Spelling reform

Spelling reform


Many languages have undergone spelling reform, where a deliberate, often officially sanctioned or mandated, change to spelling takes place. Proposals for such reform are also common.

There are a number of reasons driving such reforms: easing the task of children or immigrants becoming literate, making the language more useful for international communication or aesthetic or political reasons.

Opposition to reforms is often based upon concern that old literature will become inaccessible, the presumed suppression of regional accents, or simple conservatism based upon concern over unforeseen consequences. Reforms that concentrate on removing unnecessary difficulties take account of such arguments. Consistency is more important than phonemic consistency alone. Reform efforts are further hampered by habit and a lack of a central authority to set new spelling standards.

Spelling reform may also be associated with wider discussion of what the official script should be, language planning and language reform.

Arguments for reform

In languages written with alphabetic or syllabary scripts one might expect there to be a close match of the script or spelling with the spoken sound. However, even if they match at one time and place for some speakers, over time they often do not match well for the majority: one sound may be represented by various combinations of letters and one letter or group of letters pronounced in various ways. In cases where spelling takes account of grammatical features these too may become inconsistent.

People with non-standard spelling often suffer adverse opinions, as one's mastery of standard spelling is often thought to go together with the level of one's formal education or intelligence. Spelling is easier in languages with more or less consistent spelling systems—like Finnish, Serbian, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish—than in languages where the pronunciation has moved on since the spelling was fixed, or which use anachronistic or inconsistent spellings, like Irish, English or French.

Spelling reforms have been proposed for various languages over the years; these have ranged from modest attempts to eliminate particular irregularities (such as SR1) through more far-reaching reforms (such as Cut Spelling) to attempts to introduce a full phonemic orthography, like the Shavian alphabet or its revised version, Quikscript, the latest DevaGreek alphabet,[1] the Latinization of Turkish or hangul in Korea.

Superfluity of graphemes (letters or characters) is often an issue in spelling reform, which prompts the "Economic Argument"—significant cost savings in the production materials over time—as promulgated by George Bernard Shaw, although in modern times with computer systems changing rapidly and equipped to produce the scripts of a variety of languages this is now a bit far-fetched.

The idea of phonemic spelling has also been criticized as it would hide morphological similarities between words with different pronunciations, and thus obscure their meanings. It is also argued that when people read, they do not in reality try to work out the sequence of sounds composing each word, but instead they recognize words either as a whole, or as a sequence of small number of semantically significant units (for example morphology might be read as morph+ology, rather than as a sequence of a larger number of phonemes). In a system of phonetic spelling, these semantic units become less distinct, as various allomorphs can be pronounced differently in different contexts. For example, in English spelling, most past participles are spelled with an -ed on the end, even though this can have several pronunciations (compare kissed and interrupted).

One of the difficulties in introducing a spelling reform is how to it is reflect different pronunciations, often linked to regions or classes. If the reform attempts to be absolutely phonemic in some model dialect, speakers of other dialects will find conflicts with their own usage.

By language


An 1879 bulletin by the US Spelling Reform Association, written mostly using reformed spellings (click to enlarge).
An 1880 bulletin, written wholly in reformed spelling (click to enlarge).

English spelling contains many irregularities due to a number of factors. The large number of words assimilated from other languages is one of them; and even more importantly, English began to be widely written and printed during the Middle English period: the subsequent development of modern English included a Great Vowel Shift and many other changes in phonology. The older, etymological spellings have been retained despite major shifts in phonology.

Modern English has anywhere from 14 to 22 separate vowel and diphthong phonemes, depending on dialect, and 26 or 27 consonant phonemes. A simple phoneme-letter representation of this language within the 26 letters of the English alphabet is impossible, and multi-letter graphemes are a part of most spelling reform proposals. (They are part of current English spelling as well, for example the first two phonemes of "sheep" /ˈʃiːp/ are represented by the digraphs <sh>, /ʃ/, and <ee>, /i/, respectively.) Diacritic marks have also formed part of spelling reform proposals.

Critics have pointed out that a consistent phonemically based system would be impractical: for example, phoneme distribution differs between British English and American English; furthermore, while English Received Pronunciation features about 20 vowels, some second language varieties of English have 10 or even fewer. A phonemic system would therefore not be universal.

Furthermore, only a minority of the huge vocabulary of the English language is used in everyday speech: the remainder is mainly used in technical, literary and other contexts where the written language is the primary means of communication, and in many cases the majority of speakers of the language are unsure of the correct pronunciation. It would be counter-productive to alter the spelling of these words to fit their pronunciation more closely.

A number of proposals have been made to reform English spelling. Some were proposed by Noah Webster early in the 19th century. He was in part concerned to distinguish American from British usage. Some of his suggestions resulted in the differences between American and British spelling.

Chinese (romanization)

In the 1950s, the Language Reform Committee of the People's Republic of China devised the Hanyu Pinyin orthography and promulgated it as the official romanization system of mainland China. Since pinyin became the international standard for Chinese romanization in 1982, other romanizations (including the Wade-Giles system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh developed by Yuen Ren Chao, and Latinxua Sin Wenz) have become rarely used.

The Republic of China on Taiwan continued to use Wade-Giles romanization until the turn of the 21st century, when the Tongyong Pinyin romanization was introduced. Tongyong Pinyin has been sporadically adopted throughout the island, and criticized for inconsistency. Hanyu Pinyin, the same system used in the mainland, was formally adopted in 2009.


Dutch has undergone a series of major spelling reforms beginning in 1804 - with varying levels of official sanction and popular acceptance across the areas in which varieties of the Dutch language are spoken.

The Dutch Language Union, founded in 1980 by the Netherlands and Belgium, is now the source of official reforms, and in 1995 issued the "Green Booklet" reform. Although in Belgium the official spelling reform was generally accepted without protest, in the Netherlands there was a popular backlash and the release of the White Booklet. Currently these two spellings are both in use in the Netherlands - the 'green' one by schools and officials, and the 'white' one by newspapers, magazines and television stations[citation needed].


In 1990, a substantial reform ordered by the French prime minister changed the spelling of about 2000 words as well as some grammar rules. After much delay, the new recommended orthography received official support in France, Belgium, and Quebec in 2004, but it has not yet been widely adopted. The 2012 version of Larousse incorporates all of the changes. The 2009 version of Le Petit Robert incorporates most of the changes. There are 6000 words, which also includes words that were not originally included in the 1990 reform, for example, charrette or charette, based on chariot. As of 16 March 2009, several major Belgian publishing groups have begun to apply the new spelling in their on-line publications.

Street name adapted to last German spelling reform


German spelling was officially reformed in 1901 and certain older spelling patterns were updated: for instance some occurrences of "th" were changed to "t", the use of hyphens changed, and some instances of "c" were changed to "z". In 1944 another spelling reform was due to be introduced, but ultimately came to nothing because of World War II.

Even though German spelling was already more consistent than English or French spelling, the German speaking countries signed an agreement on spelling reforms in 1996; these were planned to be gradually introduced beginning in 1998 and fully in force by 2005.

The so-called Rechtschreibreform is still subject to dispute, and polls consistently show a majority against the new rules. In summer 2004, several newspapers and magazines returned to the old rules.[citation needed]


The classical, medieval, and early modern polytonic orthography contained a number of archaisms inherited from Ancient Greek, which have been dispensed with or simplified in the modern monotonic orthography. See also Katharevousa.


Related article: Differences between Malay and Indonesian: Orthography

Indonesian underwent spelling reforms in 1947 and 1972, after which its spelling was more consistent with the form of the language spoken in Malaysia (i.e. Malay).

oe u
tj c
dj j
j y
nj ny
sj sy
ch kh

The first of these changes (oe to u) occurred around the time of independence in 1947; all of the others were a part of an officially mandated spelling reform in 1972. Some of the old spellings, which were more closely derived from the Dutch language, still survive in proper names.


The original Japanese kana syllabaries were a purely phonetic representation used for writing the Japanese language when they were invented around 800 AD as a simplification of Chinese-derived kanji characters. However, the syllabaries were not completely codified and alternate letterforms, or hentaigana, existed for many sounds until standardization in 1900. In addition, due to linguistic drift the pronunciation of many Japanese words changed, mostly in a systematic way, from the classical Japanese language as spoken when the kana syllabaries were invented. Despite this, words continued to be spelled in kana as they were in classical Japanese, reflecting the classic rather than the modern pronunciation, until a Cabinet order in 1946 officially adopted spelling reform, making the spelling of words purely phonetic (with only 3 sets of exceptions) and dropping characters that represented sounds no longer used in the language.


Related article: Norwegian language struggle

Before Norway became independent in 1905, the Norwegian language was written in Danish with minor characteristic regionalisms and idioms. After independence, there were spelling reforms in 1907, 1917, 1938, 1941, 1981 and 2005, reflecting the tug-of-war between the spelling styles preferred by traditionalists and reformers, depending on social class, urbanization, ideology, education and dialect. The 2005 reform re-introduced several traditional spellings that had been abolished by the earlier spelling reforms. Little used spellings were also excluded.


The original medieval spelling of Portuguese was mostly phonemic, but, from the Renaissance on, many authors who admired classical culture started to use an etymological orthography. In the early 20th century, however, spelling reforms in Portugal and Brazil reverted the orthography to phonemic principles. Subsequent reforms have aimed mainly at three objectives, with variable success: to eliminate the few traces of redundant etymological spelling that remained, to reduce the number of words marked with diacritics, and to bring the Brazilian spelling standard and the European-African spelling standard closer to each other.


Over time, there have been a number of changes in spelling. They mostly involved the elimination of the (purely etymological) Greek letters that had been retained in the Cyrillic alphabet by reason of ecclesiastical tradition, and those rendered obsolete by changes in phonetics.

When Peter I introduced his "civil script" (гражданский шрифт, graždanskij šrift) in 1708, based on more Western-looking letter shapes, spelling was simplified as well.

The most recent major reform of Russian spelling was carried out shortly after the Russian Revolution. The Russian orthography was simplified by eliminating four obsolete letters (ѣ, і, ѵ, and ѳ) and the archaic usage of the letter ъ (called yer, or hard sign) at the ends of words, which had originally represented a vowel with a sound similar to schwa, but had become silent by the Middle Ages.

South Slavic languages

Soth Slavic Languages, a dialectical continuum also known as Serbo-Croatian which forms modern standard Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin languages went through a series of major spelling reforms in early and middle 19th century. Up until that time two distinct writing traditions have evolved. Western dialectical group has been written using Latin alphabet, while eastern (Serbian) has been using an archaic form of the Cyrillic alphabet. Despite several attempts there were no universally accepted spelling standard employing Latin alphabet and Cyrillic version was considered outdated.

A series of reforms have been undertaken to establish the standards, in order to bring the writing system to accordance with spoken language. The reform movement was spearheaded by Croatian linguist Ljudevit Gaj for Latin based writing system, and Serbian reformer Vuk Stefanović Karadžić for Cyrillic version.

The reform efforts were coordinated in order to correlate the two writing systems, culminating in Vienna Literary Agreement in 1850. The system thus established has remained in service since. Slovene language, not a part of Serbo-Croatian dialectical continuum was also covered by the same reform movement. After the second world war and formulation of Macedonian literary language the same system has been extended, with some modifications to it as well.

All of these writing systems exhibit a high degree of correspondence between language sounds and letter characters, making them highly phonetic and very consistent.


There have been several initiatives to reform the spelling of Spanish: Andrés Bello succeeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the RAE standard.

Another initiative, the Ortografía Fonética Rasional Ispanoamericana, remained a curiosity. Juan Ramón Jiménez proposed changing -ge- and -gi to -je- and ji, but this is applied only in editions of his works or his wife's. Gabriel García Márquez raised the issue of reform during a congress at Zacatecas, and drew attention to the issue, but no changes were made. The Academies, however, change several tidbits from time to time. See also Spanish orthography.

Other languages

  • Armenian: Spelling reform of the Armenian language 1922-1924
  • Catalan: the spelling of the Catalan language was standardized, mostly by Pompeu Fabra in the early 20th century.
  • Chinese: Simplified Chinese characters replaced traditional characters in Mainland China, although traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
  • Czech: The spelling of the Czech language was reformed and regularised as early as the 15th century through the publication of the manuscript Orthographia bohemica.
  • Danish: In a 1948 reform, the Danish language abandoned the capitalization of common nouns (originally a German-inspired rule) to align with the other Scandinavian languages. At the same time, the digraph Aa/aa was abandoned in favor of the Swedish letter Å/å. The double-a digraph is still widely used in personal names and is optional in a few placenames. In 1980, W was recognized as a distinct letter. Before that, it was considered a variation of V for purposes of collation.
  • Filipino: Filipino orthography
  • Georgian language: In 19th century Georgian alphabet undergone removal of five letters(ჱ, ჳ, ჲ, ჴ, ჵ).
  • Hebrew: The Hebrew language has two systems of spelling - with and without vowel marks, called Niqqud. Niqqud is used consistently only in books for children, poetry, and some textbooks and religious literature. Most other texts are usually written without vowel marks. The Academy of the Hebrew Language publishes rules for both vocalized and unvocalized spelling. The latest major revision to the rules of unvocalized spelling were published in 1996, although in practice they are not mandatory. To date there is no standard spelling for unvocalized Hebrew and many Hebrew speakers spell according to their own instinct and custom. See Hebrew spelling.
  • Korean: The hangul alphabet replaced hanja ideograms in the Korean language.
  • Latvian: The Latvian language discarded the digraph Uo in 1914, the letter Ō in 1946, and the letters Ŗ and Ch in 1957.
  • Swedish: The last major reform of Swedish orthography occurred in 1906. It homogenized the spelling of /v/ and changed the adverbial and neuter adjectival ending -dt to -t or -tt depending on the length of the preceding vowel. The phrase hvarken af silfver eller rödt guld was now spelled varken av silver eller rött guld. Some people had called for an even more radical reform which would also homogenise the spellings of the /j/, /ɕ/ and /ɧ/ sounds, which to this day remain highly diverse in Swedish.
  • Turkish: The Turkish alphabet replaced the Ottoman Turkish script in the Turkish language
  • Vietnamese: In the Vietnamese language, the quốc ngữ script replaced the previous chữ nho and chữ nôm systems in the 20th century.[citation needed]

See also


  • István Fodor and Clause Hagège (eds): La Réforme des langues. Histoire et avenir. Language reform. History and future. Sprachreform. Geschichte und Zukunft. Buske, Hamburg 1983–1989
  • Edite Estrela: A Questão Ortográfica: Reforma e Acordos da Língua Portuguesa. Editorial Notícias, Lisbon 1993

External links

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