[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J26, 1999/2 pp27,28]
[See other journal articles and Personal View by Edward Rondthaler.]

E-mail and a 'Benchmark' Spelling

Edward Rondthaler

Edward Rondthaler is president of the American Literacy Council (ALC), successor to the American Philological Association's organization established in 1876 to address the problem of English spelling. He has served as a link with the movement's American leaders during the last half century, having worked with most of them in fine-tuning the simplified notation now sponsored by ALC. His vocation is closely tied to the visual word, being co-inventor of the first successful breakaway from metal typesetting, an innovation essential to the automation of simplified spelling, regardless of its ultimate notation or form.


The most promising way to introduce a logical spelling into the mainstream is by making the newer spelling easy to use before it is put to memory. E-mail users probably represent the largest segment of society oriented toward innovation. Their computers can be programmed to dispatch an e-mail message in parallel lines of T.O. and simplified -- automatically. This vivid comparison of the two spellings will enable many to evaluate the merit of change and pick up the simpler spelling as desired. Only by the automatic generation of such comparisons will this be achieved. The technology and logical notation are both available. Sufficient funding is now the sole barrier to fulfillment.

Need for a 'Benchmark'

In JSSS 23 Valerie Yule admirably serves the cause of spelling reform by showing us how the internet opens up "an unprecedented opportunity for world-wide testing and introduction of a more consistent and simpl spelling system suitable for international use." She points out, moreover, that the invented or abbreviated phonetic spellings often used by writers on the internet may suggest the kind of spelling reforms that might ultimately be accepted.

Dr.Yule mentions, perhaps without as much emphasis as it deserves, that in order to assess these shortened e-mail spellings properly we need what she aptly calls a "benchmark" spelling - a logical, consistent standardized English spelling system against which the merit of the casual spellings suggested by internet users can be evaluated. At present our assessment of such spellings is made by comparing them with traditional spelling which, when used as a benchmark, is as capricious and erratic as a roller coaster. Without a reliable standard to keep us on a straight track we're likely to end up with a glut of new spellings that are no less confusing than what we now have. It is only against a benchmark of reasonably good sound-to-sight sight-to-sound matching that we can be sure that a particular change will not introduce ambiguity or muddy the waters for other changes - much as the spelling of the trade name 'Insulwall' is completely at odds with 'U-Haul'.

What pronunciation should set the standard?

A century ago British Received Pronunciation (RP) was the hallmark. But two world wars and a shrinking empire have reduced the supremacy of RP. Meanwhile radio, TV, telephone, travel, cinema and song have largely merged the various U.S. regional dialects into a relatively uniform pronunciation - General American - now spoken by almost a quarter of a billion people. Is there any reason why the benchmark spelling should not represent the pronunciation of more than half of all who speak English?

One of the virtues of using General American as the norm was pointed out by Mario Pei, the Columbia University philologist. Dr. Pei states in his book, The Story of the English Language, that Americans often let spelling influence pronunciation, with the result that schwas tend to be pronounced in a diluted version of the particular vowel with which they are written - as indicated in dictionaries such as the exemplary Oxford American. To quote Dr Pei: "American [diction] generally preserves more of a spelling-pronunciation than does English [diction]. It neglects the obscuring of unstressed vowels and the drastic lopping off of unstressed syllables which is characteristic of British speech... It also, incidentally, proves the power of the written language over the spoken." To whatever extent this is the case, a carefully sound-matched spelling should discourage our tendency toward careless articulation and encourage more distinct pronunciation of our sixteen vowel sounds. In like manner a sound-matched spelling should lead toward more uniformity of English pronunciation worldwide, and a better chance of having it fulfill the dream of a true lingua franca.

The first order of business, then, is to set up a benchmark spelling that is easily read by those who are literate, and clearly represents the alphabetic principle applied to the speech of the majority of English speakers. This particular spelling need not be heralded as the be-all and end-all of reform. It will simply get us on track in the year 2000 by being phonetic, accurate, unambiguous, and applicable to all our comwords - ie, words that are not ordinarily capitalized. It is the starting point for reform, and should satisfy those who see the benefit of spelling English words as they sound - with, perhaps, the exception of a few short, high frequency words like of, is, as etc. Accompanying this sturdy beginning should be a commitment to examine our spelling at regular intervals for further stream-lining or changes to keep it in sync with speech.

In seeking a candidate for the benchmark spelling one could hardly find a notation better qualified to represent General American speech than the New Spelling originally proposed by the British in 1910, published in book form in 1941, and slightly modified, later on, with a few American updates. Software that automatically translates typed T.O. into this basic spelling is now available on the internet. See ALC on Links page The program in its present form is primarily tutorial, but with adequate funding it could be made not only to serve the need of an e-mail sender bent on reform, but to win the respect and perhaps the embrace of e-mail receivers who may never have considered simplified spelling as a real, viable possibility.

When this software is ready for use the sender, having typed the message in T.O., will have the choice of three ways to send it. It will not be necessary to use a spellchecker because the program will have already automatically corrected any T.O. errors as they were typed. (These automatic T.O. corrections are performed in a unique way designed specifically to make error repetition less likely.) To dispatch the message in T.O. the sender will press the 'Send' button. To send it in simplified only, he or she will press the 'Send Simplified' button. But, as an ideal means of introducing the recipient to logical spelling, the sender will press the 'Send Dual' button -

and the message will be transmitted automatically in parallel lines of T.O.
and the mesej wil be transmited automaticaly in parralel liens of T.O.

and simplified, word under word, as you see it here. Thus each receiver
and simplified, werd under werd, as U see it heer. Thus eech reseever

will get examples of simplified spelling on subjects in which he or she is
wil get exampls of simplified speling on subjects in which he or she is

definitely interested, displayed in a format that can be grasped easily --
definitly interested, displaed in a format that can be graspt eezily --

a clear format that is vividly and efficiently presented, is comfortable
a cleer format that is vividly and efishently prezented, is cumfortabl

to the eye, gives the reader the whole story, and serves as the quickest
to the ie, givs the reeder the hoel story, and servs as the qikest

possible start toward learning to use the rational spelling as a viable
posibl start tord lerning to uez the rashunal speling as a vieabl

option for both reading and writing. It would be difficult to find a more
opshun for boeth reeding and rieting. It wuud be dificult to fiend a mor

effective means of self-teaching. The program uses context in selecting
efectiv meens of self-teeching. The proegram uezes context in selecting

the logical spelling for homonyms like live-live, wound-wound, read-read,
the lojical speling for homonims liek liv liev, woond wound, reed red,

etc. and, as in speech, resolves there-their, chews-choose, here-hear, etc.
etc. and, as in speech, resolvz thair thair, chooz chooz, heer heer, etc.

by sound. A few rules, such as the e-marker for long vowels (except at the
bi sound. A fue rools, such as the e-marker for long vowels (exsept at the

end of certain words) will, of course, be learned in time. But the parallel
end of sertan werds) wil, of cors, be lernd in tiem. But the parralel

lines can be expected, of themselves, to do a large part of the teaching.
liens can be expected, of themselvs, to do a larj part of the teeching.

The basic technology for a 'Send Dual' button is now available. Adapting it to e-mail, as shown above, rests on the emergence of a philanthropist who sees that the dual format will be intriguing to the world's most avid supporters of innovation and most tolerant to change - the avant-garde internet millions. Occasional pressing of the dual button by e-mail users can pave the way to solving the baffling, demeaning English illiteracy problem at its root.

Dr Yule points to an experiment indicating that spelling change is probably easier if made all at once rather than piecemeal. Such full change is entirely in keeping with the dual format.

Her last pages focus chiefly on steps that could be taken to entice internet users to inch their way into mastering a logical spelling. The "Send Dual" button should make inching one's way unnecessary. Few would choose to swim the English Channel when a ferry is available.