[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J26, 1999/2 p2]
See other Journal, Newsletter articles and Pamflet 15 by Chris Upward.


Chris Upward.

Comparative literacy.

A theme that JSSS has pursued consistently from its inception in the mid-1980s is the comparative difficulty of the writing systems of different languages. It has always seemed important to emphasize this theme, and for two reasons. First, knowledge of how other languages are written and have been modernized in accordance with the alphabetic principle especially in the 20th century illuminates the anti-alphabetic deficiencies of English and its extraordinary resistance to modernization. And second, comparison with other languages can provide a powerful argument for spelling reform to persuade a public that has always been woefully unaware of the orthographic shortcomings of English and their consequences for literacy: comparison can provide hard evidence for the educational damage wrought by the traditional spelling of English, where the difficulties of English seen in isolation can be dismissed as inherent in the process of learning to read and write.

A pioneer in this field was former SSS President John Downing, when he edited Comparative Reading over 25 years ago, and when he propounded the notion of the transferability of literacy skills between languages (JSSS 1987/2). Since 1990 some individual studies have appeared, notably SSS Research Director Gwenllian Thorstad's comparison between literacy acquisition in English and Italian (1991) and JSSS editor Chris Upward's comparison of misspelling tendencies in English and German (1992).

But now, in 1999, interest in the question has suddenly burgeoned. Early in the year Wydell and Butterworth published their case-study of a learner who was dyslexic in English but possessed above-average literacy skills in Japanese (see pp30-31). Next, in June, the British Dyslexia Association held an international conference on Multilingualism and Dyslexia, where several papers demonstrated the greater difficulty of literacy acquisition in English compared with various more regularly spelt languages. And now a collection of papers has appeared under the title Learning to Read and Write: A Cross-Linguistic Perspective (Harris & Hatano, Cambridge U.P.), which repeatedly makes the same point.

It should not need enormous powers of persuasion to convince the authors of such studies that the next logical step after recognizing the problems caused by the unpredictability of English spelling is to work for the improvement of its predictability.

Some features of this issue.

Cornell Kimball's paper takes up the misspelling theme once more, but gives it several new slants. Unlike previous studies published in JSSS over the years, his contribution deals with the errors of relatively well educated adults. First considered are published lists (their number and size are a symptom of the troubled state of English spelling) where there is wide agreement as to which the worst 'demons' are. Next the WWW is searched to cull over 200,000 examples of the most frequent offenders as used by Internet discussants, over two dozen being misspelt 20% or more of the time, and a few over half the time. As in previous error-analyses, it is overwhelmingly redundant letters (silent letters, unstressed vowels before L, M, N, R, and doubled consonants) that are seen to trip writers up. The article finally moves on to examine how certain aberrant forms have increasingly entered dictionaries as acceptable 'variants', and whether this offers a promising route for spelling reform. No doubt this is one way in which English spelling does progress - but the pace is awful slow.

John Shipley concludes his account of the Chicago Tribune's forty-year use of its own fluctuating selection of simplified spellings.

George Anderson reports on his researches into the support given to spelling reform organizations in the early years of the 20th century both in America and Britain by the wealthy Scottish-American industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The article shows up clearly the benefits and hazards of financial reliance on such an individual: money makes many things possible, but he who pays the piper expects to call the tune, and the tune may amount to no more than the whims of one person who does not necessarily have a clear grounding in the issues involved. The Simplified Spelling Society may owe its initial survival and achievements to Andrew Carnegie's backing, but it is fortunate today in enjoying the legacy of another industrialist (Sir George Hunter) who, unlike Andrew Carnegie, did not terminate the funds once death had terminated his control.

Several items report on the aftermath of the 1996 German spelling reform. Until mid-1999 controversy and resistance have tended to dominate the headlines, but now it seems the mood is changing. The press is increasingly adopting the reformed spellings, opponents appear hysterical and isolated, and the new norms are becoming established. Patience and determination are paying off. That is not to say that the public is equally happy with all the new word-forms, but now a process of discrimination is setting in, where the really useful innovations are accepted, but perhaps some instances of linguistic purism for its own sake that do not meet public demand are being ignored. Altogether the recent German experience with spelling reform offers a range of valuable lessons for would-be emulators in the English-speaking world.