On other pages part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.



by Ralph Cropper.

When two items are not aligned and we want to bring them into harmony, it is as well to look at both items to see what can be done. We are interested in spelling reform because spelling is out of harmony with speech. Looked at the other way, this means that speech is out of line with spelling and ought to be re-examined on this basis.

We know that speech is the more ancient of the two aspects of communication. Speech is more elusive and variable. It is complicated by the variations of dialects and the numerous changes which are constantly proceeding, even to the extent of the creation of new dialects or languages. Until recent years, there was no permanent record of speech, whereas the very nature of spelling is that it is immediately set down on the permanent record. Speech is part and parcel of our human nature and existence. Many of us are scarcely aware exactly how we make our speech sounds and how satisfactorily we get our speech over to the listeners. Moreover, we are usually very touchy on being checked or corrected on any item of enunciation; this takes on the nature of an affront, because speech is regarded as being so intensely individual and something which is both our inherent birthright and personal prerogative.

These are some of the inherent difficulties in approaching any attempt at reform of speech. But they do not deny that the problem ought to be looked at and this, in my view, is within the scope of this Society. My objective is to get spelling as closely in line with speech as is achievable. So far as speech can be reformed, this makes the problem of spelling reform less immense.

One of the important purposes of spelling is to guide us on pronunciation. There ought not to be any need for dictionaries to have to give guidance on pronunciation. Therefore, when we can, why do we not attempt to pronounce the words as they are spelled. Maybe there is only limited scope for progress in this direction, but every step helps. I have always been a pragmatist on the problems of language, keen to make small improvements when they can be achieved, but always keeping in mind the long inheritance and tradition of the English language and the views of the public generally.

In many ways, I do not mind which words we 'play with' in attempting some modest steps for corrected pronunciation. Frequently, when pronunciation is out of line with spelling, this is due merely to slovenly speaking, because we are too lazy to form all the sounds which are required for that word. We all want to speak quickly, and so elision, particularly of consonants, occurs. The medial 'T' is a frequent sufferer, because it requires a very sharp movement of the tongue in the middle of the word, which must tend to slow down the speed of the speaker.

Whilst there is little hope of getting all the medial 'T's pronounced (a course which in any case would be undesirable for many other reasons), I suggest that the word 'often' provides a useful example. Many speakers still pronounce the 'T'; it can fairly be contended that those who do not are just being lazy. Where there is any alternative, let us pronounce in the way of the spelling. The same principle might well be extended to parallel words, such as 'listen', 'soften', 'hasten', even though the 'T' is more frequently dropped. With each such word where we succeed on pronunciation, the task of spelling reform is made easier.

The acme of absurdity with pronunciation is with certain names. There is the wine where the adverts go on to declare: 'pronounced ... ... '. What an enormous waste of time and effort. These manufacturers should be laughed out of court. They have the option of allowing the pronunciation in accordance with the spelling, or changing the spelling. I suggest that if we desire that kind of wine, we should boldly insist on asking for it as Cockburns. When I have done this, I have been castigated as an ignoramus, but we should have the courage to persevere.

Then there is the story of Lord Chalmondley. When the plumber arrived asking for Lord Chalmondley, the butler haughtily replied: "Lord Chalmondley, pronounced CHUMLEY, is in; who shall I say desires to see him?" The reply came: "Tell him Mr Bottomly, pronounced BUMLEY, wants to do his pipes. After all, Chumley is no more than the lazy speech form of Chalmondley, spoken too quickly.

There are many town names where only a small change in pronunciation would help towards alignment with spelling. It is the cockney vowel sound which accounts for the current mispronunciation of 'Lundern'. The first vowel is more frequently misformed than the second. But is there any reason why we should not say 'London'?

Another frequent lost letter is 'W', which again requires the lips to be brought forward and so becomes a bother in the middle of a word. Thus people slide over the sound and it becomes the accepted practice to lose it completely. Two examples are Woolwich, in southeast London, and Southwell in Nottinghamshire.

These are practical changes which could easily be encouraged. But I want to go on to consider whether there are any theoretical foundations for pronunciation, - indeed, to ask whether there is any rationale behind speech, in a way parallel to all the scientific logic which support the various schemes of spelling reform so skilfully produced by other members of this Society.

It is only recently that I saw the new letterhead of the Society. Amongst the list of 'former officer-holders and members', printed at the side of the notepaper, is one that agreeably surprised me: Sir Richard Paget. He has been dead for 20 years and I have no idea what part he played in the Society. He was a remarkable man, mainly known as a barrister and physicist and as chairman of a number of important commissions. But his most original contribution to knowledge lay in his investigations into the nature of language, particularly phonetics and the techniques of vocalisation.

I first met his work when browsing (of all unlikely places) through the library of an unemployed men's club in Gateshead. The book I found was his summary entitled 'This English', published 1935. His primary work entitled 'Human Speech' had been published in 1930. What has amazed me in the intervening years is that I never see his work quoted nor does anyone seem to pay heed to the discoveries which he revealed. With his name appearing on our letterhead, I feel fully justified in bringing them to your notice because I regard them as an outstanding contribution to the central problem with which we are faced, the dichotomy between spelling and speech.

His contribution has been summarised as the theory of the pantomimic action of tongue and lips. He provides the explanation of speech as being basically gestural, with the mouth as the actor, instead of hands and other parts of the body. We all make use of gesture at certain times. It can, indeed, be developed into a full scheme of communication, as sign language. The signs used tend to become formalised, but they are fundamentally based on the appropriate gesture for the idea involved. The mouth, says Paget, follows a very similar pattern of formalised signs, using lips, tongue and other parts of the mouth.

As such, there is no emission of sound. Proof that sound is not the first essential of speech is shown by the facility of lip-reading, which is reasonably capable of attainment for those who persevere. However, the benefit of adding phonation to the mouth movements is that we no longer need to use our eyes to watch the lips, but can use our ears which offers far greater scope for flexibility of positioning.

Paget made a close study of the exact movements performed within the mouth and was able to correlate them with appropriate gestures in an astonishing number of instances. He also minutely examined many sign languages throughout the world, both of the deaf and dumb as well as primitive tribes, and was able to show how the gestures and symbols adopted in these sign languages offer a close parallel with the mouth gestures used in many spoken languages.

I have not seen his theories contradicted, nor replaced by any more convincing theory, to explain the nature of speech sounds and their endurance in language. If his views are sound, then I would submit that there cannot be any satisfactory presentation of a scheme for spelling reform which does not continue to reflect the gestural activity within the mouth upon which those words rest.

One of the troubles about any thorough-going scheme of spelling reform, however skilful and refined it may be at todays date, is that it assumes that speech and pronunciation are going to remain constant in the future. With all the pulls in English from many parts of the world, it is more than likely that speech and the pronunciation of words will change considerably over the coming years. So that is another reason why we should all endeavour to undertake spelling reform in reverse, whenever we can, in order to encourage the closest parallelism between speech and spelling. In addition, assuming the introduction of some scheme of spelling reform, whether limited or comprehensive, there is a much greater likelihood of the sounds remaining in line with spelling if the mouth gestures which underlie each and every word are carefully preserved in any such scheme. That is the importance of the contribution made by Sir Richard Paget.

I have a final point to submit, a particular bete-noir of my own. I did put the point to the President and he felt it was outside the scope of this Society. However, if our purpose is to link spelling with speech so that in speaking we reflect the written form, then I think my odd point is within our ambit. I refer to the use of 'Esq' in the written form of address so often used when writing to men. We never say 'Esq' or 'esquire'; those who persist in writing to men in this way should be prepared to speak in the same form. I hope that some of those present will join me in protesting against this archaic form which does not conform with the way we speak. It is spelling reform in reverse.


Our Second International Conference is planned for the last full week in August 1977. Last year's Conference was highly successful. We now invite all those who wish to do so to send us advanced notification of presenting papers at the 1977 Conference - either to be read or tabled. Please write to the Education Secretary, Staines, Middx., England.

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On other pages part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.