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The Oddest English Spellings, or, The Future of Spelling Reform


By Anatoly Liberman

Our civilization has reached a stage at which together we are extremely powerful and in our individual capacities nearly helpless. We (that is, we as a body) can solve the most complicated mathematical problems, but our children no longer know the multiplication table. Since they can use a calculator to find out how much six times seven is, why bother? Also, WE can fly from New York to Stockholm in a few hours, but, when asked where Sweden is, thousands of people answer with a sigh that they did not take geography in high school: it must be somewhere up there on the map. There is no need to know anything: given the necessary software, clever machines will do all the work and leave us playing videogames and making virtual love. The worst anti-utopias did not predict such a separation between communal omniscience and personal ignorance, such a complete rift between collective wisdom and individual stultification.

For centuries English-speakers have tried to make English spelling less chaotic. These efforts have now come to an end. Most children and adults spell dreadfully, but spellcheckers correct their mistakes. Although a spellchecker does not know the difference between principle and principal, and the horror of lose versus loose/choose, descendent versus descendant, and affect versus effect remains, it will not allow its user to write syllabus with one l or definitely with an a after n (both spellings are great favorites among college students of all ages). The idea of spelling reform is dead; the spellchecker has buried it. We will forever live with deign and disdain; proceed and precede; read (the infinitive), read (the past), and red (the color); lead (the metal) and lead—led—led (the verb), till and until. English words are almost like Chinese hieroglyphics: each is a picture in its own right and a pass to the world of culture: cough, tough, through, thorough, brought, doughty, and so forth. The statement “I am a bad speller” can be heard as often as “I did not take geography in high school.” To be a bad speller is natural and democratic. God forbid joining the vilified elite. It is therefore merely for information’s sake that I will say a few words about the history of spelling reform.

A common question is whether, among the European languages, English has the most erratic spelling. Indeed it does. French, Danish, Russian, Czech, and Hungarian, all of which are pretty awful (the last two because of their diacritics), have a long way to go in comparison to English. German is sometimes tricky but bearable, while Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and especially Finnish are so easy with regard to spelling that it brings tears to one’s eyes. The ideal of all spellers is to have a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. In English this ideal is unattainable, among other things, because a great number of regional variants would leave some people unsatisfied even if the most radical reform were carried out. Some native speakers distinguish between merry, marry, and Mary, whereas others don’t. In American English, tutor and Tudor tend to be homonyms; across the ocean, they are as different as foot and food. Those who pronounce yit will not allow yet-sayers to have their way. Any accepted spelling infringes on someone’s “rights.” Nor should spelling be consistently phonetic. The letter i has different values in divine and divinity, but it makes sense to preserve the unity of these words in their written form. One my even argue that benign looks better than benine, for benign and benignant are a natural pair. Proper and place names should preserve their spelling for historical reasons. Although Thames is pronounced Temz, it is too late to change the familiar image. Let Tom and Thomas celebrate their difference the way Tony and Anthony do in American English, and Messrs. Wild, Wilde, and Wyld go their separate ways (my spellchecker has not heard about the English linguist Henry Cecil Wyld, but I have). Therefore, I reject the efforts of the reformers who advocate the spellings Ingland and Inglish.

Those who have not studied the subject will be surprised to learn how strong the movement for spelling reform has been on both sides of the Atlantic, what great statesmen and writers supported it, how many books and journals promoted the reform. (I’ll mention only two books: English Spelling and Spelling Reform by Thomas Lounsbury, 1909, and Regularized English by Axel Wijk, 1959.) All the arguments against the reform are easy to refute. The opponents were horrified. If we begin to spell sea and see alike, how shall we know the difference between them? And what happens when we hear them? Just see what a sea of trouble we are in for. Countless other homographs do not seem to bother anyone. The sentence—When he walked into the hall, the musicians were bowing—is a joke made up for the purpose (playing away or making bows after the concert?). The same holds for Oxford is a whole and must be treated as a whole (allegedly pronounced by someone and viciously misconstrued: hole for whole). Aural and visual puns make life richer, not more miserable, while writing whole with initial w, a letter to which no sound has ever corresponded in this word, is an affront to intelligence. Conservative spellers were aghast. If we change traditional rules, we will lose our ties with history. Who needs those ties in spelling? And what period of history? The Elizabethan epoch, Middle English, Old English, Proto-Germanic, or even Proto-Indo-European? The protoforms of one and five must have sounded approximately like oinos and penkwe. Should we still count from oinos to penkwe? Or is King Alfred old enough for us? Then from ahn to feev (or feef). Steady, ready, go! And to be shure, the sky will fall if we replace telephone with telefone (compare the idiocy of phantom versus fantasy), six with siks, and quick with kwi(c)k. Italians may have their cominciare and even comunista. What do they know about Latin? We’ll never ever let those commies take away the second m from commence, communist, and their kin.

Other countries have had successful spelling reforms, even sweeping reforms (thus Russia after the 1917 revolution, though the project was prepared before the Bolshevik takeover). Only one reason stands in the way of change: the attitude of those who do not want to adjust to new conditions. They spent years acquiring (akwiring) a useless skill (skil) and will die rather than lose it. Imagine having an eg for brekfast and shuger in wun’s tee! No and again no. Give us an omelet and coffee for lunch. We constantly hope for change and give everybody and everything a chance, even a second chance if need be, but the line must be drawn somewhere, and we have drawn it at spelling. So what about the future of spelling reform in the English speaking world? The reform has no future. Long live the spellchecker!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

12 Responses to “The Oddest English Spellings, or, The Future of Spelling Reform”
  1. Andy R says:

    The argument in favour of reforming the spelling of English words is a powerful one, but so is the counter-argument. If we are to simplify spelling so that words more closely match their pronunciation, then whose pronunciation should we choose as the gold standard? English is so widely spread across the world, and so varied in its sound, that nobody could agree on a hypothetical ‘correctness’ of any specific accent or dialect.

  2. Michael Bangert says:

    Ironically the spell check can strike even here: “One *my* even argue that benign looks better than benine, for benign and benignant are a natural pair.”

  3. Justin T. Holl, Jr. says:

    I believe it was Andrew Jackson that said that he did not trust anyone who didn’t know more than one way to spell a word.

  4. Allan says:

    Andy R finds varius dialects a hindrance to improving our spelling sistem. Aint necessarily so!

    Our present imperfect spellings rufly represent General American (GA) and receevd pronunciation (RP, standard British English).

    If upgraded spellings ar based on a ‘mid-Atlantic English’, as represented by reeders of NBC and BBC news bulletins, we of uther dialects could cope with that, as we do now!
    Allan Campbell
    Spell 4 Literacy
    New Zealand

  5. Steve Bett says:

    Andy R says people could never agree on a base dialect to be represented in a more phonemic writing system. Allan disagrees saying all could cope with a mid-Atlantic broadcast dialect.

    Both are correct. While all could cope as well with broadcast English or dictionary key pronunciation, there would still be endless charges of favoritism. People would argue, “Why should I have to learn broadcast English in order to spell?”

    People would have less trouble spelling broadcast English than they have spelling traditionally but they seem to prefer it becsuse it equally disadvantages all.

  6. Stephanie says:

    I am an EFLA teacher, writer, and amateur linguist, so I am very interested in not only English as a current language, but its historic roots. I have been following the changes made recently in Germany (set in motion in 1996, but which only came into full effect in early 2003)and see the chaos that arises with such attempts at change. The biggest questions that rise are “who decides?” and “what gives them the right to decide?”. Students of this generation have grown up in flux – they are so insecure about “the proper way” to spell something that they just don’t bother anymore; the parents don’t know what to tell their children when asked, because no one bothered to inform the general population of the specifics of change – they just know from some newspapers that it occured, while from others that it will not be adhered to in their publications.
    For me, the most important point is aesthetics; if the change to a word improves its appearance and pronunciation clarity, then so be it; but spellings such as “enuf” or “uther” are simply ugly to my eye – which brings us back to the point, “who decides”. Shakespeare had a dozen ways to spell his own name, and he introduced many of our modern words into the language; but I challenge the average reader to read Shakespearean English in its original form with no problems, and I think that if modern writing moves that way, fewer people will take the time to bother reading at all. It behooves the writer to cater to the aesthetic, even in the choice of words and spellings.

  7. John R says:

    Understanding phonology to a degree I can only comment that a spelling reform in English is desirable and could be done if ten million people in one country spoke it. But this is not the case and the hundreds of millions of speakers in many countries could never reach agreement. So we are faced with Chinese-stye writing (memorised spellings) until kingdom come.

    In fact a spelling reform could be done but the Americans would never go cold turkey and change quickly, overnight almost … and that would kill it. Witness the inertia in the USA over a conversion to the metric/SI system of measurements which has been dragged out for so long that it has effectively died out. This has left all the other English speaking countries who have successfully changed to metric/SI as measurement orphans.

    The other issue would entail creating a new alphabet to accomodate a one sound, one letter spelling system system. The IPA, or a modified IPA could be used as it is already in (non-American) dictionaries which would involve such a radical change that unfortunately a few generations after the spelling reform nobody would be able to read old books. So yes, I would conclude too, it will never happen.

  8. JO 753 says:

    Sorry, DR. Liberman, but I think the whole texting thing throws your ‘reform is dead’ idea in the trash.

    John R, Nooalf is a 1 letter per sound system with new letters that can still be typed on a present day keyboard without any special tricks. It even has a texting version.

    most pepl kan red xis ferle ezule. its slakrz nqalf, wic iz u kwikr-tu-tip vrjn uv nqalf.

    A few things about disagreements of what dialect to use: 1.What dialect do you think the dictionary writers use? 2. Everybody who speaks English can understand broadcast quality American. 3. Nooalf only specifies a letter for each sound, not the spelling of the words, so even though there can be a standard, it can also spell dialects.

  9. bentley naire luyong says:

    can u help me with our thesis writing about spelling competency in reltaion to texting or sms sending?

  10. Paul says:

    I’ve been involved in setting up a new website aimed at young people (www.under25.co.nz). It’s mainly aimed at people 15 to 25 and to make the site fun and relaxed we have used text language on the site.

    It is interesting, the target age group uses text language every day in text messages with their friends, but we have been surprised by a number of angry emails from young people saying the use of text language other than in a text message insults their intelligence… Whilst the number of emails like this is a low in proportion to the amount of people signing up to the site, I am surprised at the level of passion in many emails on the topic.

    For now we are keeping the text language spelling and replying to the hate mail pointing out we are having a bit of fun rather than insulting young peoples spelling abilities. But what is being quite enjoyed by many is making others really angry!

    Personally I don’t mind even if we end up with many spellings of the same words. If the various spellings all look how they sound I’m going to understand it. And even if people spell things differently because they pronounce the word differently, who cares, we learn to cope when we are talking to them so why the big deal if we are reading what they have written? I am still going to know that a Tom-(ar)-to and a Tom-(ay)-to is a round red thing that you can eat so I don’t care if both pronounciations are used to spell it how it sounds… Bring on the changes I say!

  11. Clearly, things were much better when women were at home attending to those stimulating tasks like washing laundry in the river and fetching water from the village fountain! There is a small group of people who have acquired a high degree of literacy. They do not want to let THAT go. It seems it is part of their identity. Is it because this literacy provides them with security knowing that they are instantaneously recognized, defined as smarter and, ergo, deserving of the wealth, comfort, and status that this literacy level provides them with? This is a rhetorical question! It reminds me of the tale of the lawyers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where the author pokes fun at these people who use Latin as a status symbol. BMW, designer this or that, and, of course, old English spelling rules that make things more complex that they need to be! How predictable some human beings are! There are casualties in this game, however! The kids who do not want to read! Or CANNOT read because the system is so illogical and inconsistent? (Edited)

  12. The English spelling system is clearly flawed. People who have been pushing for reforms want to make it “regular” and simple. Well, the simplest would have to be this: Words should be spelled as they are pronounced. The only problem with this is the fact that pronunciation is not an exact science. But I’m sure this has already been taken into consideration. So I say, let the reform begin.

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