[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J25, 1999/1 pp23]
[Also on this page: USvUK spellings, Richard Feynman & Isaac Asimov.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]

Notes on the Decapitalization of Danish 1948.

Chris Upward.

These notes on the 1948 Danish reform derive from Rechtschreibung (Nov.1998), newsletter of the Swiss Bund für vereinfachte rechtschreibung (Federation for Simplified Spelling), whose main aim is to abolish the German noun-capitalization rule (the newsletter laments that the Allies did not impose this in 1945, when they had power to do so; the rule did not exist in medieval times).

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 25, 1999/1 p 30]
Also on this page: Decapitalization of Danish 1948, Richard Feynman & Isaac Asimov.

Can U spell OK? Absolutely Britannia.

Tim Dowling.

This article first appeared in The Independent on 21 July 1998, and is reprinted with permission. It gives an insight into the problems Americans have with British spellings, though American spellings give British readers few problems. For a plea for American spellings to be taught in British schools, see JSSS J21 1997/1, pp30-32.

For an American like myself, learning to spell the British way was a lot like learning to drive the British way. At first you believe it will require no more than a permanent shift in your thinking; then you realise that it requires you to do things you know to be wrong; finally you realise that to some extent it can't be done. You can start learning British spelling, but you can never finish

I'm not someone who believes that good spelling is unimportant, nor do I believe that modern American spelling is inherently superior to the British. American spellings are meant to be more economical and sensible, but the 19th-century American spelling reform movement that brought us innovations like dialog and program never actually got much farther than, well, dialog and program. I will not pretend that I was wholly unfamiliar with British spellings. In the States we often use them in crossword puzzles when the American spelling doesn't fit, so that "form of payment, to a Londoner" is "cheque" and "gold measure for Anglophiles" is "carat" not "karat". I'm also not going to maintain that my difficulty with British spelling has hampered my ability to communicate, although the first time I read instil I was like, helloooo...

The instil problem is just the tip of the iceberg. In Britain you do instil but then you do install, but then you make it instalment, even though you do installation. Whatever.

Forget the instil group. What about the -OUR bunch? We Americans have always known that you British like to render labor as labour, and I quickly picked up that the same went for harbour, honour, rumour, vigour, rigour, neighbour and flavour. In fact I took a perverse pleasure in writing these olde worlde spellings. But how was I was supposed to know there wasn't also majour and minour? Or that while it was honour and honourable, it wasn't honourary, humourous, or vigourous and rigourous? British spelling began to seem like an exclusive club intent on black-balling me.

Along with this -OUR mess, you have the -ISE/-IZE puzzles and the -RE/-ER enigma. Then there's what I call the body/disease surplus vowel. In Britain, common diseases like diarrhea, hemorrhoids and septicemia, along with bodily parts like the esophagus are spelled by throwing in an unnecessary extra A or O, as if they weren't hard enough to spell in the first place. There doesn't seem to be any rule regarding which words are awarded this affectation, so I have to look up any word that might possibly qualify. Of course with words like oedema and oesophagus, I'm not even looking in the right part of the dictionary.

When two or more of these oddities are gathered together, you get a word like manoeuvre, which, pardon my French, is French. Where I come from, boys getz beaten up for spelling that way. And while we're here, let's talk about gaol. Of course I had come across this word before in English novels, and although I gathered from the context that it was a synonym for "prison", it never occurred to me that it was pronounced "jail". What sort of Britain do you want, a crusty old nation of ye olde tyre remould centres, ful of people making cuppes of taca and doing the hoeuvring? Or the shiny Nu Labor Brittan of 2-morrow?

I suppose we should be surprised that the British and American spelling is so similar, considering that they diverged at a time when the number of Es in me depended on how you felt when you got up. Actually, I have grown quite fond of British spelling, with its odd combination of formality and silliness, rigidity and licence ("driver's certificate", according to Professor Higgins). One thing, however, has always puzzled me. What's with the two Gs in waggon?

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 25, 1991/1 pp31,32]
[Also on this page: Decapitalization of Danish 1948, USvUK spellings.]
[See other journal articles by John Reilly.]

Richard Feynman & Isaac Asimov on Spelling Reform.

John J. Reilly.

John J. Reilly is a writer who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, USA. He is an occasional contributor to First Things magazine and an associate member of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. See links.

Feynman & Asimov.

The subjects of this contribution were both American scientists who became major figures in popular culture. [1] The physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is best known for the work in quantum electrodynamics that won him a Nobel Prize in 1965. His career extended from work on the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s to a conspicuous role on the official commission of inquiry into the causes of the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986. Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a biochemist who taught at Boston University for many years, but became famous as a prolific writer of science fiction and popular science. Estimates of the number of his books run to over 500; he himself lost count.

Both Feynman and Asimov became public sages of a sort. Many scientists, given a little encouragement, are willing to express opinions on anything under the sun, but these two belonged to the rather smaller class of such people whose opinions were actually sought by a wide audience. Considering the range of topics on which they commented, it is not really surprising that they touched on the reform of English spelling. While both advocated reform, neither had more than a passing interest in the subject. The few remarks I discuss here may be all they ever had to say on the matter.

Feynman's physic.

While my research has not been exhaustive, the only recorded remarks by Richard Feynman on spelling reform I have been able to discover were made in the course of a talk entitled 'This Unscientific Age', one of the John Danz Lectures that Dr Feynman delivered at the University of Washington in April, 1963. [2] The burden of that talk is that social and scientific progress is inhibited by received opinions. In the course of his remarks, Feynman compares psychiatrists to witchdoctors and professors of English to medieval scholars who neither jettisoned old errors nor made useful innovations. Having disposed of literary scholarship, he went a step further: "Now let me get to a lower level still in this question. And that is, all the time you hear the question, 'Why can't Johnny read?' [3] And the answer is, because of the spelling."

After making a few allusions to the history and theory of alphabetic writing, Dr Feynman observes that "things have gotten out of whack in the English language", which leads him to ask, "[w]hy can't we change the spelling?" In what may be taken as an expression of exasperation with his colleagues in the liberal arts, he declares: "If the professors of English will complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell friend, I say to them that something's the matter with the way you spell friend."

So obvious does Dr Feynman find the need for improvements in English spelling that he has trouble seeing what arguments could be raised against such a project: "[I]t can be argued ... that [language reform is] a question of style and beauty in the language, and that to make new words and new parts of speech might destroy that. But [the professors of English] cannot argue that respelling the words would have anything to do with the style. There's no form of art form or literary form, with the sole exception of crossword puzzles, in which the spelling makes a bit of difference to the style. And even crossword puzzles can be made with a different spelling."

This brings us to how a reform might be accomplished: "And if it's not the English professors that do it, and if we give them two years and nothing happens -- and please don't invent three ways of doing it, just one way, that everybody [can get] used to -- if we wait these two or three years and nothing happens, then we'll ask the philologists and the linguists and so on because they know how to do it. Did you know that they can write any language with an alphabet so that you can read how it sounds in another language when you hear it? [sic] That's really something. So they ought to be able to do it in English alone."

In some ways, Feynman's ideas are most illuminating for what they fail to consider. Even a cursory acquaintance with the history of attempts to reform English spelling shows that more than "two or three years" have been needed to devise a universally acceptable reformed system. Experience has also shown that, at any one time, there are likely to be far more than "three ways" under consideration as candidates for such a system. One interesting point is that Dr Feynman seems to regard the problem as purely technical. It should be entrusted to the "philologists and linguists", who at least use an abstruse symbology, rather than to those frowzy-minded professors of English.

Reading this, I was reminded of a critique I read some time back, entitled 'Higher Superstition' [4] that sought to explain the postmodern assault on the objectivity and institutional prestige of the natural sciences. According to the authors, the attempt to reduce science to a merely cultural phenomenon is revenge for the dismissive attitude taken by natural scientists toward the liberal arts during the late '50s and early '60s, when the hard sciences got all the grant money.

Of course, the most important element lacking in Dr Feynman's remarks is any consideration at all of how a reformed system would be implemented. The assumption seems to be that, once the linguists have cooked up a way to reproduce the phonetic precision of the IPA in the English version of the Latin alphabet, then the new spelling could be adopted simply by fiat. Again, history suggests otherwise.

Asimov's essays.

As we turn to Isaac Asimov's thoughts on spelling reform, we will find more serious attention to the problem of how to get people to use a reformed system. There are, however, other conceptual problems with what this popular sage has to say.

In 1982, Asimov published two essays touching on spelling reform. In the later of the two, A Question of Spelling, [5] he followed Feynman in linking the deficiencies of English spelling with the problems of education. The particular occasion for the essay, he says, was a mail solicitation from an organization calling itself the 'Reading Reform Foundation'. The letter recited the usual complaints about the high level of functional illiteracy in the United States. However, Asimov was not much persuaded by the Foundation's argument that the key to alleviating the problem is better teaching methods He was particularly unimpressed with the letter's claim that 87% of all English words are spelled phonetically. That left 13% that were not phonetically spelled, and those were likely to be the most commonly-used words in the language

Unlike Feynman, Asimov jumps right in and makes a stab at some suggested respellings. Consider through, coo, do, true, knew and queue, he asks. Why not just spell them throo, koo, doo, troo, nyoo and kyoo? These respellings would in fact fit within some familiar reform proposals, though perhaps few reform advocates would go along with his assertion that the obvious respelling of night should be nite. Then there is a larger problem.

Noting that the plural of man is men, but that young children will naturally assume that mans is the plural, he goes on to assert that the children are right. Thus, along with his advocacy of spelling reform, he includes an argument for a completely regularized grammar, though he does not elaborate on it as fully. The suggestion, "Why not reform grammar, too?" is a common retort made by people who have just been introduced to the idea of spelling reform. Why some people confuse these things is a mystery to people who don't confuse them. In any case, Asimov's essay is the first instance I have ever seen of someone who equated spelling and grammar and who also proposed to reform them both. [6]

Asimov does acknowledge that a great deal of trouble would be caused by implementing his reforms. However, he gives three reasons for why it would be worthwhile for everyone to take the trouble:

1. However much trouble the reforms would be to us, they would make the lives of our children and grandchildren immeasurably easier. This is the sort of sacrifice that parents should be willing to make for their children.

2. The reforms, once in place, would promote literacy. This would boost worker productivity and assist in enhancing national prosperity.

3. Earth is in need of a common second language, and English is the most widespread current candidate. Removing the idiosyncrasies of English would promote its spread, which would promote international understanding and world peace.

Spelling reform by software?

The gist of the article is the suggestion that computers, particularly word-processing dictionaries, could greatly facilitate a transition to reformed spelling. Certainly he did not think that much hope of change was offered from any other quarter: "...I think that the home computer industry won't be putting out reformed 'dictionaries' in response to an independent movement for spelling reform. I have no hope for an independent movement being powerful enough to achieve anything."

Nevertheless, history was on the side of spelling reform. We could expect to see modifications in the graphical representation of English in order to make it easier for machines to use: "...I think it is inevitable that computers [will] be designed to read the written word, and reproduce it; and even to hear the spoken word and put it into print or follow its orders. This can be done with the language as it is, but how much easier it would be if spelling is phonetic and grammar is regular." How much indeed.

In this essay, Asimov seems to have foreseen a great deal of software that had not been written yet. Still, despite his genuine prescience, the arrival of the technologies he anticipated has made little impact on the chaotic nature of English spelling. Neither is there much sign that anyone is about to take his suggestion to create an 'Academy of Spelling Reform', a body he hoped would be authorized to issue those new 'word-processing dictionaries'. (The term 'spell-checker' had perhaps not yet been coined at the time this essay was written.) History has taken a frustrating turn. In 1900, it was common sense to many educated people that English spelling should be reformed, while the suggestion that machines might someday read texts aloud was inconceivable even to science fiction writers. Today, just shy of the year 2000, I have software that reads texts aloud, while it is spelling reform that has become inconceivable.


In closing, it should be emphasized again that neither Richard Feynman nor Isaac Asimov was greatly interested in spelling reform. To them, English spelling was just another inheritance from an irrational past that needed to be restructured. It is clear from what we have seen that their accomplishments in other areas gave them no special insight into the question. Nevertheless, it is worth considering their ideas in some detail and spreading awareness of them further. The substantial posthumous fame of Feynman and Asimov makes even their slight engagement with the subject a possible enticement for their many admirers to examine the question more closely.


[1] Elaborate websites with eponymous URLs have been dedicated to each, a good indication that they have risen to at least subcultural significance. As of November 1998, the chief website relating to Feynman was at http://www.feynman.com. The most useful Asimov sites are at http://www.clark.net/pub/edseiler/WWW/asimov_home_page.php and http://www.asimov.com. All three links have extensive bibliographical information. The material on Asimov is particularly comprehensive.
[These webs may no longer be available, so links have not been inserted. ]

[2] Richard Phillips Feynman (1998) The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Helix Books, p116.

[3] After the best-selling book by Rudolf Flesch (first edition 1955) Why Johnny can't read and what you can do about it, New York: Harper & Row.

[4] Paul R. Gross & Norman Levitt Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science The Johns Hopkins University Press (1994) p86.

[5] 'Question of Spelling', in Isaac Asimov (1983) The Roving Mind, Prometheus Books, p340. First published in Popular Computing (July 1982). An earlier essay, which I have been unable to obtain, is 'Spell that Word!' in Isaac Asimov (1986) The Dangers of Intelligence, first published in American Way (March,1982).

[6] There are three conventional answers to the assertion that grammar reform and spelling reform are equivalent:

i. Written alphabetic language is the servant of the spoken language. Alphabetic writing systems can be assessed by how well they represent speech. This is a fairly objective criterion. In contrast, there is no similarly objective way to assess which grammar is better than another.

ii. English grammar is not particularly irregular compared to most European languages. The same cannot be said of the written form of English as compared to the written forms of those languages.

iii. Shut up.

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