English Spelling Reform

The English Spelling Society campaigns for the reform of English orthography. It’s a difficult issue to campaign on, because there’s nobody specific to campaign to: English, unlike some other languages, doesn’t have a language council that could approve an ‘official’ spelling reform or use its resources to promote it.

They frequently cite other countries’ success in implementing spelling reforms, but none of those languages are spoken in quite so many countries as English. To take some recent examples they’re fond of citing: the Greek reform of 1982 affected only Greece; the French reform of 1990 affected only France and Canada; the German reform of 1996 affected only Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.

A reform of English spelling would have to be accepted by people in India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand — to name just the countries where English is widespread. In many others it’s a minority language, and speakers in those countries would need to accept (or at least, learn to read) the new spellings as well.

The reforms made to these languages’ spelling systems were also relatively minor, usually affecting only a few individual words or words following a certain pattern, or (in the case of Greek) simplifications to the diacritic system. English spelling is so inconsistent and complex that simplifying it at all would be a very large change indeed, inevitably one affecting each word in a different way. People used to old spellings might well find the new system hard to learn, quite aside from any attachment they have to the traditional English orthography.

The Spelling Society identifies ‘43½’ sounds in English, the extra half being the occluded vowel heard in unstressed syllables and often known as the schwa. For these 44 sounds, English has a whopping 185 spellings for an average of about 4.2 spellings per sound.

Having accepted the impossibility of English spelling reform, then, what is the best way to go about it?

One option is anarchy: encourage people to make up their own spelling systems (or, rather, to make up a spelling for each word, each time they use it). No doubt eventually some kind of standard would emerge, and, because it would likely be decided almost entirely by phonetics, it would probably make a lot more sense than today’s English spelling. It might take a few hundred years and no doubt there’d be problems with spoken accents being transmitted through spelling in ways that might be hard to decode for others, but chances are we’d end up with a much better spelling system. (Accents cause spelling problems even today, when people explain how to pronounce words by analogy with other words, and the words they use as comparisons turn out not to be said the same way by everyone.)

Among the advocates of spelling anarchy are John C. Wells, noted professor of phonetics (infamously criticized by David Cameron, who was under the misapprehension that the Spelling Society (of which Wells is president) seeks to uphold English spellings, when in fact their goal is to change them), and Eric Gill, artist and typographer (who proposed replacing traditional spelling by shorthand and letting people use the writing system however they like).

The other practical option, as I see it, is structured reform by deliberate individual adoption of a carefully developed alternative system. This is the approach taken by Norwegian, for instance. The reformed Norwegian language Nynorsk was proposed in the mid-19th century (it makes changes to the grammar as well as to the spelling, so technically it’s not just an orthographic reform). About a third of Norwegian regional government areas have it as their official language, and it’s recognized alongside the older Bokmål form. One day it will probably supplant Bokmål altogether.

One way this could work in English is if a group of dedicated, influential, and popular writers (and their editors and publishers) got together and devised a new spelling system, and agreed that from then on they would only publish their new books in the new spellings, so that people who want to read them have to learn to read the new system. If the spelling system really was that great, perhaps some of their readers (as well as other well-known writers) would adopt it with similar enthusiasm. It’d spread by contact.

As it is, it’s unlikely that such a gathering of writers and so on could be convened to make such an agreement. So any proposals for spelling reform, even those made by groups, are unlikely to succeed in the mainstream and people who use reformed systems will end up niched, like conlangers are.

The main problem, though, is that people get really attached to the spellings they’ve learned. Most people who care about language are naturally conservative and prefer to stick to the rules they know (or think they know). No government which cared about its popularity would seriously support reform.

While the Spelling Society has campaigned for over a hundred years for English spelling reform without success, though, there does seem to be some chance that change could happen if the right people started to proselytize it.

In the meanwhile, perhaps the best route for the rest of us is just to promote small individual rationalizations, especially where they’re already used (but perhaps rare), like publically for publicly and -ize for -ise and so on. In the long run we’re unlikely to achieve any significant progress towards unified spelling conventions by that route, but it might get people to consider the spellings they use and the possibility of large-scale reform, so as a small step to improving English spelling, it’s a fine way to begin.