[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994-1 pp33-36 later designated J16]
[Also on this page: Three brief revews.]
[See other Journal article by Alice Coleman and Cut Spelling handbook, leaflets and articles.]

Alice Coleman reviews

Cut Spelling: a handbook to the simplification of written English by the omission of redundant letters.

by Christopher Upward (1992), with Paul Fletcher, Jean Hutchins and Chris Jolly, the Simplified Spelling Society, Birmingham. 301 pp. ISBN O-9506391-3-3.

Alice Coleman, Emeritus Professor of Geography at King's College, University of London, has long had a special interest in writing, especially graphology, and literacy., through her membership of the UK i.t.a. Federation committee.


A great advantage that has helped spoken English to become the prime international language of today is its flexibility. There have been no brakes impeding the simplification of grammar, the absorption of neologisms and foreign words, and the evolution of accent; the last may account for Britons' encouragement of non-native speakers by their willingness to understand broken English.

In many ways, the written language has kept pace, but in one respect it has remained rigidly ultra-conservative: its spelling. As long as four centuries ago the disparity between sound and symbol had become striking enough for proposals of spelling reform to begin, but though there have been many such over the years, none has succeeded. A golden opportunity was lost with the introduction of the dictionary, as lexicographers were more concerned to preserve differences reflecting diverse etymological origins than to unify in a spirit of forward-looking pragmatism. Only Noah Webster, in the USA, was able to introduce a degree of logical reform, but even this was quite minor in relation to what was needed. In general, dictionaries have fossilized the problems, and in some cases worsened them by adding complications based on bogus etymology.

In the present century the Simplified Spelling Society has presented a more organized but equally unavailing attempt at a logical solution, and George Bernard Shaw left a bequest to finance a competition for the best modern version. His wish was foiled, and the issue relapsed into oblivion when the entry selected as a winner was so different from traditional orthography that its adoption would have invalidated all previous printed works and everyone's hard-won reading and writing ability. It would have created infinitely more problems than the Society's simplified spelling, which could be fairly easily deciphered by intelligent adults, and was recognised by the open-minded as a practical advance.

Origin and Development.

In the 1970s the Australian psychologist Valerie Yule suggested the far less drastic reform of merely cutting out redundant letters, the implications of which were explored in more detail by Christopher Upward in the l980s. He identified three categories of letter redundancy and also showed that certain unsounded letters could not be cut because they play a vital role in modifying the sounds of neighhbouring letters. Others could justifiably be cut but would need some change to what was left. This was termed a substitution, and the addition of two other substitution-abbreviations produced the overall Cut Spelling system presented in this book.

Each of the three redundancy cuts and the three substitution types were exhaustively tested on a total of 60,000 words, with the help of observations and comments from educationalists, psychologists, linguists, lexicographers, editors, writers, publishers, printers and others in a range of English-speaking and foreign language countries. Many aspects of written language were explored, and the results seemed so promising that, in 1988, the Simplified Spelling Society established a Working Group, chaired by Christopher Upward, with Paul Fletcher, Jean Hutchins and Chris Jolly, to prepare a learners' guide. The outcome is this three-part Handbook.

Parts III and II.

It is convenient to discuss the three parts in reverse order. Part III is a dictionary consisting of 10,000 head-words together with some of their inflections Neither head-words nor inflections are included if they involve no cuts except in a few cases where it is thought people might be tempted to make cuts that do not fit the system. Other omissions are hyphenated words and most proper nouns, as it is thought people and communities should be left to make decisions about their own names in the wake of cuts in the general language. Just a few proper nouns are cited in illustration of the possibilities.

Part II is for the practical thinker who wants to get to grips with the cut system and its use, with a minimum of background information. There is a simple, three-page outline of the principles, followed by three sets of exemplifying material, each of which has two columns, matching traditional orthography with its counterpart in Cut Spelling. The first set is extremely impressive as it takes each spelling in turn, and shows how a relevant set of words can be regularized by omitting one or more letters. Each group is accompanied by one of the words that already obey the rule, and one or more others that have the same vowel digraph as the cut set, but are not treated in the same way because their sounds are different. The sets are arranged in alphabetical order of the redundant letters, and it is a revelation that the only letters not used unnecessarily in some context or other are J, O, and V. Even Q has a redundant U to lose.

The second set of lists in Part II are intended as exercises for Cut Spelling learners. The words are arranged in a mixed order for self-testing, with a gradual progression from simple cases, such as kneel = neel to the most complex such as acknowledge = aknolej. The third set consists of three extracts from journals or newspapers, with translations into Cut Spelling, to demonstrate the order of saving in the number of letters needed, and also the overall intelligibility retained.

Part 1.

Part I is the fundamental explanation and consists of six deeply delving chapters, which make fascinating reading for the abstract thinker. It is full of interesting sidelights that reveal the breadth and depth of the background research, and it advances in small argued steps that interlock in multiple complex ways to produce a strong overall structure. It is a work of dedication, discipline and sheer concentrated industry.

It must have been more difficult, in many ways, than devising a total reform, for whereas the latter could pursue each change to its logical conclusion, Cut Spelling is constantly constrained by the criterion of making the end-product reassuringly like traditional orthography. This aim is not only to make acceptance easier, but also to facilitate forwards compatibility for current literates who want to embrace Cut Spelling, as well as backwards compatibility for people learning Cut Spelling initially, so that they are not debarred from the written works of past and present. There must have been many times when a Working Group so knowledgeable about simplified spelling as a whole, had their hearts cry out for just one more small inch of change to gain a rule of regularization, but they steeled themselves to their true objective, and accepted a degree of imperfection now, in the hope of winning the lesser battle and living to fight a further stage later.

The remaining imperfections are, in any case, vastly fewer than those in the traditional orthography, and the benefits inherent in Cut Spelling are multiple. First it is quicker to write, not only on account of fewer letters, but also because there are fewer occasions requiring a pause to consider which alternative spelling to use. There are 600 homophones in English, and some 500 are retained with their different meanings, eg vain, vane and vein, but 100 including the most troublesome ones, are merged. For example, there and their both become ther. The smaller possibility of error promotes greater self-confidence in the user, while the lesser need to wrestle with the mechanics of literacy allows more time for other aspects of education, which can potentially raise standards.

There is no need to fear that the linguistic history inherent in our words will be lost. On the contrary, it will become clearer, as some of the redundant letters to be removed were originally inserted, quite artificially, on the basis of mistaken etymology. Both their going and certain other features of Cut Spelling will help to make pronunciation easier, while still leaving provision for regional and national accents to differ. Furthermore, some of the unnecessary differences between English and other European languages will be eliminated, eg the double <d> in address will be replaced by a single <d> as in the French. This will obviate some of the pitfalls encountered when English people learn foreign tongues and foreigners learn English.

The shorter script of Cut Spelling would be financially economical as professional lettering and typesetting will be quicker and cheaper. This leads on to greater environmental friendliness, as there is less use of paper, less energy needed to manufacture and transport it and less space taken up for storage.

How does Cut Spelling achieve all these benefits? Through three very systematic rules and three simple substitutions. The first substitution is the replacement of <ph> by <f> wherever the sound is appropriate. This has been the practice in Spanish and Italian and is already somewhat familiar in Britain because of adverts and tradenames using words such as foto and fone.

A second substitution replaces soft <g>, <dg> and <dj> by a simple <j>, leaving <g> to fulfil the hard /g/ role as in egg.

The other one begins with the removal of the unvoiced <gh>. which causes so much trouble to young spellers. In some words, such as freight or fraught, the residual form, freit or fraut, is acceptable but this is not the case with the long I sound (/aÈ/). Sight reduced to sit is at once confused with the short I (/È/), and the same is true by the removal of the bogus <g> in sign producing sin. The substitution advocated here is to replace the short I by Y, which almost always carries a long sound in the middle or the end of a word, eg fly would be paralelled by flyt.


The three rules are more complex than the three substitutions. Rule 1, excision of silent letters seems simple enough, until one works through the alphabet and finds that most of them are silent in some part of the written language, eg <a> in ease, breathe; <b> in lamb, dumb; <c> in science, acquit; <d> in judge, handkerchief, Wednesday; and so on. A further complication is that not all silent letters are redundant. It is well known that a final <e> makes the preceding vowel long, as also does a following <i>, and the same is sometimes true of other letters, eg the <b> in climb, or <w> in own, sown, which cannot be cut as the words would be indistinguishable from on and son. Despite such exceptions, however, the amount of cutting made possible by Rule 1 is very considerable.

Rule 2 looks at the sounds of <er> as in her and <u> as in bull, when they occur in unstressed positions, especially in last syllables but also in mid-word. These sounds, as in ritual (spelt with <a>), or invisible (spelt with a displaced <e>), are the commonest in the English language and the former, at least, is often referred to by the Hebrew term 'schwa'. Christopher Upward uses 'schwa' to cover both. He points out that they normally occur before <l>, <m>, <n> and <r>, and the wide and inconsistent range of vowels that represent them can safely be eliminated altogether, leaving the consonant to carry the sound. Thus, principle and principal both become principl; venom and ransom become venm and ransm; abandon and dependent/ dependant become abandn and dependnt; and centre or center both become centr (eliminating a UK/USA difference). As an example of schwa excision in mid-word, opera is cut to opra. This rule cuts out a great many letters that often give rise to misspellings.

Rule 3 refers to the doubling of consonants when a syllable with a short vowel adds an inflection. The root rob is distinguished from robe by the final <e>, but if the past tense simply involved <ed>, both would be robed and indistinguishable in either sound or meaning. Cut Spelling solves this problem by adding <d> only, so that robd and robed are distinguished by the extra letter. In the case of present participles, the long vowel is followed by <ing>, and the short one by <ng>, eg robng and robing. This is an example of a change that is hard to take at first, until one fully appreciates the extensive regularisation it permits. It is explained that <ng> is always pronounced <ing> unless some other vowel is present, as in hang, hung, or gong.


The Cut Spelling Working Group seems to have achieved its aim of producing the maximum reduction of letters with the minimum degree of disturbance. It is a great feat upon which Christopher Upward and his colleagues are to be warmly congratulated. Nevertheless, in the light of previous history they are prepared for resistance, and suggest that perhaps a partial implementation might be more acceptable. They are prepared for flexibility, although they warn of the need to select carefully and with understanding, because the close-knit relationship of the parts may mean that the cutting of a single strand leads to the unravelling of much more than intended.

It seems churlish to cavil at any aspect of a work of such high excellence, but I nevertheless have two suggestions to make, neither of which will have a knock-on unravelling effect.

Firstly, I demur at the broadening of the schwa elision to include the unstressed but clearly pronounced short <i> in Latin, maxim, maximum, optimum, etc. Some people may say Latun, victum, pilgrum, and so on, but many of the best speakers do not, and I believe the loss of the <i> from some 50 to 60 words can create an unnecessary hurdle for foreigners. There are also a few other non-schwa sounds in medial positions which ought, in my opinion, to be kept.

Secondly, I write wearing my graphological hat. Graphology is at last taking off as a science in Britain, as it did decades ago in Europe and the USA, and perhaps its most convincing credentials are the fact that it is taught in the psychology departments of many universities, including the Sorbonne, and that character evidence from handwriting is admissible in the law courts of Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, and some American states.

Fortunately Cut Spelling will affect the graphologists' raw material in one respect: capital letters. Capitals give information of a type that lower-case letters cannot, but they are already too sparse for the graphologists' liking, and Cut Spelling's suggestion of reducing them more would accentuate the handicap. Please think again. The existence of a capital letter for the personal pronoun <I> (ppI) is a bonus to English-speaking graphologists. It reveals a wide range of fundamental characteristics, from the emancipated adult to hang-ups related to one or both parents, and tendencies to be dangerous to oneself (eg suicidal) or to others (eg rapists). It is a mercy that the ppI has been reprieved, and please make that permanent.

To end on an upbeat note, Cut Spelling is a magnificent intellectual achievement and deserves to prosper.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994-1 p36 later designated J16]
[See Journal, Newsletter, and SPB articles, by Chris Jolly.]

Three influential books of the past decade.

Brief reviews by Chris Jolly.

Peter Bryant & Lynette Bradley.
Children's Reading Problems
Oxford: Blackwell, 1985, ISBN 0 631 13683 5.

This is a very important book, and gives the feeling that real progress has been made in understanding the process of learning to read. Many research studies are drawn on, including the deservedly well-known work of the authors. It highlights the increasing importance given to 'phonological awareness': the awareness of the sounds in words. The book also has a practical side: the conclusions are usable in the classroom. It is perhaps an irony of today that there should be such a gulf between excellent material of this kind and the advice often used by teachers in the classroom.

Margaret Snowling.
Oxford: Blackwell, 1987, ISBN 0 631 14433 1.

In a well argued way, Margaret Snowling takes us through the improvements research has made to the understanding of dyslexia. She shows how severe reading retardation is now thought of as a verbal coding deficit. By that she means that dyslexic children have difficulty segmenting words into sounds, and remembering those sounds. However, there is nothing in this book to suggest that changing English spelling would help dyslexics. The issue appears to be more one of patient training with the sounds of words.

Usha Goswami & Peter Bryant.
Phonological Skills and Learning to Read
Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991, ISBN 0 86377 151 3.

This book sets out Usha Goswami's findings on the subject of onsets and rimes. She shows there is a natural break in words into these two parts, so that children can see the link between top and hop (rimes) at a younger age than the link between, say, doll and dog (onsets). However, the author appears reluctant to see the findings as a stage to phonological awareness at phoneme level. This is a well reasoned book, but for the researcher rather than the teacher.

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