[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/1 pp9-11 later designated J12]

Language Planning and Social Change.

Ralph Cooper, 1989, Cambridge University Press.

Reviewed by: Kenneth Ives.

The author contends that an understanding of language planning demands an understanding of the social changes which promote it.

Four examples of language planning, and their relations to the social and political movements of their times, are used to introduce this volume. They are:

1. The founding of the Acadamie Francaise in 1634;
2. The promotion of Hebrew in Palestine from about 1881;
3. Feminist language changes, from about 1971;
4. The Ethiopian literacy campain around 1974.
Three types of language planning are defined: status, corpus, and acquisition planning.

"Status planning refers to deliberate efforts to influence the allocation of functions among a community's languages." An example is the choice of language or languages for governmental signs and documents in multilingual communities. Official languages are of three kinds: status, working, and symbolic. English is a status and working language. Irish (Gaelic) is both of these (tho to a lesser extent for working use) and a symbolic language (also, required for certain jobs).

Corpus planning includes spelling and other language structures. "A planner may devise a spelling system that is easy to learn, easy to use, economical to print, inexpensive to implement", which is an improvement on the system it is to replace. But "the public may greet the proposed reform with enthusiasm, indifference, scorn, or disgust".

Acquisition planning refers to organized efforts to promote the learning of a language. The British Council nurtures libraries abroad, and sends experts to organize workshops about methods of teaching. There are three overt language acquisition goals: a. as a second language; b. reacquisition by a group which lost it; c. acquisition of a language so it won't lose ground in competition with others. Means employed may affect 1) opportunity to learn; 2) incentive to learn, 3) both.

Social changes.

Each example of language planning which appears in this book arose in the midst of social change. What changes affect language planning?

1. Climatic shifts, volcanic explosions, and soil erosion are all physical changes. Location at a geographic crossroads, with the intermingling of differing cultures, promotes social changes.

2. Substantial changes in population provide another dimension. Rising expectations in a population, resulting from, or producing economic changes, are another dynamic.

3. Discovery and invention may be the most important source of social change. The invention of movable type made books cheaper, and led to wider literacy. Improvements in transportation and communication are also important.

4. Cultural diffusion. A prime example is the spread of English as a language of science, administration, and international trade.

5. Ideas and beliefs. Nationalism in the past and present; and interculturalism, also affect languages. Modernization has been a major influence in the past century.

6. Decision making, at all levels of society, may affect language.


There are at least five major theories of social change: evolutionary, cyclical, functional, conflict, and dependency.

Based on the examples and factors reviewed in the book, the author arrives at three pages of tentative generalizations. Twelve of these 24 are:

2. Language planning cannot be understood apart from its social context or apart from the history which produced that context.

3. Language planning is typically motivated by efforts to secure or maintain interests, material or nonmaterial or both.

4. Language planning may be initiated at any level of a social hierarchy, but it is unlikely to succeed unless it is embraced and promoted by elites or by counterelites.

5. Neither elites nor counterelites are likely to embrace language planning initiatives of others unless they perceive them to be in their own interest.

8. If language planning serves elites and counterelites, it may also serve the mass, particularly insofar as it strengthens the individual's sense of dignity, self-worth, social connectedness, and ultimate meaning as a member of a group linked both to the past and to the future.

9. Whereas it is in the interests of establisht elites to promote acceptance of a standard, it is in the interest of counterelites to promote the acceptance of a counterstandard.

12. Political democratization or increased political participation exerts pressure to increase access to literacy. This may lead either to reducing the gap between spoken and written varieties, or to increasing access to formal education, or both.

15. Language policy alternatives which are consistent with the values and belief systems of the target population are more likely to succeed than ones which conflict with those values and beliefs.

16. Corpus planning (such as spelling reform) prior to changes in the functions for which a language is used is unlikely to be effective. It is only after a language begins to be used for new functions that corpus planning in behalf of those functions is likely to be effective.

17. Acquisition planning is unlikely to be effective if the language in question serves no useful function for the target population.

18. When establisht elites seek to extend their influence or to resist the incursions of rivals, when counterelites seek to overthrow the status quo, and when new elites seek to consolidate their power, we find pressure for language planning. We also find pressure stemming from ideological and technological changes, which sometimes motivate and sometimes reflect shifts in political and economic arrangements.

21. Successful language planning is seldom a one-shot affair. Implementation of a decision may require repeated efforts by planners to cope with the resistance of those they seek to influence.

Corpus Planning.

Spelling reform is one type of corpus planning, so more of what the author reports on this is relevant for SSS members consideration.

There is a growing literature which offers criteria for judging the adequacy of writing systems (14 authors on this are listed, page 126).

Psycholinguistic, technical principles and criteria are concerned with the extent to which the writing system is easy to learn, easy to read, easy to write, easy to carry over to another language, and easy to reproduce by modern printing methods. These criteria may conflict with one another. What is easy to read is not necessarily easy to write and print. What is easy to learn is not necessarily easy to use. (Editor's note: Shaw Script, for example!) For persons becoming literate, an orthography should indicate the sounds of the words, but for more advanced readers, an orthography should indicate meanings rather than sounds.

With an alphabetic system, the last symbol in the plural forms of cat and fiddle would be different (cats, fidlz). Similarly, the second vowel in each of the following pairs would be represented differently in the first word than in the second - mendacious, mendacity; narcosis, narcotic; serene, serenity; seduce, seduction; contrite, contrition.

On the other hand, if one believes that a fluent reader recognizes not the correspondence between symbol and sound, but rather the correspondence between symbol and meaning, one will design a writing system which reflects underlying grammatical and lexical forms. Thus the last symbol in the plural forms of cat and fiddle would be the same, as such spelling represents the plural morpheme rather than its phonological representation. Similarly, the second vowel of each member of the word pairs enumerated above would be spelt the same, since such a spelling facilitates identification of meaning.

To what extent, then, should a writing system represent the phonological realization of a text, or should it represent abstract underlying grammatical and lexical structures, if one's principal goal is fluent reading? And does it really matter?

A more pressing reason for a relaxed attitude towards technical considerations is that these seem less important for the acceptance or rejection of a writing system than social considerations. (128)

Industrialization, the spread of literacy, and the rise of nationalist movements combine to form national standard languages. Language planning is a typical adjunct of these national movements, as their leaders seek to mold the new standard to mobilize and unify those they hope to lead, to legitimate their claims, and to buttress their authority. (Editor's note: Thus with the rise of nationalism in Quebec, that Province establisht an Office de la Langue Francaise, partly to translate technical terms onto French roots, rather than use the Latin or Greek root terms the Anglo engineers used.)

Successful corpus planning "is a delicate balancing act" between the old and the new, traditionalism and rationality. It requires sensitivity to what the target population will "like, learn, and use". The public must be told "why what is being offered to it is desirable, admirable, and exemplary." Neither untempered traditionalism nor uncompromising rationality are workable solutions to corpus planning problems. One route is to appeal to popular usage by speech networks which are favorably regarded. (154-5)

Some Implications.

With these perspectives from the book, what kinds of programs by spelling reformers might be needed to link some spelling reform efforts to the social changes in progress or in prospect? What are the major social changes that spelling reform could become a part of?

1. INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL organizations: United Nations, particularly UNESCO; the European Community, especially its Lingua subdivision (with a budget of $50 million a year).

2. INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS for trade, scientific and technical activities.

a. Several decades ago, chemistry organizations changed their spelling of "sulphur" to "sulfur". Next they could change "phosphorus" to "fosforus'. Later "cloreen, oxijen, hydrojen" might be adopted.

b. Airline and travel associations and businesses could institute a change from the irregular "flight" to the shorter, regular "flyt".

c. There are often-used spelling anomalies in other fields. Getting one or a few in each field changed, under sponsorship of appropriate organizations, would also help spread the idea that spelling can and should be moderately simplified, by tapping into these varied "speech networks".

d. This approach may require creating and nurturing an internal "spelling reform caucus" in each such organization.

3. MODERNIZATION: This is a trend away from status and reward based on heredity or age, to status and reward based on performance. As such it is often based on "rationalization", the analysis and redesign of activities for more effective and efficient outcomes. How can spelling reform become a part in various modernization movements?

4. LITERACY programs, and the teaching of English as a Second Language (ESL) for adults can be another "entry point".

5. The trend in some parts of the United States, at least, to EVALUATE schools and teachers on PERFORMANCE of their students. This, coupled with an expressed need to include more science, and more and better writing, in the curriculum, provide added "entry points".

a. This calls for development of initial teaching media and lesson plans as a way to reduce time spent on spelling, and the discouragement to writing that this entails.

b. A key factor here is securing their acceptance and use in schools. They might be faized in "a grade a year" in early grades. Later a "medial teaching media" version of partly reformed spelling may be needed. Its acceptance in secondary schools (later in colleges?) would make a transition to reformed spelling by adults an easier task, as these students graduate.

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