Brief biographies of the members of the Expert Commission

Robbins Burling

Born 1926 in USA. Was always a terrible speller and the red marks on my school papers persuaded me that I should stick to the sciences where professors were relatively tolerant of imaginative spelling. Taught linguistics and anthropology for several years at the University of Pennsylvania, and then, for much longer at the University of Michigan. Now retired. Author of several books on anthropology and linguistics. One example: "Spellbound: Untangling English Spelling" Equinox: 2016.

John Gledhill

Having already had an interest in spelling systems for English and their development over the centuries as a teenager, in 1973 I completed a doctorate in the development of spelling for Dutch, a language which has consistently aimed at updating its spelling system periodically to reflect changes in punctuation or to drop rules which were an impediment to good literacy (eg silent letters reflecting ancient pronunciations). Since graduation I have tried to follow the many proposals for simplification of English spelling, in particular with the objective of increasing literacy, given that the English-speaking world (not just the UK) has amongst the poorest literacy levels of any European spelling. Most European languages have made greater or lesser updates to their spelling in the last 200 years or so, with the prominent exception of English, providing an obstacle to its continued use as a shared written vehicle for communications across the world by users of other languages. I have supported moves to update English spelling to improve literacy and to maintain its use as an international communication tool.

Chris Jolly

A past President of the society. He graduated in Chemistry from Bristol University, and then taught for two years in Malaysia. After 15 years in consumer marketing he started his own educational publishing company, which publishes Jolly Phonics, a programme for the early teaching of reading and writing. This contributed to the change in policy in the UK towards phonics, and has been sold to almost every country, some adopting it as national policy. He also has a philanthropic arm which supplies the programme for free to government schools systems in sub-Saharan Africa, achieving many adoptions, notably for all state schools in Nigeria. Chris has two honorary doctorates, one from the University of Uyo in Nigeria, and one from his alma mater, Bristol.

Alicia Mariscal

European PhD in Linguistics by University of Cádiz (Spain). Professor in the Degree of Linguistics and Applied Languages at Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Cádiz. Member of the Institute of Applied Linguistics (ILA), and the Spanish Society for Applied Linguistics. Fields of interest: Applied Linguistics for Language Teaching, Bilingualism and Error Analysis, Contrastive Linguistics, and Spelling Processing.

Margaret Nydell

I am a retired professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, specialized in Arabic dialects. I also worked as a linguist at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, including five years as director of the Arabic school in Tunis. I taught linguistics and Arabic at the military academy at West Point. I have a Ph.D. in Linguistics and a Master's in Arabic.

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Did You Know:

• Ask your friend what Y-E-S spells. They won't have any difficulty saying yes. Then ask what E-Y-E-S spells. It's easy when it's written down, but surprisingly difficult when it's spoken. See a YouTube video of this.

• Who has not heard i before e, except after c. A University of Warwick statistician put it to the test. He plugged a list of 350,000 English words into a statistical program to see if the math checked out. It didn't.

• When Adam met Eve for the first time, he said Madam, I'm Adam. This is a palindrome — a phrase or sentence in which the letters, words or even lines read the same in either direction. Adam hoped to impress the most beautiful woman in the world, but she more than matched him by replying simply, Eve. Not bad given that writing, and therefore palindromes, and English ones in particular, had not yet been invented! More palindromes, and a wonderful palindromic poem.

• How would you pronounce ghoti? Pronounce it like this:

and you get ... fish! Thanks to Charles Ollier for writing this in 1855 — and for showing that English spelling has been ludicrous for quite some time.

• One of the arguments in favour of keeping English spelling unchanged is to show the etymology of words. For example, the silent s in island shows the link to the Latin insula. But island actually derives from the Old English íglund, not from the Latin at all. More examples at Mental Floss.


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​Spelling reform is not a new idea!

Benjamin Franklin "The same is to be observed in all the letters, vowels, and consonants, that wherever they are met with, or in whatever company, their sound is always the same. It is also intended that there be no superfluous letters used in spelling, i.e. no letter that is not sounded [...]"  Franklin proposed a spelling scheme with 6 new letters. (Franklin 1806 p359)

Theodore Roosevelt "It is merely an attempt [...] to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic." Theodore Roosevelt promoted the Simplified Spelling Board's gradual reform (see Twain below). (Roosevelt 1906, p3)

Mark Twain "It is my belief that an effort at a slow and gradual change is not worth while. [...] It is the sudden changes [...] that have the best chance of winning in our day. Can we expect a sudden change in our spelling? I think not. But I wish I could see it tried. [...] By a sudden and comprehensive rush the present spelling could be entirely changed and the substitute spelling be accepted, all in the space of a couple of years; and preferred in another couple. But it won't happen, and I am as sorry as a dog." (Twain 1997, pp208-212)

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