Spelling Reform Efforts in English

The aim of the English Spelling Society is to raise "awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling.".

The term spelling reform refers to any organized effort to simplify the system of English orthography.

Over the years, organizations such as the English Spelling Society have encouraged efforts to reform or "modernize" the conventions of English spelling, generally without success.

Examples and Observations

  • "[Noah] Webster proposed the removal of all silent letters and regularization of certain other common sounds. So, give would be giv, built would be bilt, speak would be speek, and key would be kee. Though these suggestions obviously didn't take hold, many of Webster's American English spellings did: colour - color, honour - honor, defence - defense, draught - draft, and plough - plow, to name a few."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • Shaw's Alphabet
    "[S]ince the middle of the [19th] century, there has been a long succession of individual scholars, writers and even politicians with strong views on spelling reform and offering a wide spectrum of proposals for change. Why should spelling not be open to reform in the same way as currency, weights and measures and other institutions of society? The main argument for reform is self-evidently valid: that the removal of irregularities in our present writing system would make for greater and easier literacy. . . .
    "A wide range of spelling reform schemes have competed, with little tangible success, for public approval. The most extreme proposal was undoubtedly the Shaw alphabet, subsidized by the estate of George Bernard Shaw . . .. This was based on the strict alphabetic principle of one consistent symbol per phoneme. The new alphabet could have been contrived by augmenting the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet with extra letters or accents, but Shaw took the extreme option of commissioning a completely new set of 40 letter shapes in which, to a limited extent, phonetically similar sounds had a similar form. . . . The criterion of economic cost, which was Shaw's main argument for his experimental alphabet, underpins the system of 'Cut Spelling' proposed by [Christopher] Upward . . ., which dispenses with any letters considered to be redundant."
    (Edward Carney, A Survey of English Spelling. Routledge, 1994)
  • Misguided Spelling Reforms
    "The 16th and 17th centuries must surely be the Golden Age of . . . etymological tinkering. . . . A 'b' was added to debt, making explicit a distant link to Latin debitum. The 'b' might be justified in the word debit that we stole directly from Latin, but it was the French who gave us dette, and there was no 'b' in its spelling back then. Subtle and doubt also received their 'b' as an attempted spelling reform. Notice, too, that such is our high regard for the authority of the written language that these days we speak of these words as having a silent 'b.' The consonant was erroneously inserted, and now we accuse these words of losing it!
    "Around the same time as 'b' was being added to debt, subtle and doubt, coude was given an 'l' so that it would look like would and should. The thinking here is even more wrongheaded. Could has no etymological connection whatsoever with words like would, and the addition of 'l' is totally unjustified."
    (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)
  • Why Spelling Reforms Fail
    "Why has spelling reform in English not met with greater success, considering the number of proposals for reform? One reason is the natural conservatism of people. Reformed spelling looks strange. . . . [T]he general public reaction is to invoke the adage: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
    "If we take a more scholarly, scientific view of spelling reform other problems emerge. One, English is spoken with many dialects. Which dialect would be chosen as a standard? . . .
    "The second concern is that evidence from psychology suggests that some of the so-called irregularities of English actually serve to facilitate reading, especially for the experienced reader. Experienced readers tend to perceive words as single units and do not 'read' them letter by letter. Evidence suggests that we process the information slightly faster when homophonous morphemes are spelled differently: pair-pear-pare."
    (Henry Rogers, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005)
  • The Lighter Side of Spelling Reform
    "A spelling reformer indicted
    For fudge, was before the court cited.
    The judge said: 'Enough!
    Your candle we'll snough,
    His sepulchre shall not be wighted.'"
    (Ambrose Bierce)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Spelling Reform Efforts in English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/spelling-reform-english-1691987. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Spelling Reform Efforts in English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/spelling-reform-english-1691987 Nordquist, Richard. "Spelling Reform Efforts in English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/spelling-reform-english-1691987 (accessed June 5, 2023).