[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J31, 2002/2, pp28-30]
[Paul Fletcher: see Journal, Newsletter, Personal View 2.]

The Ultimate State of Spelling Reform.

Paul Fletcher.

Piecemeal improvements should not conflict with ultimate phonemic spelling.
Paul Fletcher is an ex-civil servant with qualification in French, German and Spanish. He has belonged to the SSS for a number of years, is an ex-committee member and edits the Personal View series of the Society's publications.
It is assumed that the ultimate aim of all members is a reformed spelling system which can compare favourably with the systems of other major languages, even though opinions may differ as to how "phonetic" the final system may be. We need to consider what the ultimate aim of the SSS should be and devise a strategy to that end. The title of the Society, Simplified Spelling Society seems to suggest that the spelling of English is basically acceptable and that if it were simplified that would be the adequate solution. But in fact the spelling of English is so muddled and the rules, such as they are, so full of exceptions, it is not possible to tinker with existing spelling and produce a coherent system. It is little wonder that many members are attracted to spelling reform by a desire to scrap existing spelling in favour of a completely new scheme. The aim of such reformers is to produce an internally logical system which does not aim to leave as many words as possible unaltered (although in some cases it may, almost coincidentally, do so).

It is generally accepted that wholesale reform could come about only as a result of government or intergovernmental action. The complete lack of interest in spelling reform exhibited by governments to date has led to members proposing initiatives for various partial reforms which it is hoped will come about through other channels such as publishers and dictionary makers. Whether wholesale reform should be the ultimate aim seems to be regarded by many members as an academic issue. Indeed, it is not clear how many members see piecemeal reforms as all that is desirable or possible. There is certainly a widespread feeling that the public can stomach only a few small changes at a time. The evidence advanced for this view is the reaction to proposals in other European languages. At this rate it would take several centuries to reform our spelling.

Yet these other languages already have spelling systems which in the main are far more phonetic or at least more regular than English and which thus only require some updating and fine-tuning. English spelling on the other hand is essentially corrupt and chaotic. It requires root and branch reform.

It is not surprising therefore that many people are attracted to spelling reform by perceiving that a completely new phonetic system is the answer and much energy among members is spent on devising them. The arguments set out below aim to show that a completely new, phonetic, system is in fact the only feasible long-term solution for the problems of English spelling.

Reforms which merely attempt to regularize some conventions of existing spelling tend either to make so few changes that the reader needs to peruse a whole paragraph or more before noticing that any changes have been made at all or they attempt to regularize peculiarities which cause many words to be altered without forming part of a satisfactory overall system.

The problem with English is of course essentially a vowel problem and is caused by two features of English pronunciation:
a) short and long sounds existing side by side forming words often with completely different meanings;

b) the sound shift, affecting mainly the long sounds of a, e, and o, which occurred in the Middle Ages without corresponding changes being made in the spelling.
Some languages have only vowels which are all more or less the same length, e.g., Spanish. But in nearly all languages where the distinction is important, the same vowel is used in the long version and some means is used to distinguish it from the short sound, whether by accent or doubling or some consonantal convention such as doubling, add an e or add an h.

In English there is no clear relationship in the spelling between short and long versions of a, e and i. It is confused by the sound shift not being acknowledged by the spelling
aft, can (short) raft, can't (long) also we have such aberrations as laugh in fact the long a is more often pronounced /e:/ or /ei/ - pale, pail e as in get exists in its long form in foreign words such as fete, but is more usually conveyed by an a as indicated as above - pale.
Short i as in din reflects its long version usually only with the help of an e - brief, machine. Otherwise /i:/ is often portrayed by ee or ea. More often long i is a victim of the sound change and is pronounced /ai/ a form which occurs only rarely in English (aisle) but is otherwise i helped by some special rule: dine, final, etc.

What a mess. Attempts to choose one of the existing spelling forms and standardise on that can only lead to internal contradictions. Thus to standardize on ai/pail falls foul of the diphthong /ai/ which as indicated below is arrived at logically by combining short a with short i. Similarly to choose ee for /i:/ makes no sense when compared with short e/get: there is no logical reason why doubling the e should produce the long version of a completely different sound.

The other two vowels are also troublesome:
Short o as in loft has admittedly a counterpart in the long version which can be pronounced several ways - the posh o of RP ,/o:/ or /ou/;

Short u (/u/) as in put is something reflected in its long form (lute), but short u, at least in RP and General American, is a peculiar sound halfway to /a/ which seems to exist in hardly any other languages and the long version is normally /yu/ - due, or versions like few where there is again no visual connection between long and short vowel sounds.

Advantages and Attraction of Complete Reform.

Partial reforms often lack internal consistency and do not compare with the logic and simplicity, and therefore case of learning, to be found in a simple logical system. It is not at all clear that the public would spurn a completely fresh system which entailed wholesale change but was phonetic and internally consistent. A scheme which partly accepts existing conventions and attempts to graft on to its new proposals or which accepts existing conventions and regularises them, cannot hope to have the internal consistency of a completely new system. It is rather like the metric system. It was not possible to adapt imperial to metric measurements. It was necessary to make a complete break with the past. Similarly with spelling. An internally consistent and complete system must surely have a greater chance of acceptance than any half measures.

Diphthongs.

The same need to apply logic and order applies to the diphthongs. Any coherent and easily understood system for diphthongs must ensure that they are derived from their component pure sounds. This is the norm in most European languages, as can be seen from the table below:

ITA symbol/a//u//au//i/ /ai//e//ei//o//oi/

German
French
Spanish
Italian
Dutch
English
Englis
Spanglis
a
a
a
a
a
ah
c
aa
u
ou
u
u
oe
oo
w
uu
au
aou
au
au, ao
ou, au
ou, ow
ou
ou, au
i
i
i
i
i
ee
E
ie
ei
aill
ai
ai
aai
i()e
Y
ai
e--,eh,
e
e
e
e
e
e
e
ee--
eill
ei
ei
ei,if
ai
A
ei
o
o ---
o
o
o
o
O
ow
eu, rarely: oi
oi
oi
ooi
oi
oi
oi,oy


Thus, it will be noted that while the formation of diphthongs in Spanish and Italian is transparent and obvious, this is not the case with a few of them in German, more in French and Dutch and all but one (oi) in English. Other languages throughout the world mostly use the Latin vowel system (which in TO terms might be conveyed as ah, eh, eeh, oh, ooh) and form their diphthongs in a regular fashion: Mao, Mau-Mau, Maori, Macau, Hawaii, Mumbai, Sendai, Shanghai, Cairo.

All this analysis has been made by reformers and others before. The point of doing it again is to remind ourselves what is at stake and to come to conclusions about what we think the ultimate fate of English should be. One might conclude that it is impossible or at least difficult to devise a transparent and logical vowel system unless the spelling is phonetic. Thus the ultimate aim must surely be that which is taken for granted in most languages, namely a phonetic alphabet and spelling system. Not all the languages of Europe are phonetic (though they are all far more regular than English). But we must not take Europe as the norm. Fortunately the two other European languages which are spoken most widely abroad, Spanish and Portuguese, are pretty regular if not entirely phonetic already. Most other languages, whether they employ the Roman script or are regularly transliterated into it for foreign consumption are also regular or phonetic.

Yet many reformers do not think that a purely phonetic system is feasible or appropriate for English. Obviously they see a need for improved spelling in what has become the world's foremost language, but do not think complete standardization in a phonetic form is possible because of the problem of local accents. Most other languages have local accents and many are lumbered with dialects as well. The latter really do require variant spelling. To remind people of their roots the local newspaper may feature a paragraph in the local dialect. Swiss German children speak the local Schwyzer-deutsch dialect, but when they go to school they have to learn standard German as a separate language. Fortunately the variants of standard English nowhere seem to amount to separate dialect (Pidgins are a different matter).

The problem of different accents can be overcome. There is no need for the spelling system to be sufficiently scientific to satisfy a linguist expert. A loose fit is feasible. Some sounds can be coalesced into one spelling without confusion or difficulty. Most languages have their local variations without the predictable and regular ways. When the Scotsman says fish it sounds to other people like fush but he doesn't hesitate to spell it with an i; similarly the New Zealander with pin and pen, and the North American with intervocalic t which to outsiders sounds like a d (daughder instead of daughter). Again, in Southern Germany eu (/oi/) and ei (/ai/) both seem to he pronounced /ai/, but the Germans can live with that. In Spanish, there are standard differences between Castilian and American Spanish which again cause no problems in the standard spelling.

A phonetic spelling system is not therefore incompatible with a language featuring varying accents. It would be arrogant to say that English should be an exception to that rule.

When it comes to really variant pronunciations, alternative words, particularly involving consonants, there is no alternative to variant spellings in even a halfway phonetic system: variants like schedule/skedule, missle/missile, will need separate spellings. I see no objection to that, just as choice of vocabulary varies (e.g., pavement/ sidewalk, warfie/ dockworker).

Working towards a phonemic system.

If we accept that the ultimate aim of reforming English spelling is to devise a phonetic system, it follows that we need a strategy for reform which has that in view as the ultimate solution. At the same time it is important not to prejudge what that phonetic system should be. Many members, myself included, have firm ideas about a phonetic system for English. But ours is a broad church and it will probably be officialdom which chooses the system to be adopted.

So, any proposal for interim change should be so framed as to not prejudice wholesale phonetic reform. In default of such a programme there is a danger that pragmatic attempts to effect piecemeal improvements will degenerate into muddle and chaos, and prejudge the future pattern. One solution is to accept that some words will alter two or three times before the final scheme: breath>breeth>briith, or whatever. However, unless reform took place over a very long time, perhaps centuries, such changes would be very confusing and so unacceptable. Since it is to be hoped that the whole process of reform will take a generation at most, two or more changes per word should be avoided so as to avoid confusion.

Again, it is difficult to suggest interim proposals for the vowels which do not make assumptions about the ultimate pattern. To change breathe to breeth, say, presupposes that the final solution for /i:/ should be ee, and so one wonders what the solution for /i/ should be, bearing in mind as argued above that the spelling for the long version of a vowel sound should derive from the short. In general, spelling reform would not appear to be a fertile field for the Anglo-Saxon genius for pragmatic piecemeal solutions. We should resist the urge to do something radical, merely to be shown to bring about some change after nearly a hundred years of fruitless effort.

In a desperate attempt to gain the support of conservatives some reformers have even drawn up lists of common words which would remain unaltered. I think this is a mistake and it smacks of the "muddling through" condemned above. If they survived to the final solution such words would stick out like sore thumbs and remain in limbo as a vast body of exceptions to the rules. The point of a phonetic system is to have no exceptions to the rules.

Interim Solutions.

Any interim changes should be confined to the lightest of prunings, affecting mainly redundant consonants, the very slightest form of Cut Spelling so that substantive changes to the vowels in due course will not be affected. The aim should be to reduce the number of rules, not create more, to regularise whole classes of words rather than merely remove isolated anomalies.

Examples:

a) Change ph to f - foto, tyfoid, fase.

b) Omit silent initial letters as in nife, neumatic, nat, sychic, nome, now and knowledge, naw. It is suggested the change be confined to initial consonants because while some consonants within words can be omitted - fle(g)m, others like si(g)n cannot without affecting the pronunciation.

c) Change vocalic y to i except at the end of a word, as in tire, pire, hiper, rithm, Pirric, fisical (Rithm, fisic, flem and perhaps other words, would undergo two changes, but both could occur at once).

d) drop final non-performing magic e as in giv and hav.

e) Omit silent gh, often the relic of a suppressed fricative, as in weit, sleit, freit, neibour, fraut. Igh remains a problem, since omitting the gh would affect the pronunciation.


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