English spelling reform


This year has seen the centenary of the Spelling Society, formerly the Simplified Spelling Society, and inevitably there has been a lot of comment in the press, mostly uninformed criticism of anyone (particularly John Wells, as its President) who supports even a modicum of reform as an abandonment of “standards”.

Proposals for reforming English spelling go back way before the Spelling Society was founded, but the momentum for change increased in the 20th century. Robert Bridges, as Poet Laureate, had enough clout to persuade Oxford University Press to reprint a series of his essays with ever increasing numbers of reforms, which included new or adapted letter shapes for particular sounds; Bernard Shaw went a step further, by leaving an immense amount of money in his will for the formulation of a new writing system for English, which would not be based on the Roman alphabet, and would not simply be a new form of shorthand. He wrote several letters to The Times on this subject in the 1930s and 1940s, using the economic argument that the only way of achieving success was to persuade politicians of the saving in terms of both money and time: an alphabet that contained a single symbol for each of the phonemes of English, thus obviating the necessity for digraphs and eliminating ambiguities (e.g. row, lead), would use up less space on the page, therefore less paper, therefore be cheaper; and quicker to both write and read, therefore saving much time, and therefore money. (The elimination of superfluous hard signs in Russian is said to have reduced the length of “War and Peace” by over 90 pages!)

Shaw’s will was overturned in the courts, but a competition to devise a new alphabet was held, and the winner was rewarded not only with a cash prize, but with the satisfaction of seeing his alphabet published by Penguin in a dual-text edition of “Androcles and the Lion” (1962). (One of the adjudicators, who also helped refine the winning entry, was Peter MacCarthy, who lectured in phonetics at several universities, and was my external examiner when I took the undergraduate course in phonetics at Edinburgh in the 1960s.) Right enough, this alphabet did save space – roughly one third of the page containing the Shaw alphabet version is blank, but there was no way that it could ever become a success: the Roman alphabet has now more-or-less conquered the world, and to expect anyone, native speaker or, perhaps especially, foreign learner to take the trouble to learn this new writing system is beyond belief.

Some simple reforms would be easy: the initial w and k of words such as wrong or knife could be dropped with no problem: they are pronounced in no variety of English that I have ever heard (an exception is the word acknowledge, where the /k/ is carried over from knowledge with the Latin prefix AD > AC by assimilation). This would be parallel to the change from Old to Middle English, when initial h of such words as hnutu (“nut”) stopped being written as well as pronounced. Most changes, however, would founder on arguments about which variety was to be the basis of the new spelling. The most obvious division is between rhotic and non-rhotic accents, but there are many others, such as the non-distinction of the THOUGHT and CLOTH vowels in Scots (Knots and Crosses is the punning title of Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus novel), or the different distribution of the GOOSE and FOOT vowels in both Scots and Northern English, or, in Northern England, the lack of a split between STRUT and FOOT, which rhyme in many varieties. If each variety’s speakers were allowed to develop their own version of English spelling, life would be made very difficult for publishers!

It is noticeable that almost all the advocates of spelling reform use traditional orthography in their own writings (Jack Windsor Lewis is an exception in his blog, but not elsewhere). This is presumably because they do not wish to risk the anger of the general public, or politicians (such as David Cameron who attacked John Wells in a speech recently), who do not understand the arguments.

English is not the only language to have a difficult spelling system: French is notoriously difficult, and even Spanish, as I have written here before, is not totally transparent. Reform is possible – Norwegian, for instance, has undergone several spelling reforms since the late nineteenth century, mainly aimed at reducing its similarity to Danish. However, it is the ingrained attitude of the English-speaking public that will have to be changed before any progress can be made in simplifying the world’s premier language.


  1. JO – the page works well, but I still can’t agree that it’s sufficient for all accents. How do you distinguish the word ending –inger in finger, from that in singer? Why does your vowel in shark sound so different from that in bomb? Is this the ‘same’ vowel to you? How do you represent the diphthong in boy?

  2. Sorry for taking so long to reply, gpointon. I’ve been bizzy refining that page. A real programmer fixed it for me! Now it works by click on smartfones & tablets (they dont have a ‘mouse’ function since you directly touch the screen) and both mouse over and click on computers.

    Really, I hear no difference besides the first sound in finger and singer. Even if there is actually a difference, there are no seperate words in the lexicon that rely on it, thus no seperate letters needed to distinguish them.

    They are spelt FINGR and SINGR in Nooalf.

    If you have access to Pro Tools or some other sound processing software, you can actually cut & paste bits of words to see if there is any difference.

    It was with the aid of Pro Tools that I came to understand that R is actually a vowel. Before that I had a vague notion that R changed other sounds. Its actually true, but its also true for all the other sounds to some degree.

    I never checked it specifically, but I’m confident that if you clipped the o out of bomb and pasted it into shark it would still sound like shark.

    Boy iz plainly BOE. I believe the standard definition of diphthong is either unclear or often misunderstood.

    There is an aspect of speed that I have not seen anything about anywhere.
    A diphthong is essentially 2 sounds that we hear as one due to how quickly they are uttered. The only real one is i. We hear oE as i in normal speech, but no matter how fast someone is speaking, you can always divide it into o and E with Pro Tools.

    The only other supposed diphthong thats even close is eE for A. If you wanted to try to fool a linguist by talking really fast and say aJITeET, BReEK, SKeET, etc. instead of aJITAT, BRAK, SKAT, etc. you could probably do it. And anybody casually listening isnt likely to notice. But since you can make the A sound continuously without variation, it is not a diphthong.

    Notice that you can not do that with i or OE.

  3. I think your professional training is in engineering. Before you start making statements about language, it might be better for you to have read some reputable writers on the subject, and to have gained a wider knowledge of the many different accents of English. The fact that you hear no difference between “finger” and “singer” does not mean that in the vast majority of accents of English there is no difference: for many millions of people around the world, these words do not rhyme. You also say “We hear oE as i in normal speech.” I don’t, and nor do most other British English speakers. In the English of most accents of England, and of a great many accents worldwide, what you write as “A” is a diphthong.
    I note your spellings “bizzy”, “seperate”, “smartfones”, “dont”. Are these deliberate simplifications, in the way that Jack Windsor Lewis experiments with ‘phonetic’ spelling in his blog, or are they perhaps an indication of why you are so interested in creating a new alphabet? Attempts such as yours have been made since at least the 18th century, but none has been successful. The chances of success can only decrease with time, as the number of accents of English increases, thus making a single reform even more difficult to achieve. When the speakers of the successor languages to Latin started to represent their speech in their spelling, instead of trying to continue with the Classical Latin, the result was French, Spanish, Italian, etc. Likewise, I have seen the view put forward that if the Netherlands had remained part of a greater German-speaking political entity, then the written language used in Amsterdam today would have been German, with Dutch reduced to a ‘minor’ dialect.

  4. Enjineering iz my talent and profession, but I hav no formal training. I hav red quite a bit about English and linguistics. I am certainly no scholar and am not fluent with the IPA, but I dont need to be. If you needed to put a label on it, you coud call me an ‘orthografer’.

    I completely understand your perspective on dialects. Nooalf wuznt dezined to perfectly reprezent any dialect. Each letter coverz the ranje uv soundz that most native speakerz woud classify az a foneme uv the languaje. The fact that it can differentiate various dialects and accents so well iz a bonus. The real job uv any orthografy iz to reprezent the spoken languaj, thus providing a letter for each uv the fonemez that are part uv the lexicon iz the most important thing.

    Therez alot more to it, so if you are interested read the LoJIK section on the Nooalf website.

    I often rite in an informally fonetisized spelling. No real system, not even very consistant. The purpose iz to get peepl to relax a bit about the entire ‘correct English’ nonsense. JWL iz doing a good thing by simplifying stuff in hiz blog. This iz a rare thing amongst academicianz. Usually, the more time sumwun haz spent studying English, the harder the sement iz.

    I think I rote earlier here that predicting the future based on historical presedent haz its limitationz. Its even less useful wen you limit yourself to the immediate subject.

    If you look at the trajectory uv English, beginning with British imperializm, you will see that it bearz very little rezemblans to Latin’z trajectory. Then take worldwide mass media into account and its eazy to see the problem with trying to compare them.

  5. I think your deliberate non-standard spelling in the last reply is a far better way to go than trying to create a new alphabet from scratch. The IPA was never intended to be a replacement for any language’s spelling system, but is to be used as a tool by phoneticians in their analysis of the sound patterns of language, and its acoustic, auditory and articulatory make up.
    As I understand it (and I am no scholar of Chinese) the Chinese writing system covers all the versions of Chinese equally well or badly, and what a Pudonghua speaker writes a Cantonese speaker can read, just as a Hungarian mathematician can easily read an equation written by a Punjabi, although neither may know a word of the other’s language. But we now have a standardized Roman spelling of Mandarin (Pudonghua) Chinese – Pinyin – which presumably Cantonese speakers cannot understand. I’m not sure whether that is an advance or a step back.

  6. Its more palettable to people who are alredy literate, but its not passable az a permanent system.

    I think uv Nooalf az a product that will be uzed by trillionz uv peepl over thouzandz uv yirz, possibly millionz uv yirz. Such a product needz to be az refined az possible, kuz even little flawz add up to huge amounts uv wasted time. Thus, if you think you see a problem with Nooalf, its likely that the explanation will involve time wasteaj.

    I thot uv making an expanded version uv Nooalf for linguists. It woudnt be that hard, but I am probably not the rite guy to do it. There are a bunch uv lower case letter keyz left and if more are needed, therez the number keyz. It woud be way eazier to type and read than the IPA.

    I read sumwer that Chineze iz not exactly a logography; that the logografs actually reprezent combinationz uv sylablez.

    To me, it iz more honest than English kuz it makes no pretens uv being alfabetic. At least their kidz arent wondering if they are stupid wen they dont see the lojik.

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