English Spelling as a Societal and Educational Problem
By Dr. Jon Aske, Department of Foreign Languages
English spelling is a royal mess. That’s not a secret. It’s probably one of the messiest spelling (alphabetic writing) systems around, which has consequences for native and non-native speakers alike. It doesn’t have to be that way. Other languages have spelling systems that are much more logical and sane. Actually every other Western spelling system, with the possible exception of French, is much more logical than the one English has. Actually, French underwent a reform in 1990 that changed the spelling of some 2000 words, so they at least are trying to improve things by making them simpler.
Many scholars and even politicians, such as Benjamin Franklin, have attempted to reform English spelling, which became fixed as it is now a few hundred years ago. For the previous several hundred years in which English was written, people had considerable leeway as to how they spelled words, trying to consistently represent sounds with the same characters, but not always succeeding. The lack of success is due to several reasons. A major one is that the English alphabet, which as you know is derived from the Latin alphabet, was not designed for the sounds of English, but for the sounds of Latin, which were different in many respects. Also there is the fact that people don’t use the same sounds all over the English speaking world, so it is hard to expect a single spelling system to faithfully represent the sounds of the language. Another problem is that the pronunciation of English words has changed much over the last 1000 years. If you were wondering where the silent GH letters in the word night came from, for instance, or the silent K in KNOW, the reason is that they used to be pronounced at one time, but they are not anymore, but nobody bothered to change the spelling of those words.
There is an interesting story that blames the chaos in English spelling in part to something that happened 500 years ago. This was the time right after Guttenberg invented the printing press and when there was no agreed single way to spell words. It so happened that the first and most important book that most people in England had in their homes in those days, the one they used to learn to read and write, was the Bible. But in the early 1500’s it was forbidden to print the Bible in anything but Latin in Western Europe (England was still Catholic then) and so the first commonly available English Bible was not printed in England. Rather, it was typeset and printed in Germany, by German typesetters and printers who didn’t know English and who were working from a hand-written original which was itself imperfect. This Bible was then smuggled into England and became the first printed book that most families ever owned for many years to come. You can imagine the mistakes and inconsistencies that were bound to be in that book. English spelling never recovered. It might have if there had been an official or unofficial body to reform spelling, but that never happened. Not that it would have necessarily been a panacea. France has a well-known language academy, but French spelling is anything but sane, despite the recent reforms.
So English spelling sometimes reflects pronunciations from an earlier era and it often reflects inconsistencies created by earlier scribes and typesetters from different dialects or with different personal preferences. Since you are obviously a literate English speaker, I don’t need to show you how difficult and inconsistent English spelling is, but if you need some reminding, you can head to this site: www.englishspellingproblems.co.uk.
The messy spelling is not just a quaint fact about English. Some have argued that it has serious consequences for literacy and happiness in English speaking countries. The Spelling Society in Great Britain is an organization that attempts to educate people about the need for spelling reform and the consequences of our spelling system. They argue that it takes the average English speaking child 12 years to learn to spell English well, whereas it only takes an average Italian speaking child 2 years to learn to spell Italian well, since the Italian spelling system is so much more consistent than the English one. Furthermore, they claim that around 20% of all British and American adults are functionally illiterate, which they attribute to the difficulties of the English spelling system. Some have also argued that there is a link between illiteracy and low self-esteem and even crime rates! Although not everybody has serious difficulties acquiring English spelling, even if it is not easy, some people have legitimate cognitive issues which could be eased greatly if the spelling system was not so chaotic.
To conclude, I thought you might like to see what a reformed spelling system might look like. What follows is an example of one of the many spelling reforms that have been proposed. It is called Cut Spelling CS) and it does away with much irregularity. The following paragraph is taken from the Spelling Society’s website:
“Th foloing paragrafs sho CS in action. We first notice it is not hard to read, even without noing its rules, and with practis we read it as esily as traditionl spelng. Most words ar unchanjed (over 3/4 in th previus sentnce), and we hav th impression not of a totaly new riting systm, but of norml script with letrs misng here and ther. Th basic shape of most words, by wich we recognize them, is not fundmently altrd, and nearly al those that ar mor substantialy chanjed ar quikly decoded; very few ar truly puzlng. This means that, if al printd matr sudnly apeard in CS tomoro, peples readng ability wud not be seriusly afectd. Foren lernrs in particulr ar helpd by th clearr indication of pronunciation, as wen pairs like lo/cow, danjer/angr, undrmine/determn cese to look like ryms. With groing familiarity, users apreciate CS as a streamlined but mor acurat represntation of spoken english. Its novlty lies in th disapearnce of much of th arbitry clutr that makes ritn english so confusing and causes most of th mistakes peple now make.”