I keep receiving letters explaining to me the futility of all efforts to reform English spelling and even extolling the virtues of the present system. I will spend minimal time while rehashing what has been said many times and come to the point as soon as possible. The seemingly weighty but not serious objections are three. 1) If we reform spelling, we’ll lose a lot of historical information. Quite true, but spelling is not a springboard to an advanced course on etymology. Agreed: if we begin to write nock instead of knock, a piece of history will be lost. I’ll say: good riddance (we don’t pronounce k-nock anyway, and no one sheds tears over the loss of a precious consonant). Besides, modern spelling often distorts, rather than reflects history. 2) People will never agree to reform modern spelling. Let us wait and see. In every society, there are people who will oppose any change. This is a fact of life, and we have to live with it. 3) Spellcheckers make Spelling Reform unnecessary. This objection looks plausible, but children all over the world still spend countless hours in fighting the horrors of English spelling, arguably the least natural in the Western world. By the way, this fight comes with a price tag, and the tag is huge.
Now let us look at some substantive problems. The ideal—to emulate the Finnish model (write what you hear)—is unachievable for Present Day English, and this is fine: there is no need to hitch our wagon to such a distant star. Yet some changes would be almost painless. For example, in word-initial position, the letter c after consonants is easy to replace by k. If we are happy with ski, skate, skillet, skill, and skull, we can probably live with scamper, scan, scarf, score, and others like them spelled with sk-. By the way, score, scoop, scone, and many other sc-words are not of Romance origin, while scamp, though related to camp, reached English from Dutch. Consequently, the difference between sk– and sc– in Modern English words is not a safe clue to their origin. The choice—sk or sc—is governed by neither history nor logic. Why then do we need it?
Some double letters are another nuisance. This is especially true of foreign words like immune, pollute, and many prefixed forms beginning with af-: affect, affinity, affluent, suffuse, and their likes; afford (English, but made to look French with its aff-) will also be fine with one f. Does anyone think that a cesspool will smell worse with one s in the first syllable or that giraffes will lose an inch of their height if their English name emerges as giraf? (Compare: French giraffe, Italian giraffa, Spanish girafa, and Portuguese girafa!). Americans spell traveled but controlled—a useless headache. Let me reiterate my principle: remove the letters whose disappearance no one will notice or rue.
And this is where we encounter real difficulties. I am all for spelling knock, knick-knack, knob, and knife without initial k-. Knife is especially ridiculous. Its Old English form began with cn– (at that time, the letter k did not exist in English—so much for the etymological principle in today’s spelling!); its Scandinavian cognate began with hn-, while the distant origin of the word is unknown! Gnash and gnarl are equally odd relics of the past. But the phonetic principle is not the only one in determining how to spell modern words. It would be good to respell knack and gnash, but not know, and that for two reasons.
Another principle to consider when we try to reform spelling is the morphological one. It so happens that alongside of know and knowledge we have the word acknowledge. The letter c in it is confusing and redundant, as it is in all such words (acquire, acquaint, and so forth), but k in acknowledge designates a real sound, and it is advisable not to sever the ties between know and acknowledge. Still a third principle of orthography is iconic. If we respell know as now, this word will become a homograph of the adverb now, an unwelcome consequence of excessive rigor. Thus, in my opinion, “tarring all words with the same brush” for the sake of consistency would be a wrong procedure in reforming Modern English spelling. A similar case is the group gn-. Gnaw and gnarl should probably lose g-, and the same holds for the rare and isolated deign, but not for benign, sign, and design because of benignant, signature, and designation.
Many other cases also require an individual approach. One of the hardest is the group gh. Ghost and ghoul should continue to do mischief without their h after g, while ghetto and gherkin should remain intact (ge– is already bad enough in get). The final group gh is comparatively easy to deal with, but here the change, if instituted, will be noticeable and hence controversial. In American English, though has occasionally been spelled as tho’ for more than a century, and plough has the legitimate spelling double plow. Through respelled as thru will inconvenience no one. A less obvious case is cough, enough, rough, tough, and their likes, as opposed to bough and dough, to say nothing of slough “muddy ground” ~ slough “a snake’s skin.”. Since English tolerates forms like off, cliff, stuff, fluff, and cuff, I see no harm in accepting the spellings cof(f), enu(f), and tuf(f). Stuff and tough, off and cough rhyme pairwise; so why should they not be spelled alike?! The hardest words are bought, brought, sought, thought, and caught. I have no immediately acceptable solution for them, but the existing spelling is counterintuitive.
By way of conclusion, I may perhaps remind our readers how the odd spelling gh came into being. English once had a sound like German ch in ach. G pointed to its pronunciation in the back of the mouth, and h indicated its fricative character. Later, this ch underwent weakening, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century, such spellings as lauh, thoh, and dauhter (laugh, though, daughter) were recorded. The system of consonants reacted to this change in a curious way. It should never be forgotten that the sounds of language do not exist in isolation: they rather resemble spiders in a jar. The change to h meant that the consonant would disappear (English does not tolerate h in the middle of words), and this is what happened in the word daughter, to cite one example. But some of those ach’s did not want to die, and they saved themselves by jumping all over the mouth cavity to the protected space of the lips. In some dialects, buf and pluf (bough and plough) have continued into the present, and enough is a standard form. Compare enough and the rare enow or draught and draft! The history of these words in early Modern English was erratic, and there is no need for us to preserve its traces.
I needn’t say that the opinions expressed above are my own and do not represent the views of the English Spelling Society, despite my close association with it. I would be pleased to have them discussed, confirmed, or rebutted. I am also ready to continue in the same vein, should anyone express an interest.
Feature image credit: Three giraffes on a field, CC0 via Pikrepo.