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English spelling reform is the collective term for various campaigns and efforts to change the spelling of the English language to make it simpler and more rationally consistent. There exists a small-scale movement among amateur and professional linguists, but one with a long history and some mixed successes.

Supporters assert that the many inconsistencies and irregularities of English spelling lead to severe difficulties for learners. They believe this leads to a lower level of literacy among English speakers compared with speakers of languages having a spelling system that is more consistent in representing meaning as well as pronunciation. Many reformers think that it should more faithfully conform to how the language is spoken, and have pointed out costs to the environment and business and other users in retaining traditional spelling.

English does in fact have a very poor phonemic orthography, or correspondence between how the words are written and how they are spoken. This is due in part to changes in commonly accepted dialects of English from older pronunciations.

There is opposition to spelling reform from traditionalists who feel that something is to be lost from simplifying the spelling of English; this can range from numinous 'old world' sensibilities to feared concrete financial losses by opposing vested interests (notably printers, and purveyors of rival solutions or palliative measures such as shorthand, remedial literacy and synthetic phonics).[citation needed]



There have been two periods when spelling reform of the English language has attracted particular interest.

The first of these periods was between the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th when a number of publications outlining proposals for reform were published. Some of these proposals were:

These proposals generally did not attract serious consideration because they were of too radical a nature or were based on an insufficient understanding of the phonology of English[2]. However, more conservative proposals were more successful. James Howell in his Grammar of 1662 recommended minor changes to spelling, such as changing logique to logic, warre to war, sinne to sin, toune to town and true to tru[2]. Many of these spellings are now in general use.

The second period started in the middle of the 19th century and appears to coincide with the development of phonetics as a science[2]. Early pioneers at this time were Isaac Pitman and Alexander Ellis. Although their own efforts to create a phonetically-based orthography were not successful, they and their fellow enthusiasts did succeed in arousing widespread interest. By the 1870s the national philological societies of Great Britain and America chose to consider the matter. After the International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography that was held in Philadelphia in 1876, societies were founded such as the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association[3]. The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the USA in 1906. Andrew Carnegie, a founding member, supported the SSB with annual bequests totalling more than US$300,000[4].

Proposals created at this time had mixed success. In 1876 the American Philological Society adopted a list of ten or so spellings such as are to ar, catalogue to catalog, give to giv and through to thru.[5] The Simplified Spelling Board created a more extensive list of 300 words[6], which included 157[7] spellings that were already in common use in American English by 1906.[8] The Simplified Spelling Board word list was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered the Government Printing Office to start using them in 1906. However, the U.S. Congress voted against this[5]. Some of these spellings are in common use today in American English, such as, anaemia/anæmia to anemia and mould to mold. Others such as mixed to mixt and scythe to sithe were not adopted.[9]

Arguments for reform

Advocates of spelling reform make these basic arguments:[citation needed]


Spelling changes should match pronunciation changes

  • Pronunciations change gradually over time and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) gradually becomes corrupted. If the maintenance of regularity in the orthography of English is desired, then spelling needs to be amended to account for the changes.
  • Spellings do change[10], regardless of conscious public resistance, just slowly and not in any organized way. Music was spelt as musick until the 1880s, and fantasy was spelt as phantasy until the 1920s[11].

Amending spelling would reduce ambiguity

Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and, as a result, today only partly observes the alphabetic principle. As a consequence, English orthography is a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.

Most phonemes in English can be spelled in more than one way. Conversely, many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, such as the different pronunciations of the combination ough in words like through, though, thought, thorough, tough and trough. This creates ambiguity and can be a barrier to reading comprehension[citation needed].

Such ambiguity is particularly problematic in the case of homographs with different pronunciations that vary according to context, such as bow, desert, live, read, wind and wound. Ambiguous words like these make it necessary to learn the correct context in which to use the different pronunciations and thus increase the difficulty of learning to read English.

A revision of English orthography that creates a closer relationship between phonemes and spellings may eliminate most exceptions and ambiguities and make the language easier to master for students. If done with care, such a revision would not impose an undue burden on mature native speakers.

Reinstate older, simpler spellings

The epitaph on the grave of William Shakespeare spells friend as frend.
  • Some proposed simplified spellings — such as frend for friend (see Shakespeare's grave, right) and ake for ache — already exist as variant spellings in old literature. Reinstating these old forms would not create new spellings.
  • Some exceptions in English spelling are the result of attempts by scholars to "correct" older spelling by adding silent letters to reflect the word's Latin or Greek origin, or create a false correlation with those.[citation needed] The word island is not related to isle, for example, and was once spelled iland[12] (compare with the corresponding Dutch word eiland). Similarly, doubt and debt have never been pronounced with a "b" sound.

Remove redundancy

  • Most reform proposals would reduce the number of letters per word on average.


There are a number of barriers in the implementation of a reformed orthography for English:

  • Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently strong, at least since the early 19th century, when spelling was codified by the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).
  • English vocabulary is largely a melding of ancient Latin, Greek, French and Germanic terms, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Some reform proposals tend to favor one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.
  • The large number of vowel sounds in English and the small number of vowel letters make phonemic spelling difficult to achieve. This is especially true for the three vowels /uː/ (eg: fume, moon), /ʌ/ (eg: hut, sun) and /ʊ/ (eg: look, put) which are represented in English by only two symbols, oo and u. Spelling these phonemically cannot be done without resorting to unusual or novel letter combinations, diacritic marks or the introduction of new letters[13].
  • The variety of local accents makes it difficult to agree upon spellings which take into account most accents. Furthermore, some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either). Spelling reform may solve this issue by continuing to allow multiple pronunciations of a standard spelling, as happens today with the modern standard spelling of such words, or by allowing multiple acceptable spellings for such words. Other spelling reform proposals impose a new spelling that is based on a particular pronunciation.
  • Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural -s and possessive -'s are both pronounced differently in each of cat(')s (/s/), dog(')s (/z/) and horse(')s (/ɪz/). The handling of this particular difficulty distinguishes morphemic proposals, which tend to spell such inflectional endings the same, from phonemic proposals that spell the endings according to their pronunciation.
  • The English language is the only language in the top ten major languages that lacks a worldwide regulatory body with the power to promulgate changes to orthography. The establishment of such a body may be necessary before any co-ordinated efforts to reform English spelling can be undertaken globally.
  • Some words are spelled so differently when compared with their pronunciation — such as tongue and stomach — that changing the spelling of such words would noticeably change the accustomed shape of the word. Similarly, the irregular spelling of very common words such as is, are, have, done and of makes it difficult to respell such words to remove the irregularity without introducing a noticeable change to the appearance of English text. Such difficulties tend to create acceptance issues.
  • Spelling reforms render pre-reform writings more difficult to understand and read correctly in their original form, often necessitating translation and republication. Today, relatively few people choose to read classic literature in the original spellings as most of it has been republished using modern spellings.[14] Similarly, changes in "modern" spelling could require new translations of old text, and translation of previously "modern" texts into the new standard, in order to keep the works accessible going forward.
  • For people profoundly deaf since birth or early childhood (who might already find reading and writing very challenging), each change of spelling would be arbitrary, as they would be unable to use sounds as a guide, and they would thus have to unlearn and learn each case individually.[citation needed]


Writing conveys meaning, not phonemes

The central criticism of many purely phonemic proposals for spelling reform is that written language is not a purely phonemic analogue of the spoken form. Writing is intended to convey meaning to the reader. Reforms such as English Spelling on One Page, Interspel, try to maximise this as a modification of the purely phonemic. Some of the most phonemic spelling reform proposals respell closely-related words less similarly than they are at present, such as electric, electricity and electrician, or (with full vowel reform) photo, photograph and photography.

It is common in other languages for some words to be spelt irregularly to clarify meaning even in languages with an otherwise highly regular phonemic orthography, such as Italian and Spanish. In Italian, anno [year] and hanno [they have] are distinguished in spelling but pronounced identically. Similarly, Spanish distinguishes the similarly-pronounced se [third person reflexive pronoun] from [I know], and Greek distinguishes η [the] from ή [or].

English contains many homographic homophones, which we do not notice. Only a few of the non-homographic homophones need to retain their distinctions, in some less radical schemes. Some of the more radical spelling reform proposals would eliminate all. Such reforms may introduce more ambiguity than they remove. Highly phonemic proposals that do not distinguish words like two, to and too would obscure meaning even though they write the phonemes clearly.

Cognates in other languages

Because English is a West Germanic language that has borrowed vocabulary heavily from distant and unrelated languages, the spelling of a word often reflects its origin. This gives a clue as to the meaning of the word by providing a historical marker for the origin, useful for readers to see relationships within and between languages. For example, Latin- or Greek-based word parts are often reducible to their meaning. Even if their pronunciation has deviated from the original pronunciation, the written form of the word is a record of the phoneme, so derived words give clues to their own meaning, but respelling them could obscure that relationship. The same is true for words inherited from Germanic whose current spelling still resembles its cognates in English's related languages of Dutch and German, which a phonetic spelling reform could obscure in some cases, such as light/German Licht, knight/ German Knecht; ocean/French océan, occasion/French occasion. Those spelling reform proposals that respell words phonetically may thus obscure the connection between English and the Romance and Germanic languages, as well as Latin and Greek[15].

However, it is possible for cognate words to end up with more similar spellings as their spellings in other languages after a spelling reform. One way this may occur is if a spelling reform in English allows the spelling of such words to catch up to historic reforms in other languages. For example, respelling isle as ile would give a spelling identical to the 1990 spelling reform in French, which changed isle to île in the 18th century, and then changed île to ile in 1990. Another example would be a respelling of connoisseur as connaisseur aligning its spelling with the spelling of the French word which was respelled in French after a spelling reform in 1835.

Also, spelling reforms in other languages do not pay any particular attention to keeping words aligned with the spellings in English, such as the spelling of the English loan word punch being changed from punch to ponch in the French spelling reform of 1990[16]. Over time, the spelling of cognate words in different languages can be expected to diverge, in much the same way that existing cognate words are generally spelt and pronounced differently in different languages.

Whose accent?

Another criticism of spelling reform is that many proposals generally do not take into account the main variants, dialects and regional accents by choosing to spell words to match the pronunciation in a particular accent. For example, the first syllable in the pronunciation of the word simultaneously can rightfully be as the first sound of psychic /sɑɪ/, or as the first sound of cymbal, /sɪ/, yet SoundSpel purports siemultaeniusly as the spelling, indicating preference of the former. Many reform proposals ignore or overlook distinctions in regional accents that are still represented in the orthography. Examples include the distinguishing of fern, fir and fur that is maintained in Irish and Scottish English; the distinction between toe and tow that is maintained in a few regional accents in England; and the tendency in New England accents to distinguish between the vowels in marry [mæri], merry [mɛri], and Mary [meəri].

Some spelling reform proposals sidestep the accent question by advocating some form of free spelling, where one can spell a word how one pronounces it. Such proposals run into difficulty with those words where one word in one accent may be pronounced identically to — and therefore spelt the same as — a different word in another accent. For example, the usual pronunciation of passable in Received Pronunciation is essentially the same as the pronunciation of possible in General American[17]. Such overlap would make it more difficult to read books published in a different accent to one's own.

Some proposed spelling systems attempt to solve the accent issue by allowing some degree of variation in spelling for words with variant pronunciations. For example, Wijk (1959) suggested the use of the digraph aa for the British pronunciation of words in the BATH lexical set like past and craft (with the result being paast and craaft) but a for the American pronunciation[18]. Before the introduction of standard dictionaries, many words had several variant spellings. Variant spellings still exist in English spelling today, for example banjos/banjoes, volcanos/volcanoes and zeros/zeroes[19]. Other words have variant spellings due to variant pronunciations, such as dwarfs/dwarves. Thus, a reformed spelling system that allowed some variant spellings would not establish a precedent in English spelling. On the other hand, it would create a precedent to create variant spellings for entire lexical sets to cater to different accents. Furthermore, such pronunciations can often be predicted from the context of the surrounding letters[18]. Thus, creating variant spellings in the manner proposed by Wijk is not essential.

False friends

Many reform proposals attempt to make too many changes to English orthography at once and do not allow for any transitional period where the old spellings and the new may be in use together. The problem is an overlap in words where a particular word could be an unreformed spelling of one word or a reformed spelling of another, akin to false friends when learning a foreign language.

For example, a reform could propose to respell wonder as wunder and wander as wonder. However, both cannot be done at once because this causes ambiguity. During any transitional period, is wonder the unreformed spelling of wonder or the reformed spelling of wander? Other similar chains of words are devicedevise → *devize, warmworm → *wurm and ricerise → *rize.

Spelling reform proposals

Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing the alphabet or introducing an entirely new one.

Conforming to the basic Roman alphabet

Common features:

  • They do not introduce any new letters or symbols, thus facilitating ease of transition away from the traditional orthography.
  • They rely upon familiar digraphs.
  • Most do not introduce diacritics, which are not favored by English speakers.[citation needed]
  • They attempt to retain the appearance of existing words.
  • There is an increased regularity to the spelling rules.

Notable proposals include:

  • Basic Roman spelling of English
  • britic: created by Reginald Deans, and advocated by some movements within the Simplified Spelling Society
  • Cut Spelling: Mostly drops superfluous letters and redundancies, such as 'ph'.
  • Interspel: proposal by Valerie Yule, designed to be implemented in stages.
  • NuEnglish: Created by Bob Cleckler[20]
  • Regularized English: Created by Axel Wijk and published in 1959, this proposal retains almost all of the common spelling patterns in English words, including igh and ough, but seeks to make spelling more regular by reducing each spelling pattern to only one pronunciation[21].
  • SoundSpel: Regularization scheme offered by the American Literacy Council.[22]
  • Yyzy Inglish: A phonemic system based on the present system. It uses short vowel sounds and doubles them when they are long, making it a highly predictable and phonemic system. Unlike other systems, it does not add any other letters or foreign diacritics to its system, making it more economically feasible.[23]
  • SR1: Step one of a proposed 50 stage reform plan.

Augment or replace the basic Roman alphabet

Among other things, these proposals seek to eliminate the extensive use of digraphemes in the English use of the standard Roman alphabet, such as "sh", "ch", voiced "th", voiceless "th", "zh", "ph", "ng", "nk", "gn" and "kn". The impetus for removing digraphs is grounded in the desire to have each letter represent a single sound. In a digraph, the two letters do not represent their individual sounds but instead an entirely different and discrete sound, which can sometimes lead to mishaps in pronunciation. Alphabet changes allow an increased regularity to the spelling rules.

Advocates of reform

A number of respected and influential people have been active supporters of spelling reform.

See also


  1. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 17–18. 
  2. ^ a b c d Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 18. 
  3. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 20. 
  4. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 21. 
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ "Simplified Spelling Board’s 300 Spellings". Retrieved 12 July 2009. 
  7. ^ Wheeler, Benjamin (September 15, 1906), Simplified Spelling: A Caveat (Being the commencement address delivered on September 15, 1906 before the graduating class of Stanford University), London: B.H.Blackwell, p. 11 
  8. ^ "START THE CAMPAIGN FOR SIMPLE SPELLING" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ "START THE CAMPAIGN FOR SIMPLE SPELLING" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "[c]hange ... has been almost continuous in the history of English spelling." 
  11. ^ "English Language:Orthography". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 July 2009. 
  12. ^ island —
  13. ^ Lindgren, Harry (1969). Spelling Reform: A New Approach. Sydney: Alpha Books. p. 59. 
  14. ^ "START THE CAMPAIGN FOR SIMPLE SPELLING" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "We do not print Shakespeare's or Bacon's words as they were written" 
  15. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 63–64. 
  16. ^ Rectifications orthographiques françaises de 1990 (French)
  17. ^ Wells, John (2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2nd edition). England: Longman. ISBN 0582364671. 
  18. ^ a b Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 144. 
  19. ^ George Davidson, Improve Your Spelling, ISBN 0-14-101977-8
  20. ^
  21. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. 
  22. ^ Saundspel
  23. ^ [1]
  24. ^ a b Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 17. 
  25. ^ a b "House Bars Spelling in President's Style" (PDF). New York Times. 1906-12-13. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  26. ^ John J. Reilly. "Theodore Roosevelt and Spelling Reform".  Based on H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558
  27. ^ Daniel R. MacGilvray (1986). "A Short History of GPO". 

Further reading

  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Twisted Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman. Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-136925-4. [3]

External links


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