I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
While English is spoken widely around the world, its complicated spelling rules make written communication difficult. Over the years, there have been several failed attempts to simplify English spelling. But, there’s a hard core that will never give up on the challenge.
The Simplified Spelling Society (aka The Simplified Speling Soesiety)
In March 1912, the first edition of The Pioneer ov Simplified Speling appeared. It was a production of the Simplified Speling Soesiety that was based in London, England. The group complained that English spelling was “in sum waiz unreezonabl and retrograde,” and set about reforming it.
One member, playwright George Bernard Shaw, is credited, among others, with suggesting that under existing rules a logical spelling for the word “fish” is “ghoti.” The “gh” comes from tough, the “o” from women, and the “ti” from nation. Shaw was so keen on simplified spelling that he placed his estate into a trust to fund the reforming of the English alphabet.
The society (soesiety if you will) is still battling the forces of resistance to change. The secretary of the SSS, John Gledhill, told Reuters “English is about the only language, apart from French, on the world stage that hasn’t updated its spelling for 500 years. That is why it is in rather a mess.”
The words head, friend, and said share a similar vowel sound; why not spell them the same way, phonetically, to produce hed, frend, and sed? But, this way lies a trap.
Writer Bill Bryson asks “If we decide to standardize the spelling of words, whose pronunciation shall we use?” Here’s linguist Baden Eunson (The Coversation): “If we insisted on strictly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, garull in Scotland.” Enuf alredy.
A measure of how popular reform is can be taken from the membership in the SSS. Immediately after World War I it had 35,000 members, today this has dwindled to 500.
English Is Hard to Learn
Italian is a language that is phonetic; there are few silent letters and most are pronounced the same way in different words.
Compare this with phlegm, or dough and ought. Spellings such as those are called irregular, although irregularly spelled words in English are so common they could be called regular. About a quarter of the words in English don’t follow regular rules of spelling and many of these are among the most frequently used words.
Prior to the 18th century, this was not a problem; there was great flexibility in spelling. Then, some clever sparks came along and invented dictionaries, and spellings became codified.
This is where we meet up with graphemes. These are written symbols, letters or clusters of letters, that represent a sound. So, k, m, igh, tch, and sh are graphemes. Most European languages have 50 graphemes except English, which has 250.
No form of English is written out completely phonetically as anybody with a tough cough (tuf cawf?) will know. Any new spelling rules would need plenty of exceptions.
Christine Ro, BBC
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The English Spelling Society (ESS) quotes Professor Philip Seymour of Dundee University: “Children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year . . . The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow.”
So, children learning English have to labouriously commit five times more graphemes to memory than, say, Finnish kids. The ESS says the inconsistent spelling leads to higher failure rates and adds, “They prevent millions from ever becoming competent readers or spellers, with devastating effects on their lives. They reduce their employment prospects and exclude them from the mainstream of life.”
If Phonetic Spelling, Why not Phonetic Punctuation?
American Spelling Is Simpler
The American Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, embarked on a campaign to clean up English spelling. The BBC notes that “Not only would learners find it easier to master simplified spellings, Webster reasoned, but humbler spellings were actually more democratic, and would help differentiate the Americans from their recent colonial masters across the pond.”
So, Americans have center instead of centre, and program replaces programme. They drop the “u” out of labour, colour, and neighbour (although they don’t go as far as naybor). However, The Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was then called, would have approved of naybor.
Under the guidance of publisher Colonel Robert McCormick, The Tribune spent four decades pushing simplified spelling. The newspaper referred to English spelling as an “unspeakable offense,” and a “monster cruelty.”
Readers were given indefinitly (indefinitely), hoky (hockey), missil (missile), and rime (rhyme). Col. McCormick died in 1955 and the newspaper quietly dropped some of his spellings but kept a few until it reverted to standard spelling in 1975.
English by the Numbers
- About 20 percent of the world’s population speak English but for most of them the language isn’t their native tongue. Only about 360 million of the world’s 7.5 billion people (less than five percent) speak English as their first language.
- English is widely used as a common language in the European Union, so it’s likely an Estonian Member of the European Parliament will converse with a colleague from Austria in English.
- According to eurostat “In 2016, 94 percent of pupils in upper secondary education in the EU learnt English.”
- The British are woefully behind in learning a foreign language. Compulsory foreign language instruction was removed from British secondary school curricula in 2004. And, “As many as 40 percent of university language departments are likely to close within a decade (The Guardian, August 2013).” More than two thirds of British people only speak English.
- In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin pushed for an “alfabet” that eliminated the letter “x.”
- Former U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr. said in a 2011 speech “It’s interesting to note that the largest English-speaking nation today, or soon to be, is China.”
- There are 46 countries in which English is spoken by at least 50 percent of the population including Finland, Singapore, Germany, Belgium, and The Philippines.
- The English language is constantly evolving. There was a time when awesome meant to be filled with terror, dread, and fear in the presence of God. Feeling light-hearted and happy used to be described by the word gay.
- U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was an advocate of spelling reform. In 1906, he ordered the government printing office to use simplified spelling. The experiment lasted a few months until Congress put a stop to it.
- “Foreign Language Learning Statistics.” Eurostat, undated.
- “Simplified Spelling Society: ‘Let’s Get Phonetic.” Paul Majendie, Reuters, April 17, 2007.
- “The Early 20th Century Society That Tried to Make English Spelling More Intuitive.” Shaunacy Ferro, Mental Floss, February 3, 2018.
- “The Absurdity of English Spelling and Why We’re Stuck with it.” Baden Eunson, The Conversation, July 26, 2015.
- “Economic and Social Costs of English Spelling.” The English Spelling Society, undated.
- “Don’t Be Agast (or even Aghast)! Tribune Once Trifled with Standard Spelling.” Stephan Benzkofer, Chicago Tribune, January 29, 2012.
- “Noah Webster’s Spelling Reforms Turned ‘Centre’ into ‘Center’ and ‘Labour’ into ‘Labor.’ Some People Are Pushing for Wider Adoption of Simpler Versions of English Spellings.” Christine Ro, BBC, June 13, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 13, 2019:
Core blimey. Thou art right. Thanks.
Susan Edwards on September 13, 2019:
I think there's a word missing in your third sentence. This makes the English even harder to understand by a slug like me.