Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J30, 2002/1, pp14-16.
[See J29 article by Richard Wade.]

What's Freespeling and the World Vote really about?

Richard Lawrence Wade, founder of www.freespeling.com

foto of Richard Wade

Richard Lawrence Wade

With a catchy name, an attractive professional looking web page, and a clever promotional campaign, Freespeling.com has attracted more visitors in a month than all of the other spelling sites have had in three years.

On the surface, it is a call for anarchy - spell any way you want. On closer reading, it is a new democratic approach for establishing a more rational standardized spelling.

Richard Wade, formerly an executive with the BBC, addresses the frequently asked questions [FAQ] about "freespeling" - Ed.

Q. Why is freespeling important?


A. English has become the world language. Chinese and Spanish may be powerful contenders on the web, nonetheless English is now what we used to call the "lingua franca". Air Traffic uses it, Mariners use it, waiters on the Amazon use it, even comely Persians in black chadors use it. Scientists have to write their papers in it, surfers on the net type in it to a myriad of strangers they kinda know but never meet. They all use English, the only language they have in common. And that's a fact!

But, because of its spelling, English is the hardest European language to learn to read and rite. In the UK its said there are 7 million people with the ability to read and rite only of an ll year old. In the USA maybe 44 million. "Illiterates" get the worst jobs, if a job at all. They have the lowest incomes and the lowest expectations because they are discriminated against. A discrimination educated and cultured people not only accept but practise and promote! We accept all sorts of accents, dodgy grammar, constant neologisms but "bad spelling"? No. Try applying for a decent job with a misspelt CV. And you don't have to have a low IQ to be classed "illiterate". Ask any dyslexic about the tangled maze they try to find their way thru every day and the humiliation some face because the letters on the page just wont stay still in the correct positions. Discrimination - weve tried to outlaw it in many other areas, lets erase the stigma of being a "Bad Speller"

Q. So you want to Reform the language?


A. Reform the English language? No, only the way we write it down - spell it. And, no, I am not a Reformer with a capital R because I am convinced that in an era when the word English means a series of subtly, and sometimes widely differing languages which span the globe, there is no single Authority, with a capital A, which could possibly introduce coherent change. The United Nations' track record does not suggest it could impose a new Spelling Regime on the USA, Australia, the Caribbean, India, Zimbabwe ... let alone England. And if Britain were to set up some worthy Royal Commission for the Reform of Orthography, I suspect that by the time it had actually convened, its remit for New Structures and New Rules would have been long overtaken by the internet chatrooms of the tweenagers.

Q. So how are you going to achieve change?


A. I am a campaigner seeking to effect positive change in the certain knowledge that when you try to alter the spelling of the language of Shakespeare, you are facing powerful opposition from those most able to implement change - the clever and the articulate - because of the intellectual capital they have invested in learning our wonderful language. But have those who oppose change considered fully what English really represents today as a universal tool of communication? Or, if they do actually acknowledge shortcomings in its spelling, have they sat down and tried to come up with a better idea of how to start the process of modernization?

If English spelling was a brand of automobile, you can be sure they wouldn't buy one! Top heavy, out of date engine, carburetor gets blocked (remember that!?), asymmetric seats, wheels of four different sizes, and difficult to learn to drive.

Q. How did you get involved in freespeling?


A. It was a birthday card that did it - on my fortieth birthday when I was working for BBC Radio 4 Britain's main speech and news and current affairs channel. My office was plastered with notices saying "Radio Four" spelt "f..o..u..r" and there was this card saying "Happy Birthday - Forty today". I showed it to my boss. "Look theyve actually printed this wrong - left out the U - amazing." "Oh dear, Richard," she said, "... you've obviously been spelling the word forty wrong for the last 39 years." "Four" "forty" - ridiculous. Who can justify it to a child?

Q. Okay so what are you actually doing?


A. I realised there was little chance of substantial Change if that meant New Rules, Top Down. It had been tried and failed.

So I decided to try Bottom Up and introduce Freespeling - to spell with some of the freedom of Shakespeare himself. But I needed a lever. And there was the very tool - Fashion. The fashion of Short Text Messaging using the technology of the mobile fone. Youngsters need to abbreviate and so use a new shorter, sometimes stunted English as they exercise their freedom. 43 million text messages every day in Britain alone!

But Freespeling itself is not about abbreviation. Its about harnessing that freedom of attitude and fashion to say "Don't worry, it does not matter if you spel some words rong as long as you are riting to be easily understood."

Q. Is that it - just spell any way you like?


A. Freespeling.com sets out a two pronged strategy. Prong Number One counsels every writer to exercise their freedom with restraint and only freespel a few words on each page - perhaps the ones they find most difficult or illogical. Oh, and so they don't get marked down by some disparaging reader as "illiterate", they would do well to initial the page with a small f plus a footer pointing out to the reader that they are exercising the freedom of www.freespeling.com

Q. ...And Prong Two?


A. Prong Two is crucial. It sets out to work towards and easier simpler set of Standard Spellings.

Reading is partly about the speed and ease of pattern recognition. So we need Standard Spellings we can swiftly scan. We already do it with new words in the vocabulary - who would have recognised "laptop, email, download" a few years ago'? If we can quickly scan and recognise those words then we can do the same with new freespelings.

The World Vote hosted by www.freespeling.com began in mid March to elect new spellings for fifteen target words - most of them tricky but with one or two easier ones as well. Its purpose is clear. To produce and publicize alternative easier, simpler spellings which freespelers can start to use and which will then gradually be absorbed into a more rapidly evolving Standard Spelling.

Prong Two is about Evolution. Freespelings will coexist with the conventional. I advise freespelers not to use unconventional spellings at work or school but to start with frends and family. I hope soon some perceptive newspaper will take up the challenge and run a daily page to show that the medicine is actually quite palatable, if you bother to taste it! I bet that initiative will start in North America , or maybe Australia - or perhaps, more likely, the teenage magazines will realize the significance of whats happening with mobile cell fones and chat rooms and adopt the fashion onto their printed pages.

Q. What do your opponents say?


A. There are some Pedants and Old Fogies who thunder at what they - without perhaps due examination of the argument - may regard as too radical or wrong headed. Such critics often pontificate but fail to offer solutions.

Q. But are they right to worry?


A. Well lets look at the reality: the first freespeling World Vote closes on June 30th. These are the 15 target words against which new freespeling candidates are standing:
Height, accident, chaos, accommodate, foreigner, knowledge, friend, necessary, business, February, unconscious, view, forty, sincerely, because.
Some difficult, some tricky, some deliberately easy to pose the question in the voter's mind "Why on earth do we drop the u from forty?"

In July we shall see the final tallies of votes but suppose the choices go like this. Height - suppose voters choose H..I..T..E for height, and A..X..I..D..E..N..T for accident and drop the "i" in "friend" to give us "frend". Knowledge. Suppose they drop the "k" in "knowledge" to spell N..O..L..L..E..G..E like "college"?

Will that really damage your ability to scan and recognise the word patterns? Suppose voters take a long look at "necessary" and choose the simpler N..E..S..E..S..A..R..Y . Who will fail to understand that speling at a glance?

I suggest they look eminently usable by ordinary men and women who want to communicate easily. What I am trying to do is to get people thinking about a magnificent language... in global use... of which one important element needs modernizing. I am not trying to put forward a single codified Revision of English Spelling which everyone is obliged to accept and use. Nobody has to use the new freespelings if they don't want to but my wager is that before too long freespelings will simply get absorbed into the Standard Speling and they'll be using them anyway!

Q. What happens when the 1st poll closes?.


A. I shall put up on the website the winning candidate for each target word and post 15 new target words for the next poll, closing a month or maybe two later. Press Releases will go out worldwide to publicise the new, easier, simpler freespelings in the hope that some of the international media will tell their viewers and readers. My other hope is that some clever entrepreneur marketing a Fast Moving Consumer Good will have the wit to print the new words on his chocolate wrapper or fizzy drinks tin to appeal to teenagers and twenty somethings. Once the bandwagon really gets rolling, one might consider posting a large number of words for a single special poll. One has to devise the means as one goes along, keeping in mind the goal - coherent change that will produce "a new consensus on preferd spelings to enable greater ease of communication and wider literacy."

Q. Aren't you hoping water will flow uphill?.


A. One principle has informed these early efforts - to understand the difference between loading a bandwagon with a particular proposal... and knowing how you will put your shoulder to the wheel to start it rolling. There aint much point in loading it in the first place, if u havent worked out how to get the thing moving! The fact is that with the internet the time is now ripe for change. And with Short Text Messaging the genie is already out of the lamp.

Who would have believed ten years ago that young women would be parading thru the streets with hipster jeans and shortfall tops that leave their stomachs bare enough to reveal jewelry studded into their tummy buttons? Or that major international firms would instruct highly paid staff that a suit and tie are no longer appropriate attire at the office. We are at a moment of high fashion, of unprecedented changes in communication by fone and computer, of changes we can channel to our advantage. Seven years ago emails were only just starting to explode. Four years ago I bet u hardly knew what a Short Text Message was; two years ago digital Single Lens Reflex cameras were still almost experimental - today their purchase tolls the knell of parting film.

Lets grab the opportunity! Shakespeare knew you had to:
"There is a tide in the affayres of men, which, taken at the flood, leades on to fortune".
Thats probably what Shakespeare actually wrote down on the page of the first folio with those two freespelings - affayres, leades... but that was nearly 500 years ago. It wasn't until 1755 that Dr Samuel Johnson fulfilled what was by then a crying need - to achieve a Standard Spelling. He codified English into a firm set of axeptable spellings. His dictionary was nesesary, scholarly ... magnificent but that was almost two and a half centuries ago. Times and needs change. Today not thousands but millions can now surf the web in English and can vote to simplify its spelling.

Lets try to make 2005 - the Two Hundred and Fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Johnson's great dictionary - lets make it the year when many of us dare to boldly go and actually, successfully make a major advance towards modernizing the spelling of the English language. - end -

Counterpoint.

Most reformers believe that the World Vote is an effective way to test the acceptability of a scheme and a good way of determining what the popular options might be.

However, the results of a World Vote are unlikely to be a consistent writing system. Preferred respellings might be as irregular as the traditional spellings.

It might be important to determine what silent letters are redundant before the poll. Wade finds the double L in "spelling" to be redundant but in some systems, including the traditional one, the double consonant can serve to mark the preceding vowel as short and stressed.

Of course, we could easily live with the short-long stressed -unstressed ambiguity if some of the other irregularities were cleared up. - SB

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