Spelling Reform and the Writer

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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!”

Not anymore.

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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19 thoughts on “Spelling Reform and the Writer”

  1. I’m not sure if your example is that great. As someone who came to the US at the age of ten and had to learn English as a second language, I can tell you that all these inconsistencies make English a very difficult language to use. It’s nice that great writers can use these inconsistencies to come up with impressive wordplay, but it’s not so nice when most of our population can’t figure basic spelling because of them.


  2. I was just being facetious when I posed the question, but your point about obscure spellings being a writer’s friend is an interesting one. Of course, there are lots of homonyms in the language that do share the same spelling, and which seldom seem to create confusion. Differentiated spellings provide greater opportunities for puns, as in your example, but beyond that I’m not sure that they serve any great purpose except as a stick with which to beat the less literate.

  3. I can’t help feeling that with all its peculiarities, English spelling would not present the problems it apparently does to “most of our population” if
    English were taught efficiently in American schools.

    Eight years of public education is sufficient time in which to produce a level of literacy that includes a mastery of English spelling. That it does not is a fault of the school system, not the language.

  4. English is such an immense language it is not possible to ‘reform’ it without simply creating another, vaguely related, language.

    Trying to reform and standardise only creates more problems; look at American English in relation to International English — having tried to standardise it all that’s now happened is that there are MORE ways to spell the words.

  5. Sohaib,
    It’s interesting that you would use “ai” as a spelling of long I.

    I suppose that’s the pronunciation of the “ai” in your name, and it has that pronunciation in the word “Thai,” but as a rule, in English words “ai” represents the long A sound.

    When I first read your note, I thought the “hai, nais” and “bai” were meant to be pronounced “hay, nace,” and “bay.”

    “artikul” works. I guess “kkthx” is a misspelling of “thnx.”

    Thnx for reading our site.

  6. My name is actually pronounced ‘Suhayb’, though my American friends usually pronounce it ‘So-hi-b’ for some strange reason.

    As for kk thx bai, I can’t really believe you haven’t encountered the lolcats phenomenon before, but just in case you aren’t joking (or being sarcastic), ‘bai’ is ‘bye’ in lolcat-speak.

    here are a couple of links:

    I hope your spam filter doesn’t kill this comment.

    On a serious note, I am subscribed to your RSS and like what you are doing. Perhaps you can write an article about Lolcats sometime in the future. : )

  7. i want to learn english fluently but for free i haven’t a lot of money may be you can give a book or cd to help me more and more .i have a lot of deffeculties to speak english

  8. Fati,
    Google ESL sites on the web. Read sites like this one. Listen to English language radio and watch English language movies. Read children’s books written in English–they’ll give you the most basic vocabulary and structures.

    Good luck.

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