Spelling Reform and the Writer
A reader, responding to Case of the Missing “i”s: foliage, verbiage, miniature , asks reasonably:
Can’t we change the spelling?
Before the widespread use of dictionaries, the answer to this question would have been “Of course we can!”
The free and easy use of personal spellings to convey the pronunciation of the word intended by the person writing has not been an option since the middle of the seventeenth century–at least not for writers who wish to avoid having their credibility questioned.
Attempts to regularize English spelling began as long ago as the 1550’s and reform groups are still at it. Some of the suggestions would require quite a learning curve.
Reformer Thomas Smith (1568) increased the alphabet to 34 letters and put marks over all the long vowels. John Hart (1570) added special characters for sounds that don’t have letters in the English alphabet, such as /ch/ and /sh/. William Bullokar (1580) created a system that made use of extra letters, accents, apostrophes, and various hooks above and below letters.
Printer Ben Franklin promoted spelling reform by having a special font cut with extra symbols, and efforts have been made in more recent times to change spelling to conform to pronunciation.
In 1898 the National Education Association adopted 12 simplified spellings in its publications: tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, program, catalog, prolog, decalog, demagog, and pedagog. A glance at the NEA’s website suggests that they’ve given up on all but two. In the 1940’s the Bible and some classics were printed using a phonetic system of spelling invented in the 1830s by Isaac Pitman (the shorthand man).
Traditional English spelling is like our relatives: to be complained about, but not easily dispensed with.
This extract from an experiment by Noah Webster (quickly abandoned, by the way) illustrates how ugly and internally inconsistent a “reformed” system can be:
There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, stil exists in full force;
On the whole, English speakers remain indifferent to the efforts of spelling reformers, and that is a good thing for writers.
Writers, of all people, need to appreciate and cherish the variety of English spelling.
Take this example from Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America:
Once admitted to the intimacies of reel life, movie patrons wanted their fantasies continued unbroken into real life.
Sklar could not have written that sentence with its play on reel and real if English had only one spelling for the “long E” sound.
TIP: Traditional English spelling is a useful item in the writer’s toolbox.
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