[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1987/3 p14-16 later designated J6.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles and Pamflet 12 by Laurie Fennelly.]

Revised New Spelling and Spelling Reform - the position in 1987.

Laurence Fennelly.

Laurence Fennelly is Secretary of the Society. He chaired the Society's Working Party on the revision of New Spelling.

There is only one hope for achieving the reform of English the spelling in the foreseeable future, and that is for spellingreformers throughout the English-speaking world to agree on one single scheme as the basis of their work.

Such a scheme already exists. The Simplified Spelling Society, founded 80 years ago, produced New Spelling,whose 6th edition, written by Professors Daniel Jones and Harold Orton, appeared in 1948 and was accepted in both Britain and America as the basis for spelling reform. Its recommendations were supported by the most completestatistical analysis of current spellings yet to be produced. Unfortunately, after a motion in favour of spelling reformwas narrowly defeated in the House of Commons, the Society allowed itself to be diverted into sponsoring the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which although based on New Spelling, was conceived of purely as a teaching aid (albeit a successful one) and so the notion of reform passed into background and New Spelling was nearly forgotten.

In the meantime many individuals put forward their own schemes of reform, none of which was generally accepted. Many of them were based on the concept of introducing small individual reforms, such as the changing of one letter, or the reforming of a short list of very common words. The Society itself even produced a Stage One of this type, which has proved entirely insignificant in its effects.

The Committee of the SSS, faced therefore with the total collapse of spelling reform, made the firm decision that, whatever the merits of partial reforms, a complete scheme must be formulated as the basis of our propaganda, whether it was to be aimed at individuals or public bodies. A Working Party was therefore set up to re-examine New Spelling with a view to revising it for republication. At the same time the Working Party was asked to do something new - prepare an outline programme for the introduction of spelling reform, by stages if necessary.

The first of these tasks has been completed to the extent that a revision has been approved by the Committee and circulated to members of the Society for their comments. The revision was based on six decisions of principle.

1. Consistency in representing sounds, not phonetic precision, was to be the aim. Take for example the letter <r>. The Southern English think they are pronouncing the <r> in final <-er> when they do not. Let them continue in their illusions. The Scots do pronounce the <r> but in a different way from the Americans. Let them both continue in their ways: <-er> can accommodate them all, and can also replace <-our>, <-or> and <-ur> in every variety of pronunciation.

2. It follows from this insistence on consistency only that the Working Party did not have to make a choice of dialects. Its members happen to speak RP, but they looked for spellings that would be consistent in any dialect, and they are relying on comments from members to point out where they have erred. In this connection the opinions of the Society's American members are of paramount importance, even though Webster is available in England.

3. It was decided that morphological consistency, more popularly known as consistency in 'grammar' was also very important and could in some cases outweigh phonetic consistency.

4. Any scheme must be formulated on the assumption of the total ignorance of the public, including most emphatically the educated public, on all matters linguistic. To propose schemes that for example invite people to distinguish long and short vowels or between voiced and unvoiced consonants would be completely futile.

5. In view of the resistance of human beings to change it was hoped to reduce the number of changes made by New Spelling, so that its visual impact would be less disturbing. In fact it turned out to be impossible to make any significant reduction in the number of changes needed.

6. A formal decision was made not to use new symbols. It was noted, though, that once the spelling system was regularised it would be easy to introduce new letters. The Working Party also rejected diacritics. It is occasionally asserted that diacritics have advantages over new letters, but it must be pointed out that a letter plus diacritic is in fact a new letter.

Turning now to Revised New Spelling itself, it is not proposed to repeat all the proposals that have appeared elsewhere, but to discuss only those major proposals which have attracted comments.

Inflected <s> - the <s> that appears in plurals, possessive forms and the present tense of verbs-represents two sounds, /z/ which is far the commoner, and /s/. New Spelling recommended using both symbols, but the Working Party rejected this for two reasons. Grammatical consistency requires one symbol, and the difference between the voiced and unvoiced sounds is in any case often too fine to be easily distinguished. The Working Party opted for <z> because that would enable <s> to be used everywhere for final /s/ (non-inflected) and for final <-ce> and <-se>. Using <z> obviously conflicts with our desire to reduce the number of changes, and this point was picked up by most of our critics. They felt that <s> should be retained and some other way found for dealing with <-ce> and <-se>, e.g. using <se>, <ss> or <ts>. All except one approved of the idea of keeping one symbol for the grammatical usage.

On <i, y> we found the proposals in New Spelling strangely involved, with <y> used internally in semi-consonantal positions, and both <i, y> used for the short vowel. We proposed therefore <y> for the diphthong (long vowel) and <i> for the short vowel, wherever they occur, e.g. fyt, piti. The objections received can be listed:-

a. Changing final <y> to <i> would be very disturbing visually.
b. <ie> for the diphthong is one of a series, <ae, ee, ie, oe, ue>, which would be recognisable to the public. A reading expert pointed out that with <ie> it would be easy to make up some such rule as 'drop the final <e> or move it to the other side' when teaching the transition between current spelling and New Spelling.
c. <y> is already a consonant.
d. In American English the final <y> represents a sound that is clearly <ee> rather than <i>.

Other changes are less wide-ranging but evoked equal criticism.

The Working Party suggested <sh> for the sound in usual, but this was rejected by most, who preferred the <zh> of New Spelling. One suggestion was that <zu> could have this value by convention.

We were assured that <wh> is still a live form in Scotland and the USA for initial <wh>, but discussions in the American literature on the subject seem to suggest that the sound is on its way out, with teachers resisting, just as happened in England within living memory. Possibly both <w> and <wh> could be used as alternatives.

We discarded the second <g> in <fingger>. There were two objections - the second <g> was helpful to foreign learners, and in America its use would discourage uneducated speakers from pronouncing the <g> in words like singer. In fact this pronunciation occurs in some English dialects, and all experience shows that spelling has no effect in correcting so-called bad pronunciation, which must by its nature be unconscious.

New Spelling proposed the two symbols <oo, uu> for good food, and they were then reversed in response to American pressure. We recommended <oo> only because no distinction is made between these sounds in many areas of Britain. We would suggest <ful> and <pul> as special cases. Some Americans were sceptical, but gave no solid reasons against our views.

There were fairly widespread objections to <au, ou>, chiefly because the current monosyllabic forms <aw, ow> are the ones which identify the sound for the public, even though the <u> forms are commoner. One suggestion was to retain both forms, at any rate initially. On the other hand one correspondent asserted that <w> is unpopular with printers.

Regarding <c, k>, the Working Party came down on the side of <k> for the hard <c> sound after studying all the arguments set out in New Spelling. (It is interesting that an earlier version of New Spelling used the <c>.) Our correspondents objected on the grounds that too many changes would be involved, that there were too many initial <c>s and that <k> looked ugly.

Problems were raised by <x>. Some would like to keep it where it already occurs but not to extend its use. Others would like to preserve the New Spelling voiced and unvoiced <gz, ks>. We suggested <ks> on its own because the difference in sound is not essential to meaning, and although people can hear /gz/ when it is pointed out, it is by no means always easy to distinguish. It might be as well to remind spelling reformers that most people are quite unaware of the fact that <x> represents /ks/.

Regarding <a, aa>, the New Spelling <aa> was abandoned because the difference is not made in most parts of Britain, even though it is very clear in RP. This produces forms that might shock - aunt, ant both become ant. The letter combination <al> as in almond occurs quite frequently (compare also Pam, palm) and raises difficulties. It would be possible to reserve <aa> for just these cases, rather than to insert it everywhere to no very useful purpose.

The neutral <e> vowel occurs so often in English and in so variable a way that it would be quite impossible to replace it everywhere with one symbol. The authors of New Spelling recognized this, and according to Maurice Harrison, one of their associates, abandoned any prospect of change in this area. However in their book they did suggest some changes, but in a rather inconsistent way, and so the Working Party prepared a somewhat more complete scheme, which was thought practicable and which would remove the source of many of the spelling mistakes that are currently made. The proposals attracted very little comment, except from Chris Upward, who pointed out that if the letter <e> was used for the neutral vowel in syllables after the main stress in words, the reader would be unable to tell whether the <e> should be pronounced with its normal value or as the neutral vowel. Furthermore the opportunity would be lost to indicate the stress pattern which occurs in so many pairs of 2-syllable words, e.g. debtor: deter, wrestle: resell.

Comments were received on the proposals from Professor Abercrombie in Edinburgh, R Craig, G N Deodhekar, G S Bryden and S Gibbs from Britain. From the USA and Canada have come detailed criticisms from Harvey Barnard, Kenneth Ives, Ayb Citron, Arnold Rupert and Edward Rondthaler. Dr Rondthaler has published a book which contains much valuable statistical material, Dictionary of American Spelling. He basically accepts the original New Spelling, but he has sent a most detailed comparison of our work and his, which will call for an article on its own. There is one difficulty. No doubt in order to make a popular appeal he calls the revised spelling in his dictionary "American" and the unrevised "English". Such a nomenclature is internationally impossible, especially as for us, the contact with spelling reformers in Australia, New Zealand, and those countries like India which use English as a second language is of major importance.

It is a great pity incidentally that there is no one Organisation in the USA with which we can deal. Our former partners, the SSA, are no longer in existence, and so we rely on our American members individually. In these days of better communications could our Society become truly international in its scope, with sections in other countries?

Finally we must say that our respect for the authors of New Spelling has grown the more we worked on it. Nearly every query and point raised by our correspondents was thought of by them and our revision represents really only making a different choice between alternatives set by them.

This leads on to the problem of stages and the introduction of spelling reform. The authors of New Spelling did not say anything about this, but they were presumably in favour of a once-and-for-all introduction. Since then there has been much talk of stages and on this the Working Party was divided, and no agreed scheme was produced. The situation is now therefore as follows. .

1. The authors of New Spelling might be right. It might be impossible to work out a scheme of stages.

2. One member of the Working Party, Chris Upward believes the Society should concentrate on Cut Spelling as a First Stage reform. The only significant point of conflict between Cut Spelling and Revised New Spelling concerns the neutral vowel: where RNS would spell words like debtor: deter the same, CS would keep them distinct.

3. The Committee has not taken the decision to accept Cut Spelling so far, and has asked the Secretary and one other member to examine alternative stages. When this has been done the Society will have to make a major decision of policy on RNS with or without stages and Cut Spelling.

The great problem that bedevils any partial reform, including Cut Spelling, is that so many words require more than one change. To cross the <e> off come is not sufficient. The <o> and perhaps the <c> also need attention. The simple rule of dropping silent <gh> in bough runs up against the word night. Consequently preparing stages involves the most detailed examination of the English vocabulary to see if it is possible to isolate changes that can be made independently. One approach might be to see if some disputed changes can be relegated to a later stage, and another would be deliberately to accept two spellings for the same sound in some cases. On all these points we very much hope we will get plenty of suggestions from our members.

In the last decade we have not been able to take our rightful place in the public debates on illiteracy and educational standards, because we have not had a set of coherent proposals to put forward, and still less any up-to-date literature. The time is short and our task now is to produce a popular pamphlet on Revised New Spelling, including a section on how it is to be introduced, and secondly a new edition of the book New Spelling, modified perhaps, but preserving all its academic apparatus. Then we will be in a position to use modern methods of publicity to reach all those people who have never heard of us.

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