[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J32, 2003/1, pp2,3]
[Steve Bett: see Journals, Newsletters, Personal View, Web link.]


Steve Bett.

Moving from logographic lexical spelling to phonemic spelling.

The proposals of the Simplified Spelling Board of 1906 and the Simplified Spelling Society of 1908 were attempts to seek out the lines of least resistance to spelling change. Earlier phonemic spelling associations were thought to advocate reform proposals that were too radical for any popular acceptance. The first compromise, suggested by Alexander Ellis, was to retain the shifted long vowels. In England, this led to the endorsement of New Spelling which became the house style for most internal publications of the society until around 1920.

The following quote illustrates New Spelling and the opinion of the Simplified Spelling Board who considered this scheme to be too disruptive.

Orthografee iz liek soesieutee; it wil nevur bee entierlee reeformd but wee kan at leest maek it les vishus.

An alternative ASCII transcription uses caps instead of digraphs to augment the alphabet and recognizes schwa-a and schwi-y as a means of showing the characteristic alternating stress pattern in English.

.orTcgrafy iz IYk sosYaty; it wil nevar bE entYrly rEformd but wE cqn at lEst mAk it les viSas.
- Sainte-Beuve EngliS transcription

The 1906 Simplified Spelling Board circulars listed the following faults of traditional spelling:
How truly vicious our present spelling is anyone can see for himself. It is unworthy of a practical people. It misrepresents the derivations of the words, it is wholly unscientific; it is as wasteful as it is absurd; and it is inferior to the spelling of French and German and far inferior to the spelling of Italian and Spanish. How is it that the most businesslike of nations [England and America] have been so long content with the most unbusinesslike of orthographies.

English is now the most barbarously spelt of any cultivated tongue in Christendom. We are weltering in an orthographic chaos in which a multitude of signs are presented by the same sound and a multitude of sounds by the same sign. One and the same sound is now represented by e in let, by ea in head, by ei in heifer, by eo in leopard, by av in says, by ai in said, and by a in many. Seven different symbols for a single vowel sound. To make matters worse, these same symbols represent other vowel sounds in other words. [See Preposterous.]

Most consonants are better spelled but the same sound is represented by s in sure, by sh in ship, by sci in conscience, by ci in suspicion, by ce in ocean, by ti in notion, and by xi in anxious - again, seven different symbols for a single sound /S/.
The above was written by academics on the Simplified Spelling Board and published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1906. It was part of an introduction to Roosevelt's 300 simplified spellings.

The SSB did not advocate radical reform. They wanted to minimize disruption. They looked at the existing variant spellings in English and advocated that the status 300 of the approximately 2000 variants be upgraded to preferred. [The full list is at on ALC web. See Links page.)

Orthographic Goals.

The reaction to this rational suggestion was so violent that Mario Pei and other advocates of radical reform concluded that since the conservative storm of objection was not related to the extent of the reform, we might as well advocate one that had the merit of being 100% logical and consistent. Pei said,

Anything short of a complete phonetization of English is a complete waste of time. Of what avail to respell a few words and leave the stumbling blocks?
[Preface to Tauber's History of Spelling Reform, 1968]

The editorials that appeared around the country betweem 1905 to 1908 were primarily against what these reforms could lead to. One editorial cartoon had Roosevelt kicking the dictionary out of the White House.

Those who protest are going to move by analogy to an imaginary full reform in order to make their point. The European commission satire of staged reform [JSSS 31] is a recent example.

Phonetization is only one of the orthographic goals advanced by SSS members: Blain [p.21] suggests consistent, phonemic, compact, familiar, and email friendly. In her article in this issue, Dr. Yule recommends user friendly spellings over phonemic spellings. Certainly, ease of learning has to be included in any complete list of goals.

What are the lines of least resistance?

The conventional wisdom of 1906 was that it was futile to attempt a radical revision of English orthography. "Radical" was interpreted as anything more than a 50% improvement in the spelling of English or any proposal that would respell more than 10% of the 50% that needed to be respelled.

The general public is not going to be receptive to any change that makes reading more difficult even if the change makes reading that much less difficult for the beginning reader.

Finding the limits of annoyance is certainly important for choosing a house style. I do recommend a form of minimal disruption for material designed for a wide audience. f for /f/ except for function words has been suggested as a starting point. This convention is used both by Isobel Raven [p.29) and Valerie Yule [p.15).

Surveys of spelling preferences have been conducted since 1986. They generally show that the about 60% of the public would accept any readable consistent spelling of English. According to Georg Geiger [2003, Saundspel message see Links page], the public favors long vowels marked with diacritics to the digraphic representation used by New Spelling:

Orthografy iz lýk sosýety; It wil never bé entýrly reformd but wé can at lést mâk it les vishas.
- Sainte-Beuve Diacritic Spanglish transcription.

Altho this is not it, there is an attempt to come up with a compromise diacritic notation in the Saundspel group. To be considered a legitimate SSS proposal, the scheme has to be endorsed by two members. Valerie Yule [p.16.] would reject <iz> for is and prefers to use grave accents instead of macrons or acute accents to mark "long" vowels.

Reform under the radar - 2 stage approaches:

Webster was able to sneak his original reforms in under the radar by getting a Congressional endorsement of his 1805 and 1828 dictionaries. The official spelling of American English contained many more than the 300 respellings that Roosevelt endorsed in his executive order but they were hidden among 70,000 words that were not respelled.

Roosevelt might have been more successful if he had simply enforced the Webster 1828 spellings or had suggested that the USGPO use the Funk & Wagnall's dictionary which included them.

A similar "sneaky" approach to reform is found in the two stage proposal [p.4). Instead of going head to head with habit, habits are modified by introducing the new spellings as an i.t.a. and a pronunciation guide. The goal is for adults to become almost as familiar with PG spellings as with traditional spellings.

The i.t.a. was tried before but not as part of a reform strategy and not as part of a teaching method designed to improve mastery of the basic code and basic spelling patterns. The first i.t.a. involved the used of a transcribed basal reader. Teachers were not required to change their methods of teaching.

The two stage approach involves attaching the new i.t.a. [or initial learning medium] to a writing to read strategy and a dictionary that uses the same pronunciation guide spelling. The PG spellings are used only 3 months rather than 2 years as with the 1960 i.t.a. Three months is all the time it takes to master the consistent basic code and begin the transition to the complex code.

How long does it take to teach reading and writing when the writing system is transparent?

The more complex the code, the longer it takes to master. Laubach said he could teach any language with a reasonably phonemic writing system in less than 160 contact hours or 3 months [about 2 hrs./day). He also said that 95% of the 300 languages he had taught were reasonably phonemic.

Russian school teachers claim to be able to teach children how to read and write Russian in 4 months [Flesch, 1983]. This is a month longer than Laubach but 5 years shorter than what most English and American teachers achieve.

Philip Seymour in a series of cross cultural studies was able to document that students in most countries reach a level of reading and writing proficiency in the 2nd year that English school children fail to achieve in their 4th year. [see forthcoming article in the British Jour of Psych]

Most Anglophone children take 3 years to reach a literacy standard that children in languages with relatively consistent spellings can reach in one.
JSSS30, p.30

Other than French and English, almost all of the 300 languages Laubach taught were spelled as they were spoken. French, like English, has many ways to spell a sound, but unlike English, there is only one way to pronounce a French spelling.

We no longer teach people how to multiply with Roman numerals because there is an easier way to do it. What we need to demonstrate is that there is an easier way to write English. If the goal is communication, why not use the most efficient writing system?

Less than 5% of Britains, Americans, and Australians can spell in English without mistakes, or without dictionaries or computer spell-checkers - but the most serious problem is not the inability to write - it is the high proportion of the population who have not teamed to read.

Selecting a base dialect for regularized English.

In this issue, our new president, John Wells, addresses the problem that I conveniently ignored in my article on the number of phonemes in English [JSSS30]. Agreeing on the 36 uncombined phonemes in English is not the same as agreeing that words can be represented the same way in all dialects. Spelling that is changed to accommodate one accent may disrupt another. Many seemingly odd spellings such as <any> and <one> are actually pronounced that way in some dialect of English.

Bother and Father do not necessarily time but they will be pronounced the same by most Americans. Most pronunciation dictionaries for General American will use the same symbol <a:> for both vowels. UK dictionaries disagree.

As Wells says [p.9f], no English spelling reform is not going to satisfy everyone. The Spanish writing system failed to represent all regional dialects yet it satisfies most people most of the time. This is as much as we can hope for. If we just select a base dialect, we can easily achieve the goal of having a writing system as phonemic and transparent as the Spanish.

I have suggested using NBC English as the base dialect. I have also suggested that <o> and <a> remain ambivalent as they are in traditional spelling and pronunciation. Bother and Father can be rhymed or not. "He tot the tot" can be understood in context without a sharp distinction in the pronunciation of tO:t and tA:t.

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