[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J29, 2001 pp32-37]
[See other items written by Steve Bett.]

The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method.

by Marilyn Vos Savant.

W.W. Norton & Co., NY & London, 2000 US$22.95, 205 pages ISBN 0-393-04903-5]

Book Review: Steve Bett.

Steve Bett is a former professor of typography and computer graphics. He is currently a communications consultant involved in training faculty on how to build better e-courses. He contributed two chapters to the book, Internet Based Learning, Kogan-Page, 1999. He maintains a resource site on alphabets, alternative transcription systems, and spelling reform. See links.

The Art of Spelling, by Marilyn Voss Savant, is divided into two parts. The first part, the madness, describes the problem by reviewing the work of historians, linguists, psychologists, and writers who have dealt with the issue. The second part, the method, describes the solution as prescribed by numerous books on spelling improvement.

The second part is a kind of synopsis of the strategies that might be of some value. There are no memory exercises or drills. However, the book mentions just about every suggestion, rule, or list that the author found to be useful: e.g., a list of the 500 most frequently misspelled words and a list of the most frequent spellings of 39 phonemes.

The author, a syndicated columnist, is the author of six other books. She does a good job of locating things that readers can relate to. Some of the early reviewers of the book were relieved to hear that bad spelling does not necessarily indicate low intelligence. Someone can be intelligent without being a good speller. However, Savant adds, low intelligence nearly always produces poor spelling. Whether or not simpler spelling would lead to a greater mastery of spelling among those with limited intelligence is not addressed.

Savant reviews a wide range books and reports on spelling, but she fails to come up with anything very enlightening. Spelling is said to be a skill that involves both lexical skills and phonological skills. There is some evidence that, when faced with a difficult word, good spellers rely more on their phonological skills than their lexical skills [Lennox, 41]. The terms are never fully defined. One presumes that lexical skill pertains to visual memory and the ability to memorize the dictionary, while phonological skill involves an understanding of the statistical connection between sounds and letters and the ability to break down long words into syllables.

Spelling & Character.

Spelling bee champions were said to use three main spelling strategies: visual memory, writing or saying words aloud, and regular use of the dictionary. Good spellers use both phonological and visual cues. In trying to determine the characteristics of good spellers, Savant finds evidence that good spellers tend to be highly motivated, highly organized, and attentive to detail. In her survey of 42,000 readers, she found that spelling ability seemed to be correlated more with personality traits and habits than with problem-solving ability and intelligence. Half of the book is devoted to the psychology of good and bad spellers, so readers may want to score themselves. A self-scoring personality questionnaire is provided.

Unlike many writers on spelling improvement, the author has not only read many of the best works on the topic but has also interviewed their authors. I have rarely seen this newspaper device used so effectively in a book. The interviews are boxed and kept separate from the main text, like sidebars in a newspaper feature-article. In her chapter titled, "Spelling and Technology," she interviews Roger Mitton, author of English Spelling and the Computer (1996); Richard Venezky, author of The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography; and Uta Frith, University College, London, author of Cognitive Processes in Spelling (1980).

Fallacies about Reform.

Donald Scragg, Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies (Manchester U.) and author of A History of English Spelling, is one of the authorities on spelling that Savant interviews (p. 72). Savant knows that Scragg is the president of the Simplified Spelling Society, an organization that has promoted reform since 1908. However, Savant apparently had already made her mind up that spelling reform was "a bad idea"; she does not raise the question with him. She does discuss it with Venezky. He supports limited reform, such as thru, tho, and thoro, which he says need to be established as the preferred alternative in schooling, spell checkers, and legal documents. However, he says "The claims that we lose one to two years of education because of spelling irregularities or that international business is hampered by the same cause are quite hollow and are rarely bolstered by any empirical evidence."

Who ever said spelling hurts trade? The problem is that many ESL people who can speak passable English cannot even begin to spell it.

The claim that we lose one or two years of education is supported by every cross-cultural education study that I am aware of. See Margaret Harris & Giyoo Hatano, Learning to Read and Write: A Cross Linguistic Approach, Cambridge University Press (1999). [Reviewed by Chris Upward] Flesch (1980) mentions a report by Russian teacher, which indicated that Russian children master the Cyrillic grapheme-phoneme correspondences by Christmas of their first school year. Almost anyone can master a phonemic writing system in three months or less. The same level of mastery is not achieved by English-speaking school children until the fifth year. For that matter, we know from Downing's study of the Initial Teaching Alphabet that a consistent orthography made it possible for English-speaking school children to match the primary-school performance of their counterparts in Spain, Italy, Russia, Finland, etc. They lost that advantage in the 3rd grade, when they had to convert to the traditional system.

Savant never asks any questions that might correct her idea that all spelling reformers advocate phonetic spelling. (On p. 25 she says, "Phonetic spelling ... would complicate things," whatever its merits in theory.) Had she asked Scragg, she might have learned that there is a huge difference between phonetic spelling and the proposals supported by the SSS, such as cut spelling and broad phonemic spelling. Her critiques, which seem to be mostly borrowed from the essays by Cragie and Bradley, completely miss the mark. For instance, she suggests that since pronunciation changes with each new generation, spelling reform would require that dictionaries be updated every 10 years. In reality, the difference in pronunciation between two generations is nothing compared to the differences between various dialects of English. Any viable reform would have to work with most of the existing dialects.

What's Wrong with English Spelling.

The Art of Spelling identifies the problem as "phonetic irregularity" -- many words are not spelled the way they are pronounced [116]. As Dr. Frith says, speakers of Italian and Spanish have a far easier time learning to spell. Unfortunately, the author follows this insight with a misleading quote from Edna Furness (p. 119): "Research in linguistics has shown that the English language is more phonetic than we realize (approximately 85%)."

To pick a nit, all languages are 100% phonetic: it is writing systems that go astray. As for that 85% figure, it includes the huge scientific vocabulary of English, most of which is mechanically borrowed Latin and Greek. Such spellings are quite regular, and, for the most part, quite rare. Thorndike and Lorge showed that 80% of the words we use are drawn from a set of 1000 basic words. However, Savant is wrong to claim [p. 120] that these high frequency words are relatively regular. The most frequently used words are among the most irregular.

There is some statistical regularity in English spelling. Ordinary English prose is about 40% predictable; most writing systems are about 85%. Knowing the basic code does help narrow the field, and Vos Savant lists the five common spellings for 39 of the 40 or so sounds in English speech. She also provides some useful mnemonics for selecting the particular alternatives. Other practical advice includes how to use a spelling checker without being overly dependent on it.

All in all, this is a useful book that anyone with an interest in spelling will enjoy reading.