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Lite Beer and Donuts, or, Does Spelling Reform Have a Chance?




By Anatoly Liberman

At the beginning of June, on the technological campus of Coventry University the British Simplified Spelling Society, now called Spelling Society, with Simplified expunged from the title, celebrated its centennial (centenary). As the theme of the conference the organizers suggested “The Cost of English Spelling.” The society and its ally the American Literacy Council were founded at the peak of public interest in spelling reform. Between 1908 and 2008 many edifying publications came out, and some of the best linguists on both sides of the Atlantic showed the weakness of the arguments repeated again and again by the opponents of the reform. However, a century passed, and despite all those activities English spelling has undergone only a few cosmetic changes (like hyphenation in American English), so that there is nothing to celebrate. And yet there may be a glimmer of hope.

The cost of teaching English spelling is enormous. The money spent on drilling the most nonsensical rules in any modern European language and on remedial courses could have fed and educated a continent. (I have the statistics but will skip the numbers.) Although Spelling Society has lost the game, the world at large has not won it. The establishment refused to institute changes, and, as a result, speakers (native, immigrant, and foreign, both young and old) have become less proficient in reading and writing than ever. Now we are dealing with several generations of the illiterate offspring of illiterate parents.

Since the end of the Second World War life in the West has changed dramatically, partly for the better, partly for the worse. Today more than ever in the recent history of our civilization popular culture has the ascendancy over “high” culture. It is not only our age that witnesses the triumph of popular (low) culture: such is the law of all social development. If it were otherwise, we would still be wearing wigs and using declensions and conjugations of the type known from Latin. In language this trend can be observed in both big things and small. For example, the swift substitution of -s for -th (comes for cometh, and the like) signified the encroachment of vulgar speech on the time-honored literary norm. In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff’s boon companions use this ending. Even the Authorized Version of the Bible was unable to suppress this novelty. Today no one cometh and no one goeth.

In recent memory (George Babington Macaulay would have said within the memory of men still living) jeans with a prefabricated rent at the knee became fashionable and more expensive than elegant and unimpaired trousers (pants). The vilest language is allowed in songs, on the screen, and in printed production, whereas in 1908 one could not pronounce the words pregnant and underwear with women around. Highbrows made careers explaining to the eager public the profound goals of the hippies and the surpassing value of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Bras and ties were abolished along with other signs of bourgeois hypocrisy. Only our orthography stands like an impregnable rock in this ocean of change. But the “masses” did not remain indifferent to the preservation of this last relic of the past, and here I come to the subject of the moral cost inflicted on learners by conservative English spelling.

The first point on the list can be called serene resignation. When provoked by the most egregious misspellings in students’ papers, I chide the culprits gently (ever so gently), the answer usually is: “Oh, I know, I am an awful speller.” It is sad to teach people who have never taken geography at school or are, to quote one of my listeners, “lost in space and time” on hearing the word crusades, but the pilot will take passengers to their destination without asking them for directions, and the Middle Ages ended before we were born. In contrast, one has to write something all the time. Yet our orthography is such that people are happy to admit that they are dummies. A state-sponsored inferiority complex is a rather high moral cost for sticking to antiquated spelling.

Point two is the opposite of the previous one. The world in which college graduates are unable to distinguish between principle and principal and think that the past tense of lead is lead has produced its ugly antidote, namely the spelling bee. The contestants cram hundreds of useless words and come away empty-handed because in the last tour they may miss bogatyr “a Russian epic warrior” (the word is not in the memory of my computer). Wouldn’t it have been more profitable to read Russian fairy tales rather than wasting the brain cells on the words one will never see or use? It is an open secret that the most ambitious parents hire coaches to prepare their children for collecting bitter spelling honey. Prestige and prizes are involved in this losing game.

The masses, as I said, have been reduced to the state of blissful illiteracy and will support spelling reform. They have already abbreviated everything. University is simply U. I teach at the U. of M. (University of Minnesota), students in Salt Late City go to the U. of U. (the University of Utah), and if u (= you) want to move south, hire a truck with the sign “U Haul” (that is, “You Haul”) and go there (their) real quick. U Haul to the U. of U., jingling all the way! Text messaging (called texting in British English) and so-called emotics follow the same route. BRB “be right back” cannot be misspelled. Ads vacillate between two extremes: they play on fake nostalgia and invite us to visit their “shoppe,” as in good “olde” times, but also offer lite beer and donuts (curiously, dictionaries now recognize donut as a variant of doughnut—a revolution from below). Simplified spelling is with us, unless you have noticed it. If Spelling Society succeeds in harnessing the energy of popular culture and steers clear of its excesses, it may eventually turn the tide.

However, there is a fly in the ointment. The reformers have always tried to achieve all at once, forgetting the fact that educated people are averse to rapid shakeups of spelling. Any reform that writes giv and hav on its banner is doomed to failure: it will be rejected unanimously by the left and right. Initial changes should be almost surreptitious: first persuade the powers that be (I have no idea where, in the absence of language academies, such powers hide) to abolish the difference between till and until, spell and dispel. Then remove k– in knob and knock (but retain it in know, to preserve its union with acknowledge). Get rid of c in scythe, as well as in excellent, acquaint, and their likes. Dispense with final –b in dumb (pretend that it is a back formation of dummy) but retain it in numb and thumb because of their weakly sensed affinity with nimble and thimble. It is only the underhand “donut way” that may guarantee success: chip away at one word after another. The process will take several decades, if not longer, but, once people agree that change is needed, they will allow the reformers to introduce proksimity, telephone, and perhaps even krazy (not a Romance word!) and wipe out the difference between descendent and descendant.

Necessity has taught us to recycle all kinds of products. Pubs have gone smoke free. We are saving energy, albeit on a small scale. People do all such things, for they realize that they either comply or perish. There is no joy in raising children who know that they are dum(b) and see no means of improving their status. Nor do we want all words being reduced to capital letters. WBA (it will be awful). Investing money in teaching English spelling as it exists will have the same effect that investing millions in Soviet collective and state farms had. But drawing on the experience of that country, we should beware of repeating its other mistake. Post-communist reformers preached that one cannot jump over a chasm in two steps: democracy, market, and privatization—all overnight. A jump indeed presupposes a single effort. But why not build a bridge over a chasm? If spelling reform becomes reality, the English speaking world will emerge from a dark cell into dazzling daylight. This can be accomplished only by passing through many intermediate stages. Lite beer and donuts are the right sustenance on this way.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. simon hb

    You suggest that BRB cannot be rendered incorrectly; I’m not so sure. I was once asked by a colleague “how do you spell GCSE?”

  2. Alex Case

    Now that English is a global language, nobody could possibly affect whether spelling change happens or not. Therefore, what is the point of still talking about it?

  3. ???

    If English is a global language, its caotic spelling is a global nusance.

    Unpredictable silent letters be hanged! (No dout about it!)

    Each short vowel be spelled with a single vowel letter. (Ar u reddy?)

    Unphonetic digraphs be hanged! (Grait!)

    OUGH words be hanged! (Enuff is enuff!)

  4. Paul Stought

    Iz it posible an alturnut notashen cood be intrudused frum the botum up, like Texting? Thoze wishing tu uze it informully wont hav tu ask purmishun. It may teech the multitude that we dont hav tu take senshuriez tu make spelling reezunuble. I think, if we wait on the evulushenery prosess tu wurk, we will nevur make lurning tu reed and rite much eezier. This sistum (undur develupmunt) iz called Folksrite.

  5. NJH

    “English is a global language . . . nobody could possibly affect whether spelling change happens or not. Therefore, what is the point of still talking about it?”
    Spanish, Portuguese and German are all international languages (with huge dialect variations) & have managed to regularly upgrade there spellings. It deffo is worth talking about because the cost of running a chaotic spelling is so astronomically high.

  6. […] Lite Beer and Donuts, or, Does Spelling Reform Have a Chance? : OUPblogWe quote: "The cost of teaching English spelling is enormous. The money spent on drilling the most nonsensical rules in any modern European language and on remedial courses could have fed and educated a continent." […]

  7. Graham

    I have two objections to ‘simplified’ spelling.

    The first is that the spelling only seems simple if it accords perfectly with your own accent. For a Geordie in the north of England, spelling the word ‘house’ in a natural way might render it as ‘hoos’, for some Londoners, ‘out’ might best be represented as ‘art’. As long as there are such strong accents in the English-speaking world, there can be no common, simplified spelling.

    My second objection is that ‘conservative’ spelling retains (quite a lot of) the etymology of words. Because of this, the spelling helps us understand the word (consider ‘rite’ and ‘right’ which might be indistinguishable under a simplified scheme). ‘Conservative’ spelling not only helps comprehension, it also carries some of the history of the word. Throwing away the richness of this heritage would be an apalling act of cultural vandalism.

  8. Steve Bett

    Liberman should be the one to comment on Graham’s claim that our archaic spelling enhances comprehension and that removing the unphonetic etymological clues throws away the richness of this heritage. Until 1755, people wrote most words several different ways. As spelling became standardized, how many words preserved false etymologies and other fictions?

    “In the interests of etymology I wish the common spelling was utterly smashed.” – Prof. W. W. SKEAT, Principles of English Etymology.

    (The OED) will supply ammunition to kill the etymological dragon.” – Sir JAMES A. H. MURRAY.

    For more quotes from etymologists search on “etymology” at http://www.spellingsociety.org

  9. ze do rock

    to graham,

    those 2 are the classic arguments of anti-reformers. thare are answers to it in many places, but anti-reformers dont read much of reformer literature. well, many reform supporters dont either…

    the dialect problem: it is not a problem for languages like german and italian, altho they hav huge difrences in dialects (northern german offen sounding mor like english than hi german, the same applies for southern and northern italian dialects, wich sound much mor like south french occitan than normal italian), and still they hav a farely foneemic spelling, especialy italian. how come? eesy: thare spelling is based on a standard dialect, usually a central dialect in the country. english could do the same, the only problem being that standard british accent, wich is usually the standard accent for the whole commonwelth, and general american. you dont need a spelling that reflects only one of them, you just refrane from changing wen the 2 dialects dont agree (and thats not as offen as some peeple think or wish it is). but wats the point of spelling ‘great’ if you can spel ‘grate’ and it works for either accent?

    the etymologies: certanly etymological spellings giv a better idea of etymology, on the other hand english is much mor offen unetymological than etymological – it spels etymological but greeks spel etymologikos (and english doesnt eeven use the greek letters), it spels ‘work’ but the foneemic ‘werk’ would be much neerer to duch/german ‘werk’, scandinavian ‘verk’. it spels ‘people’, but the french spelling is ‘peuple’. the word ‘debt’ comes from french ‘dette’, and ‘debt’ is the wrong etymology – sumtime a few centuries ago a “wise” scollar thaut it came from latin and inserted a ‘b’, but if it came from latin, wy dont we spel ‘debito’, wich is the latin word?

    we could hav a spelling that shows us the pronunciation, the current spelling dusnt show the pronunciation and givs wrong information about the etymology.

    zé do rock, brazilian riter livving in germany, riting books in reformd spelling and being member of the simplified spelling society. this e-male is ritten in its house stile, on a progressiv basis (starting from normal english and increesing changes).

  10. ze do rock


    german and italian have dialects too, completely different ones (for instance northern german sounds more like english than like standard german). you just need a standard dialect, in english you hav 2, standard british english (the stardard language in the commonwelth), based on the dialect spoken in southern england, and general american. you dont hav to respel words that hav difrent pronunciation in both accents, but words like ‘hav, mor, enuf’ and most words by far dont hav foneemic difrences between UK and US english.

    and most spellings in english arnt etymological (we dont spel etymologikos, we dont spel ‘werk’ like the other germanic languages, we spel ‘debt’, wich comes from french ‘dette’ and shouldnt hav enny ‘b’ (and if the word was from latin, we should spel debito), and eeven ‘nephew’ suggests a greek origin, wich it dusnt hav (it cums from french and is an indo-european root). so a mor logical spelling shows the pronunciation of the words, the current spelling dusnt sho that AND givs rong information about etymology.

    etymology is just for experts: peeple who no that PH is suposed to be greek no the greek words, and peeple who dont no the greek words dont no that PH is greek. or suposed to be greek, since greeks would NEVER spel FILOSOFIA with PH, and if thay did, thay’d say RILOSORIA. thay dont do that.

    zé do rock, brazilian riter livving in germany and riting books (novvels) in reformd spelling (besides being a member of the simplified spelling society).

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