly will be required to achieve an end result. In the end, the group must be able to convince succeeding levels of critics that the results are the best set of compromises that have a reasonable chance of being adopted.

If I read the history of English spelling reform correctly, it is over 200 years old with very little to demonstrate in the way of tangible results. The mood of the people appears to be reasonably receptive to progressive change. Certainly many fundamental social and technical changes have occurred in the last two decades. Rationalized spelling reform, effectively presented, could easily fit into this environment. As with any other movement: leadership, organization, and well directed effort are the essential ingredients that produce results.

[1] (For the general public, but not for the teachers.)



[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Spring 1980 p20]

Dear Newell: Where do we go from here? Dr. Wilbur J. Kupfrian

This is in response to your letter in which you comment "that we are talking to ourselves - those already convinced!" I concur to the extent that we concerned individuals are convinced that we need simplification but I believe we are far from unified in our convictions as to how it should be done. With advocates strongly supporting programs that are incompatible with others, I do not see how, among ourselves, we can reach a consensus. I do not include myself among those who are technically schooled in the art (or science) of language or spelling simplification. Yet as a self-proclaimed pragmatist, I believe we must one day yield to a program that the people will accept, or our best-intentioned efforts become fruitless. One well-known characteristic of the species homo sapiens is a strong reluctance to accept change in their ingrained habits. Many people of the USA have shown strong reluctance in adopting the Metric system, despite its vast superiority and simplicity over the antiquated and cumbersome English system. I don't believe that there has been much quarrel over the merits of the Metric system. Yet despite an almost universal acceptance of the Metric system thruout the world, our country was until recently, a holdout in transposing to it, even over an extended period of time.

It is true that logical resistance has derived from the need for costly capital expenditures for new tools and machines, and from the difficulty of making a gradual transition in any industry. Nevertheless, one hears the frequently expressed views of individuals whose opposition to the proposed changes is based purely on a personal preference for the present standards and a somewhat arbitrary attitude toward accepting any change.

Someday, someone will need to cast the die on a desirable set of rules based not primarily on academic superiority, but on what eventually would likely be accepted by the English-speaking public. I once worked for a man who often said, "I would rather be effective than efficient." In our problem area, I would rather seek a solution that might offer a reasonable prospect of being adopted than a more logically superior approach that lacked any reasonable aura of eventual acceptance by the public. I think much profound research and innovation has gone into the proposals for modified alphabets, but if the changes go beyond what might be generally accepted, they appear to be exercises in futility.

For example, billions of dollars thruout the world are invested in sophisticated business equipment and typing machines employing a standard keyboard. I feel that any proposed system of change in spelling that necessitates a radical departure from or an addition to this keyboard will impose drastically-imposed resistance to acceptability.

A postman, so goes the story, once hesitated at the gate of a home because of a savagely barking dog inside. "Don't you know," admonished the owner, "that a barking dog doesn't bite?" "I know it, and you know it," replied the postman, "but does the dog know it? " I think you and I know there is a great need for simplified spelling, but does the average English-speaking person know it? I'm afraid a great promotional program would be required before the average citizen perceives the inconsistent and complicated aspect of our spelling "system" and of the advantages both at home and internationally of adopting move uniform spelling rules.

The cost of homing in on a readily acceptable system and of alerting people to its need is an immense task beyond the reach of our group or of any similar group with whom we share common goals. With the implicit benefits to world peace and understanding, and with the huge economic and social impetus that would flow to Johnny (and Mary) in learning to read, we should have a cause to which one or more foundations could be persuaded to make a reasonable commitment. We should probably need a sponsoring group and eventually a government study looking to eventual legislation.

Speaking pragmatically again could we not in this way effectuate some studies looking to crystalize public thinking on a logical approach and some proposed solutions for implementing a system of simplified spelling that could stand some reasonable hope of eventual public acceptances If such a plan were to accept the present alphabet without significant change, an added impetus would be the publication of a revised spelling dictionary, or an annual list of revised spellings (with the governing rules) and wherein both new and old versions of spelling are listed, either of which could be considered acceptable during an indefinite transitional period. Johnny would thus learn to read quicker, and his elders need not feel that they had been legislated out of their time-honored system of spelling. It might take a generation or longer to take hold fully, but it would be a start on a program that has been needed for generations. The etymologists and the purists will fault most any system that obscures or hides word stems and their national origin as simplified spelling might well do, but we have in our present language many words whose stems have been thus altered while the historical derivation has been preserved. On the evaluation process, the huge economic, social, and political benefits of simplified spelling could be consistently envisioned as justifying required changes in time-honored practices,

Yrs Sincerely

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