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Should we reform English spelling?

January 21, 2015

I read recently that the English Spelling Society is going to host a conference later this year to devise proposals to reform English spelling – ie make it simpler and more logical. The idea, according to the chairman of the society Stephen Linstead, is that the reformed system would be used alongside the traditional spellings and if it gained traction and came to be preferred, eventually replace it.

Certainly there are points in favour of reforming English spelling. It is harder than that of most European languages (though French isn’t all that logical either) and English children take longer to learn to write fluently, and make far more errors than their Spanish or Italian counterparts. And of course there’s a stigma attached to bad spelling, so that people who have a poor memory for that kind of thing (even though they may have a very good memory in other areas) are exposed to ridicule and embarrassment. I never used to bother much about this, being an accurate speller myself and assuming that anyone who made the effort could be the same. It now turns out, though, that my son, who’s aged ten, is a terrible speller, so I feel a bit less complacent than I did.

Nevertheless, on balance I still think spelling reform is a bad idea, and it won’t catch on. First, any such reform would obscure the etymology of English words, which is part of the pleasure of English spelling. Second, changes in language just don’t happen in that way: they happen spontaneously, organically, and piecemeal, because they happen to catch on; as the new spelling alright for some reason found favour over the traditional all right, not because a conference decided it would be more logical, but because that’s just how people started spelling it. Third, think of the huge volume of texts in traditional English spelling (which has changed little since the 18th century when Johnson published his dictionary). Would they all have to be reprinted? And would all of us accustomed to the traditional spellings have to learn to spell all over again? Inertia will prevent this happening, just as the QWERTY layout of the keyboard is too entrenched to change now, even though more logical arrangements could be devised.

Then there are the problems posed by the hybrid nature of English; if we adopted a more phonetic system would it be based on Anglo-Saxon or Latin? As Simeon Potter said in Our Language: ‘If the native spelling is retained, much of the Latin and French element becomes unrecognisable. If we take seed as the norm, then cede and recede must become seed and reseed. If we take mesh as the norm, then both cession and session must become seshon, and fissure must become fisher. If, on the contrary, fuse and muse are kept, then news will be nuse… Would a foreign student like to find whole sections of his English vocabulary torn away from their counterparts in those European languages with one or other of which he is probably acquainted?’

We should note that current spellings represent not only sound, but sense. Simeon Potter again: ‘Should nation and national be written neishon and nashonal and thus dissociated from one another in English and from their identical, or near-identical, forms, not only in the Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, but also in the Scandinavian languages, as well as Dutch and German? Would a child find self-expression easier if he were taught to write cats but dogz and horsez; jumps but runz and risez; and jumpt but turnd and landed?’

No doubt the English Spelling Society conference will grapple with these problems, but I can’t see any wholly satisfactory solutions. I think it’s preferable to stick with the ramshackle and fascinating system we have, which bears the imprint of our language’s history; and I’m sure we will.

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