[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Summer 1996/2. pp.27,28. Later designated Journal 3]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by David Stark.]

Standardised Spelling - Pronunciation 1.

David Stark.

This is the third in a series of articles (the first two appeared in the Summer 1985 and Spring 1986 issues). It will be seen that the theme of this article builds on John Wells' analysis of the implications of different accents for a reformed world-standard for English spelling, and relates to the rationale of the 1987 conference.

Among the many reasons spelling reform has never been adopted in English, two are, for me, dominant. Perhaps if practical strategies could be developed for both, spelling reform might again be considered seriously, not just by a few enthusiasts, but by the education establishment and society as a whole.

One reason for not adopting a revised orthography is that people who are at present literate would require to lea rn to read and write a second time. I believe that this can only be overcome by making the new orthography as close as possible to traditional orthography, and I will develop arguments and strategy in a future series of articles.

The present series of a rticles deals with another problem. If a revised, more alphabetically consistent orthography requires a phonetic standard, what should it be? In the past, spelling reformers have usually assumed that a standard dialect should be defined, but in the last two articles I argued towards the following conclusions.

1. It is impractical to choose and fix a standard, living dialect of English.

2. Normal speech in such an accent would not be consistent enough to translate directly into written text.

3. People do not possess the ability to define individual phonemes accurately, having found that allying roughly perceived words with highly developed comprehension skills to be the most satisfactory way of interpreting spoken messages.

Many reformers would have us believe that people will pick up the definitive pronunciation of all the words in the lexicon from a specified prestigious accent, or have the a bility to deduce, by some process of phonetic averaging, a standardised and authoritative form of speech. Phonetic study does not bear this out. Even highly educated people, and certainly children learning to read, will be predominantly influenced by their own local speech patterns, or at least the forms of them which they perceive to be 'proper' or 'correct'.

To Abe Citron, writing in the Summer 1985 Newsletter, it is obvious that the schwa in <ar, -er, -or> endings, or the first sound in aside is close to the vowel sound in cut. I would hesitate to accept this, as the /ʌ/ sound in such schwa situations is a mark of my local, working class accent which has low prestige and could not be thought of as a respectable standard. Given such prejudices by all parties, one might despair of a phonetic standard ever being possible.

However, there already exists the basis of such a standard, a standard which is already defined, although far from perfectly, and which is widespread and readily available to all who seek to read and write English throughout the world. The equivalent standard works effectively in a country like Germany where there is no socially or culturally dominant accent in the way RP is in England, or in a language like Spanish which has many adherents in various parts of the world with different accents, somewhat like English.

These languages have s impler orthographies than English, not because the graphemes correspond exactly with the phonemes of any particular accent but because there is a simplicity and consistency about the way words are spelled. The authoritative pronunciation of any word is def ined by the way one sees it written. One then learns this pronunciation. This 'Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation' is not determined by the way one might have heard the word pronounced by one particular individual or group of people, but by the spelling itself.

My premise is that it is a mistake to believe that the reference for an alphabetic orthography is the actual spoken word; instead it is the pronunciation derived and learned from the standard spelling. This concept of Standardised Spelling Pronunciations h olds the key to how an alphabetic orthography works, and offers an escape route from problems which have beset English spelling reforms.

The sounds which literate people perceive being heard in a word are largely influenced by the actual spelling of the word. For example, in normal speech, the first sound in the word aside would be analysed by phonetic experts as schwa. However, most laymen would tend to think of it as /ae/ because this is how it is spelled, and the word aside is recognised as having a regular spelling.

Let us consider how someone would learn the spelling of a word. By the age of five, when most children begin writing, they will only possess a wide knowledge of the lexicon in their own accent, having learned this from their parents and friends. They will not have been significantly influenced by adherents of a standard accent other than their own, such as that from BBC newsreaders (assuming they all spoke 'perfect' RP), which to them will merely be one of a vast number of ways of pronouncing words heard via the mass media. Even teachers will display the local accent, no matter how 'proper' they might try to speak in front of their young students.

As children learn to write, they work out or are taught a strategy for spelling each word they come across. A child might guess a spelling of <filfy> for the word filthy from the way he though it was pronounced. However, when he sees it written with a <th> instead of an <f>, this Standardised Spelling-Pronunciadon will be learned. Eventually, the child may assume that he hears the <th> sound in filthy no matter what he actually hears. (This relates to the influence of Spelling-Pronunciation. See Wells p.107 for the definition of Spelling-Pronunciation and compare this with my concept of Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation).

A theoretical Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation standard is built up for the lexicon, based on the spelling of words as they are met. In learning to spell, using alphabetic methods, we neither possess, nor do we need, an objective assessment of individual phonemes. It is no handicap, indeed it is a positive benefit for our judgement to be coloured by the end result of the phonetic realisation of a word, that is, the established spelling.

The validity of Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations as the basis of an alphabetic orthography is substantiated by the fact that Spanish speaking people of varying accents can still enjoy the alphabetic advantages of Spanish orthography, i.t.a. can be used to teach children of different English dialects, and people can learn to speak Latin when there is no living dialect standard as reference. What is required for a revised English orthography is not revised spelling derived from one or perhaps two particular English accents, but a set of phonemes which people of all English accents can recognise, and a straightforward and logical way of both identifying these from the standard spellings, and reconverting Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations back into spellings at a later date.

An alphabetic writing system in use among a divergent language community, like Spanish, is only easier than a morphographic or ideographic orthography like Chinese, among similarly divergent adherents, because most people memorise pronunciations of words more easily than their abstract visual patterns. Or to put it another way, there are two ways of getting the spelling of a word correct in an alphabetic orthography: by remembering the word's Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation; and by remembering what the word looks like. The chances of spelling failure for the same amount of teaching will be dramatically less than in a non-alphabetic orthography.

Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations fine-tune our present knowledge of the pronunciation of words, and set a standard which is not totally reliant on any individual, so-called 'prestigious' accent. In theory, some Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations need not relate to the actual pronunciation in any English accent. At present, I remember the spelling of the word meringue by remembering a Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation of mer+ing+gyu. Such an approach may work for a few oddball words, but it would be better if the Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation were closely related to common living accents Re RP or General American. One could then compare the authoritative pronunciation of a word as defined by the Standardised Spelling-Pronunciation with the actual pronunciation heard (or at least perceived). The practice of this by a literate person in an alphabetic orthography reinforces the memorised Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations.

However, our ability to do this is limited by the relationship between the phonetic elements in our own accent and the phonetic rules used to form the spelling of words in an orthography. For example, my accent does not recognise any difference between the vowels in the words pull and pool, and hence I do not possess the ability to identify the two opposing phonemes. If this distinction were incorporated into a revised orthography, I would be unable to use alphabetic methods to remember the spelling of the vowels in such words. Instead I would have to rely on my ability to memorise their individual appearances as I do just now with traditional orthography.

We have seen the dangers of using too pure a phonetic analysis as the basis of a revised orthography, because the limited phonetic skill of ordinary people will not be a match for this. Any such phonetic standard should be directed more at the needs of spellers, and less at the linguistic accuracy of the phonetician. I am only interested in phonetics to the extent it can help me teach literacy, whether in the present orthography or in a revised one.

English speaking people will know that there are 26 letters used in writing, but they will have no idea how many phonemes there are in their speech. They will no t automatically recognise a difference between the initial sounds in this and thin, as the same letters are used to write them. The schwa sound will not exist for most people since there is no letter to represent it, and another vowel will normally be imag ined where schwa is heard. These two examples illustrate two problems facing reformers when trying to match a lexicon to a revised orthography based on alphabetic relationships.

Firstly, there will be pairs of sounds which many people will not be able to distinguish as separate, either because of their accent or, in the case of existing literates, because of the lesser phonetic demands of traditional orthography. Received Pronunciation has 46 phonemes, but most other English accents, and practically all foreign languages, have less than this. There is no sense in revising English orthography to a form which is of limited use to all but RP speakers. And if a distinction is made between, for example, the initial sounds in the words this and thin, the revised orth ography will not only be difficult for foreigners who do not possess one or both of these phonemes, but it will also be more difficult for existing literates who will have to make this distinction for the first time.

Secondly, a strategy is must be develop ed for dealing with schwa. Schwa seems to stem from the fact that, in normal English speech, it is enough in most situations to clearly pronounce one or two vowels in each word in order to identify it. This leaves a number of unstressed vowels, which, although audible, are difficult to identify as a weak form of a normally stressed vowel. A knowledge of the lexicon may help us, for example, the <-or> in author can be remembered from the word authoritative where the vowel is stressed. However, one cannot use th is method to confirm that the word writer is written <-er> as opposed to <-or>, which in a final position would sound the same.

To solve these and other problems associated with the formation and assessment of a revised orthography, further exploration is required of the relationship between spoken pronunciations and Standardised Spelling-Pronunciations.


J. C. Wells, Accents of English, Cambridge University Press, 1982 (3 vols.): Section 1, 'Aspects of Accent'.

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