[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p2 later designated J8] [See Journal and Newsletter articles, Pamflet 15, Cut Spelling and Papers by Chris Upward.]


Chris Upward.


Nearly half of this issue is devoted to the second instalment of papers from the Society's 5th International Conference, held in July 1987. Preceding that, however, we give a profile of, and welcome to, the Society's new President, Dr Donald Scragg, who has done perhaps more than anyone to explain in readable and concise terms just how the monster that is English spelling evolved.

But as readers will see (p. 21), some of our most influential linguistic householders persist in regarding the monster as a well-behaved domestic pet - regardless of the fact that it is forever biting the children, the visitors, and occasionally even the householders themselves.

One householder under no such illusions is Patrick Hanks, Chief Editor of Collins English Dictionaries, who writes (p. 5) about the conventions of English spelling, and in particular about the use of the hyphen. This feature of written English has hitherto attracted little attention because it scarcely troubles the average user. The lack of firm rules for its use allows most people to apply it fairly indiscriminately - and unlike misspellings, its misuse probably never entailed corporal punishment in school.

Patrick Hanks' article is also important because of the perspective from which he writes. He represents not the major constituency of those struggling to teach English spelling to learners, but the other major constituency, that of professional text-producers struggling, to standardise the appearance of print. Here lexicographers have a special role: from Johnson and Webster, they have been in effect arbiters of spelling rectitude in the English-speaking world, yet paradoxically they see their role as reflecting rather than forming public opinion. They thus confront spelling reformers with a chicken-and-egg impasse.

As for public opinion, our chairman Chris Jolly (p. 17) presents encouraging findings on the open-mindedness of citizens towards spelling reform, showing how wrong it is to assume that judicious improvements to English spelling would lack support. There is a certain yearning for reform, on which the SSS must build.

Frank Knowles' account of Slavonic orthographies (p. 11) surveys what is for many of us unknown territory. The applications of the roman alphabet we are familiar with in Western European languages are not the only possible models: Eastern Europe offers another set. But as readers will see, a feature that may appear at first sight peculiar to Slavonic languages is in fact none other than that old dilemma of English spelling: are fixed morphophonemic inflexions better than variable phonemic forms? Is it easier to learn cats and dogs or cats and dogz, leaped or leapt?

This issue is also strong on debate (p. 21 ff.), which must be a chief function of the Society's Journal: We respond to the Kingman Report, Patrick Hanks argues his doubts about reform with the editor, Valerie Yule answers Sue Palmer's letter in the last Journal, and the book reviews challenge the complacency and passivity with which the present spelling of English is widely regarded.


As readers will see from our response to the Kingman Report and from Ed Rondthaler's review, confusion about the role of rules in English spelling is widespread. The result can too easily be a sterile exchange of claim and counter-claim, as when traditionalists state that, exceptions apart, English spelling is essentially rule-governed, to be contradicted by spelling reformers reluctant to admit the existence of any patterns and regularities at all. So what can we effectively say about rules in English spelling?

To begin with, rules surely have to be simple enough for people to master. Otherwise, though they may be of linguistic interest or acceptable to the computer, they hardly serve a useful purpose.

Secondly, we have to go back to basics: the alphabet is a system of symbols for representing speech-sounds. In a fully rule-governed system we would expect sounds to match symbols, and the representation of whole words to be built up on this basis. If this can be done so that the can deduce the spelling from the pronunciation and pronunciation from the spelling, we can say the system is based on rules of phonographic correspondence.

Additionally there can be predictable rules for the representation of morphemes. So the plural of most English nouns requires the addition of <s>, whether the pronunciation is /s/, or, as is most often the case, /z/.

As far as the alphabet is concerned, we tend to associate most letters, taken in isolation, with a certain sound, and most sounds, taken in isolation, with a certain spelling. But in practice the alphabetic system breaks down in English almost before it starts, because the 26 letters have to be used to represent some 40 distinct sounds, and many letters therefore inevitably have to represent more than one sound. But at the same time, single sounds are represented by many different letters or groups of letters. In fact a conservative count gives several hundred different sound-symbol equivalences in English, and one count even goes up to a couple of thousand (roughly the number of kanji characters that Japanese schoolchildren have to learn).

Nor are the morphemic rules reliable. Plural <-s> may be <-es> and sometimes it requires a preceding letter to be doubled (how is the plural of gas or fez spelt?). Likewise the <-ing> ending sometimes requires preceding <-e> to be dropped (compare singing, singeing, hinging) or a preceding consonant to be doubled (are traveling, benefiting correct?).

Learners (and even experienced users) need simple rules, but English has very few. Instead it has a plethora of competing patterns whose application completely defeats many learners, and occasionally trips us all. But the problem, at least in its present magnitude, is not inherent in the language. Much could be done to resolve it by strengthening and simplifying the rules that already exist.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p4 later designated J 8]
[See Journal articles by Donald Scragg.]

Donald Scragg, the Society's new President.


The Simplified Spelling Society was extremely gratified when at its AGM on 23 Apr 1988 Dr Donald G Scragg accepted the office of the Society's President. He follows in the long and illustrious line of W W Skeat (1908-11), Gilbert Murray (1911-46), Daniel Jones (1946-68), said James Pitman (1968-72) and John Downing (1972-87). Each of these Presidents has brought his own area of expertise and authority to the Society, whether philology, phonetics, politics, or psychology, and with Donald Scragg the wheel has turned full circle: Walter Skeat, the Society's first President, was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Cambridge, and Donald Scragg is Director of the Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies at the University of Manchester. Whereas previous Presidencies have corresponded to periods of major advance in, for instance, the understanding of sound-symbol relationships in English and the experimental application of rationalised orthographies in education, perhaps we may now look forward to renewed emphasis on the historical dimension of English spelling. Certainly that is an aspect that is widely ignored in current debate on the subject; yet it is indispensable for a proper appreciation of the orthographic status quo and of possibilities for its future.

Donald Scragg was born in Liverpool in 1936 and after some years in commerce and on military service in the RAF graduated in English at Liverpool University in 1962. His interest in English spelling already manifested itself in his undergraduate days with a thesis on Initial h in Old English which demonstrated the instability of the aspirate in the earliest recorded periods of English and gave him his first real insight into the relationship between speech and writing. His Manchester PhD thesis extended this theme of the detailed study of the language of a tenth-century manuscript of English sermons; it offered a considered reappraisal of the information that written records from a remote period can give us of the speech of that period. In 1965 he published a thorough revision of G H Vallin's Spelling in the Andre Deutsch Language Library. Along with Sir James Pitman, former SSS President, he was amongst the first speakers in the initial series of lectures on spelling at Manchester under the auspices of the Mont Follick Trust, and his lecture then formed the basis of his book A History of English Spelling, which was published in 1974. This work has become a classic source of information and ideas on the development of English spelling, and has been an inspiration to members of the Society over the years since its appearance. It is most regrettable that is that it is now out of print, as it is a key introductory work that should stand alongside An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English by A C Gimson (a former SSS Vice-President) on the reading list of anyone first approaching the question of English spelling reform. However Donald Scragg tells us that always at the back of his mind has been the determination that one day he should begin to document the complete history of spelling that English so sadly lacks.

Most importantly for the Society, Donald Scragg's purview extends beyond the British Isles. He has taught in the USA, travels a great deal, and spend some time every year in North America in his role as Executive Secretary of an international research project. We look forward to many years under his Presidency, in which we shall be working to try and put the notion of English spelling reform 'on the map' as a practical proposition in a way that, one must admit, it has scarcely been in recent times. Members of the Society will have the opportunity to meet Donald Scragg and consider his ideas when he addresses an SSS meeting on the subject of English Spelling and its Reform: a Historical Perspective in the early autumn.

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