[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p33,34 later designated J8]
Also on this page: Reviews of Comrie/Hawkins, Crystal, Mason; Stubbs and Literature received.
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]
Recent Writing on Spelling.
reviewed by Chris Upward.
ALBSU: Literacy, Numeracy and Adults.London: The Adult Literary and Basic Skills Unit November 1987, pp.85, £3.95, ISBN 0 906509 93 9
When this report appeared last autumn, it aroused much publicity, with headlines quoting the "illiterate 6 million". What relevance does it have for spelling reformers?
What was hitherto known about adults lacking adequate literacy skills in Britain had been confined mainly to those who sought help. This report by Mary Hamilton (Lancaster University) casts the net far wider, covering a sample of all those born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week in 1958. Altogether 12,500 were interviewed and 13% reported difficulties with either reading, writing or numeracy. The project's aim was to identify 1. the problems such people face, 2. who is receiving no help, and 3. the lessons for education. The need for the study is shown by the steady demand for adult literacy tuition, and by the existence of the problem across the industrialised world. Illiteracy is hard to define, being sometimes based on reading and not writing ability; but here it is defined by people's self-reporting of their problems. Ethnic minorities were underrepresented.
Under 10% of those with problems had had special tuition. The breakdown: 2% had problems with reading only, 19% with reading and writing/spelling, 40% with only writing/spelling, 5.5% with writing/spelling and maths, 7% with reading, writing/spelling and maths, and 26% with only maths. This means, over 70% had problems with writing/spelling, which caused most difficulty by far, more for men than for women, especially at work, though in many other spheres of life too. 93% left school at 16, the minimum leaving age, and 58% had no qualifications at 23. An average number went to comprehensive schools, more went to secondary moderns, only 2% went to grammar schools. School attendance was rather below average, and 36% got special help at school. More than average experienced problems of poverty and in the family while at school, and their motivation was below average.
The key point to note is that writing/spelling was overwhelmingly the area of greatest difficulty.
ed. Bernard Comrie The World's Major Languages (John A Hawkins on English).Beckenham (UK): Croorn Helm Ltd, 1987, ISBN 0-7099-3423-8.
This 1,000-Page tome describes 50 main languages of the world and includes 33 pages on English contributed by John A Hawkins. Substantial sections treat the status of English, its structure, history and modern variations; but orthography is accorded just two paragraphs. The first observes that "modern English orthographical practice is ... out of harmony with the spoken language", mentions Caxton, Webster, Shaw, and concludes that "English spelling holds the distinction of being the most chaotic in the world." However, advantages are seen in its international uniformity, and in the fact that readers see a connexion between nation, national despite the phoneme-shift of the <a> (a shift which presumably therefore prevents us appreciating the connexion in speech, and which must totally obscure the parallel connexion between another noun-adjective pair, long, length, whose spelling changes to match the pronunciation.)
Spelling reformers will doubtless be disappointed, if not surprised, at the priorities implied when more than double the space is given to tables of Anglo-Saxon inflexions than to modern written English. Is there no more to be said than that it is "chaotic"? Is it even generally agreed that "chaotic" is an adequate description? Are there no patterns amid the chaos? Is any sound-symbol correspondence discernible? Are the difficulties of learning and using the system not worthy of comment?
But such lack of interest in the written language is no rarity today. It shows how much has to be done to create awareness of the fact that our present antiquated writing system is a serious social, psychological, educational and economic burden to mankind that ought not to be tolerated - and need not be.
David Crystal The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp.472, £25, ISBN 0 521 26438 3.
At £25 this almost 500-page volume is excellent value, and will attract both amateur and professional linguists. It surveys the main areas of linguistics comprehensively, describing current as well as millennia-old controversies on the nature of language, and divides into eminently browsable, self-contained units. It is richly illustrated with photographs, drawings, diagrams, maps, charts, tables and quotable anecdotes. And it takes spelling seriously.
Spelling reformers will be particularly drawn to the 40-page section entitled 'The medium of language: writing and reading', although there is also relevant information elsewhere, under such headings as 'The statistical structure of language', 'Language development at school', 'Language handicap' and 'Language planning'. A sample of the headings in the main section 'Writing and reading' gives an idea of the coverage: Written and spoken language; portraying the sound of speech; graphic expression; handwriting; palaeography; graphology; print; electronic media; graphemes; the history of writing; types of writing system; non-phonological systems-pictographic, ideographic, cuneiform, hieroglyphic, logographic; phonological systems-syllabic, alphabetic; graphological contrasts; punctuation; shorthand; the processes of reading and writing; theories of how we read; writing; spelling; how irregular is English spelling?; the pros and cons of spelling reform; some specific proposals.
While all these fields at least impinge upon spelling reform, it is what the encyclopedia has to say under the last few headings that is most central to our concerns. It is immediately apparent (and characteristic of the whole book) that complex issues are presented thoughtfully and judiciously, and there are no dogmatic answers to questions where the evidence is contradictory or incomplete.
As for spelling reform itself the pros and cons are scrupulously listed-and it is a sign of Crystal's judiciousness that he allows almost as many pros as cons. But it is not the function of an encyclopedia to advocate currently eccentric views, and so the cons predictably beat the pros - by a score of 5 to 4. As a survey of ideas on spelling reform up to about twenty years ago, one must say the treatment is fair enough.
However neither Harry Lindgren, Valerie Yule nor John Downing are mentioned, and recent ideas (Stages, SR 1, Cut Spelling, etc) emanating particularly from Australia are not reflected in the arguments (nor in the samples of reformed spelling shown). In consequence the 'cons' appear a somewhat jaded set of objections. They are as follows:
- Spelling reform would mean a major break in continuity between old and new, with major problems during the period of transition. But modern reform proposals, unlike earlier ones, are specifically designed to ensure compatibility and so minimise such problems.
- People would be unwilling to learn an alternative system. But modem proposals merely develop the present system and would require few people to learn new forms.
- It would be necessary to reprint important works in new spelling. But if the new spellings are compatible with the old, there would be no such need - and in any case today's technology can provide cheap and rapid conversion of computer-readable text from one orthography to another.
- The phonetic principle might promote diversity of spellings between accents. But that is precisely why Cut Spelling is not primarily based on the phonetic principle.
- Lack of agreement between reformers and their often unappealing, evangelistic manner. To this we must say 'touché', and resolve to mend our ways!
The Encyclopedia's view of spelling generally appears to be unwarrantedly TO-centric. Thus, learning to read is a "struggle", sound-symbol correspondences are imperfect, and writing requires a good visual memory to handle exceptions. This may all be fair comment on TO, but it hardly applies to many other systems, and not at all to i.t.a.
However, we should be grateful for the detailed coverage the Encyclopedia gives to the issue of spelling reform which will help to raise public awareness of the question. Perhaps future editions will take more recent thinking into account - and extend the advanced spelling of the word Encyclopedia more widely. If geography provided the spelling-model for paleography (as the Americans already write it), we might begin to relegate the form palaeography to the role of a synonym for TO.
Mary Mason Language Awareness.Printed by Wigan College of Technology, 1985, £l5
In the last few years Mary Mason has been developing a 3-part course for the first 3 years of secondary education, and has been trying the first part out on 12 year olds in Wigan, with marked success in raising their ability to cope with formal written language. The 3 parts are entitled 1. Language Awareness, 2. Reading school textbooks, 3. Writing examination answers. The perspective of the course is not confined to English, but is worldwide, and students are set to puzzling out meanings, sounds and writing in short samples of Chinese, Greek, Russian, and several languages of the Indian subcontinent, as well as of Europe.
The course aims to reverse the rejection of formal grammar which has done such harm to the linguistic understanding of able students in the past 20 years, but without returning to the 'dry-as-dust' inculcation of the subject remembered by so many alumni of the old English grammar schools. Instead, language is presented in a lively way, constantly related to the real-life experience and needs of children, capitalising on the new multi-cultural environment, and task-oriented, so that the students spend their time actively wrestling with real linguistic problems.
English spelling as such figures only spasmodically, and who can be surprised at that, when for all its academic fascination it is such an stultifying field of study for the would-be literate. Some idea is given as to the origin particularly of the Latin and Greek spelling patterns in English, but the central issue of sound-symbol correspondence in TO is almost entirely ignored. On the other hand the more abstruse morphemic aspect is touched on, insofar as it helps explain patterns of consonant doubling (unneeded but unironed, rubbed but invaded, bigger but cleverer, succeed but precede). The odd hint on heterophone distinction is also given (here cf. there, where; hear cf. ear). Some work on punctuation is included, notably on the apostrophe and on sentence-markers. Inevitably in a work for such an age-group there has to be much simplification, but it is a pity to see the invention of written English picturesquely attributed to Alfred, rather than to, say, Bede some 150 years earlier (c.735AD).
The whole approach of this course must nevertheless be welcomed, as encouraging a better informed view of the nature of written English as we now know it. Spelling reformers will especially warm to the following exercise which is set midway through the course: "Make up a new writing system for English - you can use either an alphabet or ideographs. (Since no one will understand it, it will be a secret code)." But we may question the assumption that a new writing system is necessarily incomprehensible.
[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p35 later designated J8]
[Edward Rondthaler: see Journals, Newsletters, Anthology, Bulletins, Personal View 8, ALC web.]
Michael Stubbs The Synchronic Organization of English Spelling.
Review by Edward Rondthaler.
Professor Michael Stubbs The Synchronic Organization of English Spelling, Working Paper No.10 of the Committee for Linguistics in Education (Linguistics Association of Great Britain/British Association for Applied Linguistics), 1986.Spelling reformers looking for a half-hour of absorbing reading will find no more revealing pages than those in Working Paper No.10, The Synchronic Organization of English Spelling by Michael Stubbs. It is well written from beginning to end, and contains some surprises.
Dr Edward Rondthaler is a long-time typographic designer and author of Life with Letters - as they turned photogenic (1981), coeditor of the Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling (1986), and President of the American Language Academy, the successor to the American Simplified Spelling Association.
The action takes place at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where a group of linguistic scholars from the Universities of London, Essex, Manchester, Nottingham, Sussex, Leeds, York, Aston and elsewhere assembled in April 1986 to discuss English spelling's synchronic organization. Professor Stubbs chaired the meeting and gives a brilliant summary of the give-and-take.
At the outset he maps the perimeters beyond which comments would be considered off bounds. The playing field covered "the nature of the English spelling system: that is, what the relation is between letters and phonology, morphology, lexis, syntax, and semantics." Off bounds were, in the main, any major discussion of spelling reform, punctuation and, most surprisingly, the spelling systems of other languages - surprising because the synchronic organization of English spelling has much to learn from the synchronic organization of spelling in other languages.
For the participants it turned out to be a tough assignment, yet if there is any group qualified to discuss English spelling patterns, certainly it is these scholars - the cream of the crop. One has every reason to expect from them sound insight and guidance.
The participants did nobly. Even so, they were put to it to show the rightness of our orthography. There was a great deal of grasping of straws to find consistent patterns.
One of the straws - of such importance, it seems, that it was cited twice - was that, except for foreign borrowings, "no words in English are written with <v> in final position". Where terminal <v> would be logical, as in give/have/love, our spelling tacks on a silent <e>, apparently to avoid making an exception to the no-terminal <v> rule. Likewise, except for foreign borrowings, no words in English terminate in <z>. (Did the panelists overlook adz, quizz, whizz?) Another straw firmly grasped was the regularity of <'s> to indicate possession; and <s> for plurals. It was recognized, of course, that mouse/mice represents an entirely different category of plurals.
The participants moved on to make as good a case as possible for traditional spelling, pointing out that familiarity with Latin and Greek is helpful in deciding whether, for example, <ch> in chore is pronounced /k/ or /tsh/. They wisely shied away from supporting such rules as '<i> before <e> except after <c>', and decided that the less precise term "preference rating" be used rather than "rule". The proposal is a good one, since "rule" implies a consistency not common in English spelling except in the case of terminal <v>.
A respected author, K H Albrow, was cited as having classified words ending in <-ow> as "basic", and those ending in <o> as "exotic". The speller "would then have to be aware that arrow/elbow/window were basic while bravo/bronco/hero were in some sense exotic".
To quote further - "Possibly the most widespread belief about English spelling, amongst non-linguists, is that it is 'illogical'. The published linguistic descriptions, on the other hand, argue that it is not illogical, but complex. It is a system which has more regularities than are apparent on the surface, and in which inconsistencies are the result of conflicting principles rather than perversity." Just a minute! What sort of glib rationalization is that? - A spelling that has greater regularity deep down where we cannot see it than on the surface where we see and use it. - A spelling that is not really illogical but just complex. - A spelling that is inconsistent only because of its conflicting principles. Any one of those hollow vindications is reason enough to be dissatisfied with the status quo of English spelling. Taken together they are a wide open indictment.
More and more the meeting seemed to be getting uneasy about finding a consistent thread in our spelling. Perhaps it felt akin to the Roman scholar who is said to have written a thesis defending Roman numerals against the harrowing possibility of a takeover by Arabic numerals.
In conclusion it must be pointed out that the Working Paper brings little comfort or help to those deeply concerned about the economic and social consequences of illiteracy among our English-speaking minorities, the poor, the high school dropouts, delinquents, immigrants, those in penal institutions, the hard-core unemployed, and others who are far from being able to master "inconsistencies that are the result of conflicting principles rather than perversity". That it is possible for such highly respected linguists to find as little in the way of rules, consistent patterns, or other attributes that would aid in solving the illiteracy crisis is truly frightening.
If the Working Paper, rewritten in less academic fashion, were widely circulated it is just possible that its shock, like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, would stimulate a public awakening, and with it the realization that our leaders themselves are at sea when it comes to justifying the irregularities of English spelling.
[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1988/2, p36 later designated J8]
Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (ALBSU) Literacy, Numeracy and Adults (Evidence from the National Child Development Study), November 1987.
-, Newsletter. No. 28, Winter 1988.
-, Information Release The 3R's at work is - Basic Education in the Workplace, March 1988.
Department of Education and Science Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of English Language (Kingman Committee), March 1988.
English Today Vol. IV No. 2, April 1988.
AIROE, Paris Liaisons - HESO No. 15, December 1987.
Initial Teaching Alphabet Federation UK i.t.a. Federation Newsletter, Spring 1988.
Institut für deutsche Sprache, Mannheim Sprachreport 1/88, 2/88.
Research and Practice in Adult Literacy RaPAL Bulletin No. 5 Spring 1988.
Spelling Action Society (Australia) Spelling Action 1987 January-March, July-September.
United Kingdom Reading Association (UKRA) Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 11 No. 1, February 1988.
-, UKRA Newsletter February 1988.
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