[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p29-31 later designated J8]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, Bulletin articles, Personal View 10 and web by Valerie Yule.]

The Importance of Spelling for English Culture.

Valerie Yule replies to Sue Palmer.

Sue Palmer, Information Officer and Newsletter Editor of the United Kingdom Reading Association and Language Consultant, explained her objections to spelling reform in the 1988/1 Journal J7 (p.3), and Valerie Yule, of Monash University, Victoria, Australia, here takes up our invitation to respond.

There are 'last ditch' defences of the present state of English spelling, to fall back on when old arguments have failed - such as aesthetics or etymology or problems for printers. Such defences are a paradoxical delight in all that is defective in our spelling, and Sue Palmer has set it out clearly. The essence of the English cultural heritage is set out in the 'inconsistencies and irrelevancies' of English spelling, and its 'weird, wonderful and totally irrational form'. If it should be improved, this essence is lost.

I am an admirer of Sue's work in the reading field, and so I ask her to bear with me as I set out to say that, really, the case is nothing of the sort. The questions to ask are about our priorities, about the real nature of our heritage of culture, and about the psychological and social factors behind our attitudes to spelling. The issue of priorities is whether it is better to have bread for the many or icing for the few. Is the nature of present spelling a barrier against any literacy for many, and against full literacy for most of the population, nationally and internationally?

Let us, however, start at the point of detail, and examine the features of English spelling that 'petrifiers' wish to retain but reformers most object to.

First there are the twin beliefs that English spelling is quite irrational but that this irrationality is desirable. The assumption that the spelling is quite irrational leads to the further assumption that any improvement must require total upheaval, great disturbance, and access lost to all our past heritage of print and manuscript. The assumption of irrationality also means that teaching methods may rely on rote or cute mnemonics for learners to memorise individual words or spelling patterns. This rote process delays most learners' acquisition of independent literacy, and can affect their whole introduction to education. Boys, rebellious against perceived nonsense, are even more likely to have problems of backward learning for literacy in English than in most other orthographies, while girls, who are more docile in developing rote-learning strategies for literacy, can be upset when they try to apply the same strategies for learning maths. Present English spelling and literacy teaching methods are a poor introduction to education for potential thinkers and innovators, and add to the difficulties of all those who have no special abilities or diligence. Where they can find more reason, they can have more hope.

But English spelling is not completely irrational. There is a basic structure for English spelling, underlying its elaborations and accretions.

The task of cleaning it up may be more like keeping a tidy ship than sinking the fleet to build a new one. The basic set of sound-symbol relationships for consonants can be easily discerned despite the exceptions, and there is a basic underlying system for deploying the five vowel letters to represent the 19-20 English vowel phonemes, even though there are some hundreds of other 'spelling patterns' that disguise it.

When any assertions are made about spelling, a good practical rule is to look at actual texts. For example, the text of Sue's own letter consists of around 436 words. Over 70% of these words (around 359) are spelled according to a consistent, simple and logical system that represents both speech and meaning (morphemes) perfectly well. They require no improvement. Then the remaining words (around 77) either have surplus letters which are dobbed in as more to learn and a waste of time and paper, or they have the 'wrong' letters to complicate or confuse the system. Here are the spellings for these words that a spelling conservative apparently claims are 'interwoven into her personality', grouped somewhat haphazardly by vowels:
<a> have shall fascinating manageable language material
<e> many any said jealous retention especially mechanics seductive
<i> English system sympathy linguistic literacy give imagine since impression inconsistencies written irrelevancies heritage
<o> what wrong qualified conference society opportunity of
<u> some come one wonderful cultural suggest
<A> greater native change
<E> weird people teacher speak reasons
<I> might high primary find write
<O> soul though know whole notion only
<U> to do you who moved lose review pursuit pupils future superficial
<ah> are argument
<er> work word learn heard refer surgery further
<air> there share various
<aw> wart all your more before
<u> would could
There was an argument that spelling is necessary to show the history of English, but it is not valid today. It can only show the history to those who know English history in the first place, and even then, it does not show it very well. The only safe place to look for derivations is in a dictionary, and although this is an interesting pursuit, it is not vital for everyday communication. Often the derivations do not accord with the present spelling. For example, take the Old English origins of some of the words that were used in Sue's letter (diacritics omitted):

Old English
Old English

People is from Old French pople, while Latin is responsible for suggest, fascinating and vary.

Dictionaries can vary in the etymologies they give, and a relevant side-issue emerges on looking them up. On almost every page of a dictionary such as Collins English Dictionary (1979), one or more entries will be given alternative spellings which are acceptable. Often the more difficult spelling is already becoming obsolete - for example:-
shanty/shantey/chanty/chantey; facia/fascia; whiz/whizz; shako/shacko; sobriquet/soubriquet; lackey/lacquey
This is one route towards spelling improvement - dictionaries' acceptance and inclusion of alternative spellings that are more efficient.

Middle English or even First Folio Shakespeare are difficult to understand on first reading more through the unfamiliar vocabulary and inflections than through the old spellings. Indeed, improving present English spelling would often bring it closer to what the old spellings were like before the scholars got to work on them. There is an etymological argument for removing many of the present changes and accretions (e.g. Yule 1981).

The 'last ditch' appeal calls on native pride in English muddle and eccentricity to be extended to spelling too - a Luddite attitude when it is found in modern British industry or other communications technology. The claim is that life would be less colorful and interesting if spelling were straitforward. This reminds me of a charming children's book on People. The final pages show a terrible contrast: we see a totalitarian cityscape where all the people and all the buildings look alike and are all colored gray - then, over the page! There is exuberant life in the same scene, because everyone and everything is different, and all are bright with different colours. However, the roads are smooth and planned, the cars are obeying traffic rules, the streets and shops have clear sips, and doors can open. That is, even eccentricity has its time and place, and wisdom is knowing what applies where and when.

The exuberance, individuality and delight of the English language lies in its vocabulary and forms of speech that enrich communication and make it more accurate, rather than in spellings that make it more difficult.

And the English language is living. It changes. No English-language lover dare suggest outright that the language must be pinned down, and never grow or change. Why then, should the spelling be dead?

Sue Palmer is an English owner of the English language. She has a native right to it and to its spelling. However, I write as an Australian of Scots-Irish-English-Danish origin, with relatives of 17 different nationalities, and with cousins, nephews and nieces of eight races - Western and Eastern European, black as well as white American, Caribbean, Australian aboriginal, Vietnamese, Papuan and Tongan - all English-speaking. Estimates of users of the English language in the world today range from 400 million to 600 million, and white native speakers are now a minority. English languages are developing - not just one English language - as the preface and entries of the Collins Dictionary make clear for their 270,000 entries. An immigrant to Australia told me that while the English have a right to keep their own spelling, everyone else has a right to an international English spelling that they could all use, and that was not a barrier to communication. He has a case.

Sue is emotionally attached to her native language. To her it is 'more than a tool of communication or the raw material one plays with in composition: it is the embodiment of my cultural heritage - it is part of me and I am part of what it represents. To some extent, the English language is interwoven with my identity, and that makes me very jealous of (sic) it.'

Two points should be made clear here. First, a spelling system is not to be identified with 'the language' or even with the written language. Spelling is only a tool to write down the language so that it may be read. To identify it with the written language is like equating a system of music notation with the forms of music that it can be used to represent. English written language has shapes and forms and styles that make it different in many ways from the spoken language - and one objection to present English spelling is that learners have to have beginners' books limited by vocabulary control or restricted phonics to a very dull writing style, and they cannot have the freedom possible with the more orderly orthographies of most other languages. So people absorb this very dull writing style themselves.

More important still, what is English culture that it should be cherished? How could removing the difficulties of present English spelling mean that we 'could lose our closest tie with the past'? England's closest ties with her past are in her literature, her landscapes and buildings, her traditions, institutions, values, history books, and the oral traditions of the older generation. I shall write emotionally too.

'Cherished' by Sue and who else? What is the point of having about two million fully literate English cherishers, full of culture and spelling, if the price is that the rest of Britain and the world have little or no knowledge of either? For me, English/British/world culture is for sharing, and what desperately needs to be shared most today are the old British civilised ideals of tolerance, justice, fair play, honesty, kindness, courtesy, courage, intellectual curiosity, enterprise, diligence, and the ideal of the 'gentleman' who is gentle as well as 'gentil', and the woman to match.

These are the 'basics' for education, since they are the bases for civilisation, and this is what schools and homes should be teaching the young, rather than irrational spelling patterns.

But how can the young assimilate our civilisation unless they are literate? Watch almost any TV show about school life, such as Grange Hill or Two of Us and you must be struck by the violence, loutishness, destructive relationships and ignorance of the poor youngsters portrayed there, caught in a trap of a limited and unkind subculture. Reading can give a chance to learn about different civilisations and cultures, past and present, as they themselves have presented them, not reinterpreted on telly in terms of current assumptions and constraints of TV presentation.

Surely it would be better that say six working boys or six adult foreigners could read and write fluently in English, than that any number of middle-class children knew when to use -ise and -ize according to the distinctions that 'require an intimate knowledge of English, Greek, Latin and French etymology.' (Gowers, revised by Greenbaum and Whitcut, 1986.)

In fact, this authority states that 'most modern authorities' say in effect, hang it all and stick to <s> 'but don't condemn those who use a <z> in its right place'.

Why, then, shud som English peple feel that to change a few spellings cud risk th loss of 'th cor'? Perhaps Northcote Parkinson diagnosed th psycology of it in his observations of how comitees operate - for example, spending hours arguing about th cost of a litr bin, because that is smal enough to cope with, and passing estimats of thousands of pounds for bildings in five minuts because th matr is too big for them. Th letrs in words ar smal and visibl, like £5 to spend on a litr bin; th esential elements of our civilisation ar invisibl, huge, and tax too much our thinking and our imaginations - like spending f.50 milion a bilding complex. So we let that budget pass, and we fasten on what is smal enough for us.

Social valus hav changed radicly in th past three decades. Most cherishd customs hav becom unrecognisabl or vanishd, whole landscapes hav been replaced, and comunications tecnology itself has been revolutionised - apart from spelling. Th individual who feels helpless in th midst of al this change, can stil try to insist that th telly is in colour, even if it coms in a Japanese or American box labeld color.

So 'anti-changers' try to disregard or fight against th fact that English spelling has always changed, howevr slowly, even since Samuel Johnson, and that it is stil changing - through new words, brand-labels on shelvs, and even by th dificultis of our semilitrat masses. Th problem is that changes which ar uncoordinated or unreserchd may only ad furthr to our colections of inconsistencis.

Jonathan Swift observd what tiny things human beings wil fight and die for. These tiny things can include smal habits they are acustomd to, or details of apearance such as color or clothes - while evry virtu is lost in th fight. Details can be vital, and batls can be lost for want of a nail - but we need to know th difrence between what shud be cared about, and what is not to be cared about. 'Teach us to care and not to care.' Th makers of th Australian Macquarie-Dictionary point out that this principl shud aply to language rnatrs too.

So many othr factrs ar involvd that no form of spelling can be a panacea for illitracy. But there is plenty of evidence of how much help easier spelling can be, in reducing dificultis for lernrs (e.g. J H Martin's initial lerning spelling for IBM's current Writing to Read program) and I think it wud be shown for readrs as wel as writers too. In adition, a spelling system that is so unreliabl a guide to th spoken language reduces th valu of English as an intemationl means of comunication despite its many othr advantages. A reliabl spelling can help to keep th shape of th spoken language from continual degrading and dialectisation, with th tendency to slur away from th printed word.

Th main purpose of language is to comunicate. But it is also used to distinguish and protect in-groups. English spelling has had a rathr inglorious history in th way it has been used to screen out th 'hav-nots' who aspire to join th 'havs'. So th 'havs' may hav som reason to feel that English spelling is asociated with their identity - but th question is, if th 'hav-nots' wer alowd easier access to litracy, wud th country lose out, and wud th present 'havs' lose out or benefit? It shud be noted that only th 'havs' who hav word-processors can use spelling software to ensure perfect spelling - and it is a reflection on both English spelling and British litracy that hardly an ofice in th country can be without a wel-thumbd dictionary or computer asistance in ordr to spel.

What then is th 'whole soul' that Sue Palmer fears might be damaged by 'cosmetic surgery' to a writing tool? It surely cannot be her Englishness, with its historic tradition of reform rathr than revolution, of compromise rathr than polarised confrontation, of libral conscience rathr than bureaucratic intransigence.

Even her vested intrest as a teachr of reading is not a clinching argument. Sue the Teachr is candid in stating that she feels that she cannot bite th hand that feeds her - yet that hand is feeding her from th public purse on th suposition of educating th nation's children. Th mor time and troubl and failure spent on spelling, th less time and oportunity for book lerning and for real teaching. Th mor time Sue spends writing mor books on teaching spelling to add to th vast yet stil inadequat mountains of books on teaching spelling, th less time she has to transmit th real cor of our culture to th next generation.

I hav met many teachrs who fear loss of jobs if litracy cud be easily aquired by individuals - perhaps by a home video such as TYTR (Teach Yourself to Read). Yet there is so much mor that needs to be taught and lernt - and so litl time for schooling!

What does it profit a culture if it retains outward forms and loses its real valus? So many religions and othr idealistic movements have in th course of time treasured their shels at th cost of their spirit. Manrs becom manrd and becom forms of cruelty rather than of courtesy. And in language too, it becoms tru that 'th letr kils, but th spirit givs life'.


Gowers, E (1986) The complete - plain words, revised by S Greenbaum & J Whitcut London: HMS.O

Hanks, P. (ed.) 1979 Collins Dictionary of the English Language, Glasgow: Collins.

Martin, J H and Friedberg, A. 1987. Writing to read: a parents' guide to the new early learning program for young children, New York: Warner Books.

Yule, V (1981) 'The etymological argument for spelling reform' in Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1980.

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