Friday, July 13, 2007

Raping the English language

The Simplified Spelling Society has been advocating for a century to make the spelling of English words easier for children and adults alike. They recently picketed a spelling bee in the US to help make their point, driven by the response of the winner that “spelling is just a bunch of memorization”.

Actually, it isn’t. Sure, we memorize how to spell some words. But the brilliant thing about language is that there are reasons for why things are spelled certain ways, and once you start to understand certain concepts in spelling, spelling unknown words isn’t that hard. With Greek, there are a ton of words I am not familiar with, yet I am able to spell words I’ve never encountered because I’ve picked up on how the Greek alphabet is used. That is a wonderfully deductive part of spelling that many people overlook – and I think it is a part of learning that is crucial to young minds, because it teaches them more than just how to spell, but how to think about how to spell.

The simplifiers want us to spell English words phonetically, because it is just so gosh darn hard to learn how to spell otherwise. Our poor, overworked children have to struggle to learn how to spell, and it is just too difficult. We can’t possibly expect our children to have to work at school, can we? If we spell all words phonetically more children (children who aren’t capable of memorization, apparently) will be able to read. Yet this drive for phonetic spelling irritates the crap out of me, because it suggests that it is only oral language that matters and it devalues the history of our written language. Honestly, if a gun was held to my head and the choice was I could either speak or write the rest of my life but not both, I would much prefer to keep writing. Speaking only works if there is someone to hear us, but we can write alone, for ourselves, or for someone to read later.

Some of the brilliant examples of suggested spelling changes are (for more, click here):

learn – lern

slow – slo

beautiful – butiful

anyone – ennywun

most – moast

simple – simpl

very – verry

Yes, because adding an r where one isn’t needed and spelling moast with an a isn’t more difficult? Not to mention how it looks – as if a half blind troll had wandered in and marked all over your favorite books. Either that or the rejects from the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can't Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too got hold of some paper.

I realize that languages evolve. I tolerate with interest net speak and SMS speak because it has become a sort of pidgin English that people all over the world can understand and use to communicate with one another. However, it isn’t a permanent substitution for our English language, and hopefully it will never be. I am a great fan of dialectical differences in languages as well, but the core language always remains the same. Words may change here and there – verbs may become adverbs, grammatical functions may change, and American English did simplify its spellings from British English. But the overhaul in spelling these people want to do it is a de-evolution, not an evolution. It would completely eradicate the history of our written language, and I’m afraid I just can’t let that happen.


bryan-in-greece said...

I am in total, utter agreement with you, Mel. As an English teacher of 20 years' standing, I am constantly fascinated by English spelling and what it has to show us about the history of our language; for instance, if we changed 'knight' (<- German: Knecht meaning 'a servant-boy') to 'nait' or some such phonetic abomination, the link would be broken. I too read the article you mentioned and the comments readers made subsequent to reading it, and they were almost without exception against spelling reform and the twitterings of the Spelling Bee winner who mooted these ludicrous change to the spelling system. As for every nation, our language is a cherished possession and needs no meddling with.

Anonymous said...

My god, that is stoopid. Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Talking of Zoolander, it's on this coming Sunday night on Mega!

Anonymous said...

A pitty u missd the point entirely. Spelling is not a subject in own rite, like carpentry; its a tool for anuther subject: litracy, just as a plane is a tool for carpentry. A blunt tool does not help proficiency in either subject.
The unpredictability of ireggular spelling makes lerning to reed and rite unecessarily difficult for menny lerners. Because of repeeted lak of success in thare riting menny kids just giv up.
English societys worldwide hav a 20% plus illitracy rate. Is this what u and your commentators (amung the lucky ones who hav coped with English spelling) reely want?
In the wood, look for the trees!
Allan, New Zealand

respel said...

If u ar happy about 40 million adult Americans and 7 million Brits being functionally illiterate, and English-speaking children taking 3 times longer to master the basics of reading and writing than other users of alphabetic writing systems (Seymour, British Journal of Psychology, 2003), then u must find my ideas ridiculous.

If, on the other hand, u don’t like the way English spelling blights the lives of all those who don’t have educated parents who start helping them with learning to read from the moment they are born - by talking to them, having lots of language fun with them and reading to them as soon as they can sit up – then u might like to check out my online discussion of this with Prof. Vivian Cook at

U ar right about many English words having sensible spellings which can be spelt by applying rules. The problem for school children are 3700 common words which don’t quite obey them. U can see all of them all at

This learning burden is simply too much for half of all Anglophones and explains why one in two of them never learn to write with confidence. There are only 2000 words which are tricky for readers, and just 300 which most seriously hinder young children’s progress with learning to read.

I am suggesting that we should at least consider improving those, by reducing phonic nonsense like ‘end, send – friend – fiend’, ‘gave, drive, alive – have, give, live’, which can be achieved by simply dropping totally useless letters. This was done to thousands of English words in the 17th century, e.g. ‘atte – at, shoppe – shop, worde – word’.

Unfortunately, hundreds of others were made more difficult: erly – early, lern – learn, bild – build, bisinesse – business. Some were introduced by the foreign printers who typeset the first printed English books without knowing a word of English. Others were introduced deliberately to prevent too many people learning to read and write and becoming reluctant to do menial jobs.

bryan-in-greece said...

Respel wrote: "Others [spelling changes] were introduced deliberately to prevent too many people learning to read and write and becoming reluctant to do menial jobs."

Oh come on, that statement is just plain ridiculous!!!

Much of what has been said here suggests that people are incapable of memorizing correct spellings. In my view, it is nowadays more a case of an education system (be it in the US, Britain or elsewhere) being either incapable of or uninterested in teaching and reinforcing correct spelling. I see the same among many of the Greek children I teach English to - despite my being a foreign speaker of Greek, my knowledge of Greek spelling (and occasionally vocabulary) exceeds theirs, in some cases by a long chalk. Laziness of mind and lack of method in learning bring about the sort of ignorance of spelling which is being discussed here, not any intrinsic difficulty in the English language's spelling (or in that of Greek, for that matter). After all, if we go back forty or fifty years, poor spelling of English was nowhere near as widespread as it is today. Were people more intelligent then or more capable of memorizing? I think not.

Anonymous said...

I find English spelling extremely difficult and frustrating and have so for 50 years and I'm a university lecturer. For this and other reasons I support the idea of reform.

Change in spelling is a natural process and nothing to be frightened of.

We have made changes to the way Shakespeare wrote: hauve, sleepe, musick, dreame, naturall shockes etc.; a planned reform to our spellings "along the grain of the language" is overdue.

Many other (international) languages - Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Swedish - with all their dialects, have done it. These nations always out-perform us in the literacy league tables.

There is a close correlation between the excessively complicated spelling system we are saddled with and illiteracy and other poor school outcomes. Not to say crime and social exclusion.

This, as the bard wrote, "Must giue vs pawse". I say: "Don't dum down - upgrade!"

Nige, London

J.Doe said...

Wen I see English ritten lak that I think of illiturit peepul. If they red more as childrun they wuldn't haf a problum with English as it is ritten now. Or just study more. I red a lot as a child and haf no problem with spelling corektly. Many peeple in the werld haf no problem with English now eether. I hope they don't change English speling jest cuz sum peepul are more ignorant than otherz.

Malia said...

This one from the link you provided cracked me up:
Phonic - phonnic

Um, what? That's a phonetical spelling? Why not replace the "ph" with "f" instead of adding two "n"s?

Anonymous said...

Wow, great subject here. I was one of those kids, middle class american types, in public school, suffering from my ability to "get" English. But my suffering wasn't from not being able to spell, it was from my parents, teachers, and others who treated me like shit because of it. It's funny now, that after such a miserable life of dyslexia and other English language learning disabilities, I am now know for my writing. I write well enough to get paid for it.

The concept of phonetic spelling is ridiculous. Regardless of how you spell a word, it still must be memorized. Take for example the word "learn." Phonetically, it could be spelled lern, lirn, or lurn. And the whole phonetics idea really takes a dive when you take into consider the many different geographical and cultural accents. People from the South would never be able to read a letter from people in New England.

Now, I am for phonetics as a process of developing literacy - as a way of getting to the proper spelling of a word. If it were used in school when I was a kid, I think I would have grasped the concept language better and easier.

Anonymous said...

ps, any mistakes in the above should be considered typos.

Flubberwinkle said...

This reminds me of this.

Thanos said...

Interesting topic and of course all voices are heard from the ridiculous notion of a total overhaul to the ridiculous notion of nothing changing ever. As always the truth lies inbetween.

I place myself square in the middle of the "let language evolve naturally" camp. It has been proven time and again (e.g. esperanto) that no matter how good the intention, any forced change, any parthenogenesis will end up an abomination - or at least a slightly retarded oddity.

Respel (of the "opposite" camp) has a point. Some things can change, some words can be simplified - as this is the trend of the times. And they will change, I have no doubt.

As to the 3700 words I have to disagree. NOT all "oo" sounds are equal to "u" or "ui" or "eu" or "ew". Brute still carries a tinge of latin and if you say "broot" you just sound like a troll trying to speak french. Speaking of french, "fruit" has a normannic air and spelling (or saying) "froot" is plain stupid. Or stoopid. Or stewpid. See how different the sounds are?

On top of that, the spelling also carries the word's heritage. There are words of high lineage and more uncouth words, but all tell a story. First where the word was born. Perhaps first uttered in ancient Babylon or Sumeria, or perhaps conceived by a drunk bartender in a London pub. It matters not, for whichever the case we have to gain from the telling of the story, from the passage of time, from the fermenting of the word like good, old wine. Many influences have come and gone and many more will pass and our languages will evolve. Just like the wine though, you cannot just add sugar or alcohol or fruit juice (pardon, froot juice). Careful, slight taps here and there and nature will take its course.

Finally, intelligence. Spelling sharpens the intelligence for it is akin to spatial perception and artistic inclination. Spelling is not memorizing. It is understanding an algorithm almost subconsciously. Language is mathematics, it's proportion, architecture. And of course, as with any art or mathematics it has its exceptions. Strange spellings that do not fit rules. These are sometimes interesting to study, sometimes endearing - and sometimes get rejected by the test of time and altered. Let us not do our children the disservice of forcing some strange, phonetic language on them, because "it is easier". When did easy become good? Who said that knowledge and intelligence, the building of the Self and the Mind are a given? Something free for the taking at no expense?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but these spellings in no way constitute "a rape": lern, slo, butiful, ennywun, moast, verry. They have the virtue of being readable and in alignment with existent, dominant patterns.

The Swedes, Germans, Spanish, Finns, Italians and many others have reforming their spelling systems. These have contributed to their lower levels of illiteracy (Finland: 5%,Germany:8%). The illiteracy rates in the Anglo-phone world are more that 20% - this is the scandalous cost we all pay for maintaining our archaic, quaint & dysfunctional way of spelling.

Thanos:"Spelling sharpens the intelligence", well that goes for studying anything. Greek, computer maintenance, a reformed spelling, dance, for instance in fact anything will do, but your chances won't be so good if you are one of the 20%. As for "when did easy become good": we decided that decimal currency was both easy and good and no one now wants the old system (LSD) back. This goes for a host of important cultural innovations. Our spelling belongs to the age of the sedan-chair and slavery - update it!

Dmitri Smith

Thanos said...


no one is saying "no" to reform. I just think reform should come naturally and not be forced. As for the countries you refer to and their literacy rate... it has nothing to do with the language. German (I speak it) is ten times harder than English. But so are their schools, their education system. And therein lies the secret I think. Literacy has nothing to do with ease or difficulty. It has to do with teaching and wanting to learn.

As for the words you mention, could I ask a few things?

"lern": Simplified indeed. However, the phonesis of the word has changed also. Learn and lern are not pronounced the same. One might say "lairn" if one saw "lern" in print.

"slo": Again... this is not "slow" (slo-ou), it's just short "s-lo". Does it not matter to you that the written does not represent the spoken?

"butiful": Again. "Bootiful" is not "Byootiful". And why not put a "y" in there? I think it is much more phonetically accurate with the "y".

"ennywun": Why? Why not "enyun", which seems simpler? Why the double "n"? "Anyone" has a short "n" sound, not a prolonged one.

"moast": Here you complicate things instead of making them easier. Adding a letter instead of simplifying. But here, interestingly, you do wish to preserve the phonesis (like "moat", "goat" etc. I suppose).

"verry": Rreally? Is verry a long rr sound? Personally I don't think so - perhaps in Ireland, but not elsewhere.

You see then the issue? What is simpler? Who decides?! You? Me? A committee? On what authority? Perhaps it is best to leave language alone. Let it lead its own life and change when things are ripe.

As to your last point: Indeed many cultural innovations have made our life easier. And our asses fatter and our minds more languid (I know, my ass is huge). Innovation does not equal intelligence. Call me old fashioned, call me narrow minded, but I believe (and in part, I know, I have walked it) the path of knowledge, the path of intelligence is narrow, winding and uphill.

Vol Abroad said...


That cracks me up - does that mean butt ugly?

Did you mean pretty - spell it beautiful. Which means full of booty.

Anonymous said...

Thanos, I like your "the path of knowledge . . . winding and uphill". I agree and I think that we should be removing spelling shibboleths or artificial obstacles in that already difficult path.

The dominant conventions/patterns in English spelling are undermined by huge number of irregularities. This is what throws children. One can make the case that there are now no "rules" in English spelling just locally applicable guide-lines. The
rule "in words with an -ee- sound it is I before E except after C" only applies to a dozen words and not to a host of others - proceed, recede, people, protein, bead, foetus/fetus etc. There are however patterns that make English "look English": one might name the magic vowel rule (mad > made) & the double consonant rule (made > madden). These are honored in their breach but repairs could be made along these lines. There are also silent letters that would be relatively easy to prune out. As it is they are a learning burden that is demoralizing for both intelligent pupils (see Darwin, Dickens, Twain, Feynman, Asimov etc) as well as those that are less so.

I concur that education is clearly important and I look forward to the results from the latest idea: Synthetic Phonics. I suspect its successes are partially down to the "throwing money" phenomena. There is the interesting fact however, that the sister languages Swedish & Danish have divergent literacy rates. Is this because one has had a more wide-ranging reformed the other has not?

"Natural reform" is what we have had and is - pretty much - the problem. We used to have a more regular spellings but they have fallen into a state of disrepair. Many European languages have had planned upgradings to their spelling system (of course their difficult grammars tend to remained unchanged and complex).

BTW We had an upgrade to both spelling (planned) and grammar in Anglo-Saxon times. (See Alfred the Great in David Crystal: "The Stories of English").

International languages with a wide variety of dialects have done it. If they can do it . . . it only takes political will.


melusina said...

This is no doubt an interesting debate that goes to the root of how language evolves. However, I don't really agree that changing spelling is going to improve literacy in the English speaking world and I certainly don't feel that the suggested changes are even correct from a phonetic point of view, as others have already pointed out.

Not to mention with dozens upon dozens of dialects among the English speaking world it would be impossible to make a table of phonetic spellings without favoring some dialects over others and completely splintering the English language (I think Kevin pointed out how someone from the North wouldn't be able to read a letter from someone in the South as an example). I really don't think any other language in the world has as many dialectical differences as English, nor does any other language have nearly as many words and speakers.

Old English was closer to German than anything else - it evolved into its own language over a long period of time and there were many simplistic changes. I'm not saying that there should never be more. But I personally feel that for the most part, phonetically, English spelling is about as close as you can get to correct even taking into account dialects.

Honestly, learn the way I say it would become lurn or even luhrn, if we are to be phonetically correct. Thanos made some good points about other words. I just think the change that is suggested here would create a giant clusterf**k of the English language and I don't see it aiding literacy. The only thing that will help literacy in the U.S. is quality of teaching and literacy programs. I also believe that there should be a drive to encourage kids to work harder in school instead of working less. I feel like the entire education system (at least in America) has been so focused on making school easier for kids. I don't think this is the way.

And I think it was Dmitri who said this isn't a rape of the language, well I see it as a rape so violent that for some words it would completely wipe out all evidence of etymology.

I guess it is harder for me to accept such a change because I see language as something more than just a utility, I see it as a living, breathing creation of beauty.

CaliforniaKat said...

I know how to spell, so I'm good. :)

Dmitri said...

Melusina: "I guess it is harder for me to accept such a change because I see language as something more than just a utility, I see it as a living, breathing creation of beauty."

I'm less reverential when it comes to this "creation" (sounds rather religious ?) I would call it an artifact. And a damaging one in my book - and not just mine: there is plenty of evidence for that.
Check this:
(Psycho-linguistic grain theory: there is a difference between phonetic and phonemic.)

And we have not been talking about language here, but one of the things that facilitates the expression of language.

Whose is to say that future generations wouldn't find a reformed spelling system, that they had become habituated to "a living, breathing thing of beauty ?" How do the Finns/Welsh/Spanish feel about their systems? Proud I should think.

Actually the alphabetic principle - one of the great & liberating inventions of mankind - is my idea of a thing of beauty. I've heard on authority that 14th century English contained no silent letters - if true that is beautiful and economic too.

Re-spellings like, det, iland, lite, beleve, frend, lern etc are just as, or even more, etymologically correct that the conventional way of spelling them.

I fail to see how upgrading spelling for the benefit of learners everywhere is a rape of the culture. We wouldn't want to go back to inne, itte, hadde, olde, shoppe, kinge,(extra letters put in so that printers could charge more, became standard). Or even spellings like "boeuf" & "mouton" even if we felt they were more beautiful or historically correct. Yet our contemporary usage is equally bizarre. Heard the one about the dough faced plough boy who coughed & laughed his way through Scarbrough? He fell into a slough.

enough is enuf.

melusina said...

I think we all agree that languages evolve, and *should* evolve and change. But I am definitely not convinced that the changes to the 300 words (or however many there are) that the Simplified Spelling Society suggests are correct or appropriate changes in any way.

In the end, I'd rather see more attention going to upgrading the educational system than trying to change spelling, because it doesn't matter how we spell our words if teachers aren't teaching our children well.

Allan said...

melusina suggests we should improve our teeching and all our children would be good reeders and spellers. If only ....
In ALL English-speeking societys, irrespectiv of teeching sistems (and they vary in tipe and quality)the functional illitracy rate is 20% or mor. Places like Finland hav it down to about 7%.
When the initial teeching alfabet (ITA) was trialed in the UK and US a few deccades ago, the children so taut wer up with Italians in litracy lerning, when thare TS (traditional spelling) peers wer not. Unfortunatly, it was only an initial alfabet and the lerners had to revert to TS later, which caused problems.
But it didnt hide the fact they lernd in one yeer what thare non ITA classmates wer taking three or mor yeers to lern. It's the spelling mor than the teeching.
(Thorstad, British Journal of Psychology, #82, 1991)

Thanos said...

I think we all agree some changes can be made. But what are these? Who decides? I do not think it's an easy thing to decide.

I honestly don't believe illiteracy is a problem with children or language. English - pardon me - is *not* a hard language to pick up, idioms and all. Greek children learn english with ease (yes, the spelling included). Are they just brilliant and english children stupid? Of course not.

Instead of everyone just writing however they like (I see 3-4 posts in "newspeak" above and spellings are not consistent), I would focus on the teaching process - and yes, perhaps limited changes to the language. Actually not limited, but rather appropriate to the times and linguistic "mores".

By the way, I read the link provided by Dmitri. An interesting study - and nowhere does it say that english should be simlified to the extent proposed by the Society. It merely proposes a different approach to teaching and learning. The paper furthermore proves that english children in the end, have no more difficulty overall than say finns or italians or greeks. They just achieve the same proficiency a little later in the curve. Is that so terrible? Personally I think not, especially since the extra effort sharpens their minds.

The paper does say that reverting to a shallow spelling would ("probably") help people with dyslexia. So? Do you propose dumbing down the whole language for that reason? Dyslexia is being tackled and children beat it every day, without radical reforms being necessary.

I suppose we will have to agree to disagree...

Thanos said...

Something both sides might enjoy :)

Anonymous said...

I am VERY against a phonetic spelling system since it would make life much more difficult for those poor, unfortunate kids who have to slave away in school and actually learn something and think once in a while. It's a nice theory, but the practice of it wouldn't be feasible.

It's actually a much more complicated problem than it appears, and phonetic spellings for our words would not be the answer. I think a few people have touched on the fact that we would first have to decide what the phonetic spelling would BE. Without going into detail, we aren't aware of the the differences between many of the sounds we make (many are allophones). The truth is, if we honestly wanted to spell things phonetically, and to accurately and fully describe the sounds in the words we speak, we'd be teaching university phonetics and some phonology to kids. We'd have no choice. We'd be doing full transcriptions for all words because it would come down to dialectical variation. We simply DO NOT make the same sounds as other native speakers of English in other areas (many times within our own countries, states or provinces)and unless this became a world-wide decision and everyone could read and understand the IPA chart, a foreigner would have no hope in hell of ever learning to spell English. And never mind kids, adults would be hooped too unless they were linguists!

Is English spelling weird? Yes. But most of us are okay with that. The only real alternative is a lot more terrifying than the parents of Jimmy the Dyslexic Kid want to believe it is. (No disrespect intended at all - my father is dyslexic and he is brilliant).

Where would we draw the line in describing what the correct spelling ought to be for widespread use? It's all or nothing, people.

That's just my two cents.

Besides all of that stuff, I happen to think that the traditional spellings we hold dear are just prettier. ;)

And yes, lets agree to disagree. :)