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Spelling reform: not a “lafing” matter

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.

Learning English spelling: spending or wasting their time? Image via pxfuel.

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.

Tarred with the same brush—not a model for Spelling Reform. Photo by Mateja Lemic from Pexels.

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.

A (k)nife of un(k)nown origin. Bronze knife via Picryl.

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    Most people who object to spelling reform are unaware of the costs of leaving it alone or are indifferent to them. They give no thought to what student could be learning instead of wasting their time on learning to spell stupidly rather than rationally, in deference to dictionaries. Nor are they bothered about educational failure and its consequences.

    Deciding where to begin improving the system is difficult, after scribes, printers and particularly Sam Johnson have been making it steadily worse since the 9th century. I think that the irregularities which are in greatest need of removal are the ones that are most responsible for making children’s early years at school needlessly difficult and bewildering, by causing both reading and spelling difficulties in some of our most used words, such as variants for e and u (friend, said, any; rough, blood, money) in 63 and 68 words. It is both cruel and irresponsible to let them keep baffling and tormenting children year after year. – See my EnglishSpellingProblems blog if interested.

  2. Rudy Troike

    Dear Anatoly,

    A very logical and reasoned response. I have often pointed out to my students that the problem of standardiz(s?)ing spelling at any point in history is that people will continue to change their pronunciation, so that ultimately, the spelling becomes like Chinese characters (think write – right – rite).
    Secondly, the received standard reflects (or reflected) the usage of a privileged group somewhere within an arbitrarily-determined political area, and the speakers from elsewhere become disadvantaged when the spelling is institutionalized (as in schools, location of printers, etc.), and the speakers of these other varieties must learn these forms as a second language. With a character system like Chinese has, speakers of mutually unintelligible varieties (actually different languages) can read, write, and readily communicate once they learn the common characters.
    Thirdly, if the spelling were to be changed, whose variety would be the basis? In the US, speakers in wide-spread areas are merging the vowels of COT and CAUGHT. Should publishers print books with such words spelled alike just for those areas? Would schoolchildren learn to read different spellings based on where they live, and then learn a second (vast) set of spellings used in other areas (as color vs colour)? Ultimately English would be in the position of Spanish vs Portuguese.
    Finally, the horse is out of the barn. Change was possible when only 10% of speakers were literate, but with millions of readers/speakers worldwide, it is no longer plausible. Eventually, the issue may become moot, as we all learn to use Chinese characters, as the Japanese have.
    –Rudy

  3. John Cowan

    My comment was too long and had too much HTML, so I made into a post on my blog. It responds to some of your points and one of Masha’s. I urge you to look at it when you have a chance.

  4. Allan Campbell

    I agree with most of your comments and suggestions, but take issue with the attack on double letters as evidenced in the heading, “lafing”.

    Doubling letters has two major uses, which sometimes clash: emfasis and “shortening” of vowels. Compare the stresses in travel/traveling, and propel/propelling. (Ideally travel should be travvel. or travl)

    Lafing indicate a long-a, as in chafing, strafing whereas in GA it should be short. In RP its mor like lahfing

  5. Susie Staplehurst

    I’ve always believed language to be fluid and adaptive. You can see this in the new words that get added regularly, where slang becomes common use.

    I learnt Dutch after moving to Belgium and it’s amazing how simplified most of the spelling is – for the majority of words, you write it how you say it! Now there are exceptions to the rules (like, for instance, words which have come from French or English), but the majority of words use the standard vowel sounds (I can’t remember how many there are – I think 22, including the short, long, and diphthongs).

    English, on the other hand, is more of a hodgepodge of different roots. Is that more than any other European language?

  6. Masha Bell

    Susie
    The English spelling mess is not due to the language being an amalgam of German and French, with additional imports from a few others. It is chaotic because it was repeatedly changed for the worse, while other European writing systems have been increasingly improved over the centuries.
    Please read the History post on my blog EnglishSpellingProblems. (Direct links are forbidden on here!)
    Masha

  7. John Cowan

    I have added a further comment at my blog in response to Rudy Troike’s comments both here and there. I defend Wijk’s system as working well with the current accents of English; I also suggest that Chinese characters are no longer so effective for multiple languages as they once were.

  8. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    Changing the spelling of words is little like revising History to suit our needs. Do we really want to go down that slippery slope?

    Better leave Truth true!

    Kostas

  9. Masha Bell

    Kostas
    U seem to be saying that the mistakes of earlier generations must never be corrected, no matter how stupid or how much harm they do.
    Learning to read and write English was made difficult mainly by four major changes to its original 7th C system, which gave no though to how this affected learning to read and write, such as:
    1. Substituting o for u next to m, n, v and vv (month, love, wonder),
    2. Wrecking Chaucer’s regular spellings for /e/ and /ee/ (frend, thred, tred; leve, preste, teche), chiefly with the adoption of ea for both (thread, leave).
    3. Printers adding surplus letters to fill space and earn more (have, doubt).
    4. Worst of all, Johnson trying to bring English spelling back closer to its Latin roots:
    a) destroying the logic of consonant doubling by exempting 100s of Latinate words from it (veRy – merry, shoddy – boDy) or using it as grammatical markers, instead of indicating short stressed vowels (arrow aRRive arise).
    b) pointlessly adopting different spellings for 335 homophones (here/hear) – cf. arch, bank, tank…
    c) making many endings less predictable (widen – pardon, certain, truncheon).

    The evil that men to lives after them, and generations of children have been paying a heavy price for it.

  10. Masha Bell

    Sorry about the typo! – “the evil that men do lives after them…”

  11. Allan Campbell

    Rudy: Yes, pronunciations (and meanings) can change with time, both thru the whole language and its dialects. For that reason we need not only current upgrading of our spelling, but also a boddy to considder and make decisions on necessary changes in spelling. At present the English Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council ar seeking a new spelling sistem to be decided by the International English Spelling Congress, a boddy they hav set up for that purpose. I think its agenda should be widened to continue this work and be representativ of all Anglofone nations and societies. Hopefully it would be subsidized by the affected nations and international organizations.

  12. Constantinos Ragazas

    Masha,

    Are you suggesting that otherwise budding young geniuses missed their life calling because they couldn’t master reading early enough or well enough?

    No amount of spelling reform can make English any easier to read or write! But it could make it more bewildering and oddball!

    Think of English as being two different languages: the spoken and the written. Are the Chinese any less capable because their spoken and written languages are different?

    For better or worse, the spelling of a word is its “history”. Why deny that truth? Especially at an age of spell-checking and sound recognition technologies?

    Kostas

  13. Rudy Troike

    Masha,
    I’m confused by your comments. You imply that “shoddy” is a native word, while “body” is a Latinate word, whereas “body” is from “bodig” in Old English, while “shoddy” is a 19th century word of unknown origin. You want us to go back to spelling as it was in the 7th century, but spelling then depended on what part of England the writer was from. If you want to adopt some form of 7th c. spelling, you would have to spell “what” as “hwaet” (the first word in the great epic poem Beowulf – most of which I have translated word by word, btw). It was the Normans whose conquest of England in 1066 led to the loss of any general literacy in English, and when writing re-emerged it was based on French and Latin models, so that “hwaet”, which represented the real pronunciation, was re-spelled as “what”. “Scip” was respelled as “ship”, “daeg” as “day”, and innumerable other examples. You should find a good book on the history of English and brush up on your facts.Many differences in the spelling of native words reflects actual differences in pronunciation at the time. The Great Vowel Shift(s) up-ended the connection between the pronunciation and spelling. People dropped the pronunciation of some consonants, leaving the spelling as fossils (write -right; soft vs soften). Shall we re-spell “soften” as “soffen”, and lose the visual connection with “soft”? Ditto for “hymn” and “hymnal” –> “him”/”himnal” and many others.

    Changes in pronunciation are going on today, with different changes in different areas. Do you, Masha, pronounce “where” and “wear” the same? In the last century, many Americans have grown up dropping the /h/ in “where” (Old English “hwaer”), but it is still widely used in Britain. Would you advocate teaching American children to spell it “wear” while (“wile”?) the rest of the world keeps “where”? If you spell “cot”/”caught” alike, should British books drop the -r in “car” and hundreds of similar words? Shall textbooks in Illinois spell “hill” and “hell” alike? Should states rights prevail? Who is to be the arbiter?

  14. Allan Campbell

    Constantinos: Your desire to retain history “for better or worse” no dout meens u regret the chanje to decimal currency by most nations, the the demise of the horse and plow, the introduction of the zero into our numeracy, and possibly the replacement of the penny farthing bicycle.

    Language does hav a history, but its a “here-and-now” activity that should be as efficient and painless as possible.

  15. Constantinos Ragazas

    Allan: I am all for progress! But in an age of AI and spell-checking/voice recognition technologies, talk of spelling reform is Old School to the extreme!

    And raises the question “why”. The solution may be more insidious than the problem it purportedly solves.

    Kostas

  16. Norman Paterson

    Spoken English continues to evolve. If written English does not change to suit then end result will be that written English ceases to be alphabetic at all, and becomes logographic. To become literate will then require memorising tens of thousands of words, with no chance of reading or writing any word that has not previously been memorised.

    It may be a long way off, but that is the direction rejecting all spelling reform is headed. Meantime, children waste years learning to read, instead of reading to learn.

  17. Constantinos Ragazas

    Norman,

    “To become literate will then require memorising tens of thousands of words, with no chance of reading or writing any word that has not previously been memorised.”

    All words need to be first learned! For a native speaker, usually in context and by absorption naturally. Whether written or listened.

    The natural acquisition of language will not change in your horrific future. As for all others, there will be even better “google translate” in the future.

    “…children waste years learning to read, instead of reading to learn.”

    That is the failing of the educational system. What about learning to learn? Now that will make a big difference in an ever changing evolving future.

    If the spelling of a word can willy nilly be changed by some to fit their sensibilities, why shouldn’t it by anyone?

    Safer to stay true to “what is”!

    Kostas

  18. Allan Campbell

    Kostas: U rite “All words need to be first learned! For a native speaker, usually in context and by absorption naturally. Whether written or listened.”

    U could hav added “often individually.”

    I remember one of the first words i lerned was pipe, with a picture of a man smoking one. From that i was able to successfully guess, without enny special teeching or lerning, others such as ripe, swipe, wipe, stripe, and i guess even bagpipe. I cant remember how i reacted when i first saw type, tho i guess i probably got it from context.

  19. john quill taylor

    Somebody once mentioned there was an entire novel
    that was written without using the letter ‘e’ anywhere.

    My response to this is:

    Bg dl.
    Wh nt wrt r nvl wtht sng n f th vwls?
    Nw tht wld rll b smthng!
    thn gt rd f pncttn nd cptl lttrs
    thnlmntspcs

    – j q t –

    Let’s delve even further . . .

    In a letter to The Economist, M. J. Shields, of Jarrow, En-
    gland, points out that George Bernard Shaw, among others,
    urged spelling reform, suggesting that one letter be altered
    or deleted each year, thus giving the populace time to ab-
    sorb the change. Shields writes:

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be
    dropped to be replased by either “k” or “s,” and likewise
    “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase
    in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation,
    which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might well reform
    “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same
    konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it
    with “i,” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g-j” anomali wonse and
    for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai
    iear, with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants,
    and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining
    voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Ier 15 or sou, it wud
    fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c,”
    “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould
    doderez — tu riplais “ch,” “sh” and “th” rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers of orxogrefkl riform, wi wud
    hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-
    spiking werld. Haweve, sins xe Wely, xe Airiy, and xe Skots
    du not spik Ingliy, xei wud hev to hev a speling siutd tu
    xer oun lengwij. Xei kud, haweve, orlweiz lern Ingliy az a
    sekond lengwij et skuul! — Iorz feixfuli, M. J. Yilz.

  20. Allan Campbell

    John: I like M J Shields idea, but would not go with all his suggested changes. For exampl, i would not hav “i” for the “long e”, “bee”, not “bi”.

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