English Spelling and Spelling Reform: Attempts at Reforming and Simplifying English Orthography

2012-Mai-26 um 15:24 | Veröffentlicht in Geschichte, Sprache | 3 Kommentare
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With view on its grammar, English might be an easy language to learn. But the orthography of today’s English is highly non-phonetic and irregular. For hundrets of years there were different attempts to reform and simplify English spelling. Some are the basis for orthographic differences between American and British English. Most of them couldn’t achieve any acceptance.

The following article is based on a paper i wrote during my English studies at university.

The non-phonetic English spelling

In difference to languages such as German or Italian, the English language is highly non-phonetic in its spelling, i.e. each phoneme is not represented by one grapheme, as it would be the ideal case, but mostly by much more than one.

Skandera/Burleigh (2005: 7) give an example, in which the phoneme /iː/, the long close front vowel, is represented in ten different ways in the written language: “see, sea, seize, people, key, Caesar, believe, amoeba, machine, and silly” and conversely, the letter a for example, stands for different vowels, as in “father, many, call, village” (ibid.). Another significant example is the letter combination ough in English words. In every of the following cases it is pronounced differentely: in tough as /ʌf/, in cough as /ɒf/, in thought as /oʊ/, in through as /uː/, and in thorough as /ə/ in RP. In addition to that, the English language features many silent letters, e.g. as the e in gave or save, which is not spoken (cf. Fromkin/Rodman/Hyams 2007: 522).

The reason for this non-systematic spelling can be found in the history of the English language. It was influenced by the Latin language, as Britain was part of the Roman Empire for almost 400 years and the language of books was Latin for a long time, by the Old Norse language after the Vikings invaded circa from the year 750 on, and of cause French due to the Norman conquest in 1066. Thus the English language borrowed words from three different language and writing systems. With invention of book printing and schlolar books, the historical orthographic forms of spelling were conserved while the pronounciation changed (cf. Skandera/Burleigh 2005: 7, Fromkin/Rodman/Hyams 2007: 524), i.e. until today historical forms are written whereas different forms are spoken.

Needless to say, there where changes in the orthography as well, but the process was planless instead of systematic (cf. Whelan 2002: 1).

Attempts at reforming and simplifying

In the 18th century some linguistis, but also non-professionell language enthusiasts and illusionists, started thinking about reforming the English spelling and eliminating the irregular forms.

Franklin, Webster and Dewey

In 1768, Benjamin Franklin aimed for radically reforming the English orthography by introducing strict rules for phoneme-grapheme correspondences, i.e. he tried to “designate for each sound in the language a letter, or combination of letters, that would always represent that sound and no other” (cf. Whelan 2002: 1).

Franklin’s work inspired Noah Webster who tried after the American War of Independence to adopt a reformed spelling of American English that should be different from British English. In 1828 his American Dictionary of the English Language was published, in which he introduced his recommendation for a reformed spelling of American English. Some of his reforms can still be found in the American English language today, as

“the deletion of u from words like colour, the removal of the final k from words like magick, the reversal of the final r and e in words like theatre, the reduction of the doubled consonant and the final e in words like programme, the changing of the final ce in words like defence to se, and the simplification of plough to plow and draught to draft” (Whelan 2002: 3).

Also he reduced the ending <-ogue> as in catalogue, giving catalog. Other reform proposals, as the reversal of l and e in words like battle (*battel) or candle (*candel), did not become accepted. The deletion of the final k, as mentioned above, was also adopted to British English later (cf. Carney 1994: 475).

Another important spelling reformist was the librarian Melvil Dewey, a member of the 1906 founded Simplified Spelling Board, who fought for a gradual reforming of American English all his life (cf. Whelan 2002).

The Spelling Society

The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in 1908 in Britain, which has published a great range of reform proposals and is still active today, describing its aims as “raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and to promote remedies to improve literacy.” (English Spelling Society).

In 1948, Walter Ripman and William Archer published their work New Spelling, in which they presented the idea of a radically changed spelling that “should simply reflect surface phonetic contrasts” (Carney 1994: 477). As a first step they introduced the letter combination <dh> for the voiced dental fricative, while <th> should only represent the voiceless correspondent. They suggested to completely delete <c>, <ck>, <q> and <x>, to just use <s> and <z> for /s/ and /z/, and to change <ed> to <t> or <d> where it is just spoken as that, e.g. rushed and begged would become *rusht and *begd. To distinguish verb and noun forms that are homographic, but differently stressed, they introduced different vowel spellings: permit à *purmit, *permit (cf. Carney 1994: 477f). The following text is an example from Ripman’s and Archer’s book:

“Agaen, let us not forget huu form dhe graet majorrity ov dhoez dhat lurn to reed and riet. Dhae ar dhe children dhat atend priemary skuulz; dhaer tiem iz limited. We hav noe riet to impoez on dhem a kaotik speling for dhe saek ov posibly teeching dhem a litl historrikal gramar.” (Ripman/Archer 1948: 93f)

To achive such a radical reform – of cause – failed due to the missing acceptance of society.

Another proposal for simplifying English spelling, the so called Cut Spelling, was presented in 1992 by Christopher Upward, who is also a member of the SSC. As the name suggests, this approach tries to simplify spellig by omitting redundant letters. Firstly, he recommends to get rid of letters representing the schwa /ə/ before /l, m, n, r/, giving *stationry and *principl instead of stationary and principle. He replaces <igh> with <y> as a spelling of /aɪ/ (e.g. fighting à *fytng). Also the <e> is cut out of the suffix -ed, giving for example *ripd. Mostly it is the vowel letters of unstressed syllables that are cut out. The following text is an example from his book:

“Th tourists swirl past in a cloud of dust in ther safari vehicls without stopng, wile th elefnts move in and out of th parks causng widespred damaj to tres, soil and crops. Tres ar regulrly pushd over so they can graze on th leavs. Maze crops ar even mor atractiv. Th truth of this unromantic pictur is undenybl: but th solution wich som hav now sujestd—th reopenng of th ivory trade—must be oposed.” (Upward 1996: 263)

Carvey (1994: 480) describes that the “cut spelling is easiest to read […] when a consonant can be syllabic, as in *<simpl> or *<systm>”. Simultaneously, he criticizes that the redundant letters in written English can easily be spotted, so that it is not necessary to cut them out, and that the cut spellings may be harder to be read by language learners than the conventional spellings (cf. ibid. 480f).

Arguments against a reforming of spelling

One argument that speaks against reforming English spelling is the fact, that historical texts such as Shakespeare’s works or the Declaration of Independence can still be read and understood without translation today, because the written forms are the same. In this case, the written language conserves historical forms by making the sacrifice that it does not completely reflect the currently spoken language. Another argument states that the relatedness of word pairs, such as sign/signature or child/children, could not be that clearly seen anymore if the spelling would be changed to more phonetic forms.

Drive thru: Simplified spellings in everyday life

A simplification of spelling would accommodate English learners in times, in which a large part of world population speaks English as a native or a second language. But it is much more difficult to accomplish a spelling reform for a  language that is such frequently used as English, than it is for languages as German or Swedish, which are restricted to a smaller group of speakers and a more easily defined geographical area with one government. Currently the internet is a global medium in which English is used by a global community to communicate across national boundaries. Thus language frontiers for English blur more and more. In addition to that “many people regard revised spelling as substandard” (Fromkin/Rodman/Hyams 2007: 525) and it would take a long time and much effort to replace the old forms with the reformed ones.

Today, however, we can find simplified spellings in advertisements, where ad writers “often spell though as tho, through as thru, and night as nite” (Fromkin/Rodman/Hyams 2007: 525), in American forms like drive thru or artifact, and also in the internet, e.g. in comments to user-generated content, discussion forums and chatrooms, where the written language is more closely related to the spoken language than in any other form of usage. An Example may be: Ur rite instead of You are right.



3 Kommentare »

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  1. Good, but now bring your essay up to date: 2011, Yule, Valerie ‚Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.‘ English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67 http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A839oLF6


    http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/spelling.htm#word Can you spell? The best of us may not be perfect.

  2. […] Sprachen ihre Schreibung vorurteilslos anpassen, systematisieren und vereinfachen, tut sich das Englische und – zwar nicht mit vergleichbarer Brisanz – auch das Deutsche und der Deutsche schwer […]

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