Personal Views are the self-expression medium for Society members. The views expressed here are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the Society, or a majority of its members.
[PV 2 stated an earlier version of SSS Aim and Objectives.]
[See Journal and Newsletter articles by Paul Fletcher.]
Personal View 2
by Paul Fletcher.
Paul Fletcher is a civil servant. He previously worked as an
interpreter for the RAF, and has taught English in Germany and German in
England (evening classes).
He is an Oxford graduate in French and German, is also fluent in Spanish and has some knowledge of Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Serbo-Croat. He has been a member of the Society since 1987.
This pamphlet explores the thesis that in the last resort, utter regularity in a
spelling system at the expense of greater change is more acceptable because rules
and exceptions can thereby be reduced to the minimum. It is no good devising a
system based on the received knowledge of existing speakers because, to quote
Maynard Keynes, "In the long run - we shall all be dead".
From this perspective there is no point in distorting a system to allow the maximum number of existing spellings to remain undisturbed. At the basis of the proposal is the West European alphabet and the common vowel system derived from it. These form a unifying influence in a world which, because of the vast spread of trade, travel and communications, is becoming increasingly unified.
INTRODUCTION.This pamphlet is one of a series of publications by the Simplified Spelling Society (SSS) on ways to improve the spelling of English. It is intended mainly for those who are already convinced of the pressing need for some kind of reform.
It is helpful though to remind ourselves of the reasons for reform:
a) For various reasons --- the British Commonwealth, American commercial and political dominance, the structural flexibility and simplicity of the language --- English has become the paramount world language. The demise of communism and the Soviet hegemony can only reinforce that trend. Despite elaborate and expensive translation arrangements, it is the dominant language in the European Community;
b) apart from Gaelic and Irish, which are minority cults, and Japanese, English has of the major world languages, easily the most difficult and irregular spelling systems;
c) learning to read and write English is consequently very time consuming and costly. This is especially important for the millions of people who have English as a secondary official language or who are learning it as a foreign language at school or for business or pleasure;
d) spelling reform would immeasurably reduce this protracted learning task. The more radical the reforms, the greater the benefits;
e) no worthwhile reforms have occurred to date because of the lack of authoritative will and the sheer weight of tradition, notably the mistaken belief that reform would alter the language, whereas in fact a language exists primarily in its spoken form and no one is suggesting trying to alter that;
f) other barriers to reform are the sheer cost of altering printed matter --- which must be small compared with the cost of inculcating the present system --- and what might be called the fagging or army recruit syndrome: "If I went through it and survived, so can you". This is an essentially reactionary argument, unfortunately spreading with wider literacy.
The days of Shakespeare, when you could spell as you liked, are gone. Today, rightly or wrongly, people expect correct spelling. The British Government at least recognises that in its stress on correct spelling in the National Curriculum.
What new system should a reformer choose? How far should we go? Pamphlet 13 Spelling Reform in Context, published by the SSS in 1991, explains the various possible approaches to reform.
One approach is to make small incremental changes which can be implemented quickly. Many European countries have had a more or less regular or "phonetic" spelling system for centuries. Their need for reform was limited, so changes could be and are implemented without repercussion upon the rest of the system. Thus in German, hard initial c has been changed to k (Coeln, Coblenz > Koeln, Koblenz) and superfluous h after t has been cut out (That, Thugend > Tat, Tugend).
Such small scale changes could be made in English. Ph could be changed to f (sulfur, foto) and silent initial consonants could be dropped (nife, onour, sychiatry). Such changes are very worthwhile. Change on that scale is all that has been needed in many languages. But they would only scratch the surface of the immense spelling problems under which English labours. The problems are caused by:
a) the absence of an overall consistent set of rules;
b) a multiplicity of rules, mostly only of partial application;
c) many rules contradict one another;
d) all the rules have numerous exceptions.
Faced with impossible spelling (we cannot grace it with the label "system"), and indifference and outright hostility to reform, the Simplified Spelling Society recognises that it must consider various strategies to achieve reform.
Strategies so far explored can be classified as follows:
a) small self-contained changes as described above;
b) pruning surplus letters while retaining the existing "system", as exemplified in the Society's publication Cut Spelng, March 1992;
c) various regular systems.
Strategy a) could eventually succeed but is impossibly modest and gradual for the urgent problems of English. Strategy b) as exemplified by Cut Spelng is easily read by existing English speakers, but does not rationalise the system. It can be viewed as either an end in itself or a stepping stone to wholesale reform. Strategy c) must be the ultimate solution. In the past, the SSS endorsed only its own reformed system, republished in 1991 as New Spelling 90. It is based essentially on rationalising the existing system and like most proposals assumes that the more words that are left unchanged the more acceptable it will be.
This pamphlet explores the thesis that in the last resort, utter regularity in a spelling system at the expense of greater change is more acceptable because rules and exceptions can thereby be reduced to the minimum. It is no good devising a system based on the received knowledge of existing speakers because, to quote Maynard Keynes, "In the long run -- we shall all be dead". We must cater for all learners of English, comprising the three main groups, first language speakers, second language speakers and those learning it as a foreign language. Clearly, existing speakers are only a part of the "market", one which is replaced every generation.
From this perspective there is no point in distorting a system to allow the maximum number of existing spellings to remain undisturbed. It is temptingly easy to lapse into a sort of shorthand which presupposes knowledge of existing spelling.
The test of a system must therefore be: how easy is it for children and non-English speakers to learn it? NOT: how easy is it for existing speakers to adapt to it?
The main problem with English spelling is the vowels. Firstly there are far more sounds than the alphabet can cope with. But this is a feature of other languages too, and they have dealt with it. English spelling of vowel sounds is irregular and contradictory and various consonantal devices (e.g. doubles and silent medials) are used to eke them out. By contrast the consonants cause little trouble. Indeed most are pronounced the same way in many European languages as well as in the countless other tongues which have transcribed into the Roman (West European) alphabet.
The West European alphabet and the common vowel system derived from it are a unifying influence in a world which, because of the vast spread of trade, travel and communications, is becoming increasingly unified. Whenever a new language is discovered or is written down for the first time, it is written in our alphabet as a matter of course. The only notable exceptions are some Asiatic tongues which were transcribed into Cyrillic because their speakers were subjects of the Soviet Union, and some tongues in Islamic countries which are written in Arabic. On the other hand there is a move in India to transcribe many tongues into the Roman alphabet because that would be a unifying influence.
Such transcriptions and those of foreign place names follow the overwhelming pattern of European languages, apart from English in employing Latin vowel values: Ah, eh, ieh, oh, ooh, instead of aih, ee, eye, oh, you. It would be of enormous benefit, not only to English but to mutual comprehension if we adopted this vowel system used by most of Europe, Central and South America, Malaysia, Indonesia, and countless speakers of African and Polynesian languages including Maori, not to mention the romanised transcriptions of Chinese and Japanese. Present day English spelling is the odd-man-out in this world wide system. As a result, when it came to naming a new invention like radio, English speakers were influenced by a common pronunciation of the first letter in English, so that we say "raydioh" while the rest of the world says "rahdioh".
When we come to consider the individual vowel sounds below it will become apparent how much English differs from the common Latinised pattern.
When it comes to consonants, it will be seen from the table below that there are various ways of conveying some of them, particularly those that require two letters in many European languages. Here there is no consensus for many sounds. But it will be noted that the renderings which receive almost universal acceptance whenever the Latin alphabet is used to transcribe names for international usage, are derived from English. In nearly all cases, consonants follow English usage and the vowels have the common European, but un-English, values which we have adopted for foreign names.
For comparison, we show how these place names would be transcribed according to the rules of some other languages:
A NEW SYSTEM.First some general principles:
a) We are agreed within the SSS that we should stick to the existing 26 letter alphabet, because it reduces the scope for unfamiliarity and avoids the expense of changing type faces. Also of course it maintains the world wide links described above.
b) We are also agreed in the SSS that diacritics and written accents are a nuisance, difficult to remember accurately and also open to the typeface objection, so best avoided if possible.
c) For regularity, one sound should always be written the same way and one letter or group of letters should always produce the same sound for a particular speaker. In other words sound and symbol should correspond to each other. This should not need stating --- it is taken for granted in most languages.
d) Although one pronunciation cannot be imposed on all 1,000 million English speakers/ users, the system should cater for as many regular variations of accent as possible, but not to the point of merging sounds which have regular variants (see chart). The system should cater for the full pronunciation of words all of which may not be distinguished by particular accents. Thus in southern English flaw and floor are pronounced the same way, and in Scotland tot and taught sound roughly the same. Where some accents distinguish between vowels and others do not, it should be the majority or standard English which sets the tone. Where two different accents pronounce a word quite differently, variant spellings should be tolerated. These will often be local peculiarities which have nothing to do with the local accent. Compare the two versions of often and the British and American variants for fertile, missile, potato, tomato and harass. No system with pretensions to regularity could absorb such differences without resorting to variant spellings. Some variants are recognised by TO already: bath/bathe, clean/cleanse.
e) No one letter should influence the pronunciation of another. Particular culprits are: the magic e (fat, fate), w (tan, wan) and l (pal/ palm, bat/ ball, moll/ mole), and of course the double consonant (tinny, tiny). Letter r is a particular trap and examples are given with each vowel below.
f) Double letters should not be used except where they genuinely represent the same sound pronounced twice, e.g. rat-trap, bookcase, meanness, though practice appears to vary with the -ness words.
g) Long vowels should clearly derive from their short version and diphthongs should clearly derive from their components. Why should doubling the o in hot lead to the sound of hoot? Again, the au in German is clearly derived from a as in Hahn and u as in Stuttgart. The similar English ou as in house is clearly not an amalgam of o as in hop or hope and u as in us, put or use. This is important for learning and the integrity of the system.
h) Every syllable should contain a vowel, again for the avoidance of doubt, particularly among learners. Compare prism and prison, which both have two syllables. This is an issue we have wrestled with in the SSS in dealing with Cut Spelling. Omitting unaccented syllables presumes a knowledge of the existing spelling. This system does not. Existing English speakers pronounce rhyth-um and rhyth-mic but the foreign learner could be forgiven for saying rhyth-um-ic for the latter word. So for clarity and regularity, the consonant-only syllable is avoided.
i) This leads to the next rule, which is again for clarity and regularity: no consonant should be used as a vowel and no vowel should be used as a consonant. Compare TO: rye, yes; wan, howl.
j) Lastly, spelling should be based on the full (citation) pronunciation of a word. Syllables which have not yet been eroded need to be conveyed faithfully. Usage and dictionaries must be our guide here. Forms will need to be chosen realistically. Thus we cannot pretend that issue is still pronounced issyue when everyone says ishue. Similarly tortoise and porpoise which could be conveyed in TO as tortus and porpus. This last point is important for the public because under a phonetic system people will expect sound to correspond to symbol and received spellings will tend to fix the pronunciation.
New Vowel System.Let us start with those troublesome vowels. The short version of the English vowels often adheres to the European norm already: pat, pet, pit, pot, put.
A.Short a can be pronounced in varying ways depending on accent, so we will use A for the sound CAT.
Most accents distinguish a long a as in father, bath, lath. This needs a separate symbol, so I propose AE, BAETH. Northerners will have to get used to a separate symbol for what is to them the same sound. It would certainly be convenient for the absorption of foreign words to write A every time --- Bata, Kalmata, Khishasa --- but there would be confusion with ar since we are no longer relying on double letters to determine the length of the preceding vowel, a device which is not employed regularly in TO in any case:
|short A||long a (AE).|
E.Again short e presents no problem. Short e as in bed and all other spellings can follow the same pattern: HEVI, BRETH.
The long version of e is a diphthong in standard English, often written ei, so we standardise on EI as in VEIL, so: FREIT, BIHEIV, MEIL, CONVEI.
Many accents (eg Yorkshire, Caribbean) will continue to pronounce a pure long e sound.
I.Short as in pin, again presents no problem: PIN, SIV, GIV, ANGRI. In English it is vital to distinguish the short i from the long, even though in many languages little or no distinction is made (Tbilisi, Mitsubishi) e.g. slip/ sleep, dip/ deep, filled/ field. For lack of a separate letter we must have recourse to a digraph. IE is suggested which exists already in field, grieve, etc:
SLIP, SLIEP, DIP, DIEP, FILD, FIELD, BEILIF, BILIEF.
In compound words there is an i which, while not short is nearer to I than to IE, so we will use that: busy > BIZI, BADLI, but repeat > RIPIET, delete > DILIET.
O.Short o as in hot follows the European pattern, HOT. The long o sound varies considerably in pronunciation and there is no one convenient digraph. I propose OE as in hoe as the model: HOE, GOET, MOET OETMIEL.
Old fashioned RP also uses the RP version of this sound before l, but for most accents and for most such words the o is diphthongised. Compare holy and wholly. For this sound I propose ou which accurately comprises it for most accents. Thus HOELI GOEST, HOULI BAD, SOUL, MOUL, GOUL, TOULD (which we may wish to distinguish from TOLD):
THI VICUR TOULD THI SECSTUN AND THI SECSTUN TOLD THI BEL.
Another variant or o is oa as in broad and oar. This spelling again roughly shows the pronunciation, oh plus ah, so we can standardise on that: BROAD, OAR, OA, LOA AND OARDUR, FOECLOAR, FOAN.
Note the two versions OA/OAR, which sound the same for Southern English speakers, but not for people who sound their r's. It should be noted that OR is always short, on the principle that r cannot influence a previous vowel, see rule (c) above: FLORIN, FORIN (foreign), FLORID, HISTORIC, HORID, TORID, HORID STOARI, FLORID TOARI.
U.Letter u is difficult because it has four regular sounds in English: put/ soot, gut, due/ use, zoo/ sue/ route.
For the short u in put/ soot we standardise on u to follow the international pattern: PUT, FUT, SPUTNIK. For the longer version of this sound we must again have recourse to adding an e, as in sue: SUE, ZUEM, RUET. For u as in due and use, we write it as it actually sounds, y plus u, yu. Since it is almost always long it does not need an e as well: YU-TRIE, YU, YUS, DYU, FYU, BYUTIFUL.
The short southern English u sound as in cup has no counterpart in other accents except Australasia. Northern English does not distinguish the u in cup and the oo in foot. But for most accents there is a distinction. Perhaps the commonest rendering is a short er sound much like the French eu as in feu or milieu. I propose to standardise on that, particularly as it allows a regular combination with r and absorbs many French borrowings easily: SEUP, MILIEU, MEUR (myrrh), FEUR, SEURLI, GREUF.
SCHWA.This leaves the commonest pure vowel sound in the English language, the unaccented oblique grunt, which is spelt countless different ways according to the original pronunciation. We shall use short U to convey this sound, schwa to the linguists, because it is nearest to the pronunciation, and apply it regularly:
It is also added in those rare cases where an unaccented syllable has no vowel in TO, as mentioned for rule i) above:
This regular spelling for schwa removes many confusing spellings in TO: -ence/ ance/ ause, - ant/ ent, -able/ ible, -ary/ ory/ ery:
Other examples of schwa:
I/BITE.Following rule (f) (transparency of diphthongs) we convey the long i sound of TO as in bite, by its constituent parts, ah plus eeh as in aisle AIL. So: BAIT, BAIL, HAIT (height). This follows the international transcription of names: Shanghai, Cairo, Hawaii.
OU/HOUSE.This is made up of a as in cat and u as in put or o as in pot. It should therefore be written AU or AO. International examples are the Hausa tribe, Macau. AU seems to be the better solution, but AO bears discussion as an alternative: HAU NAU BRAUN CAU, HAO NAO BRAON CAO, PAOLO
OI.TO serves us well here so oi remains unchanged, though oy becomes OI also: BOI, BOIL,
CONSECUTIVE VOWELS PRONOUNCED SEPARATELY.Because we are reduced by the shortcomings of the alphabet to use two letters for some vowel sounds, some difficult letter combinations can arise where two consecutive vowels are pronounced separately. Some compromises and extra rules are needed for clarity and to avoid misreading.
This can occur in words like create. For simplicity we make the e serve both sounds: CRIEIT. Similarly vehicle becomes VIEUCUL, not VIEEUCUL.
Ue as in flue FLUE plus i as in id gives FLUEID, which must be read as FLUE-ID and not FLU-EID. Similarly HEROEIN must be read as HEROEIN. (hero becomes HIEROE).
This will occur frequently. Both u's must be written because the sounds belong to two syllables:
Other vowel combinations should be written in full:
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Forward to part 2.