[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J32, 2003, pp15-19]
[Valerie Yule: see Journals, Newsletters, Media, Anthology, Bulletins, Personal View 10 and Web links.]

Could English spelling be made regular without drastic change?

Valerie Yule.

'The savage world of orthografic irregularities... ' Brown & Besner.

The argument - Greater regularity in English spelling would help learners and spellers to decode new words and work out how to spell them. Visual and logical consistencies would promote faster reading for meaning. Present spelling could be 'cleaned up' to be rule-based, maximizing its advantages and removing its disadvantages. A few principles only are required for a 'best fit' to meet the needs and abilities of all its users, including present readers, with continuing access to our heritage of print. Reserch issues are set out in Yule (1994). [See Links.]

How regular is English spelling?

'It all depends. .' [see Dewey, JSSS32,] English spelling has been estimated and guesstimated to be from 7% up to 97% 'regular'. [1] Imperial and metric measure illustrate the issue of regularity. For example, drams, ounces, pounds, stones, quarters, hundredweights and tons measure weight except for goods measured by dry. troy, wool, hay and straw, or apothecaries' weights. All reliable measures, but complicated tables to learn and use. These Imperial Measures, like spelling, grew like Topsy. Metric measurement, in contrast, was an intellectual brain-child, born into France following the Revolution not long after French spelling also had its greatest reform. The regular gradations of milligrams, grams and kilograms, mean that no tables need learning. But a theoretical ideal can still have awkwardnesses in practice - feet and yards can be handier for tradesmen. and babies' weights in four figures of grams are hard to remember.

What do we mean by 'regular' spelling?

There are three different meanings - systematic, customary, and statistical

1. According to rules; systematic. 'Following or exhibiting a principle, consistent, not capricious or casual, orderly.' (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1935)

2. 'In accordance with the ordinary form or course of things; instituted according to established forms' (Chambers Dictionary, 1901) Regularity as customary can be useful enough for the initiated, but is harder to learn or set out definitively.

3. The definition used most by spelling experimenters, because it is the most objective definition and can be found out by using statistics, is 'governed by the number of instances of a particular feature; the most common spelling pattern that makes up a sublexical unit'. The Swedish filologist Wijk tried to 'regularise' English spelling by applying the most frequent rules in this sense, but to keep his aim of remaining close to the appearance of present spelling, he needed far too many rules. The question of regularity in orthografic structure can become 'regularity for which experimenters'. Some flawed findings have resulted from muddled terminology.

Definitions 2 and 3 define regularity by the status-quo. What is already most frequent, that is the most regular. Taylor & Taylor (1983: 218) comment that in that sense all English words are orthografically regular, simply by definition of being legal English words, and all nonwords are irregular by the same definition. Indeed, it can be hard to distinguish between what are spelling rules and what are just exceptions to other rules.

Hanna et al (1966) claimed that it was possible to use rules to predict English spelling 85% of the time without lexical cues, but Bett (2003) comments that such rules can be more appropriate for the Stanford computers than for humans, since around two hundred rules have to be applied in a fixed order.

The rules taught in fonics methods of teaching number about 70 to 100. However, competent reading and spelling require knowledge of the letter sound correspondences of the language, the orthografic cifer, which are implicit and not the same as the explicit rules of fonics, which the child can state in words. Text-to-speech computer programs show that the rules of the cifer in English number over 500 (Perfetti et al, 1997.) Hence, problems.

Additionally, sound-spelling correspondences in English are less regular than spelling-sound correspondences.

Larger units are more regular, but can only be learnt later, and there are still great numbers of them.

A user-friendly spelling requires the first definition of regularity - 'organized according to a system that is logical or practical'. Are there any principles in English spelling that could be applied more consistently to bring the exceptional spellings into line?

Regular for whom?

For the absolute beginner, 100% regularity must mean that only one rule needs to be known. For an alfabetic writing system, that one rule is to represent speech sounds by letters. [2] English has only 16 Latin letters to represent over 40 English fonemes, so perfect letter-sound correspondence is impossible. So learners must learn a second rule, that two letters such as 'th' can 'make one sound'. Then they must learn more rules, such as 'magic e', and more rules, and learn which words follow which rules, and there remain still the spellings of thousands of exception words to learn, Very few humans become as good at English spelling as a dictionary.

It is no wonder that most people do not learn spelling by rules, after the first basics. They rote learn the words. This can be so painful and ineffective that some theories of literacy cannot be bothered with the tedium of 'fonics rules', even to the point of discarding the alfabetic principle. The 'Whole Language' ideal and hope has been that learners could learn to read by guessing what word with that sort of shape and possibly that initial letter would fit the meaning of a particular context, and in the process absorb the spelling.

But too many learners cannot rote-learn, whether by Phonics or Whole Language.

Hundreds of appalled reformers have designed regular spelling systems for English. Some invent a different alfabet or add more characters to achieve the alfabetic ideal of one-sound/one spelling. Other reformers keep the roman alfabet unchanged by retaining the present convention of digrafs, so that two or three letters can represent one sound.

Keeping strictly to those two alfabetic principles [3] for a purely fonemic orthografy would require change of around 60 - 100% of present English spelling. Such a radical change is possible but unlikely without attitude revolution, unless introduced as a parallel spelling system that might eventually replace the present. Text messaging for mobile fones is a current example of 'parallel spelling', although hardly a formalised system.

Regularising present spelling as an alternative.

Present English spelling could be made at least 95% regular. In the ghastly Table 2, for example, the florid variety of vowel spellings could be reduced by nearly half just by cleansing - deleting surplus letters that serve no purpose to represent either meaning or pronunciation, and instead, often confuse, as in friend and sword.

Next, rationalise the spelling patterns. There are only a few dominant spelling patterns for all these vowels; the remainder, that apply to only a small proportion of vocabulary, cause spelling and reading problems out of all proportion to their number. The hassle is that because of this lack of regularity, learners and spellers cannot predict which spelling pattern will apply when, without a great deal of experience and rote learning. The garden may have only a few land-mines, but they render the whole area dangerous.

Next, there are some presumed advantages in present spelling for readers in representation of grammar and morfemes, to aid faster comprehension of meaning and assist new readers in learning vocabulary. If proven, these also could be made consistent. And the greatest advantage of regularising present spelling would be 'backward compatibility', minimum change to the appearance of print, and continued access to our heritage, giving present readers a fair go, and yet meeting modern needs. Using the accepted strategy of accepting alternative spellings, the modified spelling could emerge into the old, as well as being an initial learning spelling and dictionary pronunciation guide.

Why bother?

Cross-national reserch is now piling up evidence that English spelling is a major handicap for literacy (Bett & Yule, 2003) - as if more evidence is needed, looking at the obvious difficulties and costs that burden schooling in all Anglo countries, despite relatively huge financial investments in teaching literacy. Literacy is achieved faster and more-fail-safe in languages with more 'regular' spellings and comparable educational resources, and the incidence of dyslexia is lower than for English.

Learners. Spelling reformers usually focus on helping learners and spellers, and they usually consider fonemic principles the sole and sufficient solution. However for the sake of efficient reading strategies, and to read present spelling, learners could be asked to acquire a few more rules that are shown to be easily within their capacity. They can handle consistency. It is confusion that baffles them, as has been established since Vernon, 1957. The English language itself has regularities that children have a natural linguistic gift to pick up, to generalise grammar, and use units of meaning (morfemes) in building up other words, and understanding new words. (At home and school it is the irregularities and exceptions they must be taught - such as bring/brought rather than 'bring/bringed'.) To apply linguistic regularities in spelling therefore comes easily to them in reading, and only slightly more slowly in spelling. As long as rules are few and consistent, learners are not barred from literacy if alfabetic spelling rule is modified by other principles.

Readers. Successful learners apply rules to decode words when reading, but only until the words become familiar. Then fast automatic recognition takes over, with decoding only as a backup when needed. As words become familiar, recurring units of meaning and spelling patterns become recognised, and these also are used to help decode words faster and comprehend their meaning - e.g for words like deconstruction. Readers who have a set of simple principles beyond plain fonemics to read the modified spelling would also be facilitated in reading the old.

Spelling. Writing is inevitably more difficult than reading, as it makes more demands on reasoning, memory and executive skills. Writers could if they wanted use only the fonemic principles to be readable, although public print would follow the complete system to enable and promote fast automatised reading. It is time to abandon social disgrace for individual spellers who are not 'perfect'.

Six principles to improve present English spelling Aims:

i. To resolve problems that face attempts to improve English spelling. The principles can be useful points of reference for all spelling reformers' investigations. Each one can be tested for validity, modification by experiment, discussion, and application. The claims made for the advantages of present spelling by linguists and cognitive psychologists can be tested, and proven advantages then made consistent, and disadvantages removed.

ii. To be the best possible fit to the often complementary but sometimes conflicting needs and abilities of all categories of readers, writers and learners, present and future, bright, average and disabled or handicapped, fluent or learning the English language, human and electronic, at home and abroad. (See Yule, 1986.) The needs of beginning learners have paramount importance, but they have more needs further down the track. There is a well-known block when children who have acquired initial decoding skills fail to acquire the strategies to master more complex texts, and a better spelling system could help them.

Summary of six principles (Yule, 2003) set out in a possible sequence for learners.

• The first principle of sound-symbol correspondence, including digrafs, can be applied immediately for -

i. An initial lerning spelling for understanding how to read and write that quickly then extends to the further principles.

ii. A pronunciation guide for dictionaries and learners of English. Only 30% of present spellings of words in the dictionary currently match a pronunciation guide (Bett, 2003).

iii. A writing system for lerners and optional for personal use.

But a purely fonemic spelling for English is arguably not the best solution, nor is it practicable at present. It does not take into account sufficiently all needs and abilities of users and special features of the English language. Taking these other issues into account need not handicap learners, and they matter more for real improvements in English spelling than the theoretical ideal of one single logical principle.

1. Applying the alfabetic principle. Since accents differ, and spoken Englishes (sic) require stability in print to prevent too rapid change, spelling represents fonemes, or broadband speech sounds, as in formal unslurred speech, saying all the word. Spelling is a convention, more like a diagrammatic stick-man, that everyone can recognise as being a man, rather than a fotograf of any individual man. DOG can be read by anyone as saying DOG, regardless of how you say DOG. 'BANANA' can have three 'a' sounds in it, but it is an easy spelling to read and write.

One table can set out all sound/symbol spelling relationships, What should these relationships be? Hundreds of spelling reformers have designed such tables and you too can make one in an afternoon. But just any one will not do when the aims are to find the most useful representations for all purposes, and to keep present spelling accessible. Existing reserch in cognitive psychology needs collation and completion.

The distinctive spelling patterns for terminal vowels in present spelling can also be made consistent, since they clarify word structure visually for readers.

Which vowel system?

a) Continental vowel spelling patterns as in pasta ballet police depot debut for the primary vowel letters a e i o u may become world-wide eventually, but at present the English language should retain the conventional English spelling-sound relationships for three reasons.

i. Backward compatibility with present spelling.

ii. English pronunciations for the letters a e i o u are used in around 76% of English words, while Continental primary vowel sounds occur in only around 23% (Yule, 2003).

iii. There are no simple ways to spell these ubiquitous English vowel sounds in a Continental spelling system.

iv. Visual comparability of the enormous vocabulary that is now shared internationally is promoted by English spelling for English vowels.

b) The 'long vowels' spoken like letter-names A E I O U are a Gordian knot for spelling reform. A Gordian-knot solution is unobtrusive grav accents àèìòù when needed - mostly for learners These spellings toggle neatly with short vowels a e i o u, within word families, as in provìd/provision, solving the 'Chomsky' objection to reform. Diacritics are increasingly technically feasible, and familiar internationally. [4]

Learners' introduction to literacy by consistent fonemic spelling can then take advantage of improved teaching strategies for immediate text reading, impracticable with present spelling, and not available for earlier initial learning spellings such as i.t.a. The great and critical initial hurdle of knowing how to read now passed, learners can then take on board quickly the remaining principles to be able to read anything. (Note how Japanese children get the idea of reading from first, simple semi-syllabic hiragana characters, before moving on to acquire the more difficult kanji.)

2. A transitional principle prior to full regularisation. Thirty-one irregular spellings for very common words make up about 10% of everything you read. Retaining them temporarily maintains the appearance of text, for backward access and to avoid visual disruption for present readers. Beginners are able to sight-learn these few 'special cases' and also to recognise vowel patterns ai, ea, ee, igh, oa, ew, ir, when each is given only one pronunciation. Nobody has to spell them.

all almost always among com som could should would half kno of off one only once other pull push put as was what want who why, plus 'international suffixes -ion/-tion/-sion plus -zion as in question, pasion, vizion.

3. Principles for grammar and units of meaning promote strategies for fast reading for meaning that also help learners. Children know these principles implicitly in spoken language, can use them in reading, and by age eight all readers can apply them effectively in spelling. Spelling shows grammar consistently in word endings: -s, -es, -d, -ed, even if the sound is like /z/ or /t/ as in The cats, dogs and foxes barkd, snarld and shouted.

Verb endings are -s as in is was has jumps sings even if the sound is like /z/.

Spellings of words do not change with additions, eg family/familys cowboy copyd.

4. More clues for learning spoken English, which are not required for adult texts. Doubled letters can show where stress is not what you might expect, as in umbrella, mellancoly. Adults' texts can also omit many diacritics, as in educasion not edùcàsion, gold not gold.

5. Homonyms. English is full of words both spelling and sounding the same. We read them correctly without hesitation, not consciously aware of alternative meanings, because context automatically sorts out the intended meaning. For an example, in recent paragrafs above, totalling 289 words, 12.8% were homophones that were spelled the same, whereas only 6.5% were homophones that were differentiated in spelling . [5]

Reserch can identify the few homofones that require differentiated spellings to avoid confusion in reading, such as, possibly, too/to/two, for/fore/four/ kno/no.

6. Nine guidelines for minor points and tricky issues, set by the nature of the English language and its spelling, require resolution by reserch into 'what works'.

1. Spelling unstressed unclear vowels, according to how vague the vowel.

2. Spelling imported words particularly French.

3. Retaining internationally recognisable spellings for classical stems and affixes.

4. Punctuation - Apostrofes only when needed.

5. Spelling pronunciation may sometimes be simpler than changing the spelling, e.g. the mother/brother/another set already suiting one north British pronunciation.

6. Proper names - spellings decided by the owners.

7. Silent initial letters in present spelling temporarily retained to enable dictionary sourcing

8. Interim regulated use of C, K and Q, before K takes over.

9. Minor tricky issues include spelling final /s/ in singular words, and how to represent the vowel in PUT, WOOL, SHOULD, which currently has no specific representative.

Comments on salient features and rationale.

The degree of change.

a. This 100-word excerpt from Mark Twain illustrates around 20% change in spellings of words, apart from deleting surplus letters and adding grav diacritics.
Uncl Cadmus sat doun and the Opozision ròz and combated his reasonings in the ùsual way that thày did. Thèz pèpl sayd (or sed) that thay had aulways been usd to the hìroglifics, that the hìroglifics had dear and sàcred asòsiàsions for them, that thày lovd to sit on a barrel under an umbrella in the briliant sun of Ejipt and spel out the ouls and ègls and aligàters and saw-teeth and then weep with romantic emèsion at the thaut that thay had at mòst but àt or ten years between themselvs and the gràv for the enjoyment of this ecstasy.
b. Applying principl 1 only, as for use as a dictionary pronunciation guide or initial lerning spelling.

A challenge. [6] Could fewer or other rules produce as regular a spelling that could be quickly comprehended by all categories of users and lerners internationally, and that swerved so little from present English spelling, while redeeming it from its accumulation of historical accidents and expedients?


 1. Spelling. 'Ph' has been replaced by 'f', and some surplus letters have been omitted - how many omissions have readers noticed? Hotson estimated the regularity of English at 7%. Flesch estimated it at 97%.

 2. The popular understanding of a speech sound is used here, as more familiar from schooling; a linguist's definition of foneme is about underlying fonology.

 3. A note on 'principles'. These proposals are principles but merge into rules. A principle is a 'a general law as a guide to action'. A rule applies a principle at the level of specific action.

 4. A recent electoral notice for my local council elections in Melbourne, Australia, was written in 20 languages; of the eight in the roman alfabet, only two, English and Somali, did not have diacritics. French, German and Scandinavian languages were not included, because immigrants speaking these languages usually speak English too.

 5. Homofones in these paragrafs:
a) Homografic: prior full irregular common make up Their transitional retention text for backward present cases' spell passion vision fast, use can age shows, even sound like in dogs barkd, shouted. change adult texts, doubled letters stress sorts unit

b) Heterografic: principle one very you read for to sight all sum would know we by eight in not more might
 6. It may wel be askd why I hav not ritn this articl in the regùlr speling that I advocàt. The ansr is that I hav lernd from experiens that few pèpl can bàir with both nù ideas and nù speling at once. Inovàsions here hav been limited to som surplus letrs omitd and consistent consonants. It is in the arts, entertanment and everyday that fasions can mor esily be chànjed.

Selected Bibliografy

rather than detailed references, which are available.

Bett, S. 2000. See Saundspel web-pages, [see Links.]

Leong, C-K & Joshi, R N. 2002. Cross language studies of fonology and orthografic processing. NATO publication.

Perfetti, C, Rieben, L, Fayol, M. 1997. Learning to spell: Reserch, theory & practice across languages. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pitman J, & St John J. 1968. Alphabets and Reading. London: Pitman Publishing.

Stanovich, K E. 2000. Progress in Understanding Reading. London.: Guilford Press

Upward, C U. 1996. Cut Spelling: a handbook to the simplification of written English by omission of redundant letters, 2nd edn. Birmingham: Simplified Spelling Society.

Yule V. 1986. Design of spelling to meet needs and abilities. Harvard Educational Review. 56: 278-297.

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

- 1996. Take-home video for adult literacy. International Review of Education. UNESCO. 32:1-3.187-203.

- 2002. Improve English spelling. Melbourne: Literacy Innovations. Mongraf available from the author and other pages on writing systems and literacy. [See Links.]

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