[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J32, 2003/1, pp9-11]
[John Wells: see New SSS President, 2004 AGM talk, Newsletter, Media, Web links.]

English Accents and their Implications for Spelling Reform.

John C Wells, Professor, Linguistics Dept., University College - London.

A recently edited version of a talk given to the Spelling Society on 25 January 1986.
Spelling that is changed to accommodate one accent may disrupt another. Many seemingly odd spellings such as <any> are actually pronounced that way in some dialect of English. The heterographs <Mist/missed> are homophonic almost everywhere except Nigeria. What is a phonetic representation of a word for one person is not necessarily phonetic for another. Even with the awareness of the varying patterns of contrast in different English accents, you can't satisfy all of the speakers all of the time; the best that can be hoped is that a reform will satisfy most of the speakers most of the time. This is the first installment of a two part article.

1. Some Basic Problems.

1.1. The alphabet.

An ideal spelling system, we all know, will have one symbol for one sound, one grapheme for one phoneme. But this principle throws up certain difficulties in practice. If we confine ourselves to consideration of the Latin alphabet, one major difficulty is that it is an arbitrary list of 26 letters which do not necessarily correspond to the sound systems of the languages which have to use it. In particular, they do not correspond to the sound system of English. On the one hand, the Latin alphabet provides us with no unambiguous way of spelling English sounds that Latin lacked (e.g. the sound we often spell sh, the two sounds we spell th, and many of our vowels and diphthongs); on the other, it contains at least two letters, q and x, that were unnecessary even from the point of view of Latin. In this article, however, I am concerned not so much with the deficiencies of the alphabet and how we might remedy them (the 'grapheme' part) as with the problems arising from the fact that we English speakers do not all pronounce our language in the same way (the 'phoneme' part). As my eminent predecessor Daniel Jones pointed out in his article about phonetics and spelling reform (1944),
people in different parts of the country speak differently [...;] what is a phonetic representation of a word for one person is not necessarily phonetic for another.
In raising these problems I do not want to detract from the fact that there are large numbers of words in our language where they do not arise. All speakers of English, no matter where they come from, pronounce friend so that it rhymes with bend, send, tend. So a reformed spelling frend ought to be uncontroversial. Everyone pronounces sight, site and cite identically, so it is absurd (except for advocates of etymological spelling) that we have to learn to spell them all differently. Everyone distinguishes the verb to advise from the noun the advice, so we can see the justification for distinguishing them in spelling - yet we all make the same pronunciation difference between to use, to house, to excuse and the nouns the use, the house, the excuse where we make no spelling distinction. /Uz houz exkUz - Us hous exkUs/

1.2 Danger of parochialism.

The sounds of any language can be viewed as a system of contrasting phonemes. The pronunciation of any word can be specified in terms of the string of phonemes that represent it, together perhaps with information about relevant prosodic features (in the case of English, about stress placement). In designing a scheme of spelling reform, we face a certain danger of insularity or parochialism, of assuming that everybody has the same set of phonemes, and uses the same phonemes in particular words as we do ourselves. Unfortunately this is not the case. What seems obvious and normal to one speaker may be exotic, unusual, subtle and strange to another. There are all sorts of little facts about how English is pronounced round the world by native speakers which may give us pause in our reforming zeal. Here is a simple example. The traditional spelling of the words any and many conflicts with the way most of us say them. It may seem obvious to most of us that they rhyme with penny and so ought to be spelt in the same way, perhaps as enny and menny. In making such an assumption, however, we are ignoring the awkward fact that many southern Irish people pronounce them to rhyme with nanny, so that they would see nothing strange about writing them with the letter a. Maybe they would want to write anny and manny rather than any and many, but that is not my point. I concede that in English as a whole the preferences of the southern Irish may have to give way before those of the vast majority of other English speakers - but we should be aware of what our proposals imply.

2. Consonant Variations.

2.1 Spelling the past tense.

Ought mist and missed to be spelt identically because they are pronounced identically? Or should we give the past tense a consistent spelling shape with d, even when, as in missed, it is pronounced /t/? In deciding this issue, we should perhaps consider the Nigerians, who do not usually pronounce missed like mist. This is because - under the influence of traditional orthography - they typically use a /d/ sound in missed, and in fact usually assimilate the /s/ sound to a /z/, so saying /mizd/, with voicing throughout. For them kicked, likewise, tends to rhyme with rigged rather than with strict. I am not necessarily saying that we have to let our reform proposals be determined by how Nigerians pronounce English, even though they do constitute a substantial body of users of English. But I am saying that we should at least be aware that a reform that makes spelling more logical for one group of speakers may make it less logical for another.

2.2 Spell or omit r?

From New Spelling onwards the importance of catering for accents other than Received Pronunciation has been clear from the treatment of historical r (Ripman and Archer, 1948). Like most English people, in my speech I don't distinguish stork and stalk. If spelling reform proposals do make a distinction, as they usually do, then the reason is (a) historical and (b) because they are pronounced differently from one another in other accents. Historically, stork had /r/, and stalk did not. In many varieties of English (Scottish, Irish, west of England, most American, Canadian - the rhotic accents) the distinction is still made in speech. Similarly pairs such as larva - lava, rotor - rota, homophonous for English people like me, are distinct in the rhotic accents. This justifies our keeping the distinction in spelling, even though the task of learning which words to write with r and which without will impose some burden on those of us whose English is non-rhotic. And those of us who pronounce intrusive /r/, saying perhaps rotar of duties, will have to remember not to write r in some positions where we pronounce it, as well as sometimes writing it where we do not pronounce it. Faced with this problem, spelling reform has little alternative to accommodating the rhotic speakers, even if the consequence is that we non-rhotic speakers must learn by rote when to write r and when not.

Singer and finger.

A similar problem arises with ng. Consider the pair singer:finger. For most speakers these words do not rhyme exactly, because finger has a /g/ sound after the nasal. It seems logical to write singer but fingger (Ripman 1941). The trouble here is that people in the trapezium linking Birmingham-Manchester-Liverpool make these words rhyme, with /g/ in both. So if we show a difference in spelling, some Midlanders and Northerners will have to learn an extra arbitrary distinction. Alternatively, I suggest, it is a distinction we might well decide to ignore - so incidentally also simplifying the spelling of the comparative and superlative of long, strong, young, whose irregular pronunciation in most accents would otherwise be reflect in reformed spelling as longger, longgest etc.

3. Vowel Variations.

3.1 Greater problems with vowels.

Such variations in pronunciation mean we may have to violate the principle of one sound per letter and one letter per sound in quite obvious ways, ways that probably everyone can accept. Greater difficulties perhaps arise with vowel-sounds and sets of vowel-contrasts, where I think the danger is particularly strong of wrongly assuming that everybody makes the same contrasts.

In what follows I make use of the concept of standard lexical sets, as proposed in Wells 1982: 2.2. Each keyword, shown in capitals, stands for perhaps hundreds or thousands of words containing the vowel sound in question. The keywords are chosen so as to maximize clarity: whatever accent of English we use, they can hardly be mistaken for any other word.

3.2 The Sam - psalm contrast.

New Spelling makes special provision for the words I shall refer to as the lexical set BATH - words such as pass, path, chance - by allowing either a or aa. There is an assumption behind this permissive solution, namely that everyone distinguishes the vowel sound in gather from that in father. However, this is not the case. In parts of the west of England and certainly in Scotland and Northern Ireland some people have no such contrast in their phoneme system. They use the same vowel in Sam as in psalm, so that these two words are homophones for them. It would actually have been consistent with this fact for New Spelling to ignore the difference between these two vowel sounds. It has very low functional load, which is to say that there are very few word-pairs that are distinguished as Sam and psalm are. So we might prefer, in a reformed spelling scheme, to ignore the contrast that RP makes between the vowel sounds of mass and pass, and abandon the New Spelling aa entirely. On the other hand RP speakers and others who make pass rhyme with farce must still remember the spelling difference reflecting the historical r in farce (fars) but not in pass (pas). By taking accent variability into account one lays oneself open to the objection that one has abandoned the principle of one letter per sound. The southern English will protest that mass and pass differ in sound, while pass and farce do not - yet we would be proposing the same spelling for the first pair and different spellings for the second. I do not think we can avoid this difficulty.


Less well known is the very similar situation affecting the lexical set CLOTH, namely words such as cross, cough, lost, where even within RP in this century we had a rival pronunciation which might be respelt as clawth, crawss, cawf, lawst. This situation has now resolved: the clawth variant is now very much a minority form, if it indeed still exists. But the problem here is that American pronunciation really corresponds to crawss, cawf, clawth, lawst rather than to cross, cof, cloth, lost (to the extent that Americans distinguish the two vowel sounds at all, which many do not). If we follow New Spelling and keep lot as lot while changing thought to thawt, my point is that most people in England would logically not change the spelling of cloth and other words like it. But Americans generally speaking identify the CLOTH set with the THOUGHT set, not the LOT set, and might therefore logically want to write clawth, etc. This would also apply to words such as long (lawng), since for them it too belongs with THOUGHT, not with LOT.

3.4 Ignore such contrasts?

If pressed, I would propose the same radical solution here as with TRAP, BATH and PALM, namely to ignore the whole set of contrasts and write LOT and THOUGHT identically, probably as o. This would also suit Scottish and Northern Irish pronunciation, many Scots having the same vowel for LOT and THOUGHT, as do also most Canadians and many Americans. We would then have to forget the distinction we English (and Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans) make between cot and caught, don and dawn. In fact those of us who make a sharp difference between these two vowels are perhaps a minority; if we were to insist on distinguishing them in reformed spelling we would be imposing a real burden on the many people who make no such distinction and who would have to learn what for them would be an arbitrary difference in spelling.

3.5 Misconceptions about r.

In this area RP speakers, and many others, would again face the same problem of r, as in stalk (stok) but stork (stork). In reformed spelling we should have to write kot for cot, caught, but kort for court. Inevitably, some people would have to accept that they should write certain words identically that they pronounce differently, and other words differently that they pronounce the same. This could lead to difficulties. Wherever the spelling depends on what happens in other people's accents rather than in one's own, one is liable to be misled because of mistaken ideas of what happens in other accents. We can see this in the difficulty we English people have if we try to imitate American or Scottish accents - even talented English actors or impressionists attempting American or Scottish speech quite often make mistakes. Peter Sellers, in his spoof travelogue Balham, Gateway to the South, talking lyrically in his pseudo-American accent about morning coming, says "and now at last we see the [dorn] approach". But Americans don't say an r-sound in dawn. Its reformed spelling will have to be don, not dorn. Clearly even for highly literate people sound in a sense dominates spelling in their mental picture of words; so when imitating another accent they set up correspondences between sounds in their own accent and what they imagine are the equivalents in the other accent, rather than be guided to the spelling. (After all, the presence/absence of r in traditional spelling is a pretty reliable indicator of whether rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ in a particular word.) English actors playing Scottish parts likewise make many errors with /r/, pronouncing words such as comma and China with final /r/. This is because in many words English final schwa does correspond to Scottish final /r/, as in father; but in many other words there is no such correspondence.

4. Further problems with a and o.

4.1 Bother and father.

A difficulty with the simplification that I have just been advocating is that while I propose the reformed spelling a for PALM and o for LOT, most Americans pronounce these two lexical sets with the same vowel-sound. Thus in a typical American pronunciation father and bother rhyme perfectly. Americans make puns that don't work for the British: a Saab car sounds like sob for them, and they put up posters for the painter Salvador Dali saying "Hello Dali", punning on Hello Dolly, with which it is for them homophonous. This means that the Americans, the most numerous and influential part of the English-speaking community, will be confronted with the uncertainty of how to spell words in which they use this vowel sound. They are going to have to write it o as in lot in most words, but presumably - unless we allow both possibilities in reformed spelling - as a in a minority of cases such as father and palm. Words like pasta will also come under this heading: Americans will have to remember to write pasta rather than the posta that might seem to them more logical. Hey, we all have to make compromises.

4.2 NORTH and FORCE.

Most of us nowadays use the same vowel sound in NORTH as in FORCE. New Spelling, however, was inclined to allow for two distinct sounds here. Ripman 1941 marks FORCE words, but not NORTH words, with an asterisk: A considerable number of words written here with or are pronounced by many speakers with oer, and may be written so if desired. (p.6)

This distinction is a historical one which is now mostly lost in England, North America and the southern hemisphere, though still made in Scotland and Ireland and to some extent in Wales, the West Indies, and the United States. Speakers who have it make a difference, for example, between horse and hoarse, and do not rhyme short and sport, fork and pork. Common sense may tell us to ignore the distinction, since only a minority now make it. But this does mean that the Scots, etc., would risk misspelling FORCE words, in which they use their GOAT vowel, not their THOUGHT vowel.


Not only have NORTH and FORCE sets merged for the English: the CURE words (e.g. sure, poor, tour have joined them too for many speakers. Many English people now pronounce Shaw, shore, sure as homophones, and likewise paw, pore-pour, poor. I would suggest all the forms with r could be spelt in the same way, and that we ignore the Scottish or Irish distinction between war, shore, sure, writing them all perhaps with or.


The final installment of this article will appear in the next issue of the Journal. References include Daniel Jones, English Pronouncing Dictionary [1997] and Dhe Fonetik Aspekt ov Speling Reform [1944], Ripman and Archer, New Spelling [1948], and John Wells, Longman's Pronunciation Dictionary [2000], J.C. Wells, 'English Accents and their Implications for Spelling Reform' in Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Summer 1986, J3 pp.5-13

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