[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J29, 2001 pp29-31]
[See J30 article by Richard Wade.]

Freespeling.com - A Vehicle of Change, Not a Rubric for Reform.

by Richard Lawrence Wade.

Richard Lawrence Wade is the sometime editor of "Tomorrow's World" (science and technology TV-magazine programme) on BBC 1, the deputy to the Controller of BBC Radio 4 (UK's main speech channel), and Director General of the Advertising Association. He is also the founder of www.freespeling.com.

Freespeling.com is the website campaining, not for formal reform or new rules, but for a reawakening of the freespeling of the Shakespearean age. Thus we can move towards an easier set of standard spelings.

Between the launch of my web in mid January 2001 and mid June there were three quarters of a million hits from over 50 countries. There were also many emails to me, as author of the site. Some were very rude, but far more made comments, offered suggestions, and gave support to the project. Major articles have featured freespeling.com in the New York Times, the Independent (UK), Liberation (Morocco), The Age (Melbourne). There were interviews and fone-ins to South Africa, the US, the UK and Canada. Many mentions elsewhere I discovered only later, using search engines on the Web. So, a bandwagon is starting to move.

Time to Modernise.

Rigid orthography, locked in a cage since the egregious Dr. Samuel Johnson finished his admirable dictionary in 1755, is no longer appropriate in an era of the Internet, text messages and emails. The spelling of English remains a hurdle to all who learn the language, a rampart to dyslexics and a barbed-wire barricade to those who end up illiterate. My campain aims to modernise the speling and so to improve the language of universal communication. But this is not an academic exercise or a filosofical thesis. This is a political and social campain for chanj.

Chanj, but how? By enrolling those who already "break the rules" when sending text messages to their friends, using abbreviations and codes on their mobile cell-fones or pagers. Or those who hit the "send" key without spellchecking their email messages with the same rigor as for printed letters. The spirit of the Internet is an esprit libre, fearless of convention, rebellious against regulation. This is not a force to be harnessed, but a current to swim in, a wave to surf.

Freedom & Anarchy.

Does freedom promote anarchy? No, it need not. Before I address that crucial question, however, let me ask this: why on earth we have endured an orthography fossilised for two centuries and a half, trapped in the sediment of the Age of Enlightenment, no less? There have been many attempts at new top-down rules for English spelling, new reforms, even new alphabets, but none has made much impact. It is the educated and influential who are to blame.

They (we?) may now have accepted a wide range of accents; they may eagerly embrace neologisms (unlike the French, who have built a ring fence against foreign invasions); they may even allow oddities of grammar. Nonetheless, they brand anyone who is a bad at spelling with the stigmata of ignorance and stupidity. Job application? Business pitch? Future son-in-law? Oh dear, no!

Why Chanj?

We may argue that language needs absolute continuity of script to allow immediate "pattern recognition" and thus comprehension by the widest possible readership, and, yes, it does. But that must never disallow improvement and modernisation.

Imagine if automobile design was stuck in, say, 1955, with carburettors that flooded, indicators that snapped off, and tyres (tires?) that punctured frequently. Chanj has always been a major problem for the motor industry because of the inertia of the capital invested. And yet they overcome that inertia to optimise their bottom lines.

Why don't we do the same with our beloved English? Because the majority of us who manage or who govern have invested too many hours in reading, marking and inwardly digesting the contrary spellings of this magnificent, rich and flexible language that is English. We try to pronounce it well (though we may never have reflected on why the noun is "pronunciation"!), we may hate split infinitives (I do!), and we certainly strive to spell it correctly. So, we are loath to waste that investment. But we are, in effect, merely polishing the leather upholstery of a vintage Rolls Royce. The car is no longer British, nor a match, performancewise, for its competitors.

The Old Freespeler.

Some of us may defend this stance by calling on the mantra of that Master of English, William Shakespeare, but in that they are wrong. He himself wrote in spelings free of inhibition:
First folio 1623 MACBETH.
The Queene (My Lord) is dead.
She should have dy'de hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creepes in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last Syllable of Recorded time:
And all our yesterdayes,
have lighted Fooles
The way to dusty death. Out, out breefe Candle,
Life's but a walking Shadow, a poore Player,
That struts and frets his houre upon the Stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an ideot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
That was, of course, before the codification of English by Johnson. Most of those freespelings are instantly recognisable. They are few and cause little difficulty.

What I now promote with my web is to freespel those words you find tricky, illogical or overweight but - very importantly - to write for "the comprehension, clarity and cumfert" of your reader. I exhort practitioners to freespel "only a few words on each page. Resist temptashun!" If you litter a document with freespelings, the messij becums kwite difikult to reed (c wot I meen?). I recommend a self-disciplined freedom (if that's not a paradox), for all freedoms should be exercised with care.

The Website.

There are said to be 16 billion telefone text-messages per month. And emails? Who knows? If people do exercise such a freedom, how can we ensure that English does become a simpler language that people can understand more easily? Certainly we do need a new Standard Speling. The aim of freespeling.com is to produce a set of preferred freespelings that most people will feel cumfertable with and start to use. In due course, they'll regard them as acceptable and so the words will become Standard Spelings.

How do we achieve that? Let me quote the website:

"Each week I plan to post up 10 words on the FREESPELING WORD WALL - tricky ones or spelings that don't seem to make much sense ... phlegm, plait, pursue, slaughter, build, cough, eschscholtzia (the California poppy) ... for each one you will find a number of alternative candidate spelings to choose from.

You look at the alternatives and then vote for the candidate you prefer (if none appeals, you may offer your own suggestion).

It will be a WORLD VOTE - anyone, from any country, can vote.

We count up the votes and publish these new preferd spelings in the FREESPELING NEW WORDBOOK which you can download anytime you want and put them in your spelcheker (!).

If you don't like a preferd speling, you don't hav to use it!

The following week, we'll write up a new bunch of candidate words and you vote again. Gradually we shall build up what will become a new Global English Dictionary containing all the old conventional spellings but the new preferd freespelings too.

Conventional speling doesn't disappear, it gradually absorbs new spelings and undergoes a process of metabolic chanj.

BUT, IMPORTANT: each set of alternatives for you to vote on will be carefully selected to try and make sure, if one can do so in English!, that other similar or related words will have similar alternatives on offer when its their turn.

For example we would not want to find we'd ended up with 4=for, 14=forteen BUT 40=FOURTY, would we!

To shape that process I want to enlist the help of a small group of Language Gurus, recognised experts, from the different continents where English is a major spoken language. They can help to select a coherent set of possible freespelings to stand for election.

But they wont be devising Rules you have to follow, nor Reformed Spelings, they'll be choosing some alternativ freespelings-in-harmony for you to vote on."

That group of experts will be central to achieving a coherent set of future Standard Spelings. The Simplified Spelling Society may have important input there!

Where do we go from here?

To achieve a meaningful World Vote, the project needs

Both require relatively modest funding, but most vital is publicity to make sure that people do log on and vote. My current task is to get the backing of an international brand, a "fast-moving consumer good" or an international service. A soft drink, a candy bar, an overnight delivery service? It will take courage by some marketer, but s/he will achieve a profile in six months that would take many brands a generation.

As my business card says:

"One good idea is worth a thousand elephants." Chinese proverb

"There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world - and that is an idea whose time has come." The Nation 15 April 1943

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