[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 24 1998-2, p2]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]


Chris Upward.

National or international standards?

Languages spoken predominantly in a single country (eg, Czech, Greek) can reform their spelling with little concern for the outside world. Languages spoken more widely need to co-ordinate their reforms between user-countries, as French, German and Spanish recently did. By contrast, reforming English should mean co-ordination on a world scale, involving English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries alike.

This world dimension is sometimes forgotten, especially in Britain and America, both of which all too easily think of themselves as linguistically self-sufficient. Thus a radio debate recently held in Oxford argued over whether a national regulatory authority for English was needed; and the Queen's English Society (see pp31-32 below) by definition appeals only to subjects of the British monarch. Similar expressions of proprietorial parochialism emanate from time to time from America.

Yet there is also a growing awareness of the globalization of the English language. New books appear with titles like English as a Global Language (Crystal - see JSSS 23, p31) and The English Languages (McArthur). Periodicals like English Today and the Internet GEN (Global English Newsletter) continuously promote that awareness. Research projects embrace the world: the Langscape survey stretches out to every continent from its native Australia, and the ICE (International Corpus of English) draws its data from 18 sites around the world.

Such studies tend to highlight the diversity of English and prompt the fear that the unity of the language may be, now or in the future, at risk. In English Today 55 (p24) Tom McArthur quotes a heartfelt plea from a Japanese user of English for the plight of non-native-speakers faced by this diversity to be catered for, and McArthur accordingly calls for a concept of ISE (International Standard English) to be developed, independent of any one national variety.

Though as yet the English spelling problem does not significantly feature in any of the above publications or research programs, spelling reformers will wish to encourage any move toward an ISE. For one thing, it implies a global co-ordinating body which could take spelling onto its agenda; and for another it would take account of people's linguistic needs, one of the most desperate of which is the rationalization of English spelling.

Features of this issue.

Not widely known outside America is the bold initiative taken by the Chicago Tribune in using a range of novel spellings through several decades of the mid-20th century. Burke Shipley's meticulous and original research into this landmark in the history of English spelling reform is immensely revealing. The full significance of the initiative is not yet discussed in this first part of the study published in the current issue of JSSS, but already it will be clear to readers how hazardous such an idiosyncratic attempt at reform was, supported neither by linguistic or psychological research, nor by a concerted campaign for the reforms to be adopted across America, let alone the world. This intriguing story holds some awful lessons for reformers of subsequent generations.

Over the years JSSS has published several analyses of misspellings (eg, JSSS 22, pp26-32). Bernard Lamb's study introduces an important new dimension, the spelling of specialist terminology, in this case from genetics. Many errors he found were typical of general misspelling in English (eg, confusion of single and doubled consonants), but some infringed the specific conventions of the science concerned (eg, upper case for the name of a genus). This reminds us that reformers have so far given little thought to the spelling of technical terms, where special conventions may apply. A further common problem, prevalent in all the life sciences, is how to spell terms of Greek derivation, such as haemophilia and staphylococcus. That this problem is self-inflicted by English, and not imposed by Greek, is seen from their simplification in Italian (emofilia, stafilocco) and Spanish (hemofilia, estafilococo) and other languages.

Chris Upward's article is unashamedly utopian, envisaging the harmonization of spelling between languages to enhance their mutual comprehensibility. As an example, it examines how often the redundant letters that litter written English obscure parallels with other languages: thus committee has but one m and one t elsewhere in Europe (eg, German Komitee). Utopian or not, however, reducing arbitrary divergences from the spelling of other languages is a factor that deserves to be taken into account when we consider the world context of English spelling reform.

Ken Spencer's analysis of misspellings by 7- and 11-year-olds gives statistical evidence for the relative importance of three factors implicated in spelling difficulty. The most important, as we know, is unpredictability of sound-symbol correspondence, which is the primary target of all reform proposals. Another factor is the frequency of occurrence (ie, familiarity) of any given word, which is something spelling reform cannot directly address. The third factor is the length of words, ie, the number of letters they contain: the fewer the letters in a word, the more transparent is its spelling and the easier it is to spell correctly. This criterion for improved spelling, brevity, is one that reformers have not always taken seriously enough.

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