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SPELLING REFORM

SPELLING REFORM The planned alteration of the established alphabetic WRITING system of a language so as to remove or reduce elements taken to be sources of confusion and difficulty in learning and using that system. Spelling reform does not usually include such changes as the substitution of one writing system for another (as, for example, in 1928, when Arabic script was replaced by Roman for the writing of Turkish), changes in systems of non-alphabetic signs (as with the reform of Chinese characters begun in the People's Republic of China in 1955), or the readoption of earlier individual spellings (such as, in English, the spelling fantasy after some three centuries of phantasy, there being no general substitution of f for ph throughout the language).

Regulation and reform

Before the advent of printing in the 15c, European spelling conventions were not usually rigid and often reflected writers' accents and preferences. The concept of ‘correct writing’ (ORTHOGRAPHY) emerged partly because printers sought uniformity and partly from a Renaissance interest in word forms, but it was only gradually, over centuries, that the availability and example of dictionaries and the pressures of formal systems of education led individuals to strive to observe the conventions of print. Systematic changes in spelling have generally been the responsibility of language academies or government departments. Academies have been founded for Italian (1582), French (1634), Spanish (1713), and various other languages (but excluding English), to act among other things as authorities on orthography, and have strongly influenced the orthographic development of the languages over which they have presided. For example, the 1740 edition of the dictionary of the Académie française altered the spelling of 36% of French words, chiefly replacing mute s by acute and circumflex accents: for example, estoit by étoit, boiste by boîte. Similarly, in 1959, the Real Academia de la Lengua Española issued its Neuvas Normas de Ortografía (New Norms of Orthography), recommending that silent initial letters should be dropped; psicología could, for example, thenceforth be written sicología.

Reforming English spelling

Many linguists and educationists have been concerned with ways of systematizing written English. Although there could be no reform before spelling became more or less fixed, many of the ideas that have dominated the spelling-reform debate were already under discussion in the 16c. For example, in 1568, Sir Thomas Smith called for consistency within an extended alphabet, including letters and diacritical marks from Old English and Greek; in 1569, John Hart called for the spelling of words strictly by their sound; in 1582, Richard Mulcaster appealed for stability based on consistency, analogy, and custom, and the recollection that ‘letters were inuented to expresse sounds’. However, the school-master Edmond Coote probably contributed most to the settling of English spelling in its present form through the 54 editions of his handbook The English Schoolemaister (from 1595 to 1737), which tended to avoid some of the redundant letters that were previously common.

Alexander Gil in 1619 and Charles Butler in 1633 advocated phonographic systems with the retention of Old English letters or the introduction of new letters (with some variation to mark etymology and distinguish homophones), but there was little serious advocacy or reform until 1768, when Benjamin Franklin assessed the needs of learners and poor spellers and devised an alphabet that did not use the letters c, j, q, w, x, y (which he considered superfluous) and introduced new characters for the vowels in hot, up and the consonants in the, thin, -ing, she. The scheme did not, however, receive much attention. A major 19c innovator was Isaac PITMAN, who moved from the invention of his phonetic shorthand to the development of an extended alphabet called phonotype or phonotypy. His emphasis on the need to encourage the education of the poor was echoed in Britain in the 1870 Education Act and led to a call by the National Union of Elementary Teachers in 1876 for a Royal Commission to consider spelling reform. The later 1870s saw the founding of spelling-reform associations on both sides of the Atlantic, whose members included Tennyson and Darwin. Such eminent philologists as Henry SWEET and Alexander Ellis in the UK and Francis March in the US experimented with reformed alphabets. In the 1880s, many students of the new science of phonetics were interested in the development of a phonetic alphabet not only for academic purposes but also as a possible precursor of a reformed spelling system for English.

New Spelling

At the beginning of the 20c, the cause of spelling reform was taken up for a time by the US President Theodore Roosevelt and sponsored by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In 1908, the British SIMPLIFIED SPELLING SOCIETY (SSS) was founded, chiefly with the aim of devising a reformed writing system based on the Roman alphabet, in the belief that such a development would stand a better chance of acceptance than a new alphabet. In 1948, the phonetician Daniel JONES and dialectologist Harold Orton published a system called New Spelling, the recommended orthography of the SSS, of which the following is a specimen:
We rekwier dhe langgwej as an instrooment; we mae aulsoe study its history. Dhe presens ov unpronounst leterz, three or for different waez ov reprezenting dhe saem sound, three or for uesez ov dhe same leter: aul dhis detrakts from dhe value ov a langgwej az an instrooment.

New Spelling was accepted in 1956, with small amendments, by the American Simplified Spelling Association, was further developed and computerized by Edward Rondthaler in New York (1986), and was revised in the 1980s, its most recent form being published in the Society's Pamphlet No. 12, New Spelling 90 (1991). It also provided the phonographic analysis on which Sir James PITMAN based his INITIAL TEACHING ALPHABET (i.t.a.) (1959). To date, however, the system has had little impact on the English-using world, and there appears currently to be little general interest in reform, and considerably less interest among language scholars than a century or even half a century ago.

A new alphabet

There have from time to time been attempts at radical change that go well beyond spelling reform proper into the creation and promotion of entirely new alphabets. Most prominently, a bequest from the dramatist and social reformer George Bernard SHAW financed a public competition in 1957–8 for the design of a new alphabet that would have at least 40 letters and no digraphs or diacritics. The winner of this competition, Kingsley Read (from Warwickshire in England), produced an alphabet that is utterly unlike Roman and has letters of four types: tall (those with ascenders) deep (those with descenders), short (those with neither ascenders nor descenders), and compound (combining basic symbols). In visual effect, the Shaw Alphabet, Shaw's Alphabet, or the Shavian Alphabet, as it is variously known, looks rather like the scripts used for the Dravidian languages of South India, with many gently curving characters. A bi-alphabetic edition of Shaw's play Androcles and the Lion was published by Penguin Books in 1962 to demonstrate the old and new orthographies side by side, the texts running parallel on facing pages. In it the Shaw Alphabet, though alien in its effect, proves markedly more compact and economical than the traditional system. To date, however, it has had no impact on the English-using world.

The contemporary situation

Recent thinking among spelling reformers stresses gradual rather than radical change, so as to ensure continuity of literacy, enable old and new to coexist, and limit the impact and scope of any one stage in reform: that is, evolution rather than revolution. Harry Lindgren in Australia, for example, proposes a multistage reform programme, each stage regularizing the spelling of a single phoneme. As a first stage, he suggests that the traditional short -e sound be written as e, as in eny ‘any’, sed ‘said’, agenst ‘against’, bery ‘bury’, frend ‘friend’, hed ‘head’. Alternatively, rather than taking a rigid schema of sound–symbol correspondences as a starting-point, some reformers adopt a functional approach, asking what spellings would best suit the needs and abilities of users. One proposal suggests a first stage confined to removing the digraph gh in though, caught, etc. In addition, some reformers argue that by studying kinds of misspelling it is possible to identify the greatest difficulties among current spellings, and concentrate on regularizing them alone.

Arguments about spelling reform

The idea of reforming the spelling of English has long been controversial, with arguments about the relative value of tradition and literacy, the practicalities of introducing change, and the specific changes that might be made. Opponents of reform often describe the rich variety of present spellings as a heritage not to be lightly discarded, while reformers attach priority to the actual or perceived needs of contemporary users. Orthographic conservationists point out that present spellings often reflect the history of words and their links across groups of words and with words in other languages, while reformers present a counter-list of historically inconsistent spellings and cite arbitrary variations both within English and from the spellings of other European languages. Conservationists object that radically changed spellings would seem alien to the older generation, while texts in the old spelling would seem alien to the young; the change-over would also, they say, create uncertainty and cost a great deal. Reformers reply that the present system has already alienated many, the spelling of earlier writers has in any case been updated in various ways, and reform could potentially save money. Anti-reformers fear that interfering with an ancient, delicately balanced system might make learning not easier but more difficult, while many who have taught regularized spelling (such as teachers of the initial teaching alphabet) have argued that a more regular system is easier to learn. Resistance to the idea of change is often provoked by the disturbingly unfamiliar appearance of radically reformed spellings, such as kof and skool for cough and school, which for many people are both aesthetically displeasing and suggest semi-literacy.

Among the practical objections to spelling reform is the problem of coordinating reform worldwide in so widely used a language as English, as well as the fact that there is no consensus among reformers on the system to be introduced. Antireformers argue in particular that, if English spelling is directly to represent pronunciation, there is no serious answer to the question: if reform is to be phonographic, on which accent of English should it be based? To these points reformers reply that the traditional orthography of English is quite simply out of date and is demonstrably difficult both to learn and to use. Literacy, they maintain, is a precondition for individual, national, and international prosperity, and the present spelling system of the world's foremost language hinders the wider and fuller achievement of literacy in that language. As regards consensus and accent, they insist on the necessity of the major English-using communities getting together and discussing the problem, to find out what bases of agreement exist and to seek workable compromises, especially with regard to the phonemic analysis on which any international system might be built. Currently, there does not appear to be anything close to a meeting of minds in such matters.

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