[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989/1 p.2 later designated J 10]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15 and Cut Spelling by Chris Upward.]


Chris Upward.


Our first article in this issue, transcribed from Jean Hutchins' address to the Society last year, will go some way towards meeting an implied criticism of recent Journals, that they have become too academic and too far removed from the problems which English spelling causes children and teachers. Wy dyslexics need simplifyd speling is a vivid account of how dyslexics, perhaps the most vulnerable group of learners, cope, or all too often fail to cope, with a writing system that arose with no regard for the needs of the user at all. But what the article describes is not just the plight of a peculiarly disadvantaged group: although dyslexics have their special difficulties (e.g. writing trun for turn), their situation is greatly aggravated by the same anti-alphabetic features of written English that make literacy in English harder for everyone. Much of what dyslexics suffer is what we all suffer, only magnified many times over; and Jean Hutchins' article is a magnifying glass applied to the essential problems of TO.

Perhaps one of the reasons why English-speakers have traditionally struggled to learn other languages is that written English itself has been such a struggle for many - and then when they have approached French, its writing system too has merely confirmed to them that literacy is an arcane skill that most people cannot hope fully to master. Maybe the French writing system is, after English, the second most user-unfriendly of all those based on the Roman alphabet - but Susan Baddeley in her article shows how, historically, the French adopted a serious and rational view of their script, and progressively improved it from its much more haphazard earlier forms. In some ways the difficulties of French spelling are even more intractable than those of English - but the French do show us a more considered approach to the problem. The Society has much to learn from them, amongst other things about effective campaigning and organization.

Ronald Hofmann's article on representing the pronunciation of English, particularly for foreign learners who do not already know the pronunciation of words when they first meet them in writing (as native speakers usually do), suggests a refinement of the i.t.a. technique. One of the aims of the i.t.a. was not to depart so radically from the appearance of TO that learners found it hard to transfer when the time came; but while i.t.a. may have achieved that objective, its unfamiliar letters seem to have fatally deterred non-converts from adopting the medium. Ronald Hofmann presents an ingenious system for largely overcoming that problem (and some other problems besides): texts in TO used by learners can be marked with diacritics to show which sound-value of the letters is required. This has the advantage that learners are immediately faced with the conventional spellings, while still having clear guidance as to how they should be read. This system does not of course help with the problems of writing - but perhaps if combined with John Henry Martin's IBM Writing to Read approach, it could lead to the development of the best Initial Teaching system yet.

The Editor's continuing analysis of dilemmas arising from the mechanical application of the rules of Cut Spelling raises questions that have to be faced by any spelling reform. One such question concerns the nature of ambiguity in English, whether from heterophones, heterographs or polysemy. The present distribution of these ambiguities is fairly random, while spelling reform implies de-randomizing it. Would it be a good thing to spell two, too, to identically, although phonetically (as opposed to phonemically) their pronunciation is normally distinct in any given context (at ten to two too)? Another question raised is whether it is desirable to reform the spelling of rare or archaic words: if the spelling of a word we do not normally meet is changed, might it not be hard to identify (e.g. is it worth respelling words such as bourne, ere?)

The excerpts from the government report English for Ages 5 to 11 continue the saga of - the Society's submissions to the Kingman committee in 1987-88. The powers-that-be are beginning to look at English spelling - but so far without appearing to register its true nature.


Among the often fruitless and endless arguments surrounding the problems of TO is the one concerning prescriptivism. Since TO is an inherently impossible system to master, so one line of argument goes, surely we would do better to stop trying to force learners to conform to its unreasonable conventions, in other words, to stop prescribing how words should be written. But that, it must be said, is to duck the issue.

We must of course sympathise with the view that part of the problem of illiteracy in TO is simply that we lay too much store by 'correct' spelling. Many successful people have been poor spellers, and no doubt many more potentially successful people have been prevented from fulfilling their potential by the opprobrium their misspellings have incurred. So, yes, we should be charitable to poor spellers, we should help them and not condemn them. But that is not an alternative to attacking the fundamental problem, the writing system itself, which is the root cause of their misspellings.

Nevertheless, 'correct' spelling is important because spelling is a means of communication, and failure to observe the conventions of communication reduces its efficiency. Human readers can be, and should be, tolerant of misspellings, however disturbing they find them, but non-human readers (i.e. computers) are less tolerant: a misspelt command will simply not be obeyed.

We should however note that tolerance of misspellings is only necessary in a system which people cannot master. We can tolerate freind for friend, because neither spelling conforms to any rational principle; neither spelling represents a proper use of the alphabet in which it is written. The only thing that friend has in its favour is convention. However, if friend were officially spelt frend, in accordance with its pronunciation, not even the most ardent anti-prescriptivist would advocate tolerance of misspellings such as frond, frind, frond, frund, any more than today the spelling bit could ever be tolerated for but, since such forms conflict with th basic alphabetic principle. As of course does friend.

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