[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1981 pp11-13]
[Thomas Hofmann: see Journals, Newsletter, Bulletins.]

The Possibilities of Change in English Orthography,

Thomas R. Hofmann, Ph.D.*

*Shimane Univ., Matsue City, Shimane, Japan.
*Presented at the 1st Internat. Conf. of S.S.S. at All Saints College, London, Aug. 26-31, 1975.

This presentation is not primarily a proposal of some reform, although I do mention some, nor is it an argument for one in particular, or against another reform. Rather I want to stand back from specifics & ask about the whole question of orthographic reform for English. Is it possible? Under what circumstances? How? When? Even though the record of reform in English has been an almost unblemished failure, the answers to these questions do not appear to be pessimistic.

There seems always to be, from the 16th century on, many reforms proposed & many reformers ready to propose more. Because there is a ready supply of reform, especially nowadays, I will not consider specific reforms (except as examples), & turn instead to the forces for & the forces against reform.

1. For Change.

We are probably all aware of the forces for reform; we try to exploit them when we propose a reform. I see basically only 3. There are the school children who must learn, generation after generation, the antiquated & illogical standard spellings, or orthography, of English. School time could presumably be saved, & pupils would be happier (or at least less alienated) if we had a systematic orthography with fewer exceptions. Of course, it is not only the school children; some of us never learn to spell, even at advanced years. Because many adults cannot spell correctly, we have a 2nd argument.

Democracy is served better if everyone can read & write, Adults who find it difficult to read & pure pain to write simply do not participate in a democracy. To have a class of people who cannot read & write, or else do not because it is too difficult, is effectively to have rule by the other class. This is the case in the U.S.A. & perhaps also in England, but Canada & Australia do not have this problem so much. Thus a 2nd force for reform is a desire for democracy, but I would not place too much hope on this force as most people are not especially desirous of sharing their wealth & power with the presently disenfranchised class, & that class is probably not over 20% of the people, although I have heard estimates as high as 50% for the U.S.A.

A 3rd possible force is the use of English as an international means of communication. It is often argued that we must make English spelling logical, to enhance its possibilities for use as an international language. Actually, however, this force appears illusory, & may even be a force against. I see 2 types of people who use English as a 2nd language in their profession. One group consisting of businessmen, bankers, scientists, etc. use the written form of English primarily. If they can speak some too, it is an added advantage, but their interest is primarily in written language. The other group - vendors, tour guides, clerks, & the like - use spoken English & need little or no ability in written English. Changing the written form of English - reforming it so that it matches spoken English much better - would aid this 2nd group, but they probably will not gain much as they are not going to read & write in English anyhow. And the 1st group is not going to appreciate having written English changed. In fact, I would predict that they will actively resist a spelling reform. Although they might be able to pronounce English better, their pronunciation is 2ndary in their use of English - to the written formulas, business letters, legal designations, etc. that they will have to change. Thus I am afraid that the international usage of English is not a force toward change, & is probably a force against change. It is true that the teacher of English as a 2nd language will be greatly benefitted by a reformed orthography, but English teachers in other countries will have little effect on English usage, & will in any case feel obliged to teach the commonly used spelling, i.e. the traditional orthography - until the vast majority of anglophones are using a reformed spelling. So even they cannot be counted on for more than verbal support.

This completes the list of forces I know of for change - easier teaching, the ideal of better democracy, & the international usage of English, & I am afraid that this last is more of a force against than a force for change. You may know of other forces for change, & I hope that you will tell me, because there is a real need to mobilize all the forces we can find. I have not considered some arguments, like G. B. Shaw's argument of saving paper & ink, or questions of phoneticness, because a society will tolerate a tremendously inefficient writing system, so long as it serves to communicate with everyone unambiguously. Consider French, for example. Although if needs 10% more letters than English to write the same thing, that is no motivation for francophones to drop the final letters (unpronounced) or switch to English.

2. Against change.

That brings us to the forces against change: The biggest is probably the reading public. When a literate person reads, he does not read letter by letter, pronouncing each as he goes along. Rather, after grade school, he reads by recognizing the printed shapes of words. This makes him a poor proof-reader as he cannot see misspellings even when looking right at them, but it makes him a much faster reader. The trouble is, for us at least, that this mature reader does not care whether English spelling is logical or not. He does not "sound out" a word unless he comes across a new word, & even then, he recognizes the morphemes in it & combines them. But he does care, if you propose to change the shapes of words. His fast reading ability goes "down the drain" with any extensive reform, as he is (at least for a short while) forced into reading letter by letter. To the normal reading public, an orthographic change means learning to read all over again. Of course, with a well designed change, he can do this fairly rapidly. Indeed, my experience with reading material in non-standard orthographies is that after a page, one begins to read faster, & I imagine that within 20 pages, one is nearly back to a normal reading speed. But there is no way to convince someone that some proposed orthography is not hard to read, without getting him to read at least 10 pages. The 1st paragraph usually includes a lot of guess work, & is slow, to say the least, but that is where any new reader must begin & usually quits.

Moreover, the writing public is even more inconvenienced. They have got to learn how to spell all over again. And there can never be a phonetic orthography for English which will be phonemic for more than 1 or 2 dialects. [1] So the naive avoidance of new orthographies is right: learning to write means, for most writers, a lot of tedious work with a dictionary. Most writers do not like to misspell words, hence they will resist writing in any new orthography in which they will likely make many errors.

A 3rd force is the publishers, who I used to think were quite formidably entrenched with standard customs of spelling. I have found, however, that various publishers were willing to publish my work in linguistics & pasigraphies in a slightly non-standard orthography, providing that they could footnote that it was the author's desire & not the publisher's mistake. However, the cost of tooling up for some or many non-standard letters is quite expensive; something that an ordinary publisher cannot do without being sure that his investment in new letters will not be wasted.

Sufficient money could cure all these problems, but even if wisely placed, I suspect that it would require more than all the reform movement could find. There are other problem, however, that money cannot cure.

As we all know, there are some major differences in English dialects. Most proposed reforms are phonemic & represent the pronunciation rather closely. But whatever reform does this well for American English cannot do well for British or Australian English, & vice versa, not to speak of Indian English. What is liable to happen with most reforms is to split English into 2 languages, British & American, & having gone that far, Canadian & Australian will probably split off too. Now this might be good, at least for the school children, but publishing costs will go up as a book will not find as many buyers in a given orthography, & also there will not be a community of English speaking nations any longer. In fact, India might well stop using English as her lingua-franca, & the international usage of English would split up & eventually drift off to some other language(s). The result is to lower the value of being able to read & write English, perhaps way out of proportion to the lower cost of education. Wise proposals for reform are equally applicable on both sides of the Atlantic, but as the implementation of such a reform is a socio-political process, it is unlikely to be adopted on both sides of the Atlantic, & that would lead to the same result. I do not know how widely this danger is realized, & is thereby a force against reform, but I think that the trend-setters everywhere are vaguely aware of it. At least reformers should be aware of it, & do what they can to prevent 2 Englishes.

This consideration, I think, prevents any serious & thorough reform of English, but it will still allow considerable revision & regularization of spelling.

Lastly, there is some sort of irrational fear of resistance to change, whatever kind it is. Just as there is a great hesitance to metric conversion, so will there be resistance to planning any change in spelling. If conversion to metric comes off without too much antagonism, people will have learned that change is not so painful as expected. Then is the time for pushing for orthographic reform. The winds of change are in the air, & when changing, it is not too hard to "go whole hog," to change other things (like spelling) while you are at it.

Nevertheless, it should be realized that there will be extra resistance to language change. The way a man speaks is part of his identification: who he is & what community, he belongs to. To ask anyone but an actor to speak differently is to ask him to change who he is, & usually meets with much resistance. The way a person writes, the spelling he uses, is the only visible aspect of language. It reflects what nation or group of people he belongs to, & a person will seldom change that unless his whole nation is changing as well. Try writing with the spellings appropriate to the other side of the Atlantic: (-our/-or or -ise/-ize) & see if you do not feel different & receive social pressure to return to the standard usage.

Thus, I see a number of fairly strong forces against change. I assume that they are the reason that no serious change has ever succeeded for English spelling: Unless we can find a way to overcome these forces, there can be no hope for a successful reform, & therefore no reason to discus what reform would be best.

3. How?

A few comments might be in order here. No revolution political, social or orthographic - is possible when a nation is successful. When you are doing well, there is no need to change how you do it. It is even apparent wisdom to avoid change, for fear that you will change something vital to your success. "Leave well enough alone", has been a good policy of the status-quo advocates. I believe that this applies to orthographic revolution as well - that people will be willing to change only when they are weak & poor not too successful, & want to do better. The English speaking nations are not in that state in this half of the century, & they will probably never all be in that state at the ' same time. To me, this means that there are 2 strikes against any reform which uses an alphabet much different from the extended Roman alphabet. Because that is a revolution in writing, it cannot be adopted by the various English-speaking nations at the same time, & it will change the visual shapes of words beyond recognition, creating havoc in the reading habits of literate adults.

A 2nd principle, one which was pointed out by Gelb, is that all reforms of writing have come about by official or government agencies. [2] To my knowledge, this is very close to being true. Of course, if a government adopts some reform, then many civil servants will be forced to write in it, thereby creating a body of literature in it, & most people will want to read things that affect them. Thus government documents usually find a large readership. This means, of course, that if we desire to reform English orthography, we must convince governmental agencies like the Government Printing Office in the USA or the Queen's Printer in Canada.

Because of the problems with revolutions, & the need to keep visual word shape fairly constant, I can only see small reforms having a significant chance of success. But, with a series of small reforms, we will have a major reform.

One such small reform that should antagonize only the lovers of the status-quo & orthographical etymologists [3] is to change the spelling of ch to ck when it is sounded that way. Word shape is kept roughly constant, but one of the "illogical" aspects of English spelling is removed. This would affect only a few words like arckitect, arckive, ckronic, ckromatic, sckool, arckiology, etc. This would leave ch standing only for the ch-sound, which might be attacked next. Of all the reforms I have seen proposed, this is 1 of the most innocuous. I would propose it as a test case. If we can get such a change adopted & used throughout the English speaking world, we are ready for bigger & more shocking changes. And then the reading public will be psychologically prepared for other changes. In fact, I would wager that if any logical change can be promulgated at all; there will be a ground swell of dissatisfaction with the present spelling system, many proposals for change & many more people using non-standard (& more logical) spellings.

If however, we cannot succeed at even such a minor change as this one - if we cannot get adoption of an obviously beneficial change, then it is a pure waste of effort to try to get some bigger change adopted. And in any case, we shall find where the resistance to change lies & what is needed to overcome it.

I should emphasize that I am not proposing the reform [4] mentioned above, changing ch to ck when it is sounded that way; I am sure that nearly every person here has considered it at 1 time or another. Rather to be a successful reform, it must be proposed by some significant body such as this one, What I am proposing is that we get together in this conference to see if there is not some small & beneficial change which we can agree on, & then promulgate it vigorously.

4. Another possibility.

There is 1 other line of attack which can be pursued, independently or simultaneously with the above. This is my pet reform & I would like to recommend it to you because not only think it is good, but that it will alleviate some of the problems with the present orthography & most of all, will allow an easier transition to a reformed orthography.

For a number of reasons, which I will not take the time to go into here, phonetic [5] writing does not, as is commonly believed, have much if any advantage to writing with symbols such as the Japanese do. The 3 strongest advantages of phonetic writing are:
(1) teaching foreigners how to speak
(2) allowing semi-literate people to write, &
(3) allowing easy use of typewriters, telegraphs, dictionaries & filing systems. With modern communications technology, the last 2 are of less & less: importance.

The biggest disadvantage of writing with symbols for ideas instead of symbols for sounds is the large number of symbols one would have to learn. Happily, however, linguistic science is finally discovering how to split apart ideas into component ideas.

It now seems possible to write most of the several thousand common words as combinations of 50 or so basic ideas. This is about the same number of symbols in the extended Roman alphabet, counting capital & small letters (where different), italics, numerals, etc. Like the idea of twelve can be broken down into a one & a two, which we do when we write 12, so the idea of give can be broken down into 3 ideas, or symbols.

The reason that I prefer this type of writing is that while any phonetically-based writing system can be excellent for a single dialect & perhaps adequate for a multi-dialectal language, it is necessarily restricted for use to a single language. A writing system based on ideas is of course not restricted to 1 language; it works for all languages. Such a writing system is called a pasigraphy & we already have several universally-used pasigraphies, the Arabic numerals, for example.

To be sure, I would not propose that we adopt a pasigraphy for writing English. That would violate every principle I know of. However, there are some pasigraphic symbols which are universally known: the Arabic numerals & the ampersand '&', for instance, which can be adopted into English in place of the written words. The advantages of this, besides making English more useful as an international language, is that it rids us of some irregular spellings, making our present archaic orthography more tolerable. For example, if we wrote '2' instead of 'two', we will have removed 1 objectionable spelling. Another is '&' where we commonly pronounce simply n. (Indeed, I used to think that Arthur Conan Doyle were 3 people: Arthur, Coan & Doyle.)

The biggest advantage for pasigraphic usage comes in proposing a reform of spelling. Where a reader recognizes some words in a sentence, he can often fill in the rest with only small hints as to what they are. This means that a text in a reform orthography is considerably easier to read if it has 2 or 3 recognizable words in each sentence. This logic leads, in the long term, to get people used to reading as many pasigraphs as possible in ordinary text. Then, when a major reform is proposed, they will find it considerably easier to read than if it had no familiar words. In the short term, of course, a reform, which uses the universal symbols will be more acceptable to most readers than one which does not.

5. Conclusion.

Thus, while we have a common motivation, we have suffered because of our antiquated spelling system & we desire to make it simpler for future generations - & we have a similar goal: to rid ourselves of that inappropriate orthography, I imagine that I am the only one here to suggest the use of pasigraphic elements to help overcome the problem.

What I have argued here is that there are some strong forces against any substantial revision of present orthography. These forces are strong enough to prevent anything but minor & piecemeal revision. These forces will not be easily overcome even if all the people here join forces.

Thus, it seems to me that the most important thing to do is to join forces by compromising. Even the more radical reforms can be rendered more viable if a successful push can be made to reform spelling in some small area like the ch -ck reform mentioned above. Once the English reading public realizes that they will not be hurt by reform, they will be much more willing to accept other reforms. I dare say they will even be eager to participate in further reform. The advocates of all proposed reform will benefit their own proposals by compromising to a small reform that can be pushed successfully, & by pushing it.

Success, I have argued, will require a body of writing in the reformed script, writing which people will want to or need to read. This is probably best obtained by having official government sources writing in that way. Hence, the task of reformers is to convince governments not only to allow their written output to be in the new, but to encourage it, if not require it. Military orders & government directives, as well as government reports, will be a good place to start.

I have also suggested using as many symbols (pasigraphs) as possible, both in ordinary English & in the "reformed English." Using for example, Arabic numerals in ordinary English will accustom people to them & to the possibility of change, & will at the same time rid us of a few awkwardly spelled words. Using them in a reformed English will then make it look more familiar, & will support easier reading & spelling when one has to learn many new reading habits.

Lastly, I submit that this really radical approach might possibly succeed where less radical reforms have been unsuccessful. It has a good chance of success because it is a "creeping reform," changing only 1 thing at a time, & never leaving the writer or reader facing a strange orthography. 2nd, it may succeed in stimulating orthographic reform when enough words are written pasigraphically. After some time, people will forget how to spell traditionally the words commonly written pasigraphically (consider that many people cannot spell 2/9, & are uncertain how to pronounce, much less spell 11/21, & will be forced to spell them phonetically, or look them up in a dictionary & realize how illogical our traditional spelling system is. Moreover, once it is customary to write 'two' as '2', teachers will have a hard time to get pupils to write two or eight as they will object that it is illogical.

It seems that the time for reform is soon. The English speaking world is, or soon will be, in the process of converting to the Metric system of measurement. People will discover that they can change, & will be much more receptive to orthographic reform than they have been in the past, & I would guess, than they will be for the next 50 to 100 years.

Note 1: The notion popularized by Shaw that we could all write the way we pronounce simply would not work, as most of us know. First; there is the economics of book publishing, which cannot republish but a few books in various dialects. This means that 1 or a few major dialects will become the standard dialects for publishing, with the result that most authors will need to write in those dialects to get published. And soon enough, children will be taught them, & business & governmental reports will have to be written in these dialects to have an acceptable appearance. Second, although I can understand most different dialects at the speed they are spoken, I prefer to read 10 times faster, where I do not have time to compensate for the idiosyncracies of the author's pronunciation, & I need invariant word-shapes for my eye to pick up quickly. Writing in dialect is understandable, but only if one is willing to take the time to read slowly or to learn the special orthography.

The obvious result is to return almost to the present state of affairs. While the standard dialect(s) for publishing will be phonemic for 1 or 2 dialects (I would imagine for upper-class London & for Washington or New York), most writers & readers will be working in an orthography which is not phonemic for themselves.


1. That is, completely phonetical.

2. Gelb, I.J., A Study of Writing.

3. This change is only one of many suggestions. I dont advocate it.

4. That is, phonetical.

5. Strictly phonetical writing is for teaching proper pronunciation.

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