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Groups Want to Revise English Spelling Rules


An old movement to simplify spelling in the English language still has advocates. They say words that sound the same should be spelled the same, something that is often not the case.

The American Literacy Council, a spelling reform advocacy group, says words should be spelled the way they sound to help make learning to read quicker and spelling simpler.

Council President Alan Mole says the English language would be less problematic, if spelling rules were changed. It would increase literacy among the general population, and make learning English easier for children and non-English speakers.

"English has thousands of weird spellings, so learning in sound-spell [spelling as it sounds], instead, will be a great boon to them, and could make English so easy [to learn] that it becomes the true international language," he said.

Spelling reform advocates suggest two ways of modifying the written English language. The American Literacy Council pushes for what it calls "sound-spell," which is writing out the word, as it sounds. The London-based group, Simplified Spelling Society, prefers what it calls "cut spelling," a technique, which leaves out unpronounced letters like the 'k', which is the silent first letter in the word, knife, or the silent 'b' in the word, subtle. Cut spelling also drops double consonants, so words like "spelling" would have one 'l' instead of two, as it does now.

This is not a new issue. Famous, though unsuccessful spelling reformers have included author Mark Twain, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who established the Simplified Spelling Board, the precursor to the Simplified Spelling Society. In 1934, The Chicago Tribune became the first and only major newspaper to adopt phonetic spelling, spelling words as they sound. But the paper reverted to traditional spelling in 1974 under new leadership.

Opponents of spelling reform say past efforts have been fruitless because there is no practical plan for implementation.

Dennis Baron, a member of the Modern Language Association and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Illinois*, says people have been trying for more than 800 years to figure out how to make the written language better reflect the way language is spoken.

"It's always been a popular fringe reform movement to try to rationalize English spelling, somehow, to make it more reasonable," he explained. "This has actually been going on since the 13th century. And, a lot of people over the centuries have been trying to figure out an alternative scheme, and these have failed pretty miserably."

Ultimately, it was the printing press that provided the basis for standardized spelling.

If spelling reform groups have their way, children and others learning the language would no longer be confounded by words that now look similar, but sound different, such as cow and low.

But Baron says attempts to make written English correspond to spoken English will not work, because people speak with different accents, which give subtle changes to the sounds.

"The problem with arguing for phonetic spelling is whose phonetic are you going to choose to be the standard?" he asked. "Are you going to let people spell however they happen to pronounce a word? Is it potato poh-tay-toe or puh-tah-toe? Is it tomato toh-may-toe or tomato tuh-mah-toe? And, will those have different spellings? And most people decide to 'call the whole thing off.'"

John Mayher, Linguistics Professor at New York University says phonetic spelling is an appropriate transitional method for some children, but altering the spelling of certain words can change the meaning. He says reformists place too much emphasis on pronunciation, and too little on the meaning of words in context. He uses as an example the word "knight," which, when spelled with a silent 'k' at the start, means an ancient warrior, or a title bestowed by a monarch, and the same word without the silent 'k,' which means nighttime, the opposite of day.

"English is a generally good spelling system with those few exceptions," he said. "Some of whom are residues of the way English used to be pronounced in ancient times, like the 'k-n' of, knight, and the 'g-h-t' of knight used to be pronounced, kanickta, and spelled with an 'e' at the end. I don't know that you gain much by taking away the 'k', the silent 'k' in that case, because, then, you just confuse people about, which [k]night you are talking about. As a general thing, I think, if the idea of reading is to get the meaning of the text, then a spelling reform needs to focus on how to make it more efficient to get the meaning, not to pronounce the words on the page."

Spelling reformers say opponents are out of touch with changing language trends. Jack Bovill, chair of the Simplified Spelling Society, says the widespread use of phonetic spelling has already filtered into people's daily lives through e-mail and text-messaging.

"The difficulty is that recognized dictionaries aren't keeping up with electronic speed, and, certainly, our society would want to see current changes that are already in place taken up as soon as possible," he noted.

Bovill says those who are comfortable with standardized spelling do not have to change, but he thinks there should be no penalties for those choosing to use simplified spelling.

"What I would like to see is people accept that there are two or more ways to spell a word, and be happy with that," he added.

In the view of spelling reformers, a word like 'right,' meaning the opposite of left, could have three spellings - the traditional way, right, or rite, which also means a form of ceremony, or even ryt. For them there would be no right or wrong way.

* corrected 8/31/06 - report originally misidentified Baron as a professor at University of Indiana

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