[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1982 pp17-19,1]
Harvie Barnard: see Journal, Anthology, Bulletins.]

SSS Conference 3: Implementing English Spelling Reform continued.

"The inevitability of change: the happy alternative,"

by Harvie Barnard, Tacoma, WA.


The fixed mode of English spellings - but there are alternative. spellings - variant spellings. Do literate persons fear and resent change? In accepting rational change, certain factors need to be considered. The computer compared with our brain: Failure to learn causes frustration. Dictionaries show pronunciation - why not use these respellings? Four types of simplification. Who would benefit from simplification?


In view of the gradual but relatively continuous changes in spoken language, it may seem surprising that written language tends to become trapped into a more or less fixed mode. This apparent rigidity of structure, both spelling and syntax, while varying from language to language, tends to crystalize into a traditional form for any one language. The reasons for this are not as lojical as they are materialistic. This inflexibility is based upon nothing truly rational or psychologically humanistic, but since the advent of the printing press has become essentially mechanical! Also it could be successfully argued that the pervasive economics of dollars and cents, or British pounds and pence, have had much to do with the problem.

Altho the "better mousetrap" theory has not appeared to be working out with respect to a more rational alfabet for the English language, there has been a perceptible trend toward simplification and consistency with respect to better agreement between pronunciation and spelling of names of people as well as names of products of manufacture for world-wide use. In the granting of copyrights and trademarks, the use of fonemic or fonetic spellings has been fairly obvious and widely accepted for meny years. Aside from the novelty aspects of thousands of unique trade names and copyrights, most of our English dictionaries, such as Webster's New Collegiate, consistently offer optional or alternative spellings, as meter for metre, catalog for catalogue, honor for honour, and even thru for through. Such choices, or reformed spellings, are also referred to as deviants or variants, and are more common than ordinarily supposed.

Variant spellings, researched by the National Collegiate Teachers of English, (U.S.A.), have been discovered to be fairly numerous. In a recent book by Donald W. Emery, Variant Spellings in Modern American Dictionaries, (1973), five principal American dictionaries were studied - 2494 variants are listed. If we were to assume a total of 100,000 listings, we find these variants to represent approximately 2.5% - a truly surprising proportion!

These alternatives are, of course, in addition to the usual respellings for explanations of pronunciation. The very fact that respellings are needed to enable us to pronounce many thousands of listed words is in itself proof that our traditional spellings are inadequate to indicate how to properly speak our English language. The additional fact that there are numerous pronouncing dictionaries such as the Dictionary of Pronunciation, by Abraham and Betty Lass (1978), testify to the confused state of our spelling, plus the peculiar truth that there are many words (in English) that have more than one acceptable pronunciation. In one such dictionary, there are 8000 commonly mispronounced words, which testify to the confusing inconsistencies of our traditionally perplexing spellings.

According to many outstanding teachers and successful scholars, "English spelling is a bewildering chaos to adults coming to it from other languages" (Laubach, Frank: Teaching the World to Read). And to thousands, if not millions of children whose innate sense of logic becomes shattered by rules having numerous exceptions, our traditional spellings serve only to betray their faith in the rationality of adult learning, and perhaps also in the laws, written and unwritten, of our adult society.

Among the meny remedies which hav bin proposed, the concept of fonetic or foneemic spelling appears to be the principal thread of rational thinking woven thru the fabric of spelling reform. Yet the implementation of the foneemic approach, while appearing reasonable and even simple to meny reformers, presents a forbidding succession of obstacles when viewed in the cold lite of practicability. Unless approached with utmost tact, circumspection and diplomacy, spelling changes by eny process in eny form, regardless of the merits involved, will be looked on with misgivings and doubts. Even tho substantial financial advantages could be demonstrated, as suggested by our late and respected mentor, G. B. Shaw, there will be objectors, especially among the uninformed.

Still, there is hope! America has elected to go metric. Great Britain is converting from traditional English measurements to the decimal system - or is at least trying! Innovations which were looked upon with greatest suspicion a few generations ago are now considered indispensible to everyday living. The two most populous nations on earth hav restructured their languages, and several smaller nations - Turkey, Finland, Chekoslovakia (Czechoslovakia), hav made progress in simplification. And from what we hear, it seems that both the Soviets and the Chinese are trying to learn English, but are having discouraging difficulties with the spelling - which is certainly no surprise to enyone!

One basic kwestion and incompletely solved problem still confronts us. How can English speaking peoples accomplish the conversion from traditional spelling to rational foneemic spelling with the least inconvenience, confusion, and disruption of the status quo? Altho dozens of approaches hav bin suggested, none hav appeared wholly acceptable. The basic objection seems to hav bin the inherent fear that most people are afraid of change, fear that they would hav to go back to skool agen to learn to read and therefore approach it with general misgivings regardless of the benefits to be derived. In truth, a relatively small percentage of our useful vocabulary would be altered - less than 10% - and these changes would be so obviously foneemic that their intrinsic naturalness would tend to favor acceptance after being seen in print a few times.

The alternativ spellings which would be proposed as acceptabl are essentially those alredy widely used by business executives, newswriters, and others concerned with writing efficiency, speed and even clarity. Words now spelt as they sound would remain as they are - unchanged. Words encumbered with the burdensome 'ough' combination (fonogram), such as rough, tough, through and thought, would be candidates for simplification.

A change to the happy alternativ is not intended to alter English speech, and it should be emphasised that English, or eny other language, is the language which the people speak, and that writing is essentially an attempt to express that language most effectively in the form of symbols, whether alfabetic, hierografic, or pictografic. Uncounted systems hav bin used, and while we hav not achieved perfection, a considerabl sumber of essentially foneemic systems hav bin developed based upon as few as 4 vowels, (a, e, o, u), and 11 consonant sounds. (Ref. Laubach's Teaching the World to Read).

The basic 44 sounds, (or fones, fonemes, or phonemes), of English, while ideally represented by 44 symbols, are reasonably well expresst by our 26 alfabetical symbols which could do very well, provided the required symbol combinations were employed with a dependabl degree of consistency. But insted of using the minimum of 20 consonants with 24 other consonant and vowel combinations, what do we hav? None other than a serious student of English linguistics could believe the truth unless time was taken to read Godfrey Dewey's English Spelling: Roadblock to Learning, particularly Appendix A, "Spelling of Sounds."

Dewey's exhaustiv compilation, based upon the minimum of 41 distinct sounds of English speech, reveal that according to standard dictionary spellings presently in use, there are 561 different symbol combinations, including 246 different spellings for only 9 usual vowel sounds, including the /oo/ in fool, and the /y/ as used in why. A curious kwestion mite be raised: "after committing to memory all these 561 different spellings for 41 basic sounds, who among our so completely programmed linguistic experts would want to relinquish an imposing array of academic accomplishments?" So, could we reasonably expect very meny accomplished scholars to willingly change from T.O. (traditional orthografy) for a system as uncomplicated and rational as WES (World English Spelling)? Why should you or I, or eny other traditional orthografer wish to demolish a system lerned thru countless trips to the dictionary which could be supplanted by enything so simple as to be lerned by an infant school pupil in a matter of months, or at the most a year or two? Quite preposterous, eh what?

In accepting rational change, there are two basic factors to be recognized: 1) an attitude of reasonable compromise, which requires some degree of mental flexibility, plus a modicum of compassion for the millions of small children - those now with us as well as the meny millions yet to come, and 2) an honest concern for economy which would enable the tax-paying public of the United States alone to save at least 10 billions of dollars every year in teaching children to read, spell, write and comprehend what they are reading. Spelling itself is definitely not the fundamental objectiv! Spelling is essentially a vehicle by which we approach the true objectiv, which is clear, unencumbered communication, unconfused and unimpeded by the needless maze of nonsensical, illogical symbol combinations which by endless repetition are programmed into the organic computers of students, young or old.

The human brain, our personal computer, operates on the same principles as eny other computer. Lojical, consistent and agreeable data are accepted for programming. If and when compatible with previously programmed information, data perceived as acceptable are accumulated and retained for an indefinit period, or until retrieved for later use. If the data presented for programming is incompatibl, or in some manner inconsistent, or at variance with what has alredy bin programmed, the computer will either reject, stop programming, or cancel previously recorded input.

In spite of repeated failures, frustrated children and confused computers, our insistence on traditional spelling is jambing or otherwise blocking the normal function of millions of organic computers, both young and old. Statistically, about 15% of our younger computers, public skool graduates, after a few years of confusion and frustration, simply kwit, turn off, or play a gessing game for the rest of their lives. Such semi-literates read only with the greatest difficulty and with litl comprehension. And as for writing, that's virtually a "No-No." These are branded as illiterates, uneducables, or at best, "functional illiterates."

When functional illiterates are put in a situation where they must make an attempt to communicate in writing, some rather interesting spelling results. It is essentially pidgin English, neither traditional or fonic, altho closer to the latter. The main effect of the effort is to spell accord ing to the way the words sound, resulting in a horrible mishmash of symbols, because no two functional illiterates are at all sure which letters represent what sounds. The vowels are usually confused, and consonants, traditionally used but unsounded, are omitted - especially b, d, h, k, l, n, p, and v. Other common confusions include c, k, and ck; s, sh, and z; g and j; f, ph, and gh; double letters used as singles; the common digrafs ei, ie, ea and ae; the /er/ sounds, ar, er, it, or, and ur are equally often confused, to mention only a few.

Yet in spite of this "chamber of orthografic horrors," or labyrinthian confusion of sounds, the way out is amazingly straitforward and as redily lerned by adults as by 6 year olds if we would simply use our present dictionaries for correct pronunciation as well as for meaning of words.

Every dictionary worthy of the name shows accepted pronunciations by means of respellings. These respellings use conventional diacritical marks which indicate "long" and "short" vowels as well as necessary spelling changes to correct for unneeded and/or unsounded letters. Write, wrote, and written are spelt: rīt, rōt, rĭten, the macron abov the vowel indicating the long sound, and without, leaving the vowel sound short. But because modern typewriters and most type fonts do not hav symbols with diacritical markings, the latter, while very useful for dictionaries, are considered impractical for general use. However, a simpl and reasonable solution is suggested by our usual spelling. When we hear the long /ee/ sound, as in beet, feed, need and weed, the obvious 'ee' is most often used. So why not adapt the 'ee' practice as a standard means of expressing the long e? Then it follows that the other long vowels are lengthened by adding 'e', to form the long vowels: ae, ie, oe, ue, as is done in World English. This makes it much easier to teach all the vowel symbols.

There may be an objection to this adjacent 'e' method because it is unconventional and we alredy hav a means of accomplishing the same objectiv. This is the silent terminal 'e' rule, which is an acceptable rule when followed consistently. If followed, as in mate, rate, secrete, hide, pole and mute, the terminal 'e' is workable and well established, and when applied consistently need not be changed. But there are meny words - a few taken from "Olde Englishe" - which hav bin given a useless, hence deceptiv terminal 'e'. Words ending in -ive, olive, deceptive, love, move, above, besides have which we hav shortened properly. There are meny others such as usable, possible, liable, double, trouble, which are not helped by the terminal 'e'. Thus we hav a rule which has bin invalidated by more exceptions than conformals (see Sartorius), but which is too useful to be abandoned whenever it provides a true and useful purpose, (at least in an interim reform).

And what about the "short" vowels? They may and probably should be continued to be used as now, as in bat, bet, bit, not and nut. And whenever the distinctly short 'e' sound is herd, why shouldn't we write it as 'e', like in Harry Lindgren's SR-1, viz: yet, bet, any, had, spred, merry and dad? Altho we will sometimes run into homofones such as bred, we hav no difficulty with these common "sound alikes" in speech or in our usual writings, such as led and lead, rite, wright, right and wright, which are redily distinguished by context. The subject being considered makes the meaning clear, which should apply to ritten material as well as to speech.

Another useful alternativ, redily pronounced and more redily spelt, is the customary 'f' for the /f/ sound, as used in first, fore, fone, and fix, rather than phirst, phore, phix, and phone. Altho 'ph' has an interesting etymology, as do meny of our symbols, and for those who wish to pursue alfabetical history, this should prove both amusing as well as informativ - if not useful. Such a study mite clarify the confusion between the 'ph' and the 'gh' for the /f/ sound, yet at present we are still burdened with the needlessly burdensome rough, tough, enough, altho most traditionalists hav finally abandoned the 'plough' for the simpler 'plow.' It has bin sad that 'old soldiers never die, they just fade away', but not "phade away."

The four eezily lerned and redily used alternatives described in the preceding 4 paragrafs are summarized here briefly as follows: 1) the long vowel sounds are indicated by an added 'e', either terminally, as in present spelling, or alternatively, immediately following the vowel to be pronounced long; 2) all vowels, used alone, except when used terminally, as in vat, net, fit, hot and the 'u' in but, are short and require no signs, aids, or signals to indicate the short pronunciation.

The #3 suggested alternativ "rule" is that the short 'e', /e/, alredy mentioned in the preceding paragraf for short vowel sounds (as suggestion #2), is to be applied more broadly whenever the short 'e', /e/, is the accepted pronunciation, as in bet, met, and pet. The 'e' will replace, or will be used alone for any other symbol or combination of letters, as merry for many, any for any, sad for said, stedy for steady.

The #4 alternativ is to use consistently the 'f' for the /f/ sound to replace both the 'gh' and 'ph' , as fotograf for photograph, and fone for phone. In the case of 'gh', we also drop the unsounded 'o', so that tough becomes tuf, rough becomes ruf and enough, enuf - as we alredy use stuf for stough and puff for pough. Here there is some question (or kwestion) about the use of the doubled consonant - in this case the 'ff. This suggests a possibl fifth alternativ which could be dropping of the unsounded, hence unneeded double letters, since with our #2 rule the short vowel no longer requires a doubled consonant to signal shortness. But when the doubled letters are sounded, they are considered needed, as in unneeded, which would remain unchanged.

Yet in spite of the meny advantages inherent in the use of happy alternatives, their suggested usage is not to condem nor to wholly replace traditional orthografy. It would be hoping for too much to expect that literate adults, or any others who hav successfully mastered the intricacies of T.O., would warmheartedly embrace the alternativ concept. Having bin thoroly programmed for our customary inconsistent and irregular spellings, most literate adults would hav difficulty adapting to this change regardless of the benefits to be expected.

Aside from those attempting to lern English for the first time, immigrants as well as litl children, should we show compassionate understanding for the meny millions of semi-literates, those who read with difficulty and write not at all, the meny who redily admit to spelling difficulties without realizing the causes of their confusion and frustrations? Should we disregard the millions, if not billions of non-English speaking peopl who, in addition to millions of nativ-born English and Americans, including Australians and meny others, who could communicate much better in our English language if it was not for this unnecessary roadblock of what meny intelligent, literate and well informed persons refer to as our "crazy", irrational, and confusing spelling.

The meny millions who would profit from the opportunity to use alternativ spellings would include a substantial proportion of the English speaking public, those who fear of criticism and even ridicule, hav lapsed into a state of semi-literacy, and who communicate in writing with reluctance, if at all. Those who fail to become literate, or to communicate well, will founder economically, will rarely lern to comprehend the concept of responsible citizenship, and will likely remain that segment of society most likely to spawn our criminal population, and eventually to becum those enemies of society who will require constant supervision, if not institutionalization, at tremendous public expense!

It has alredy bin demonstrated in meny lerning situations, classroom controlled and otherwise, that material which is rational and logical - that which makes sense to the lerner - will be more eezily and rapidly lerned - as well as remembered for future use, than that which is irrational and therefore unreasonable. Altho there is ample room as well as need for further research to sustain the foregoing assertions, there should be litl or no pressing need to offer proof that sense is superior to nonsense! Time, history, growth and human development all serve to convince us that, "THERE IS NOTHING AS CERTAIN AS CHANGE!

Altho we would like to believe that miracles hav happened, and may yet occur, experience tells us that it will be human intellect and action which will bring about beneficial and desirabl change. Thus by providing a rational alternativ for what has proved cumbersom, tedious, and a roadblock to both lerning and communication, acceptance of the "Happy Alternativ" by all those in authority should pave the way toward progress in achieving successful understanding and cooperation in our ritten English language, both here, and hopefully, thruout the world.

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