[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989/1 pp.19,20 later designated J10]
[David Stark: see Journal, Newsletter.]

Implementing Spelling Reform - an Introduction.

David Stark.

David Stark is an architect who has been grappling with the design problems of English orthography since he started tutoring adult illiterates 10 years ago. In successive issues of the Simplified Spelling Society's Newsletter and Journal, he described how a standardised spelling pronunciation could overcome the problems of the conflicting accents of English.
Many great minds have been applied to the problems of English spelling reform over the last few hundred years, but the one positive result has been the revision of a small number of spellings in American English, thanks to Noah Webster, and a few interesting spin-offs like i.t.a. The forces against change are strong and the reasons for objecting to reform can be summarised as follows:

1. There is no need for reform.

1.1 As more people become fully literate, there is probably little wrong with the present spelling. Any defects in the orthography can be accommodated by good teaching.

1.2 As Chomsky has argued, the English spelling system has syllabic and morphographic elements which make it more efficient to use than an alphabetically consistent orthography. The eradication of heterographs (hear/here) in a reformed system would increase the semantic search during the reading process. It is worth the extra effort to learn TO.

1.3 It is good for TO to be difficult to learn. This stops people who are poorly educated, whether native or immigrant, from gaining positions of power within the English-speaking societies. It is easy to judge if someone has been well-educated by observing how well they spell.

2. It is inherently wrong to change TO.

2.1 The present spelling system is part of our linguistic heritage and culture, and as such is unimpeachable. To admit that there is something wrong with our orthography would be tantamount to suggesting that there is something wrong with English-speaking societies. The dominance of English as the main world language in its traditional form speaks for its success.

2.2 Revised spelling would obscure the Latin, Greek and other foreign language derivations of words.

2.3 The appalling appearance of revised spelling systems is testimony to their inappropriateness.

3. It is impractical to base a revised orthography on the spoken word.

3.1 English is a world language which should not have its orthography fixed to one dialect because the social group whose language is chosen as the standard for reform would gain increased importance. This would be resented by all others.
3.2 Ordinary people have difficulty exercising the phonetic precision necessary for a fully alphabetic orthography. They learn spelling patterns more than phoneme definition, especially with vowels, for example hay rhymes with pay, so the same spelling must apply.

3.3 Dialects vary through time, with changes appearing each generation. It would be impractical to revise sections of the orthography at say 30 to 50 ycx intervals.

4. Introducing reform is impractical.

4.1 Books in the old orthography would immediately become obsolete. People who learn only the new orthography would be cut off from the literary tradition unless old books were reprinted.

4.2 Older people would not bother to learn the new orthography. This would produce a social division with perhaps certain newspapers and journals aimed at the elderly continuing to be written in TO.

4.3 Those who needed to convert to revised spelling would have to relearn many reading and writing skills.

4.4 It would be inappropriate to convert laws and regulations into revised spelling as the text would require to be reviewed to eradicate any possible confusion from homophones being spelled the same (whole/hole).

Arguments to counter Objections 1 and 2 above have been well rehearsed by reformers, and my last series of articles tackled some of the questions raised by objections in Section 3. Strategies for Section 4 are increasingly being addressed by reformers and the series of articles to which this forms the introduction seeks to explore the progress made to date, and suggest pointers for further study.

Spelling reform is a continual process of synthesis and analysis, in which we define design criteria and formulate solutions. It is as important to accurately define (and subsequently verify) the design criteria as it is to formulate design solutions. It is a common and recurring fault of spelling reformers to begin with an ill-defined design brief, invent a new spelling-system, and seek reasons to justify it. This series of articles hopes to define design criteria which can be used to counter problems relating to the introduction of spelling reforms. Assessment of reform solutions against such criteria would also give an indication of their efficacy.

The method of introducing reform may impose its own criteria on the design. An initial teaching alphabet provides an opportunity for presentation of an alphabetically consistent orthography to the public at large and particularly to children, who will grow up knowing how efficient spelling can be, and more readily allow more logical spellings into their everyday lives. However, the design requirements of an initial teaching alphabet will be somewhat different to those of an orthography for world English. The i.t.a. alphabet of the 1960's, with its new characters, precluded its use by existing literates. It did not sufficiently counter the objections in Section 4 above to make it acceptable to the public at large, and indeed the lack of acceptance of this 'strange' alphabet by parents was probably one of the main reasons for its fall from grace.

Simplified American Spelling seeks to learn from this by producing an orthography which has as one of its design parameters that it "is sufficiently compatible with English spelling so his (the child's) parents can read it." However, as it has been designed specifically for use in the USA, some of the problems in Section 3 have not been fully addressed. It is probably too dialect-specific and phonetically precise to be suitable for use in world English. However, if it were more internationally minded it might be a less marketable product in the USA. Given this dilemma and the fact that getting a revised orthography accepted is the greatest problem any reformer has, one must sympathise with the approach taken, and wish its proponents well.

Producing a new orthography for a target section of the population inevitably puts constraints on its design. But the compromise will be worth it if a toe-hold can be gained and the extension of its use to society as a whole can begin.

Children learning literacy is one target group, but one could also aim at people learning English as a second language. This could be to the benefit of integrating the huge Spanish-speaking population of the USA into the English-speaking establishment, helping those in a multi- language country like India or Nigeria become literate in lingua franca and international English, or easing the burden of those in the international community where English is the dominant language. The concession by English-speaking people of having their orthography changed to help others, could only help to promote English as the main second language in the world and official language of international organisations like the UN or the EEC. However, if a revised orthography is tailored for any one of the above uses, it will not be the ideal design for another. In the real, practical world, design is compromise.

While we may begin by targeting a reformed orthography at one group, we must remember that the ultimate aim is an orthography for all people wishing to the use English, and that we cannot make a complete break with the English literary tradition. The relationship between the old and new orthographies is crucial, and the prime concern must be for those skilled in old orthography to be, able to learn to read the new one easily. Most reform proposals therefore attempt to minimize interference with traditional orthography. Proposals involving new grapheme symbols are not usually taken seriously.

However, following minimal interference too far does not produce a sufficiently straightforward alphabetic design solution for many reformers. To reduce the impact on existing literates, proposals for introducing more radical reforms in a series of stages have been explored over the last 20 years. The potential and problems of the minimal interference and stage reform strategies are the subject of the rest of this series of articles. [See 2 - The Principle of Minimal Interference.]

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