[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/1 p2 later designated .J7]


Chris Upward


Firstly we welcome our team of editorial consultants, some of them old friends of the Society, some of them valued new acquaintances. We look forward to their views, suggestions and advice, both on the role and shape of the Journal and on all aspects of spelling in its international context. Their association with us lends authority to our voice.

Dominating this issue are papers given during the first part of the Society's 1987 Conference, at which the notion of efficiency in spelling was explored from a range of angles. A prerequisite for any kind of detailed study of the pros and cons of alternative spellings is a global, or, as it was termed, "cosmic", overview of what spelling is, whence it came, and where it may be heading to. That overview was provided by Tom McArthur, whose paper stresses the way in which technological change can totally overthrow old concepts, old needs, old possibilities. So it was when printing came, and so it may be also with the new electronic media - as shown indeed by the Society's own Journal, an example of the new genre of cheap, yet presentable, desk-top publication, which would not have been feasible just five years ago, and which enables us now to experiment freely with all manner of spelling systems.

Whether by chance or not, the Japanese connection features three times in this issue: Tom McArthur's paper ends with a hint as to its significance, John Skelton links it with the roman alphabet, and Thomas Hofmann writes directly from Japan.

Through Valerie Yule's report, news reaches us of a remarkable event down under: the 1986 Australian Style Council. Though it confined itself to the here and now of existing spellings, rather than, as with the SSS, the heady realm of spellings that might one day be, it demonstrates that spelling is a matter of practical importance for a wide constituency of people who can influence spelling policies. If the southern hemisphere can do it, why not the northern?

Again and again our contributors reinforce the message that our perspective must be worldwide; but at the same time we are dealing with the visible, evolving minutiae of alphabetic symbols, past, present and future. This multifariousness is part of the fascination of the subject: it is science and art, psychology and politics, geography and technology, all rolled inextricably into one. It is a widener of horizons for its devotees. While on the one hand it may help the school round the comer, on the other it may help mankind as a whole communicate more effectively and in consequence more constructively with itself.


Hence a recurrent anxiety among reformers is whether English spelling can be reformed without destroying the written standard on which English as a medium of world communication depends. The need to coordinate reform worldwide may seem daunting: some may conclude that worldwide reform is a pipe-dream, and others that each English-speaking country should go its own way regardless. However, Noah Webster's departures from British spelling early in the last century, which are generally used in America today without causing the disintegration of world English, perhaps suggest a way forward.

Most distinctive American forms differ from the British by shortening: they may drop a redundant vowel, as in ax, esthetic, wagon, worshiped; and a number of shorter American forms involve two or even three letters: boro, catalog, jewelry, plow, program, sulfur. In some cases the American form replaces a letter, as <s> in analyze, <e> in artifact, carcass, gray, inclose, or <c> in defense, skeptic; or it switches letters round, as in center, and there are even a few British spellings which are shorter than the American: biased, centred, skilful. The visual impact of the differences is mostly slight, but there can be little disagreement that the shorter forms tend towards 1-1 greater regularity, as well as being more economical.

Redundant letters are a major defect of t.o., and shorter forms are a small improvement. If they were adopted world-wide, the world standard would be strengthened, not weakened. (It is interesting to see how far the Australian Style Council prefers the shorter existing form, whether American or British.) Yet the fact that some marginally different, shorter alternatives now exist, and only slightly disturb the standard, shows that, if everyone adopted all the present shorter forms, one or more English-speaking countries could then afford to go a bit further, and remove additional redundant letters. By leapfrogging Webster in this way, we could at least ensure that discrepancies between the present shorter, mostly American spellings and the new streamlined forms were no greater than today.

Which letters might be the first candidates for excision? Nearly all the current proposals for a first stage reform concentrate on cutting redundant letters. Thomas Hofmann suggests DUE forms like ar, wer, hav; Harry Lindgren and the Australian Spelling Action Society call for all the head words to lose their <a>; Bill Herbert and the Australian Simplified Spelling Association are targeting <gh>; and SSS's 'big five' proposal of 1984 include more or less all these, plus the conversion of <ph> (and where appropriate <gh>) to <f>. There is surely a basis for world-wide consensus here - a consensus that would bring American and t.o. closer together, as well as moving towards Cut Spelling and even Ayb Citron's SPD SPLNG.

Leapfrogging suggests a model for later stages too: advanced spellers in one country would be overtaken by more far-reaching reforms elsewhere, and be spurred on to go further in turn. But they would all be moving in the same direction, making written English more economical, but avoiding the worst pitfalls of conflicting pronunciation.


The next issue will contain the second main instalment of papers delivered at the Society's 1987 Conference.


Professor Nina Catach, Paris III University and Director of HESO, CNRS.
Professor Edgar Gregersen, Queens College & Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Professor Francis Knowles, Department of Modern Languages, Aston University.
Professor Julius Nyikos, Washington & Jefferson College, New English Orthography Institute, Washington, Pennsylvania.
Dr Edward Rondthaler, Typographic Council for Spelling Reform & American Language Academy, New York.
Dr Donald G Scragg, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies.
Valerie Yule, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.

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