[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J20, 1996/1 pp25-27]

Selling Spelling: a marketing approach to orthographic change.

Matthew Thommen.

The author is a subeditor with the Saudi Gazette, Jeddah. He was educated in South India, taking an MA in English from Kerala University in 1982. He worked as an advertising copywriter before turning to journalism. From 1984 to 1991 he was on the staff of the Indian Express newspaper.

1. Spelling Reform: a selling problem.

The basic reason why spelling reform has not worked is this: the people who must buy it are not the ones who will immediately benefit from it. This is also what makes it one of the biggest marketing challenges of today.

The main problem with English spelling is that it is - apparently unnecessarily - difficult to teach. And the people who will benefit the most from the introduction of simpler spelling are the illiterate and the learners, not those who are already literate.

But the decision makers are invariably literate. If they are not fully literate, they probably have a secretary who is, or at least a word processor with spell check. Not only do most of them fail to see any benefit in spelling reform, they have good reason to consider it a nuisance. Having made their painful way up the literacy ladder they can hardly be expected to take kindly to the idea that it was the wrong ladder after all. They have had no motive to allow what they have learnt to be replaced with something which will require a further learning effort from them.

What the reform movement has been trying to do all these years, not surprisingly with little success, is to sell something which even if no buyers need it, is guaranteed to give them trouble!

However, this does not necessarily mean that from a marketing point of view spelling reform is impossible, or even that the traditional approach to it is doomed to failure.

2. The traditional approach.

Since the days when the energies of the reform movement were mostly directed at getting one proposal - New Spelling - accepted, there have been two significant developments. First, it was realised that reform will not work as long as it looks threatening to those who must accept it, and second, the emphasis shifted from campaigning to research.

New Spelling lost its 'official' position largely because it was felt that other proposals looked less frighteningly different. These now include Cut Spelling, which does not aim at total consistency but primarily at streamlining the current orthography, and the step-by-step schemes, which probably gave rise to the concept of spelling management, rather than reform.

But the movement has to do more than eliminate the threatening nature of reform; it has to identify or generate a positive need for change. And this the second development can help to do.

Despite the weight of scholarship behind New Spelling and the work of many early reformers, we now have much more evidence - evidence which cannot easily be ignored - of the need for reform.

Research data, some of it published by the Simplified Spelling Society, has shown that inconsistent orthography puts learners of English at a distinct disadvantage. And difficult spelling has clearly been linked to illiteracy and the poor quality of literacy in English-speaking countries.

This kind of data can be used more aggressively. The beneficiaries of reform are often people personally important to the decision makers, their own children for instance. Strong feelings can therefore be generated by conclusively establishing that lack of reform is a handicap for English-speaking students.

Also, by linking orthography with literacy and literacy with economic progress, it is possible to play on people's fears of poverty and unemployment.

However, these links are far from being established in the public mind, and it doesn't look as if a demand for spelling reform is about to emerge. Perhaps the time is ripe for an alternative approach to be tried.

3. An alternative.

Though the traditional or mainstream approach has evolved, there is something in it that has remained quite constant: the role it envisages for officialdom.

Many influential reformers have felt the government or some kind of official authority should approve of and be involved in the implementation of their proposals. Pitman and Follick, for instance, took the issue to the British parliament. This is not really surprising, because being pro-reform was often seen as slightly subversive. (The verbal class distinction was by no means antique and was probably considered vital to the foundations of social order.)

The alternative approach to be described here is based on the premise that if reform is to work, it must bypass official authority. The threatening element does not lie in the look of this or that proposal, or even in the amount of change that is planned, but in the possibility of official involvement, and what has to be eliminated is precisely that.

Popular governments cannot accept reform as long as people don't want it, and people cannot easily be made to want it as long as they think the government has anything to do with it.

A scheme that proposes the slightest of changes with official implementation is likely to upset them much more than a fully revised alphabet sold by a private company. This is because the latter can create the impression that it can more easily be ignored. Once people are reassured that they need not have anything to do with it at all, they become softer targets for a campaign promoting reform.

Before thinking of what such a campaign can be like, this question has to be considered: What kind of reform will be best for it?

4. The parallel orthography.

What is sold will have to be a Parallel Orthography (PO), coexisting with the Traditional Orthography for an indefinite period of time. It may eventually grow and replace the other, or fail and wither away, but to begin with, it must minimise confusion. Ideally, no word in the PO should look exactly as a different word does in TO. The more such words there are, the more the chance for confusion.

If an ideal and entirely new alphabet is used, no word in the PO will look like any word in TO. There wouldn't be any confusion then, but there wouldn't be any sales either, because the learning effort required will be much more than the literate buyers can possibly be induced to come up with.

This does not mean, however, that the PO should have no new letters at all. Spelling systems using only current letters and symbols need not be the easiest to learn, a rather extreme example being Starfon created by Philip Starmer, whose 1989 letter to The Economist was reprinted on the back page of the SSS Newsletter of January 1993.

The saleable PO may have to be immediately readable, or at least immediately learnable. Schemes that propose learning in stages are by their very nature unsuitable for this approach. They do not try to get more and more of the market for their product, they must first secure the entire market before introducing more and more of the product. Only a power that controls the market can do this. Where there is freedom of choice, it is quite impossible.

The marketing approach is not incompatible with the establishment of a mechanism to manage spelling, though with a consistent phonemic system it may not really be necessary. The problem was not entirely caused by an erosion of the alphabetic principle over centuries, the erosion was largely caused by the lack of a consistent system to begin with. Spoken language may continue to change, but a new phoneme rarely emerges, and with a consistent phonemic alphabet, the written language should naturally follow the spoken one, or at least greatly reduce the divergence.

Fully consistent spelling systems, it has often been argued, look too drastically different from TO. But that need not make them more difficult to learn. To look like TO and to be easy to learn are two different requirements altogether. The first is not a prerequisite for the second and efforts at maintaining visual conformity, far from making reform proposals simpler, usually make them more complex.

Partial reform can of course do both. It can keep changes simple and retain a visual similarity to TO. But it would not achieve much. Just cutting double consonants or replacing PH with F is hardly tackling the problem. As partial reform goes further, compromises become increasingly unavoidable and it has to either introduce more rules and exceptions, or give up the comfort of visual similarity, or both. On the other hand, total reform using an augmented alphabet can mean easier learning, despite the initial visual shock.

The mainstream approach has tried to minimise visual disruption because of fears of upsetting the literate decision-makers. It has often sought to lull them into agreeing to a new orthography which looks as much like TO as possible, and therefore presumably won't be too difficult just to read, while a coming generation is to be taught to write it as well.

But this has clearly not worked, and the marketing approach envisages no such planned switchover. It sees the buyers as users. They will have to understand and learn the whole thing. They will have to be attracted, not just reassured. And once they have decided to buy, it assumes that they are not going to ask, 'Will it still look like English?' What they will then want is something that is easy to learn and easy to use. They will hardly be willing to put in any extra effort just so the new orthography can look like the old.

As much as possible of what the TO user already knows will no doubt have to be retained, but it does not help to introduce a lot more that has to be learnt, just to save a little of what is already known; nor does it help not to introduce elements which look unfamiliar, but make the learning easier.

This is exactly what happens in the case of many schemes which start out with the premise that accents or new letters have no place in English. For instance text looks more like TO in New Spelling than in any augmented/diacritical system. But the pamphlet New Spelling 90 takes three pages to explain the indefinite vowel. A more marketable scheme would certainly be one which introduces a new letter instead, because it can cut this explaining or teaching from three pages to a single line.

A traditional objection to reform using an augmented alphabet, that it will make a lot of hardware obsolete, is no longer relevant. With computers, a new alphabet can technically be the same as a new font, and installing it need not involve any change in the hardware.

If the aim is to minimise the learning effort, nothing can be easier than the pure simplicity of one letter for one sound and one sound for one letter. Proposals that stop short of such consistency usually do so only to facilitate acceptance. But it is doubtful whether telling people 'See how much like TO it looks' will make them accept any proposal. That may require a whole new strategy and a different kind of campaigner.

5. A Marketing Strategy.

The first requirement is not to find buyers but to find a seller. Unlike the traditional approach, which focuses on the yet-to-be-literate beneficiary and the field of education, the marketing approach should concentrate on the literate buyer and the field of publishing. The spelling reformer must first sell his product to a publisher, who can then sell it to the people.

Publishers can benefit in two ways. By using a more efficient orthography they can reduce the number of characters typed, saving time, energy and materials. For mass-circulation periodicals this can mean significant gains.

They can also aim at increasing their circulation by eventually convincing less-than-literate people that learning to use their PO is far easier than learning to use TO, or that by reading it they can learn to speak better English.

Two types of publications suggest themselves as being preferable vehicles for reform - a popular, perhaps left-wing, tabloid in a country like Britain, and a glossy magazine which many middle-class readers may not buy in a country like India unless it is offered at discounted rates. (To be avoided: all publications for children.)

The following is a possible marketing scenario. The British tabloid launches a parallel edition in the PO, priced substantially lower, and with a fabulous scheme of prizes to go with it. The advertising should highlight the prize scheme and the environmental benefits of reduced consumption of energy and raw materials. The prizes could range from a standard dictionary (with pronunciation indicated in the PO rather than in, say, the IPA alphabet) for anyone who buys the new edition daily for a week, to holidays abroad for those who write back in the PO. Those who send in classified advertisements in the PO should perhaps get them published free.

If an advertisement is carried in English newspapers in India offering one PO issue of a magazine like National Geographic free to anyone who writes in, thousands will. If they are then offered a cut-price subscription for a year, many of them will take it. There could also be prizes-starting from the dictionary for all subscribers. The advertising should stress that the PO will help readers to speak better English.

Before this campaign runs out of steam, the next line of attack must be launched, on business people. This will involve selling computer software in the PO. The advertising should try to make the PO more respectable, even chic. The economic and technical benefits should also be stressed. With more and more multi-media applications, there can be more and more of these benefits. There can even be programs which convert text from one to the other, so that if documents have to be in TO, or both, those familiar with the PO keyboard can type them faster. This familiarity can soon be an additional skill, and may eventually be taken for granted.

At this stage many people should be able to read TO and PO, or even a careless mixture of both. And then the coup de grace: books.

All the reading now available in any Revised Orthography seems to be Shaw's Androcles and the Lion (in an alphabet which one newspaper reporter described as his idea of ancient Etruscan), some Wells in New Spelling 90 and an O. Henry short story in Fonetic American. Hardly the kind of stuff readers will be queuing up to buy.

Imagine what it would be like if a much-awaited and widely advertised book of Gabriel Garcia Marquez were to be translated only in the PO. Or if some sensational new book were to appear in it. If the PO (even one with a few new letters) can quickly be made out, few readers will deny themselves books which they really want to read.

Unlike the earlier steps though, the last one by itself does not make business sense. There isn't likely to be any profit in book publishing alone switching to the PO, and it will have to be seen as part of a wider marketing effort. Anyone venturing into the business of selling a PO will have to think of this as part of the promotional campaign.

Any such campaign will no doubt require capital to begin with. That will be available if someone sees a business opportunity in the idea, which is how all businesses start. A businessman will have to recognise that selling spelling may have as much potential as, say, the idea of selling desktop computers to the publishing industry did.

However, no publisher will take the risks involved until there are figures to show exactly what those risks are. A lot of research needs to be done. A scientific system of evaluating reform proposals must be developed. Then the costs have to be estimated and compared with the projected benefits. And this question must be answered: Is there money in spelling reform?

The scholars and thinkers have done their bit, had their say. Now it may be time for the business people to move in. For a whole new breed of reformers to come, the rallying cry could be: There's money in this. Let's make it!

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