English language spelling reform

English language spelling reform

For hundreds of years, many groups and individuals have advocated spelling reform for English. Spelling reformers seek to make English spelling more consistent and more phonetic, so that spellings match pronunciations and follow the alphabetic principle.

Common motives for spelling reform include making the language easier to learn, making it more useful for international communication, or saving time, money and effort.

Spelling reform proposals can be divided into two main groups: those that use the traditional English alphabet, and those that would extend or replace it. The former are more conservative and do not introduce any new letters or symbols. The latter may involve adding letters and symbols from other alphabets or creating an entirely new one. Some reformers favor an immediate and total reform, while others would prefer a gradual change implemented in stages.

Some spelling reform proposals have been adopted partially or temporarily. Many of the reforms proposed by Noah Webster have become standard in the United States but have not been adopted elsewhere (see American and British English spelling differences). Harry Lindgren’s proposal, SR1, was popular in Australia for a number of years and was temporarily adopted by the Australian Government.

Spelling reform has rarely attracted widespread public support, sometimes due to organized resistance and sometimes due to lack of interest. There are a number of linguistic arguments against reform; for example that the origins of words may be obscured. There are also many obstacles to reform: this includes the effort and money that may be needed to implement a wholesale change, the lack of an English language authority or regulator, and the challenge of getting people to accept spellings that they are unaccustomed to.



After the invention of the printing press in the 1440s, English spelling began to become fixed. This took place gradually through printing houses, whereby the master printer would choose the spellings "that most pleased his fancy". These spellings then became the "house style".[1] Many of the earliest printing houses that printed English were staffed by Hollanders, who changed many spellings to match their Dutch orthography. Examples include the silent h in ghost (to match Dutch gheest, which later became geest), aghast, ghastly and gherkin. The silent h in other words—such as ghospel, ghossip and ghizzard—was later removed.[2]

There have been two periods when spelling reform of the English language has attracted particular interest.

16th and 17th centuries

The first of these periods was between the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th when a number of publications outlining proposals for reform were published. Some of these proposals were:

  • De recta et emendata linguæ angliæ scriptione in 1568 by Sir Thomas Smith, Secretary of State to Edward VI and Elizabeth I
  • An Orthographie in 1569 by John Hart, Chester Herald
  • Booke at Large for the Amendment of English Orthographie in 1580 by William Bullokar
  • Logonomia Anglica in 1621 by Dr. Alexander Gill, headmaster of St Paul's School in London
  • English Grammar in 1634 by Charles Butler, vicar of Wootton St Lawrence[3]

These proposals generally did not attract serious consideration because they were of too radical a nature or were based on an insufficient understanding of the phonology of English.[4] However, more conservative proposals were more successful. James Howell in his Grammar of 1662 recommended minor changes to spelling, such as changing logique to logic, warre to war, sinne to sin, toune to town and true to tru.[4] Many of these spellings are now in general use.

From the 16th century onward, English writers who were scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to link English words to their Graeco-Latin counterparts. They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek akhos), and so forth.[5][6]

The English Restoration also brought with it the introduction of a rococo French influence, prompting English spelling towards a cavalier retreat to a complex spelling culture (e.g., 'Charles' replacing 'Charls'), arguably associated with the monarchy, which lasts to this day. Oxford, one-time headquarters of the embattled Royalist army, now hosts the English dictionary so equated with supreme English linguistic authority in the current era (although it has been argued that those publishing dictionaries thereby have a commercial interest in keeping spelling less than transparent).

19th century

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).

The second period started in the 19th century and appears to coincide with the development of phonetics as a science.[4] In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as color and center, would become hallmarks of American English. In 1807 Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. It was published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.[7]

In 1837, Isaac Pitman published his system of phonetic shorthand, while in 1848 Alexander John Ellis published A Plea for Phonetic Spelling. Both of these were proposals for a new phonetic alphabet. Although unsuccessful, they drew widespread interest.

By the 1870s, the philological societies of Great Britain and America chose to consider the matter. After the "International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography" that was held in Philadelphia in August 1876, societies were founded such as the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association.[8] That year, the American Philological Society adopted a list of eleven reformed spellings for immediate use. These were: are→ar, give→giv, have→hav, live→liv, though→tho, through→thru, guard→gard, catalogue→catalog, (in)definite→(in)definit, wished→wisht.[9][10] In 1883, the American Philological Society and American Philological Association worked together to produce 24 spelling reform rules, which were published that year. In 1898, the American National Education Association adopted its own list of 12 words to be used in all writings. These were: tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, program.[11]

20th century onward

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the United States in 1906. The SSB's original 30 members consisted of authors, professors and dictionary editors. Andrew Carnegie, a founding member, supported the SSB with yearly bequests of more than US$300,000.[12] In April 1906 it published a list of 300 words,[13] which included 157[14] spellings that were already in common use in American English.[15] In August 1906 the SSB word list was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered the Government Printing Office to start using them immediately. However, in December 1906 the U.S. Congress passed a resolution and the old spellings were reintroduced.[10] Nevertheless, some of the spellings survived and are commonly used in American English today, such as anaemia/anæmiaanemia and mouldmold. Others such as mixedmixt and scythesithe did not survive.[16] In 1920, the SSB published its Handbook of Simplified Spelling, which set forth over 25 spelling reform rules. The handbook noted that every reformed spelling now in general use was originally the overt act of a lone writer, who was followed at first by a small minority. Thus, it encouraged people to "point the way" and "set the example" by using the reformed spellings whenever they can.[17] However, with its main source of funds cut off, the SSB disbanded later that year.

In Britain, the cause of spelling reform was promoted from 1908 by the Simplified Spelling Society and attracted a number of prominent supporters. One of these was George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion) and much of his considerable will was left to the cause. Among members of the society the conditions of his will gave rise to major disagreements which hindered the development of a single new system.[18]

In 1949, a Labour MP, Dr. Mont Follick, introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons, which failed at the second reading. However in 1953 he again had the opportunity and this time it passed the second reading by 65 votes to 53.[19] Because of anticipated opposition from the House of Lords, the bill was withdrawn after assurances from the Minister of Education that research would be made into improving spelling education. This led in 1961 to James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet, introduced into many British schools in an attempt to improve child literacy.[20] Although it succeeded in its own terms, the advantages were lost when children transferred to conventional spelling and after several decades the experiment was discontinued.

In 1969 Harry Lindgren proposed Spelling Reform 1 (SR1), which calls for the short /ɛ/ sound (as in bet) to always be spelt with <e> (for example friend→frend, head→hed). For a short time, this proposal was popular in Australia and was adopted by the Australian Government. In Geoffrey Sampson's book Writing Systems (1985) he wrote that SR1 "has been adopted widely by Australians. Many general interest paperbacks and the like are printed in SR1; under Gough Whitlam's Labor Government the Australian Ministry of Helth was officially so spelled (though, when Whitlam was replaced by a liberal administration, it reintroduced orthographic conservatism)".[21]

Arguments for reform

Advocates of spelling reform make these basic arguments:[citation needed]

Spelling should change alongside pronunciation

  • Pronunciations change gradually over time and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) gradually becomes corrupted. If the maintenance of regularity in the orthography of English is desired, then spelling needs to be amended to account for the changes.
  • Spellings do change,[22] regardless of conscious public resistance, just slowly and not in any organized way. Music was spelt as musick until the 1880s, and fantasy was spelt as phantasy until the 1920s.[23]

Ambiguity leads to confusion

Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and, as a result, today only partly observes the alphabetic principle. As a consequence, English orthography is a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.

Most phonemes in English can be spelled in more than one way. Conversely, many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, such as the different pronunciations of the combination ough in words like through, though, thought, thorough, tough, and trough. These kinds of incoherences can be found throughout the English language, and would naturally cause extra difficulty in learning and practice and lead to uncertainty due to their sheer number.

Such ambiguity is particularly problematic in the case of homographs with different pronunciations that vary according to context, such as bow, desert, live, read, tear, wind, and wound. Ambiguous words like these make it necessary to learn the correct context in which to use the different pronunciations and thus increase the difficulty of learning to read English.

As an ideal, a closer relationship between phonemes and spellings may eliminate most exceptions and ambiguities and make the language easier to master for students. If done with care, a revision in such a direction would not impose an undue burden on mature native speakers.

We should undo the damage

The epitaph on the grave of William Shakespeare spells friend as frend.
  • Some proposed simplified spellings – such as frend for friend (see Shakespeare's grave, right) and ake for ache – already exist as variant spellings in old literature. Reinstating these old forms would not create new spellings.
  • Some exceptions in English spelling are the result of attempts by scholars to "correct" older spelling by adding silent letters to reflect the word's Latin or Greek origin, or create a false correlation with those.[24] For example, the word island was thought to come from Latin insula, but is actually of Anglo-Saxon origin[24] and was once spelled igland, and later, iland (compare with the corresponding Dutch word eiland).
  • Doubt and debt have never been pronounced with a [b] sound; they came to English from French, and the 'b' was taken in from their Latin antecedents dubitum and debitum.

Coherence with etymological roots

Many English words are based on French modifications (e.g., colour and analogue) even though they are derived from Latin or Greek. Spelling reform by reason of etymological origin should not be confused with phonetic spelling reform, even though the spelling of some words may converge; in other cases, the objectives may be divergent (e.g., fibre). See American and British English spelling differences for greater detail.

We should remove redundancy

  • The English alphabet contains several letters whose characteristic sounds are already represented elsewhere in the alphabet. These include X, Q and C. As a result, many linguists consider our use of the alphabet to be redundant and inefficient.


There are a number of barriers in the development and implementation of a reformed orthography for English:

  • Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently strong, at least since the early 19th century, when spelling was codified by the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).
  • English vocabulary is largely a melding of ancient Latin, Greek, French and Germanic terms, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Some reform proposals tend to favor one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.
  • The large number of vowel sounds in English and the small number of vowel letters make phonemic spelling difficult to achieve. This is especially true for the three vowels /uː/ (e.g.: fume, moon), /ʌ/ (e.g.: hut, sun) and /ʊ/ (e.g.: look, put) which are represented in English by only two symbols, oo and u. Spelling these phonemically cannot be done without resorting to unusual or novel letter combinations, diacritic marks or the introduction of new letters.[25]
  • The variety of local accents makes it difficult to agree upon spellings which take into account most accents. Furthermore, some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either). Spelling reform may solve this issue by continuing to allow multiple pronunciations of a standard spelling, as happens today with the modern standard spelling of such words, or by allowing multiple acceptable spellings for such words. Other spelling reform proposals impose a new spelling that is based on a particular pronunciation.
  • Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural -s and possessive -'s are both pronounced differently in each of cat(')s (/s/), dog(')s (/z/) and horse(')s (/ɨz/). The handling of this particular difficulty distinguishes morphemic proposals, which tend to spell such inflectional endings the same, from phonemic proposals that spell the endings according to their pronunciation.
  • The English language is the only language in the top ten major languages that lacks a worldwide regulatory body with the power to promulgate changes to orthography. The establishment of such a body may be necessary before any co-ordinated efforts to reform English spelling can be undertaken globally.
  • Some words are spelled so differently when compared with their pronunciation – such as tongue and stomach – that changing the spelling of such words would noticeably change the accustomed shape of the word. Similarly, the irregular spelling of very common words such as is, are, have, done and of makes it difficult to respell such words to remove the irregularity without introducing a noticeable change to the appearance of English text. Such difficulties tend to create acceptance issues.
  • Spelling reforms render pre-reform writings more difficult to understand and read correctly in their original form, often necessitating translation and republication. Today, relatively few people choose to read classic literature in the original spellings as most of it has been republished using modern spellings.[26] Similarly, changes in "modern" spelling could require new translations of old text, and translation of previously "modern" texts into the new standard, in order to keep the works accessible going forward.
  • For people profoundly deaf since birth or early childhood (who might already find reading and writing very challenging), each change of spelling would be arbitrary, as they would be unable to use sounds as a guide, and they would thus have to unlearn and learn each case individually.[citation needed][clarification needed]


Writing conveys meaning, not phonemes

The central criticism of many purely phonemic proposals for spelling reform is that written language is not a purely phonemic analogue of the spoken form. When advocates claim that the units of understanding are phonemes, critics take exception, claiming that the basic units are instead words. Writing is intended to convey meaning to the reader. Reforms such as English Spelling on One Page, Interspel, try to maximise this as a modification of the purely phonemic. Some of the most phonemic spelling reform proposals respell closely related words less similarly than they are at present, such as electric, electricity and electrician, or (with full vowel reform) photo, photograph and photography.

Cognates in other languages

Because English is a West Germanic language that has borrowed vocabulary heavily from distant and unrelated languages, the spelling of a word often reflects its origin. This gives a clue as to the meaning of the word by providing a historical marker for the origin, useful for readers to see relationships within and between languages. For example, Latin- or Greek-based word parts are often reducible to their meaning. Even if their pronunciation has deviated from the original pronunciation, the written form of the word is a record of the phoneme, so derived words give clues to their own meaning, but respelling them could obscure that relationship. The same is true for words inherited from Germanic whose current spelling still resembles its cognates in English's related languages of Dutch and German, which a phonetic spelling reform could obscure in some cases, such as light/German Licht, knight/ German Knecht; ocean/French océan, occasion/French occasion. Those spelling reform proposals that respell words phonetically may thus obscure the connection between English and the Romance and Germanic languages, as well as Latin and Greek.[27]

Whose accent?

Another criticism of spelling reform is that many proposals generally do not take into account the main variants, dialects and regional accents by choosing to spell words to match the pronunciation in a particular accent. A popular example is Rhotic and non-rhotic accents. As another example, the first syllable in the pronunciation of the word simultaneously can rightfully be as the first sound of psychic /sɑɪ/, or as the first sound of cymbal, /sɪ/, yet SoundSpel purports siemultaeniusly as the spelling, indicating preference of the former. Many reform proposals ignore or overlook distinctions in regional accents that are still represented in the orthography. Examples include the distinguishing of fern, fir and fur that is maintained in Irish and Scottish English; the distinction between toe and tow that is maintained in a few regional accents in England; and the tendency in most accents to distinguish between the vowels in marry /mæri/, merry /mɛri/, and Mary /meəri/.

Advocates tend to see this point as less of a flaw and more of a challenge. It is very admittedly something which needs addressing in any proposal, however. Various solutions have been proposed. A few have tried to introduce simple mechanisms for catering to specific variations in accent. Some have sidestepped the issue altogether by promoting some kind of application of free spelling, in which one spells according to the local accent. Regardless, though, advocates are firm in their stance that being difficult or challenging is not a reason to abandon the idea altogether.

False friends

Many reform proposals attempt to make too many changes to English orthography at once and do not allow for any transitional period where the old spellings and the new may be in use together. The problem is an overlap in words where a particular word could be an unreformed spelling of one word or a reformed spelling of another, akin to false friends when learning a foreign language.

For example, a reform could propose to respell wonder as wunder and wander as wonder. However, both cannot be done at once because this causes ambiguity. During any transitional period, is wonder the unreformed spelling of wonder or the reformed spelling of wander? (This could be resolved by using the old wander with the new wunder.) Other similar chains of words are devicedevise → *devize, warmworm → *wurm and ricerise → *rize.

This argument is very similar to Whose accent? above in its intent. In addition to the beginning sentiment given above, advocates would go as far as saying that even if this cannot be resolved, the resulting confusion would be less than what we currently suffer under a sometimes irrational and chaotic system, and furthermore, would be only temporary.

Spelling reform proposals

Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing the basic English alphabet or making a new one. All spelling reforms aim for greater regularity in spelling.

Using the basic English alphabet

Common features:

  • They do not introduce any new letters, symbols or diacritics.
  • They rely upon familiar digraphs.
  • They try to maintain the appearance of existing words.

Notable proposals include:

Extending or replacing the basic English alphabet

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia written in the Deseret alphabet

These proposals seek to eliminate the extensive use of digraphs (such as "ch", "gh", "kn-", "-ng", "ph", "qu", "sh", voiced "th", voiceless "th" and "wh-") by introducing new letters and/or diacritics. The impetus for removing digraphs is so each letter represents a single sound. In a digraph, the two letters do not represent their individual sounds but instead an entirely different and discrete sound, which can sometimes lead to mishaps in pronunciation, in addition to much lengthier words.

Notable proposals include:

Historical advocates of reform

A number of respected and influential people have been active supporters of spelling reform.

See also


  1. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling. Simplified Spelling Board, 1920. p.3
  2. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.4
  3. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 17–18. 
  4. ^ a b c d Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 18. 
  5. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, pp.5–7
  6. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  7. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.9
  8. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 20. 
  9. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.13
  10. ^ a b "Spelling Reform". Barnsdle.demon.co.uk. http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/spell/histsp.html. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  11. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.14
  12. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 21. 
  13. ^ "Simplified Spelling Board's 300 Spellings". http://www.childrenofthecode.org/code-history/300words.htm. Retrieved 12 July 2009. 
  14. ^ Wheeler, Benjamin (September 15, 1906). "Simplified Spelling: A Caveat (Being the commencement address delivered on September 15, 1906, before the graduating class of Stanford University)". London: B.H.Blackwell. p. 11. 
  15. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A0CE7DD113EE733A25752C0A9629C946797D6CF. Retrieved 2009-07-12. 
  16. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt's Spelling Reform Initiative: The List". Johnreilly.info. 1906-09-04. http://www.johnreilly.info/trlist.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  17. ^ Handbook of Simplified Spelling, p.16
  18. ^ Godfrey Dewey (1966), Oh, (P)shaw!, http://www.englishspellingsociety.org/bulletins/b66/b66fall.pdf 
  19. ^ Alan Campbell, The 50th anniversary of the Simplified Spelling Bill, http://www.englishspellingsociety.org/news/media/bill.php, retrieved 2011-05-11 
  20. ^ Ronald A Threadgall, The Initial Teaching Alphabet: Proven Efficiency and Future Prospects, http://www.englishspellingsociety.org/journals/j7/itaproven.php, retrieved 2011-05-11 
  21. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey. Writing Systems. Stanford University Press, 1990. p.197.
  22. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A0CE7DD113EE733A25752C0A9629C946797D6CF. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "[c]hange ... has been almost continuous in the history of English spelling." 
  23. ^ "English Language:Orthography". Encyclopædia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/188048/English-language/74808/Orthography. Retrieved 3 July 2009. 
  24. ^ a b Crystal, David (1987). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 214. ISBN 0521264383. 
  25. ^ Lindgren, Harry (1969). Spelling Reform: A New Approach. Sydney: Alpha Books. p. 59. 
  26. ^ "Start the campaign for simple spelling" (PDF). The New York Times. 1 April 1906. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9A0CE7DD113EE733A25752C0A9629C946797D6CF. Retrieved 2009-07-12. "We do not print Shakespeare's or Bacon's words as they were written" 
  27. ^ Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. pp. 63–64. 
  28. ^ a b Wijk, Axel (1959). Regularized English. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. p. 17. 
  29. ^ "The Poetical Works of John Milton – Full Text Free Book (Part 1/11)". Fullbooks.com. http://www.fullbooks.com/The-Poetical-Works-of-John-Milton1.html. Retrieved 2010-06-19. 
  30. ^ a b "House Bars Spelling in President's Style" (PDF). New York Times. 1906-12-13. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9B07E6DC1331E733A25750C1A9649D946797D6CF&oref=slogin. Retrieved 2007-12-17. 
  31. ^ John J. Reilly. "Theodore Roosevelt and Spelling Reform". http://www.johnreilly.info/alt20.htm.  Based on H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558
  32. ^ Daniel R. MacGilvray (1986). "A Short History of GPO". http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/fdlp/history/macgilvray.html. 

Further reading

  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Twisted Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman. Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-136925-4. [1]
  • Bell, Masha (2004), Understanding English Spelling, Cambridge, Pegasus
  • Children of the Code An extensive, in depth study of the illiteracy problem.

External links

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