[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J23 1998-1 p33-34]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]

Christopher Upward revews:

Edward Carney English Spelling.

Edward Carney (1997) English Spelling London & New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-16109-6, 99pp.

This revew is ritn in Cut Spelng.

Authr, Series

Edward Carney wil be nown to many readrs as authr of th most substantial study of english spelng of th past decade: his massiv A Survey of English Spelling (1994) was revewd by Roger Mitton in JSSS J19 (1995/2). His new book, revewd here, clearly derives from th erlir magnum opus, reflectng much th same atitude and drawng on its precursrs analysis and rich resorces.

Th new book is publishd in Routledges series of Language Workbooks, editd by Richard Hudson, wich reflects th new demand for 'languaj awareness' materials in british education. It is advrtised on th bak covr as aimd at "absolute beginners", but David Crystal recmends it, also on th bak covr, as "of enormus valu to teachrs". So ar teachrs abslute beginrs in english spelng? This ambivlnce of levl, as we shal se, also marks th content of th book.


Th book consists of 14 short chaptrs ('units'), namely: 1. Speaking and writing, 2. Finding phonemes, 3. Long and short vowel pairs, 4. Marking vowel length, 5. Complications in length marking, 6. Some consonant spellings, 7. Some vowel spellings, 8. Look-alikes and sound-alikes, 9. Sound-alike affixes, 10. The spelling of names, 11. Rules and mistakes, 12. More than letters, 13. American and British spelling, 14. Spelling reform. We thus start with a foundation in th alfabetic principl of sound-symbl and symbl-sound corespondnce, proceed thru varius areas of wel-nown dificlty, and end with a considration of how english spelng myt be regulrized in th futur: for spelng reformrs in particulr, a thoroly plesing developmnt.

Th units hav a varid structur, with sections of exposition, exrcises and sumry, and tables and figrs placed intrmitntly. Th units take up only 72 of th ful 99 pajes, with 21 of th remainng pajes givn over to ansrs to th exrcises. Near th end, befor th index, ar twelv titles sujestd for furthr readng: sevn of ther authrs ar past or presnt membrs or asociats of th SSS.

Theory or practis?

On one levl, th work has som of th apurtnnces of an academic textbook. It begins by introducing basic concepts, such as fonemes, digrafs, short/long vowl distinctions, etc. Here and ther we dip into th histry of english spelng, lernng for instnce about th Gret Vowl Shift, and th efect of boroing from french, latn or greek. Tecnicl terms ar explaind and then used in sentnces like (p43) "If the stem is phonetically an English free form verb, it is fairly safe to use <-able> (7 exampls folo). A bound verb stem with the same lexeme generally requires <‑ible>" (8 exampls). This may be as sound a description of th -ABLE/-IBLE variation as can be devised, but wethr it cud help riters to make th distinction themselvs must be doutful. Othr theoreticl distinctions may also be questiond: dos a book on spelng need to distinguish fonetic and fonemic analysis? dos Carneys distinction between 'emty' letrs such as th B in debt (tho pronounced in debit, wich he dos not mention) and 'inert' letrs such as th G in sign (as pronounced in signature) shed any lyt on th use of silent letrs in english words? In fact, most ar ther not to exemplify 'emty' or 'inert' categris, but because they wer formrly pronounced (a few wer insertd by false analojy); but countless othrs wer discardd wen they cesed to be pronounced (eg, GH from fligh, now ritn fly). It is historicl accidnt, in one way or anothr, not som modrn linguistic distinction, that acounts for ther use today.

On anothr levl, th book is a practicl primer. Exrcises giv practis in identifyng fonemes, decoding fonemic transcription, anlyzng th purpos of dubld consnnts, and spotng homografs and homofones. Unit 9 ofrs gidance to poor spelrs on a numbr of variant word-endngs, as between -ANT/-ENT, -ABLE/-IBLE, -ER/-OR, -EER/-IER, -ETTE/-ET, -ICE/-IS, -ISE/IZE, and th prefixs EN-/IN-. Many spelng reformrs ho hav confined themselvs to desynng a fonemicly regulr orthografy rathr than studying th presnt spelng of english wil find th patrns and structurs demnstrated in this and othr units of th book very revealng. One myt expect that Unit 11 ('Rules and Mistakes') wud be of most use to poor spelrs, but it is not. It implys, but dos not quite say, that ther ar no watrtyt spelng rules in english. As for mistakes, numerus patrns of err ar listd, but they ar put down to bad teachng and th 'complexity' of th systm; redundncy, wich is to blame for 2 out of 3 errs, is not mentiond.

How awful is english spelng?

Readrs of JSSS wil doutless juj this book partly by its atitude to spelng reform. Here th pictur is mixd. Th hart sinks at th question-begng remark ryt at th start (p2) that english spelng "serves its purpose better than it is usually given credit for" (wat sort of quality mesurmnt is that, exactly?). Likewise, th repeatd, uncriticl asertion that (eg, p29) "letters have a useful purpose by indicating links with related words" provokes th response "wat, even if th confusion they cause outweis that usefulness? wy exactly is it 'useful' that th G in sign shos a link with signature?" On th othr hand, Carney frequently givs vent to his iritation with th waywrdness of english spelng: certn patrns ar described as "troublesome", "notorious", even "a disaster area".

That his mind is not closed to reform is shown by th final Unit, wich is chiefly devoted to th question, in particulr to a very reasnbl acount of Cut Spelng and New Spelling 90, both of wich he considrs "very radical". A less radicl alternativ wich he mentions wud be to regulrize a numbr of th most iregulr forms using existng patrns, for instnce replacing -IGHT by -ITE. This is surprising in vew of th systemic and syclojicl problms entaild by forms with silent final -E - but then Carney aproachs english spelng very much as an academic linguist, not as a sycolojist or a clasroom methods specialist. Th big obstacl he ses to any kind of spelng reform is "politicl", tho he dosnt discuss th implications of that. Th implmntation of english spelng reform is not necesrily only a politicl question.

Strengths and weaknesses.

Beside th systmatic, structurd aproach to teachng about english spelng (for th book is very much a teachng, or lernng, tool), a major atraction is th elucidation of sutl patrns of sound-symbl corespondnce wich few readrs wil hav been previusly alert to. It is here that th books claim to try "to show the underlying regularities in English spelling" is made good. Howevr, wethr that amounts to an overal undrlyng regularity is debatebl: th question of wy and how th worlds prime languaj coms to hav "disaster areas" is not adresd. Refrnce is made to th "design" of th systm, but ho desynd it, wen and how, and wher we can find th bluprints, to that no ansr is givn. This is a pity, wen a singl paragraf on historicl developmnt cud hav made it clear that watevr desyn once existd has long been lost. Al in al, it is hard to se in english spelng anything othr than an aglomration of accidnts.

It is wen Carney leves his patrn-tracing that we becom most unesy. Unit 1 begins: "Writing seems to have evolved out of picture-painting some 8,000 years ago" - two half truths that ad up to nothing like th hole truth (th erliest riting evolvd out of countng systms mor like 6,000 years ago). Unit 8 begins: "In any writing system that has evolved over a long period of time, you will find examples of homographs and homophones." But othr alfabetic riting systms (with th partial exeption of french) realy do sho a mor or less clear desyn, and th arbitry tangl of homografs and homofones that caractrizes english just dos not arise.

Th book can certnly be recmendd to spelng reformrs (ho ar hardly "absolute beginners"), as they ar bound to lern things about th presnt spelng of english wich they did not no befor (as this revewr did). But it is best regardd as a chalenj to find exeptions to th patrns listd, indeed to question th asumtions that undrly its basicly apolojistic vew of english spelng - and we must be grateful for th publicity it givs to reform.

Back to the top.