The Problem with English Spelling
“Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” — Clarence DarrowEnglish spelling is notoriously inconsistent and archaic. It causes endless confusion for people learning to read and write English and it takes far longer to master than it should. While everyone agrees that English spelling is a mess, major reform has not occurred despite more than 70 serious proposals over the centuries. The reasons spelling reform has failed are numerous.
- There is no central authority that can impose any reform — "No English Academy".
- There is strong resistance to change from people who have already mastered traditional spelling — "Spelling is easy so why should we change".
- Reform would change the spelling of most words and significantly alter the appearance of written English — “This writing looks funny and is hard to read".
- At the start of any reform there are no readers familiar with the new spelling. This discourages writers using the new spelling which prevents readers learning the new spelling — "Chicken-and-egg problem".
- There is an enormous body of existing texts that use traditional spelling — “If we fixed spelling we would have to reprint all the books".
These seemingly intractable problems have made English spelling reform the classic "lost cause” favoured only by cranks and eccentrics. While history predicts that any "big bang" reform (i.e. updating all spelling at once to a new system) is doomed to failure, Can English be Reformed?Noah Webster's limited success in improving English spelling showed that it is possible. Webster succeeded where he removed redundant letters from words (e.g. colour » color, traveller » traveler) and failed where he tried to make large changes to the appearance of common words (e.g. tongue » tung).
Webster’s reforms demonstrated that more efficient spellings can displace archaic forms via familiarity alone. A recent example of this effect is the change in Australian usage from the archaic English gaol to the newer American jail. No one in Australia imposed this change — it occurred spontaneously as Australians became more familiar with the jail variant and chose to use it over the less clear gaol.
Many of the English words which cause the most spelling and pronunciation difficulties are those that contain redundant letters. Simply eliminating the redundant letters in words would solve many problems without significantly changing the appearance and use of written English. Cut Spelling
This simple idea was developed by Christopher Upward and colleagues into Cut Spelling. Their approach removes the redundant letters, along with a small number of letter substitutions, to reduce the complexity of English spelling and improve writing speed. Cut Spelling does not try to solve all the problem caused by the existing English spelling system (this would require changing to a totally phonetic system), but it does remove the worst difficulties. The advantage of Cut Spelling over other proposals is people accustomed to traditional spelling can quickly adapt to using it with little or no effort.
Cut Spelling uses a limited number of cutting and substitution rules to transform traditional spellings.
- Cut letters irrelevant to pronunciation. This rule removes most silent letters, except when these letters (such as the "magic e") help with pronunciation (e.g. people » peple, knife » nife, low » lo).
- Cut unstressed vowels before l,m,n,r (e.g. symbol » symbl, lemon » lemn, permanent » permnnt, churches -» churchs, edible » edbl).
- Cut doubled consonants except when both consonants are sounded (e.g. innate » inate, spell » spel, but the "ll" in holly is kept).
- "gh" and "ph" become “f" when pronounced as the “f" in father (e.g. draught » draft, sulphur » sulfr, photograph » fotograf).
- “g" is changed to “j" when pronounced as the “j" in jump (e.g. judge » juj, rouge » ruje).
- "ig" and "igh" are changed to "y" when pronounced as the “y" in fly (e.g. flight » flyt, sign » syn).
One of the most attractive features of Cut Spelling is if a writer has doubts if a letter should be cut or substituted in any word then the convention is to make no changes. This "no-change" rule enables Cut Spelling to be mixed with traditional spelling without causing comprehension issues.
Despite the great potential of Cut Spelling, it has failed to attract mainstream interest. It faces the classic CutSpelchicken-and-egg problem in that until people are reading texts written using Cut Spelling writers will not use it. Readers cannot become familiar with Cut Spelling unless they read texts written using it. To break Cut Spelling out of this vicious circle I have written a free Google Chrome Extension (CutSpel) which automatically converts the text of webpages from traditional to Cut Spelling.
CutSpel enables readers to become comfortable with Cut Spelling while allowing writers to use traditional spelling until they feel their audience is willing to read text written using Cut Spelling. As more readers become familiar with Cut Spelling (via CutSpel) more writers will use it, creating a virtuous circle where spelling reform can occur organically without the need for it to be imposed from above by some non-existant language authority.