[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Autumn 1985 p15-17. Later designated Journal 1]
[See Journal, Newsletter, SPB articles and media items by Chris Jolly.]

The Introduction by Stages of New Letter-symbols.

C.J.H. Jolly

[As Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society and member of the Working Party, Chris Jolly contributes years of professional marketing experience in assessing the potential of reform proposals for the business community.]

The difficulty of representing some 45 phonemes by the 26 letters of the alphabet is well known. The problem is worst with the vowels where there are some 20 common phonemes (including diphthongs), but only six letters to represent them. Inevitably widespread use is made of digraphs, but any systematic use of digraphs seems to suffer from problems.

Take the word poet for example. If the sound /o/ is represented by OE, then the word should be spelt poeet. Otherwise the logical pronunciation is 'pote'.

Again, take the word liveliest. If /ai/ is represented by IE and /i:/ by EE, then the word should be spelt lievleeest. This is clearly absurd and highlights the main problem in using existing letters methodically:

1. far too often more letters are needed, not fewer.
2. the new spellings can still be ambiguous.
3. the 'look' of the new spellings is frequently open to ridicule.
4. compromise and modification are needed, so removing many of the intended benefits.

The other alternative of introducing new letters has usually been considered a long term ideal. However it has been rejected in the past because totally new alphabets were proposed. They resulted in wholesale change that is considered to be far too sweeping.

To find new ideas for introducing new letters piecemeal I looked at how this process has happened historically.

Take the letter J. Historically of course J developed from the letter I. Both existed way back in Roman times when the number 7 for instance could be represented by vij as well as vii. In the book of Common Prayer (1549) is the word iudge. However by 1630 the distinction was clear between I the vowel and J the consonant.

The letter V is another example. Both the letter forms U and V existed back to Anglo-Saxon times, and both were used for the vowel in up and the sound V. In 1623 Shakespeare was printed with the words neuer, haue, seruice. However by 1700 the distinction had been made between U the vowel and V the consonant.

Consider the features these developments have in common:
1. one grapheme had two quite different forms that were being used interchangeably;
2. this same grapheme also represented more than one phoneme;
3. eventually the two letter forms split, each coming to represent different phonemes.

It is possible to say that a letter in the alphabet can be identified by six different characteristics:
1. sound, 2. cursive form, 3. lowercase, 4. uppercase, 5. name, 6. numerical position in the alphabet;
2. this same grapheme also represented more than one phoneme;
3. eventually the two letter forms split, each coming to represent different phonemes.

So, having considered the development of J and V, and the key features in the process, I set out to see whether the same features could be seen today in other letters. In particular were there any letters in the alphabet that had two quite different ways of being written (excluding capitals, of course)? Most especially I looked at vowels because it is here that the problems of a shortage of graphemes are most acute. I also started by looking not at printed material but at handwriting, because handwriting represents a person's free and voluntary use of different letter forms.

Let me show some examples, all of them chosen from personal correspondence to me over the years. I'll start first with the address on an envelope of a letter sent to me by Professor Ayb Citron.

Examples of variant formation of 'e'

Look at the word Pembridge and it can be seen that the letter E is formed in two quite different ways. Professor Citron is in good company since here is an example from another letter where the two forms of the letter E are again used interchangeably:

Further examples of 'e' formation.

Other friends who have written use only 'Greek' E:

Illustrations of Greek 'e' formation

Note in the last example how the letter A is written - with the same letter form as the typescript 'a'. This form of A was hard to find in handwriting. However the distinction between typescript and manuscript form is made of course between normal and italic printing.

So here we find that both E and A have two recognizably different and quite discrete ways of being written. The big question is this: could we direct their use so that they come to be used for different phonemes?

To stand a chance of success a reform would have to apply to just a few vowel phonemes - not to all of them at once. So vowel phonemes would need to be classified into 5 groups, so that reform can take place to just one or two groups at a time.

Let me explain what this could mean. There are some 16 vowel phonemes (including diphthongs) that could reasonably require separate graphemes. These 16 have been classified into 5 groups which I have called the A vowels, the E vowels, the I vowels, the O vowels, and finally the U vowels. These vowel groups are listed below with some invented names for some of the vowels - those without common names:

Vowel GroupExampleRecognizable Spellings Name% of all phoneme occurrences
Acapashort A4.04
 carpar/ah'lower' A0.50
 capea..elong A1.88
Ebeteshort E3.50
 beateelong E1.96
 about? final ERneutral sound/schwa3.52
Ipitishort I8.12
 filei..elong I1.61
Opotoshort O2.86
 portor, aw'lower' O1.29
 poleo..elong O1.66
 pooloo'upper' O1.63
Uput-'upper' U0.70
 puttushort U(+
 pertstressed ER'lower' U (=2.38
 fueluelong U0.31

Let us start with the three E vowels, the short E, long E and the neutral vowel. The choice of the E vowels has the advantage that E is already the most common letter, and hence is overused. At the same time it would allow the neutral vowel to be drawn out as a separate letter, so breaking an enormous deadlock in spelling reform.

Such a distinction between the E vowels could look like this:

'e' and 'a' variants according to pronunciation.

To conclude, the disadvantages and advantages of the approach suggested here could be summarized as:
Disadvantages of new letter forms
1. unfamiliarity, learning needed;
2. existing keyboards cannot print;
3. printers' typefaces would need new letters;
4. dictionary order.

However, against these points can be set:
Advantages of new letter forms
1. unambiguous;
2. economy of letters
3. gradual introduction is possible
4. possibly less open to ridicule
5. assists in our understanding of phonemes.

Existing and potential letter forms

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