Letter to the Editor--Minimal Forests SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 1 Contents Exposing the Fallacy of Creole and Pidgin Genesis--Cornelius DuBois

A 21st Century Proposal for English Spelling Reform

by H. Sanderson Chambers III
Associate Professor of English at an elite northeastern university that costs more in tuition and fees for one semester than most people earn in a lifetime
(I can't tell you the university's name, but it rhymes with Little Gary)

As is well-known to all educated people--and if it's not well-known to you, then you're not one of us--the early part of the 20th century was the heyday of the Simplified Spelling movement, which sought to reform English spelling on the grounds that it was "mard by absurdities and inconsistencies". So what, you might say? Well, among other things, the simplifiers claimed that the spelling system kept English from being adopted as an international language: "A language, in which to learn to spel imperfectly takes two ful years of scool-time in the countries where it is spoken, does not recommend itself to the forener as a convenient medium for conducting his relations with other foreners".

The Simplified Spelling Board, organized in 1906, had a truly impressive list of members by the end of its second year of existence, including America's most outstanding writer (Mark Twain), her number-one philosopher (William James), her richest citizen (Andrew Carnegie), and a guy named Theodore Roosevelt who just happened to be President of the United States. Not to mention top-notch linguists and lexicographers such as William Skeat, Joseph Wright, James Murray, and Isaac Funk. Plus some public school superintendents, university presidents, and random intellectuals and government officials.

Given the composition of the Simplified Spelling Board, as well as the seeming reasonableness of its proposals, we must wonder, why did it fail? In answering this question, we must first note that, contrary to the SSB's pronouncements, English has, in fact, gone a long way toward becoming an international language, used by foreigners as a convenient medium for conducting their relations with other foreigners. Evidently, a complex orthography is not a significant disincentive for second language learners. On the contrary: the evidence indicates that languages with difficult orthographies are actually favored for international use. For example, no one would claim that the Chinese writing system can be learned quickly and easily, yet the people of Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all adopted it for the writing of their own, non-Sinitic languages.

Not only that, but there are over one billion Chinese speakers today with a reasonable degree of facility in writing their language. There is, moreover, a strong bias among Chinese speakers in favor of the continued use of Chinese characters, as opposed to their replacement by an alphabetic system such as Pinyin spelling. The Communist government has therefore abandoned its plans to phase out the characters, after having progressed only so far as to reduce the number of pen strokes needed to write some of them.

Interestingly, Taiwan, which, not being subject to the Communists, never adopted simplified characters, has a higher literacy rate than mainland China. This, together with all of the preceding observations, leads us to an obvious conclusion: a complex orthography is actually superior to a simple one. A moment's reflection shows why this is the case. Learning to spell a language with a straightforward phonemic alphabet, such as Finnish, is easy. So easy as to be hardly worth doing. Or, even if worth doing, it doesn't give one a sense of accomplishment. You don't see a lot of news stories about the Finnish National Spelling Bee.

In English, on the other hand, competent spelling is seen, correctly, as a significant intellectual achievement, and champion spellers even appear as guests on late-night talk shows. This is all well and good, but the evidence indicates that we haven't gone far enough. Spelling English correctly is enough of a challenge that foreigners and native speakers alike are attracted to the task, and are proud of whatever level of success they manage to attain. Unfortunately, far too many people attain a fairly high level of success fairly quickly. As a result, they get bored with English, and move on to languages with more challenging writing systems, like Akkadian. (At my own university, the number of students enrolled in Elementary Akkadian far exceeds the number enrolled in Elementary Spanish; statistics indicate that this pattern holds true throughout the United States.)

My proposal, therefore, is that so far from eliminating absurdities and inconsistencies in English orthography, we ought to increase them. Below are a few preliminary suggestions for the sort of changes that we need to make.

(1) Make more frequent use of unpronounced consonants, such as "h" after "c", word-initial "p" before "s", and so on. But at the same time, eliminate the use of such letters in some words where they seem to belong, because the words have a foreign or learned feel to them. In particular, etymologically-related words should be spelled differently. Thus, "psychology" becomes "sycholegie", "psychiatry" is "psykiatry", while "Smith", of course, becomes "Psmith". But "Goldsmith" is "Goledsmythe".

(2) Vowel spellings are fairly random in English, but not quite random enough. The preceding sentence, in a reformed English, might well be written thus: "Vhoull sphaillings aghre fehrlee rannedumm in Englysch, but not queyeghte rannedumm ynoughe.

(3) Start capitalizing a lot more words, particularly nouns and pronouns. But not in any systematic way. Thus, capitalize "Them" but not "they", "Sheep" but not "goat".

The above are, of course, only suggestions. In order to present a detailed reform proposal, together with a plan for implementation, I would obviously need a large grant from somebody, possibly the Ford Foundation. I can, however, make one suggestion as to implementation. A glance at the list of members of the old Simplified Spelling Board shows that they were all men. Illustrious men, to be certain, but men all the same. Given that, by the early 1900's, the vast majority of elementary school teachers in the U.S. were women, this was probably a mistake. Nowadays, not only would it be a mistake, it would also be grounds for litigation. Litigation aside, it's obvious that if we're going to enact any sort of spelling reform, we need to have the elementary school teachers on our side. And, based on my experiences with my wife and teenage daughters, I venture to suggest that women, who still constitute the vast majority of elementary school teachers in the U.S., are unlikely to pay much attention to a spelling reform proposal advanced entirely by men, whatever its virtues.

Obviously, then, if this plan is going to get off the ground, I need not just a large grant, but also some female collaborators. I already asked my wife, but she said she's too busy with her job as a risk-management consultant to worry about such nonsense. And forget about my daughters; all they seem to care about is field hockey, Everwood, and some pop singer named Marc Anthony, who I thought was a dead Roman or something. So anyway, any women who want to work with me are invited to contact me via the SpecGram website. Especially if you have experience writing grant applications.

Letter to the Editor--Minimal Forests
Exposing the Fallacy of Creole and Pidgin Genesis--Cornelius DuBois
SpecGram Vol CXLIX, No 1 Contents