Spelling reform

Spelling reform is something that English badly needs.


A quick look at the successes of spelling reforms in German (1901, 1996) will show one thing that’s needed if a spelling reform is to have success: it must not change too many things. In particular, it must not change the basic spelling-to-sound rules of the existing system, just tweak how they’re applied. Specifically, reforms which don’t use the Latin alphabet, or which add new characters to it, though they might have worked if instigated 50 years ago, are now completely sunk since they can’t be used on today’s English computer keyboards. Adopting a spelling reform shouldn’t require buying a new keyboard.

One good example of a proposal which keeps within this rule is the ‘drop useless “e’s’ proposal made by the Spelling Society, though I would add two codicils to their original: it should only apply to the magic ‘e’, at least initially, and they can be kept in cases where the root vowels are already lengthened in a digraph, unless there is a good etymological reason (with analogy to another common word). So ‘perceive’, ‘sleeve’, and ‘valley’ can keep their ‘e’s, but ‘therefore’ should become ‘therefor’ and ‘have’ will be respelt as ‘hav’. This is quite a dramatic change, but the 1996 German reform was quite successful at changing the common word ‘daß’ to ‘dass’. Also, ‘Stage 1’ in its entirety is probably too dramatic.

As such, I think the best way to achieve a spelling reform is first of all to gather a group of influential people who’ll agree to adopt it — if the government’s education department is included, so much the better — then follow this three-stage programme:

  1. Produce a complete, systematic description of the current English spelling rules. I call this an English Rechtschreibung.
  2. Call for proposals to improve the spelling system as described. Decide which ones are viable to implement, and produce a description and comprehensive wordlist of reformed spellings.
  3. Get the group to start using it, and proselytize it.

The International Spelling Congress is a good start, though they’re starting at stage 2. I believe that the only way a spelling reform will succeed is with a set of well-described rules behind it which encompass the existing words of the language, as well as the reformed words.

A useful intermediate step for some words could be a ‘compromise form’ which retains vestiges of the older spelling. For instance, if ‘though’ is to be respelt as ‘tho’, an intermediate form could include an apostrophe at the end, as Eric Gill spelt it. (In Scots they call this an apologetic apostrophe.) The apostrophe would inevitably disappear over time as people forget the old spelling altogether.


The descriptivism argument

The most sophisticated of the arguments, this argument posits that language should be described rather than prescribed, and that spelling is a part of language.

The problem with this argument is that spelling is, by its very nature, prescribed: unlike speaking and listening to the language, reading and writing has to be taught explicitly. The language we should aim to describe in linguistics is the spoken language.

The conservative argument

‘I like English spelt the way it is now.’ This is one of the hardest arguments to break, and the unspoken thought underlying many of the other arguments.

Spelling reform is not for the benefit of those who can already read and write. It is for the benefit of those who need to learn to read and write: children, people learning English and a foreign language, and illiterate adults.

The aesthetic argument

Similar to the conservative argument, some people are okay with the idea of spelling reform, but when they see the results they react badly. I even fall into this trap when I see texts written in reformed spelling.

There’s not much to be done about this except familiarize yourself with new spellings and get used to them. For instance, when I was considering the ‘drop useless “e’s’ reform, I found some examples quite ugly, but adjectives ending in -ive (‘dativ’ for ‘dative’, ‘activ’ for ‘active’, etc.) I found okay. Then I realized it was because I was already familiar with many of those spellings from German.

The etymological argument

Some people argue that English spelling is good because it shows the etymology of words as well as their pronunciation.

Like in ‘could’, for instance. Or ‘ache’. In truth, English spelling doesn‘t do this either consistently or very well. It’s also a distraction: spelling should not be an ‘old curiosity shop’ of the orthographies of languages from which the language has borrowed words.

The loanword argument

Related to the etymological argument, English borrows lots of words from other languages with other orthographies, which some claim will not conform to the spelling system when they’re borrowed, obviating the entire point of a consistent orthography.

The example of German shows this to be untrue: many German words from other languages have had their spelling naturalized — in most cases, not by prescriptive application of a new spelling, but simply by the passage of time and their gradual acceptance into the language.

The semantic argument

Some reforms propose to merge the spellings of certain homophones, which opponents claim will cause meanings to get confused.

But the meanings don’t get confused in speech, so they won’t be in writing either. Besides, a spelling reform needn’t necessarily merge all, or even most homophones into one spelling. The orthographic system of French, for instance, is extremely consistent in its mapping of spellings to sounds, in the sense that almost every spelling has only a single sound, but many sounds have lots of spellings.

The literary argument

Related to the conservative argument, some people oppose English spelling because future generations won’t get to enjoy the works of Shakespeare and Dickens in their original spelling.

Most people who say this have probably never read Shakespeare in its ‘original spelling’ either. The editors of modern editions change the spellings to modern ones — the originals, in 17th century quartos and folios, are much different. Spelling has changed even since the time of Dickens, with ‘today’ now being preferred over ‘to-day’, for instance. It doesn’t destroy the literature to have to have it rendered in new spelling.

The dialect argument

One sometimes sees the claim that there are too many dialects, and too much regional variation in the pronunciation of English, for spelling reform to provide a useful system for all speakers of the language.

English spelling is already a decently diaphonemic system. As long as reformers were careful not to damage any existing dialect cues in spelling (which would be easy with an English Rechtschreibung as the basis of the reform). There are many such changes that can be made that do not damage pronunciation: in no dialect of English is the word ’have’ pronounced like it’s currently spelt, for instance. John Wells of the Spelling Society, also a highly regarded phonetician and pronunciation dialectologist, wrote a short paper on the implications of accent variation on spelling reform, concluding that the problems posted are surmountable.

The economic argument

The proponents of this argument claim that English spelling would cost too much to change.

What they miss is the tremendous economic benefit of the change: more people will be able to learn English, and do business in English with English-speaking countries. If the spelling change is kept reasonably small, the cost of changing is still minimal. The main cost is in education: school textbooks need to be changed to use the new spelling, but the only important ones to change immediately are the spelling books themselves. Books in other fields like mathematics which use the old spelling could be kept for as long as they’d ordinarily be useful.

The other cost is in educating the public in the new spellings and encouraging them to use them. Those who work in schools teaching spelling, or for the government (or any organization which has adopted the reforms) will have to know how to use the new system. Both these immediate costs are fairly minimal.