[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/2 pp8-10 later designated J13]
[Also on this page: Rankng omissions.]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, SPB articles, and Personal View by Edward Rondthaler.]

REVIEW of CUT SPELLING HANDBOOK.

Edward Rondthaler.

Edward Rondthaler is President of the American Literacy Council. [See Links page.]

Let me begin this critique of the Cut Spelling Handbook by saying that I am, in general, a disciple of Walter Ripman and Godfrey Dewey and have the deepest respect for their contributions to spelling reform. Dr Dewey once told me:

If you want to make any real contribution to the movement you have to be very thoro, very open minded, flexible, hard working, and totally honest - honest particularly with yourself in the matter of not fooling yourself by underrating the ideas of others, or overrating your own.
I hope I have not underrated this advice.

When we look at the record of bringing English spelling into line with pronounciation we go back to the foundation laid by Walter Ripman in 1941. Good as that was, it did not deal with plurals or certain inflections, and it had a few awkward characteristics some of which were ironed out by Godfrey Dewey in 1963. Since then the other shortcomings have been seriously. Slow but steady progress is being made toward the goal of a notation that mirrors a pronounciation likely to be understood by all readers - a carefully assessed balance between "cultivated colloquial" and "platform speech".

Even so, nobody is completely comfortable with the way that a schwa, particularly in terminal syllables, is represented in any of the proposed 26-letter notations. Ripman and Dewey accepted - probably reluctantly - what may still be the best workable compromise. It is illustrated by the words litl, mantel, sister, and dollar. But we keep hoping for a better way; one that meets all the criteria of a practical notation. Certainly CS has some possibilities.

I was not in touch with Valerie Yule when she first proposed Cut Spelling. It came to my attention in the mid-1980's, and I pricked up my cars. That was back in the early days when CS, it seemed to me, was aimed at solving the schwa problem.

I remember the nice catchy phrase "If in doubt leave it out." Perhaps that was too simplistic, but it expressed the idea cleverly and forcefully. I expected to see it on the cover of the yellow handbook. But if todays version of Cut Spelling requires 230 pages of explanation and justification, it's clear that something so simple as "If in doubt leave it out" is out.

What began as a cup of tea and a cookie has now expanded into a ten-course dinner difficult to digest. I'm sorry to find CS so divorced from mirroring speech that it does not change city to sity and changes national only to nationl. That may win applause from those who are fluent in t.o., but never from functional illiterates.

As an exercise in shortening our spelling to get more words on the printed page, CS wins high marks - an impressive average of about 7 or 8% (when word spaces and punctuation, as they should be, are included in the count). It might be worth noting, however, that if space-saving is important we can achieve it in a less dramatic way. Thanks to today's digital typesetting, it takes little more than the flip of the switch to reduce the width of our typefaces by that small and almost unnoticeable percentage.

In trying to fathom what's happened to the CS I knew some years ago, I keep returning to the fourth paragraph on the back cover. That may say different things to different people. I assume it does. But to me, as one concerned about our growing functional illiteracy, it says this:

CS deletes as many letters as possible from a word without making it unintelligible [to fluent t.o. readers]. CS usually, tho not always, shies away from repairing a phonographic mismatch if the repair would do no more than make the spelling logical.
If that's the underlying premise of CS - which it seems to be after studying the handbook - I doubt if it will help our illiteracy problem. It's not the same premise that underlies the orthographies of other languages.

English spelling is like a car that was put together carelessly with bolts that didn't fit. They've come loose and the whole machine rattles and shakes. To repair it is not just a matter of removing the clattering bolts. The chasis may need realignment, and new bolts of the right size to replace the misfits.

No system of English spelling will ever be totally free of inconsistencies. But those inconsistencies should be kept to a minimum, and the notation must reflect professionalism.

One could pick numerous examples, but page 57 (combined with 248) is as good as any to illustrate how, to my mind, CS theories go awry:

The <e> in come is redundant, so CS drops it.

We know that no fluent t.o. reader is likely to misread CS com because it looks enough like t.o. come to be recognizable.

But then CS encounters comb. If the <b> is dropt from comb the spelling will get mixt up with CS com, and if you put a magic-e on the end, a fluent t.o. reader will surely confuse it with t.o. come. So to avoid this CS keeps the <b> on comb and creates a new term - "magic b". Now we have magic-e and magic-b, and it's up to you to learn where to use which. You must not use magic-b on homb or domb, but you should, according to CS, use it on tomb - except that in that case magic-b does not make the <o> long, but converts it into <oo>!

How does that help functional illiterates or spelling simplification? It doesn't. It's just swapping one set of confusions for another.

Compare it with this approach:

You teach the pupil that whenever the letter < e > follows a vowel it is a signal. Just a signal, always a signal, and never anything else. The e-signal means that the vowel before it is pronounced like its name. Always.

Then the three t.o. words: come, comb, tomb can be written like they sound: cum, coem, toom - not like they don't sound: com, comb, tomb in CS.
And now comes the 64 dollar question: Will those who are fluent in t.o. readily or even reluctantly accept CS? Probably not.

The phrase "such radical changes are not envisioned for CS!" occurs so frequently in the text, that I must conclude that the Working Group felt that the fewer changes they made in t.o. the better would be its chance of public acceptance. In view of spelling reform's historical record that was reasonable. But watering down changes to avoid offending sensitivities may not in the long run, be the best tactic.

We need a better strategy than appeasement.

And there's a better strategy waiting to be used. Conceivably it could incorporate some of the CS principles. It is a proven strategy, pedagogically sound. But it's never been applied to spelling reform. I refer to i.t.a. and Writing to Read. Both systems use a "bridge" notation that helps the pupil learn t.o. But in neither case is the notation suitable as a reformed English spelling, and the pupil is encouraged to abandon it as soon as possible.

The American Literacy Council is developing two largely self-teaching tools that will use the "bridge" strategy for a dual purpose. The primary and published purpose is to teach t.o. The unpublished purpose is to give the pupil a sufficiently long exposure to a rational logical spelling so that the concept of spelling simplification may begin to take hold.

By the end of July 1992 these new "tools" - the SoundSpeler computer program and the SoundReeder book - will be ready for experimental use. Both show t.o. and reformed spellings in parallel lines of black and red. So tough, in black, appears on the upper line, and below it is tuf, in red.

Neither the computer program nor the book are described as doing anything more than teaching t.o. In both cases the "bridge" spelling is in Ripman-Dewey notation (with some recent modifications). This is a notation that could, if desired, ultimately augment or replace our present spelling. Most importantly, the "bridge" spelling remains visible at all times so the student has ample opportunity to see, on the red line, how words would be spelt if they were spelt "as they sound".

These two tools essentially teach t.o., and should not encounter resistance from the status quo. Their largely self-teaching characteristics, moreover, make them useful in both formal and informal environments.

Testing of SoundSpeler and SoundReeder in different groups may reveal that certain features of Cut Spelling should be considered for updated versions.



[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1992/2 p10 later designated J13]

Rankng Visul Disturbnce of Letr Omissions - a Pilot Experimnt.

Christopher Upward.

Th questionair reproduced belo (publishd in Journal J12 1992/1 p.5) was completed by 20 respondnts.

"Below are listed 9 incomplete spellings of the word important, each with a different letter omitted. Please assess how visually disturbing you find each spelling, by ranking them in order 1-9, scoring the spelling which you find least disturbing as 1, and the spelling you find most disturbing as 9, with scores 2-8 in order against intermediate forms. You may find it helpful to make a preliminary assessment on a separate piece of paper first, and then adjust it in the light of your impression of all the other spellings. The full spelling important may be considered to have score 0.

1 mportant - rank...
2 iportant - rank...
3 imortant - rank...
4 imprtant - rank...
5 impotant - rank...
6 imporant - rank...
7 importnt - rank...
8 importat - rank...
9 importan - rank...

Th avraj disturbnce scor givn to each of th spelngs is givn belo (th total is anomlus as 4 respondnts did not rank evry spelng uniqely with a figr between 1 and 9), along with th numbr of times each spelng was rankd as th least disturbng of al nine forms (= n x 1):

1 mportant - scor 5.0 (1x1)
2 iportant - scor 6.5 (0x1)
3 imortant - scor 7.0 (0x1)
4 imprtant - scor 3.9 (2x1)
5 impotant - scor 4.9 (3x1)
6 imporant - scor 5.3 (1x1)
7 importnt - scor 2.6 (11x1)
8 importat - scor 5.1 (0x1)
9 importan - scor 4.1 (0x1)

Th results promt sevrl obsrvations.

This pilot experimnt apears to confirm th esential compatbility of CS/TO with regard to a singl word. Th study is based on th subjectiv perception of readrs, but it wud also be posbl to conduct an objectiv test, in wich subjects wer required to spot a misng letr within a short period of time (less than one secnd?). Much mor extensiv experimntation of these kinds wil be needd for th consolidation and developmnt of Cut Spelng.

Back to the top.