[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/1 pp6-8 later designated J12]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Ken Ives.]

The Long Vowels Reconsidered.

Kenneth H. Ives.

Lacking letters of their own in English, the long vowels have been a problem for spelling reformers. The usual rendition of these, in World English Spelling (Dewey 1970: 90), the SSS proposals, and Simplified American Spelling (Rondthaler n Lias, 1986: 1), is an "across the board" rule to add "e" to the short vowel. The basis for such a rule seems shaky. Consider the following data, based on Dewey's counts of words, letters, and sounds in 100,000 words of running text.

Table 1.

Sound -

long a
long e
long i
long o
long u

Totals
/100,000

7,790
7,114
5,961
6,091
6,051

33,007
Spelling -

ae
ee
ie
oe
ue
# now,

0
1,152
153
38
53

1,396
occur %

0.0 %
16.0 %
2.5 %
0.6 %
0.7 %

4.2 %

Only one of the five simple long vowels is spelt this way more than three per cent of the time! To apply this rule to "long a" requires respelling all examples of that sound, lengthening most. Hence this is not a simplification of spelling for it! Nor is it a respelling easily recognized by present users of English, since no examples now exist.

It appears then that we should abandon this sweeping rule and took more closely at unambiguous present spellings for the long vowel sounds.

Perspective.

In seeking suitable rules for representing the long vowel sounds, several premises underlie the present essay.

First, getting spelling reform started is difficult. Hence initial steps should have few changes and clear benefits, if they are to be accepted and adopted.

This implies that these proposals need not be "perfect", nor considered as final for all time. They should however move in the direction of an ultimate consistent system.

Long "a".

One conventional unambiguous fonemic spelling for "long a" is the "ai" spelling initial or medial in a word or syllable, as in "aid, maintain". Another is the related end-of-the-word "-ay" spelling.

A third spelling is "-a/ " at the end of an accented syllable, as in "ed/u/ca/tion". This has a few complications for foreigners, so needs to be expanded. it is pronounst long in two syllable words "nation, nature", but short in three syllable words "national, natural', and long in multisyllable words.

A fourth spelling for "long a" is the accented indefinite article "a". (Dewey 13)

Table 2: Long "a".

Spelling

retain -ai-
retain -ay
retain -a
retain <a> accented
convert they..
convert -ea-
convert a-e

Totals
/100,000

906
1,109
1,123
272
1,122
244
1,918

6,794
%

11.7 %
14.3 %
14.5 %
3.5 %
15.7 %
3.2 %
24.7 %

87.6 %
Examples

maintain
play, way
education
a
thay, whair
grait, braik
caim, maik

Using these four rules retains present spellings in 44 % of occurrences of the "long a" sound. This should be far more acceptable to present users of English.

One major respelling, of "they, their, there, where" to "thay, thair, whair" would regularize a few common words. A slight difference in the pronounciation of the "ai" sound before "r" may need a pronounciation rule, but need not have an added spelling.

Most of the <ea> spellings pronounst "long a" are "great, break" and their derivatives.

This leaves the common but clumsy "a-e" spellings as the major remaining spelling to change. Here there are many homofones with different meanings. These we somehow understand in conversations, and would become indistinguishable except by context in writing as well: "fair/fare, flair/flare, gait/gate, hair/hare, main/mane, pain/pane, plain/plane," etc.

Long "e".

The commonest spelling for "long e" sound is final "-e" in short words: "he, me, she, we". Second commonest unambiguous spelling is "ee".

Changing "ea" spellings to "ee", and the clumsy "e-e" spellings, would regularize about a fourth of this sound's spellings.

The final "ee" sound in longer words, where it is a separate syllable, is more of a problem. The "-/y/" ending is used to be pronounced as "i", but in recent decades this seems to have shifted to "ee", at least in the United States (Random House 1975). Hence we need a rule that "final syllabic 'ee' is often spelt 'y'", with examples "eezy, meny, very". But what do we do with "committee"?

Table 3: Long "ee".

Spellings

retain -e
retain -ee-
convert -ea-
convert e-e

Totals
/100,000

3,142
1,158
1,385
444

6,129
%

44.0 %
16.3 %
19.5 %
6.2 %

86.0 %
Examples

be, me, we
feed, meet
eech, heet
compleet

Long "i".

Short words ending in "-y" are about 19 % of long "i" sound, while "ie" spellings are not over 3 %. Hence the Simplified Spelling Society's decision to concentrate on "y" for this sound has a statistical basis in current usage.

Table 4: Long "i".

Spelling

-y short words
retain -i/
convert igh/y
convert i-e/y

Totals
/100,000

1,151
1,304
546
1,802

4,803
%

19 %
21 %
9 %
30 %

80 %
Examples

by, my, why
by, final, item
hy, lyt, myt
lyk, syd, tym

This requires four rules. The "ie" sound is spelt "y", except that at the end of a first syllable it is spelt "i". Before a consonant, or at the end of a word or syllable, "y" is a vowel. Monosyllabic words ending in the "-y" are pronounst "ie".

Long "o"

The most frequent spelling of "long o" (as in a "oh") is the final "-o", formerly often spelt "-oe". The final "-ow" can easily be converted to this (some TV weather reports now use "lo"), as can the few "-oe" endings. Some confusable "-o" spellings should only be adopted after conversion of common present "-o" spellings now pronounst "oo", to "-u" - "du, tu". The unambiguous "oa" spelling might well be retained for initial and medial positions.

Table 5: Long "o".

Spelling

retain -o
retain -oa-
convert -ow/-o
convert o-e/oa

Totals
/100,000

1,879
243
671
1,199

3,992
%

30.9 %
4.0 %
11.0 %
19.7 %

65.6 %
Examples

go, o/ver
oat, boat
belo, sho
hoam, roal

Long "u".

Over half the occurrences of this sound are in short, in words ending in "-o", "to, do". These conflict with the "oa" pronunciation of "go, so", a different "ending vowel is long" pronunciation. Changing these words to "tu, du" is fonemic and unambiguous. In these spellings, the unstrest forms are pronounst <-uh> (schwa), providing a clue to readers. And they are shorter than final <-oo>. Converting these two "too, doo" would lengthen spelling for half this sound.

Pronounced, however, are better converted to <oo>, to handle their possessive and other forms. Thus "you, who" become "yoo, yoor, yoorz; hoo, hoom, hooz". We may not need to retain <-s> ending on possessives. They are 0.6 % of words, Dewey count 616.

The other alternatives of using "ui" (fruit, suit) requires changing 7 % of this sound away from the familiar "oo" spelling (food/fuid?). And in and initial position, confusion could arize: is "uiz" spelling "ooze" or "use"?

The "final u" spelling also applies to syllables, as in "con/clu/sion".

Table 6: Long "u".

Spelling

convert to, do
convert -ue
retain -u, -uth
retain -oo-
convert you
convert who
convert u-e

Totals
/100,000

3,057
42
164
370
989
318
54

4,994
%

51 %
1 %
3 %
7 %
17 %
5 %
1 %

85 %
Examples

du, tu
du, tru
du/ty, truth
food, scool
yoo, yoor
hoom, hooz
rool, shoor

Long "iu" sound.

This sound as a separate syllable is often spelt initially "u/", as in "u/nit", or medially as in "ed/u/ca/tion". This rule might as well be retained. Initial "u-" before "s, z" (but not "sh") is also pronounst as "long u". This sound at the end of a word or syllable can be spelt "-iu", retaining some visual resemblance to present "-ew" spellings.

While the alternate "vyu, fyu" spellings eliminate one rule and spelling, this counters the "y before a vowel is a consonant" rule.

Table 7: Long "iu".

Spelling

retain u/
convert u-e
convert -ew

Totals
/100,000

360
248
233

841
%

32 %
22 %
17 %

71 %
Examples

unit, unison
ciur, piur
fiu, viu

Gutteral "uu" as in "could".

There seems no clear, unambiguous way around using the "uu" spelling for this sound. The "oo" spelling is used almost as often for a different sound, and difficulties were noted above for other spellings for that "long u" sound, especially in an initial position.

While just using <u> is an attractive shortcut, it has problems. How then could we distinguish between "buck/book, cud/could, putt/put"?

Table 8: Long hard "u".

Spelling

convert could
convert full
convert book

Totals
/100,000

546
604
388

1,538
%

21.2 %
23.4 %
15.1 %

59.7 %
Examples

shuud, wuud
puul, puut
guud, luuk

The change to "uu" spelling in nearly half the cases is in words which already have one "u", and changes another letter (usually <o>, <l>, or both!) to the second <u>. The change of <oo> to <uu> does not alter the shape of a word.

While every word using this sound would be respelt, this is less than 3 % of total words.

Summary.

Using these rules, rather than the "add e" rule for long vowels, retains 35 % of traditional spellings that would otherwise have to be changed. This compares to only 4 % for the "add e" rule. "These spellings should thus be far more readily accepted.

Table 9: Long vowels.

Retain:%/100,000:Rules: Spellings:Total:
 New: Now:Sound
 
long a
long e
long i
long o
long u
long iu
long uu

all 7
44 %
56 %
40 %
35 %
9 %
32 %
0 %

35 %
3,410
4,000
2,455
2,122
534
360
0

13,181
4
2
4
2
3
2
1

18
3
2
2
2
2
2
1

14
19
20
14
19
19
13
11

115
7,770
7,114
5,961
6,091
6,051
1,138
2,577

36,702

Recommendation.

If the above statistics and arguments are found to be persuasive, they would lead to some recommended changes in NS90 (as NS92?).

1. Include, for all long vowels, rules that the "vowel at the end of a word or syllable is pronounst long"'.

2. For "long a", retain also the present rules for "-ai-, -ay".

3. For "long o", extend the "vowel at end' rule to the respelling of "-ow" words.

These changes increase retention of present spellings:

Table 10: NS retains-

Vowel

long a
long e
long  i
long o
NS now

0 %
16 %
19 %
5 %
  NS92?

44 %
56 %
40 %
31 % + 11 % -ow → -o

For "long e" in <-e> words, and for "so", this changes the explanation from "special case or word sign" to a fonemic rule.

Similar rules might well be adopted by the American Literacy Council. They would make it easier for learners to move from literacy in Fonetic to literacy in traditional orthography.

Many of the other changes implied in this article would benefit by further analysis and discussion before being proposed for adoption.

References.

Dewey, Godfrey (1923, 1950). Relativ Frequency of English Speech Sounds. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Dewey, Godfrey (1970). Relative Frequency of English Spellings. New York: Teachers College.

Random House College Dictionary (1975). New York: Random House.

Rondthaler, Edward, n Edward T. Lias (1986). Dictionary of American Spelling: A Simplified Alternative Spelling for the English Language. New York: American Language Academy.


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