[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Spring 1996/1. p26 Later designated Journal 2]

Dropping Useless E.

Gilbert Rae.

[Gilbert Rae, a member of the Society for several years, has previously published articles in the Newsletter. His interest in spelling reform dates back to a chance meeting with Mont Follick, the M.P. and enthusiastic simplified speller. He was taught phonetics from his first day in school and later learned several languages.]

In simplifying English spelling, the advantage of dropping useless E seems strikingly clear as there are so many. However, the uses of E must be examined first. Letter E has two uses. It is a vowel with the usual short and long forms. It also functions as a retroactive diacritic letter affecting the short vowel that precedes it, converting that vowel to a long one, and affecting the consonants C and G, converting them from hard to soft sounds S and J. As in all English pronunciation there are exceptions to the rule, e.g. gem is correctly pronounced 'jem', but G in get remains hard as in got.

Letter I is the only other vowel behaving to some extent like E. At present it has short and long forms, and is frequently pronounced in the French way in words that were originally French (Fr. <i> = Eng. <ee>). The letter I also acts as a retroactive diacritic, mainly used with the vowel A as in gain, and occasionally with U as in fruit, and it softens letters C and G. There are many exceptions to these rules which with other irregularities probably make English pronunciation appear to foreigners as complete chaos.

In the cases of soft C and G, E and I must be placed on the right of the consonant, e.g. certain, civil, general, engine. There are exceptions of course, such as give and ogive, pronounced /giv/ and /odʒaiv/.

In general, short vowels are basic, and can be made long by placing E or I immediately to the right of them. It is also allowed to have a consonant between the converted vowel and the letter diacritic. When E diacritic is the last letter of a word, it is usually silent, e.g. made, here, ripe, hope, jute. To have more than one consonant between the vowel and the diacritic letter destroys the power of the diacritic letter. From the foregoing it follows that in any word where the letter E is silent, and where it does not act as a retrospective diacritic either, then it is useless, and can be dropped.

Some words can confuse as regards spelling because the vowels are not strictly long or short, or are exceptions to the rules. These are some samples: more awe are were course come done oven minute private.

More. The dictionary pronunciation is /mōr/, so the E is a retroactive diacritic, and not to be dropped.

Awe. Because the pronunciation is accepted as AW which is the sound of a modified short /o/, produced in the throat, it can be accepted as practical spelling. Many Londoners pronounce awe as O-AH which is not far out, but amazingly they pronounce the word or in the same way! The letter E in awe is not just useless, it is completely misleading. It does not act as a diacritic, nor is it sounded. It is useless and should be thrown out.

Are, Were. Dictionary pronunciations are /ar, wɜr/. Neither final E is sounded, and they do not act as diacritics. Drop the useless Es in both.

Course. Dictionary pronunciation is /kors/, but its Latin origin suggests that once it must have been pronounced as in France. The two consonants in front of the E render it useless and it can be dropped.

Come, done, oven. Pronunciations ar /kΛm, dΛn, Λvn/. As we already have the short U giving us the explosive sound which is also found sometimes with the letter O, e.g. son, sun, it would seem an advantage to return to the genuine short O sound where letter O appears. There are enough changes to be made in English spelling to keep spelling reformers busy for a long time to come, and consideration of changing O to U can be postponed. Meanwhile it can carry on is now as an alternative pronunciation. Letter E in such words as come, done, oven does not act as a normal retroactive diacritic, and it is not sounded in come and done. In oven, E ought to be sounded, and therefore should be retained.

Two more words to examine for useless E:

Minute. Dictionary pronunciation is /minit/ for all meanings of the word except where it signifies 'very small', when it is sounded as /mainju:t/ and E acts as a diacritic and cannot be dropped. Respell minute (60 seconds) as minit.

Private. Dictionary pronunciation is /praivit/ or /praiveit/. English is pronounced carelessly, unless clear pronunciation is required by the audience. If spelling is to be changed to conform to careless speech with short I or its equivalent schwa dominating the language, so be it, but we shall still have to know how to pronounce the stressed vowels, both primary and secondary. Meanwhile we still have to drop useless Es. With private, the E is acting as a diacritic and therefore cannot be dropped.

All silent Es however can be dropped if we use our other system of long and short vowel diacritics, instead of the letters E and I. This E & I system is very ingenious, but it is not so simple or efficient as the diacritic marks of more recent years. In this article both systems are used. The Roman system is used every time we write in English, and the true diacritic marks are used where pronunciation has to be indicated. For the most part of course only the long sign in required. (See private and other examples above...)