[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J30, 2002/1, pp28-34]
[Valerie Yule: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Anthology, Bulletins, Personal View 10 and web.]

English Spelling for International Comunication.

Valerie Yule.

The greatest barrier to the wider spread of English lies in its spelling - R.E. Zachrisson. 1931.


As a lingua franca for international comunication the English language has great advantages, but the difficulties of its spelling system bode poorly for its future. Improving English spelling requires consideration of its international aspects, for readability, learning, relationship to the spoken language, and writing. These include the issues of compatibility with present spelling and relationship to spellings in other roman-alphabet languages. English is a living language, and trends in spelling change to be investigated appear in pijins, 'European English', and the writing systems of other languages, as well as in text messages, Internet and emails, and commercial comunications. Of five concurrent ways towards spelling improvement, the most urgent is action research, primarily in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, to meet the needs and abilities of users and learners of English internationally. Reserch is essential to ensure the two basic requirements for an international English spelling - that it becomes more consistent, predictable and streamlined, and provides a more useful key to learning the spoken language and vice versa, rather than the present need to lern almost two English languages.

'I am talking in English because it is the modern Latin.'

Pope John Paul II reported in the Sunday Telegraph, 1 December, 1985.

Non-native speakers of English far outnumber native speakers.

Native speakers of English 500 million
Non native speakers of English estimated at over 600 million.

1. International ownership of English.

The English language now belongs to the world, not just to England and its former colonies. This is belatedly becoming recognised [2]. The most important reason for improving the efficiency of English spelling, is that it is one of the basic tools in modern global comunication along with satellites, radio telecomunication, teleprinting, and the other vast and continual advances in spreading the written word. International rights to a more user-frendly English writing system are now more important than the plesure of parochialists in the quaintnesses of antiquarian remnants better kept to the historical sections of dictionaries. Yet altho almost every other major language in the world has improved its writing system to a greater or less degree in modern times, English spelling technology still retains the unnecessarily irregular and unpredictable forms of 250 years ago. Is it uniquely unchangeable among alfabetic writing systems? All assumptions about the impossibility of remedying English spelling need to be critically questioned. Today apathy and incompetence, more than spirited devotion to antiquity, allow the disadvantages of English spelling to continue.

Native speakers of English (around 500 million) are now far outnumbered by the other users of English in the world. English is next to Mandarin (around 850 million speakers) in the number of native speakers, not including those in Africa who speak English as a parallel language, but over one billion people use our language with some understanding, and possibly another billion can manage some sort of conversation in it. Their needs have a right to be met. What are these needs? How can they be met?

2. The Advantages of English.

English became the 'modern Latin', the lingua franca of the world, for historical reasons, mainly the British Empire, not because it was the 'best'. It is now has the advantages of being the language of the dominant global culture, and still predominates in the comunication of diplomacy, tourism, science, business, tecnology, the Internet, air and maritime messages. Its heritage of print is a heritage for civilisation. It also has the advantages for international use of a simple grammar and a rich vocabulary that has been absorbed a from almost every other language, and that pervades every other living language. Its richness of idiom and metaphor are a problem for foreign learners, but because it already exists and dominates the market, it is far more feasible at present to remedy its defects than to introduce a completely new international language, however theoretically ideal, such as Esperanto. It would be marvellous if the world could have one simple lingua franca held in common, and there may come a breakthru to a new writing system that can cross languages, like Chinese but not as difficult. But the advantages of new languages invented for this purpose fall down before the greatest advantage of English - that it is already there.

English spelling hampers comunication and education in all countries.

3. The international disadvantages of English spelling. Why seek to improve it?

The greatest disadvantage of English for international users is the inefficiency of its writing system, and although insufficiently acknowledged, it is this which threatens its continuing global dominance. English spelling hampers comunication and education in all countries, including multilingual developing nations, no less than in its homelands, which continue to have massive literacy problems despite massive budgets for teaching and remediation. Recent publicised research (eg Seymour, 2001) confirms long-held observations. After World War II, many multilingual developing countries, especially in Africa, tried to use the English language as a unifier and for education, as a supralingual medium with ready-made printed materials and the advantages of joining in the rest of the world - but had to drop out because their teachers could not cope with both the written and spoken versions, and the pupils coped even less. It would be more in the interests of progress in a country such as Papua Niugini, if standard English were the lingua franca for the tribes with their hundreds of different languages because of its international, educational and completely supra-tribal value (Yule, 1987). English is also more economical and precise - for example, a bilingual public notice in a newspaper took 48 words in English to say what took 83 words in Tok Pisin. Pijin required nearly twice the words. English spelling is a major though unrecognised reason why Papua Niugini did not continue with English as its lingua franca after independence from Australia, but developed Tok Pisin and Motu pijins instead, which have simple spellings for their English-origin vocabulary that are much easier to read, lern and write - for example, PROVINSAL SEKETERI, KOMYUNITI PROJEK, NESENEL BROTKASTING KOMISI, AUSTRALIAN ASOSIET PRES. Indeed, if written English could be given an introductory spelling in Niugini publications, adapting Tok Pisin conventions, then nationals might more easily to learn both written and spoken English.

The barrier of English spelling is also one factor why Hindi became the prime Indian language on independence despite protests by non-Hindi regions, and why Indians still resist the use of the roman alphabet as a second script for their many native languages, which would give them a united form of visual representations. They assume that the roman alphabet would involve a spelling as difficult as English [3].

While universal broadcast media and culture are spreading a homogenised American-English oral language around the world, 'many Englishes' are also developing, in large part because present spelling is inadequate to hold the spoken language to a broad global standard. These 'New Englishes' are made matters of local pride, and fascinate linguists, but they can set problems for future global comunication. Linguists are also intrigued at how within the European Union, there is developing for spoken contact between non-English nationals a sort of EuroEnglish, sometimes described as Desperanto, with a simpler grammar and vocabulary. English spelling is an insufficient guide for them to learn to speak easily together in standard English. 'Euro-English' has some notable similarities with other English pijins and creoles, in its methods of simplification. Scholars such as Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer and Juliane House [4] write about the threats to the pre-eminence of standard English, and the greater user-frendliness of 'ELFE' (English Language for Europeans) speech between Europeans. This 'proposal may seem to be a recipe for permissiveness and a decline in standards'. But it is also 'essentially seeking to carry through the implications of the fact that English is an international language, and . . is no longer the preserve' - of the top tenth of native English-speakers who spell with ease. In my own work on education and literacy with Koreans, Indonesians, and migrants to Australia from countries round the world, I have often heard complaints, 'Let the English keep their spelling as it is, and let the rest of the world have rest-of-the-world English spelling!'

James Murdoch of the Murdoch Empire recently also warned that English may not necessarily continue to be the language of the Internet by default as Mandarin, Hindi and Spanish rapidly increase their share, and so the Murdoch comunication projects do not promote it. Results of recent research give 'a clear indication that the supremacy of English, taken for granted in much of the Anglophone world, may be as transient as British economic and political dominance of the 19th Century proved to be. . .Wonderful as English happens to be, it is not the only possible language for a future united world:' (Roberts 2000). Roberts argues for Esperanto, as others argue for other invented languages. "Being perfectly regular, people have been able to learn it in a tenth of the time needed to learn a national language.' He may be right, although Esperanto does have its own disadvantages. But it would be possible for an English language for international use to use a completely regular grammar and abandon in-group idiom, with a basic vocabulary of 10,000 words rather than the limited 800 of 'Basic English' - and to improve its spelling.

Scientists recognize that small and apparently trivial things can have enormous effects. Those who have mastered English spelling through superior opportunities, intellect or persistence may perceive their achievement as trivial, and difficulties of spelling as unimportant, but most of the world does not share those privileged opportunities.

Bilions upon milions of dollars have been given or lent to developing countries. A more useable English spelling could be worth more than we would care to donate in money.

Most Anglophone children take three years to reach a literacy standard that children in languages with relatively consistent spellings can reach in one.

4. Designing an international spelling.

While we await a writing system that is a perfect cross-lingual breakthru, there is an urgent need to improve what we have already, to make it as user-frendly as possible. The usual priorities of Anglophone spelling reformers have tended to be firstly, for an ideal system with perfect sound-spelling correspondence, and secondly to meet the spelling and reading needs of children in Anglo-Celtic schools. The priorities for international English comunication are in somewhat different order - firstly, readability - which includes compatibility with present spelling and its relationship to spellings in other roman-alphabet languages; easier learning; a guide for speaking and listening; and ease of writing. However, both at home and abroad, the aims are the same:

4.1 Readability.
i. Compatibility with present spelling.

Present readers still need to be able to read our existing heritage of print, and to read an improved spelling without requiring re-training, or they will reject it. It is tempting to seek a theoretically ideal English spelling system, perhaps even with an alfabet more suitable than 26 letters for over 40 English speech-sounds. However, this would mean clean-sweeping away everything already in print and setting all present users to learn again. Nor is it actualy necessary. English spelling is around 80% consistent, but the fact that around 20% is unpredictable makes the whole lot unpredictable - like having mines in a field makes the whole field dangerous. 'Cleaning up' the 20% requires the simple matter of consistent consonant representation, and the more difficult but not impossible matter of rationalising and regularising the hundreds of spelling patterns for around twenty English vowels. Overseas readers of English would find greatest benefits in a spelling that was consistent, streamlined by shedding its 5-10% of surplus letters in words, and with close visual resemblance to other languages as well as to present spelling. An aid to weaker readers and learners is to simply omit letters in words that serve no purpose to represent meaning or pronunciation, but may actually mislead. The aim is not the chaos of 'spelling as you speak' for everyone from Denver to Denpasar, but a standard, consistent, broad-band set of spelling conventions that can override dialect differences - 'Spelling Pronunciation' would also become more feasible, and aid greater uniformity and mutual comprehension across the globe.

Spelling is a technology & technologies always need
updating to improve their efficiency. SB

ii. Visual resemblance to vocabulary of other languages

  aids international comprehension of written English, especially because European languages which share its Romance and Teutonic roots have also spread across the world. English readers who do not know French, German, Italian or Spanish can still make many educated guesses in looking at texts in those languages, and this applies in reverse also. There is further enormous penetration of English and Latin vocabulary into all modern languages, [5] particularly to describe the innovations of the modern world, and this too facilitates learning other languages. International readers also benefit from cross-language spelling conventions in the roman script, such as stable consonants and Latin forms, including segments such as -ION. English spelling reform must therefore aim to improve rather than to remove those cross-language similarities in print - and this is possible.

iii. Short and simpl spellings

 can be decoded and then later recognised faster than elaborated spellings, - eg PROGRAM rather than PROGRAMME, ELEFANT than ELEPHANT, BURO than BUREAU. This is not at all the same as 'Shorter words mean faster reading' - the silly heading to a heavily copy-edited article that the author had entitled and written up as 'The technology of spelling'. Variety of word length in text is an aid to faster word identification for comprehension and remembering - just as variety of orthographies within written Japanese is considered to aid fast reading. Too much uniformity of appearance of almost uniformly short words was found to be one of the problems with Basic English. Clues to greater simplicity in English spelling are found in how many other languages, including pijins and creoles, re-spell their imported English vocabulary. Journals such as English Today monitor examples of Franglais, Russlish, Spanglish, Punglish (Punjabi), Japlish, and so on, including general mixes that Paul Jennings has labelled Minglish. Many words taken from or shared with English are now almost universal, with respellings that are usually simplifications, particularly of vowels, and that often recur in several languages. Examples are COFI, BIFSTEK, FUTBOL, ISCREM, KOMPUTA, PASPORT and KOLEJ. In an Indonesian children's picture book published in 1984, labels to pictures were up to 80% in 'Indonenglish' - simply-spelled modern international vocabulary, such as DOKTOR, FOTO, OXSIGEN, INTERKOM, TENIS, ANTENA, the lowest proportion being 24% for a page of animals (Yule, 1991). The clear message from the international spellings of shared vocabulary is - simplify.

They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy;
foreigners always spell better than they pronounce
- Mark Twain An Innocent Abroad.

iv. Continental usage for the five primary vowels letters a e i o u,

 as in PASTA, BALLET, POLICE, DEPOT, TABU, is sometimes urged for future English spelling because this pronunciation is most common in other roman-alphabet languages, and English stands alone with a e i o u pronounced as in BAT BET BIT NOT BUT.

The problem is one of consistency of the long vowels. However paradoxically, to maintain the present English usage for world use of English would be of more help to overseas learners. Switching to Continental letter-sound relationships would change the currently-similar visual appearances of an mmense vocabulary that is held in common, including technical and scientific terms, more than it would increase similarities, as well as disturbing many visual relationships between word families. As long as spelling/sound relationships are consistent within a language, second-language learners can switch with ease to a new set of patterns easily - as Anglophone learners of say, German or Spanish, find out in half a day. It is also interesting in this respect, and in others too, to study how learners and users cope with bi-scriptal Serbo-Croatian.

v. Similar spellings for morphemes

 across related words are not as common in present spelling as commonly supposed, despite anecdotal evidence cited in support of the 'Chomsky theory' of 'optimum English spelling'. Nor are its probable advantages yet confirmed in research. However, an improved English spelling could certainly show word relationships and grammar more clearly and consistently, benefiting both readers and also learners of English vocabulary - eg, hypothetically - FLI/FLIES/FLITE/FLU (fly/flies/flight/flew) or SAY/SAYS/SAYD DU/DUS/DUN/DID (do/does/done/did) HI/HITE/HIER/HI-FI (high/height/higher/hi-fi)

vi. The present spelling convention that simplifies final vowels

  could be retained and regularised, to aid imediat word recognition and comprehension in reading text - as in PLAY, SEE, ALIBI, NO, TABU.

vii. This raises the question of diacritics.

 These horrify the native English-speaker, but are accepted more calmly by French, German, Spanish, Vietnamese, and others. The greatest vowel spelling problem in English is caused by the common toggling of 'short' vowels a e i o u and long vowels A E I O U, as in NATION/NATIONAL, FINAL/FINISH SUCCEED/SUCCESS GO/GONE. If, when necessary, long vowels could be indicated by a simple diacritic such as a discreet grav accent, reading, lerning and spelling English could be greatly simplified. The clumsy strategies of dubld consonants and 'magic' silent 'e' would no longer be required, and dubld consonants could be reserved for clarifying stress within words when necessary, eg. UMBRELLA, COMITTY. (This paragraf would have required lerners' diacritics for nine of its 120 words - RAISE, NATIVE, SPEAK, VIETNAMESE, GREATEST, INDICATED, DISCREET, READING REQUIRED, but fewer markings for skilled readers.)

4.2 Learning the English language.

At present, teachers and students of English as a foreign language take for granted that English spelling is to be a burden on the memory rather than a rational exercise. Systematic spelling is hardly ever discussed at conferences or in textbooks. There are several reasons why Chinese and Japanese may seem to cope better with English spelling than say, Koreans, Indonesians and Vietnamese, once they have made the conceptual shift from ideografs to roman letters, but one of the reasons must surely be their previous practice in disciplined rote learning in order to acquire their own complex written scripts.

An international English spelling for learners needs to be related fairly systematically as well as broadly to the spoken language, so one can be learnt with help from the other, despite different accents and vowel pronunciations. So it must be consistent, above everything else. Learners can cope fairly easily with around forty very common 'sight words' retained in present spelling, to maintain the present appearance of text for readers, but after that, regularity is needed. Words or word segments within words need to be fairly short and clear so that they are easily decoded. C-V-C combinations (consonants separated by vowels) are most easily decoded by foreign learners. Strings of consonants can be more difficult, not just for English speaking children but those who are not native English speakers. Cutting out all schwa vowels as 'surplus' may therefore not be desirable - but here, as in all other matters, research is required.

The principles of Italian spelling can be set out on a quarto page. The principles of English spelling, including its representation of morfemes and grammar, should few and simple enough to set out on two standard pages.

4.3 Speaking English.

For foreigners learning to speak English and trying to use the printed word to help them, the greatest problems are firstly, the unpredictability in the variety and overlapping of vowel spelling patterns, especially with regards to the 'long' vowels, (vowels pronounced as in A E I O U), and secondly, the placement of initial stress in polysyllables when Latin prefixes are not recognised, cf acCOMmodation, DeTERgent, MELancoly, FIRMament and KILometer/KiLOMeter. The common EFL teaching practice today is to emphasise oral and conversational learning of language first, with the printed word as backup. So English spelling can come as a shock when it does not match (as in COME and DOES).

A distinction can be made between the English spellings that lead non-native speakers to confusion and incomprehensibility, and those which merely mark the speaker as an incomer with a different accent. In a pluralist multicultural society such as Australia has become, foreigners' different accents can still be understood, by and large, unless excessively thick ('Why can't these bloody Yorkshiremen learn English!") or there are major errors in stress placement and pronunciation of schwa vowels in words. Problems with some consonants hardly matter - notably /r/, /th/, /v/ and /w/. Difficulties in hearing and speaking some vowel sounds can be more serious, but others may not matter. For example, with the sentence "The people find most of the cost is always very heavy", common 'foreign' pronunciations as in 'ze peppl . . most off ze. . iss veery. .' are understood, but 'finnd. . . coast. . al- , heevy' would puzzle their hearers. It would be possibl to construct a scale of comprehensibility in mistaken pronunciations of English vowels in vocabulary derived from reading which could be helpful in considering spelling modification.

Research is also required to investigate how the pronunciation of English words is acquired. What can be picked up in one-trial learning? What requires more practice or even drill?

4.4 Spelling English.

At present English spelling for overseas learners is often not taught at all systematically. The 'usual spellings' for consonants and vowels may be taught somewhere around the beginning of a course, in an orderly or disorderly way, then the oddities come as special cases, dealt with only as they come up. With a systematic spelling, the writer in English could have a two-page sheet of spelling principles as a guide from the start.

5. Transition to an international spelling.

An email spoof that goes round the world simulates an European Union directiv for an anglicised eurospelling, supposedly to be imposed in five stages, ending with a triumphant

Ze drem vil finali kum tru ....

This joke could be re-written as four steps to improve English spelling that could actually be feasible, for investigation by research. (Yule 2000)

5.1 Reserch.

This is no time to continue the 150-year-old reliance on arguing about reform, without objective investigations. Funded research is required. Every recommendation made in this article is a hypothesis that requires further investigation for confirmation or modification. (Yule, 1986). Psychologists have long studied English spelling and its users and learners, and worked with linguists. They have at last reached the stage of publishing research, such as Seymour's study of children in fifteen countries (Seymour 2001) that confirms the long-standing observations that English spelling is more difficult for learners than the spellings of some other European languages. Following this step, It is now time for Research & Development by cognitive psychologists into how English spelling can be made more user frendly, and for dropping the reluctance to do so. Assumptions about impossibility and undesirability have stood too long unqueried, and the field of spelling design has been left to the untested opinions of well-meaning individuals.


 More user-frendly spelling can also develop in the same ways that the living language changes, informally, and thru many pathways, from the Internet and text-messajes to popular entertainment culture and advertising.


 The media can be more open to discussion of the nature and means of improvements, to go further than the endless articles and arguments of the past 150 years debating the failings of the present system. It is in the interests of the press and book publishers to do so. Dictionaries can record the appearance of spelling changes in commerce, the Internet and everyday life by adding to their existing listings of alternatives spellings for English vocabulary.


 However, if there is no co-ordination and research into spelling improvement, changes may just be continuing in the same way that has produced the mess that we already have - there will continue to be exceptions and unpredictabilities and too many spelling patterns, even if fewer than before. Spelling improvement needs monitoring and final decisions by an official international commission, with multilingual representation on it.

It is surely time to recognise that this man-made invention is capable of being improved. If English is to retain its value as an international language for the world, it must be possibl for its writing system to better serve the needs of all the world.


[1] Surplus letters have ocasionaly been omitd and some consonants rationalised in this articl. It would be interesting to know how many of these changes have been noticed or overlooked.

[2] For example, John Roberts 30 Aug 2000. Warning for Anglophones. See also articles in the UK Guardian Weekly, 2000.

[3] See the Roman Lipi Parashad papers by Madhukar Gogate, who finally admitted failure of his long-running campaign to promote the roman alphabet as a secondary script for Indian languages, and found that fear of English spelling as one common reason for resistance.

[4] See articles in the UK Guardian Weekly, April 19-25, 2000, by Professor Barbara Seidlhofer of the University of Vienna, Professor Juliane House, of the University of Hamburg, and Dr Jennifer Jenkins of the London English Language Centre.

[5] For articles on the influence of the English language on Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, East and West German, Austrian German, Swiss German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Hong Kong, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Filipino, Swahili, and Yoruba Tok Pisin, see W. Viereck & W-D Bald (Eds.) English in contact with other languages. Budapest: Akademai Kiado, 1986.


Roberts, John. 2000. Warning for Anglophones. Mailing list circulation, 30 Aug.

Seymour, P, 2001. Reserch reported in New Scientist, September 2001, p 8. Seymour's study investigated the literacy skills of about 600 primary school children in 15 countries, including Britain.

Yule, V. 1982. An international reform of English spelling and its advantages. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses. Tenerife. 4.1982. 9-22.

- 1985. A roman script as an alternative script for Indian languages. Paper for First roman Lipi Sammelan. Bombay. Dec.

- 1986. The design of spelling to meet needs and abilities. Harvard Educational Review. 56.3.278-297.

- 1987. English spelling and Pidgin; examples of international English spelling. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. J6. 25-28. Reprinted in English Today, 1988. 15.3.29-35.

- 1991. Indonenglish. English Today. 26.7. 42


Publications over the past twenty years that are directly relevant have appeared in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. Relevant articles by the author include:

1982. A transitional reform for English spelling. In Proceedings of the 3rd international conference on spelling. Edinburgh. Spelling Progress Bulletin.

1984. English as an international language, and its spelling. Language Monthly. 8. 24-25

1984. Learning English as a double language. Language Monthly. 13. 23-24.

1989. Children's Dictionaries: Spelling and pronunciation. English Today. 17.1, 13-17.

1990. The design of spelling to meet abilities and needs of adult readers. In P. H. Peters (ed.) Frontiers of Style. Dictionary Research Centre. Macquarie University.

1993. Improving English spelling for readers: the necessity for research. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. 7.1.10-18.

1994. Problems that face research in the design of English spelling. Visible Language. 28:1. 26-47.

1995. The politics of international English spelling. In The politics of Literacy in Australia and the Asian-Pacific Region. ed. David Myers & Nicholas Walker. Northern Territory University Press. pp 41-48.

1996. Spelling needs research and research needs replication. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. J20: 1 13.

1998. International English spelling and the Internet. Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society. J23. 1998/1. 8-13.

2000. Improving English Spelling. Monograph. Australian Centre for Social Innovations.

2001. Why English spelling has resisted reform since 1755. Australian Style. 9.1.4.

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