For centuries, there has been a movement to reform the spelling of English. It seeks to change English spelling so that it is more consistent, matches pronunciation better, and follows the alphabetic principle.
Common motives for spelling reform include making it easier to learn to read (decode), to spell, and to pronounce, making it more useful for international communication, reducing educational budgets (reducing literacy teachers, remediation costs, and literacy programs) and/or enabling teachers and learners to spend more time on more important subjects or expanding subjects.
Most spelling reform proposals are moderate; they use the traditional English alphabet, try to maintain the familiar shapes of words, and try to maintain common conventions (such as silent e). However, some proposals are more radical and may involve adding letters and symbols or even creating a new alphabet. Some reformers prefer a gradual change implemented in stages, while others favour an immediate and total reform. A more moderate approach advocates for a careful implementation that would be introduced at the Grade 1 level, by waves, one grade at a time, sparing current literate learners from having to learn the new system.
Some spelling reform proposals have been adopted partially or temporarily. Many of the spellings preferred by Noah Webster have become standard in the United States, but have not been adopted elsewhere (see American and British English spelling differences). Harry Lindgren's proposal, SR1, was popular in Australia at one time.
Spelling reform has rarely attracted widespread public support, sometimes due to organized resistance and sometimes due to lack of interest. There are linguistic arguments against reform; for example that the origins of words may be obscured. There are also many obstacles to reform: this includes the effort and money that may be needed to implement a wholesale change, the lack of an English language authority or regulator, and the challenge of getting people to accept spellings to which they are unaccustomed.
Modern English spelling developed from about AD 1350 onwards, when—after three centuries of Norman French rule—English gradually became the official language of England again, although very different from before 1066, having incorporated many words of French origin (battle, beef, button, etc.). Early writers of this new English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, gave it a fairly consistent spelling system, but this was soon diluted by Chancery clerks who re-spelled words based on French orthography. English spelling consistency was dealt a further blow when William Caxton brought the printing press to London in 1476. Having lived in mainland Europe for the preceding 30 years, his grasp of the English spelling system had become uncertain. The Belgian assistants he brought to help him set up his business had an even poorer command of it.
As printing developed, printers began to develop individual preferences or "house styles". Furthermore, typesetters were paid by the line and were fond of making words longer. However, the biggest change in English spelling consistency occurred between 1525, when William Tyndale first translated the New Testament, and 1539, when King Henry VIII legalized the printing of English bibles in England. The many editions of these bibles were all printed outside England by people who spoke little or no English. They often changed spellings to match their Dutch orthography. Examples include the silent h in ghost (to match Dutch gheest, which later became geest), aghast, ghastly and gherkin. The silent h in other words—such as ghospel, ghossip and ghizzard—was later removed.
There have been two periods when spelling reform of the English language has attracted particular interest.
The first of these periods was from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 17th centuries AD, when a number of publications outlining proposals for reform were published. Some of these proposals were:
These proposals generally did not attract serious consideration because they were too radical or were based on an insufficient understanding of the phonology of English. However, more conservative proposals were more successful. James Howell in his Grammar of 1662 recommended minor changes to spelling, such as changing logique to logic, warre to war, sinne to sin, toune to town and tru to true. Many of these spellings are now in general use.
From the 16th century AD onward, English writers who were scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to link English words to their Graeco-Latin counterparts. They did this by adding silent letters to make the real or imagined links more obvious. Thus det became debt (to link it to Latin debitum), dout became doubt (to link it to Latin dubitare), sissors became scissors and sithe became scythe (as they were wrongly thought to come from Latin scindere), iland became island (as it was wrongly thought to come from Latin insula), ake became ache (as it was wrongly thought to come from Greek akhos), and so forth.
William Shakespeare satirized the disparity between English spelling and pronunciation. In his play Love's Labour's Lost, the character Holofernes is "a pedant" who insists that pronunciation should change to match spelling, rather than simply changing spelling to match pronunciation. For example, Holofernes insists that everyone should pronounce the unhistorical B in words like doubt and debt.
The second period started in the 19th century and appears to coincide with the development of phonetics as a science. In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. It included an essay on the oddities of modern orthography and his proposals for reform. Many of the spellings he used, such as color and center, would become hallmarks of American English. In 1807, Webster began compiling an expanded dictionary. It was published in 1828 as An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although it drew some protest, the reformed spellings were gradually adopted throughout the United States.
In 1837, Isaac Pitman published his system of phonetic shorthand, while in 1848 Alexander John Ellis published A Plea for Phonetic Spelling. These were proposals for a new phonetic alphabet. Although unsuccessful, they drew widespread interest.
By the 1870s, the philological societies of Great Britain and America chose to consider the matter. After the "International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography" that was held in Philadelphia in August 1876, societies were founded such as the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association. That year, the American Philological Society adopted a list of eleven reformed spellings for immediate use. These were are→ar, give→giv, have→hav, live→liv, though→tho, through→thru, guard→gard, catalogue→catalog, (in)definite→(in)definit, wished→wisht. One major American newspaper that began using reformed spellings was the Chicago Tribune, whose editor and owner, Joseph Medill, sat on the Council of the Spelling Reform Association. In 1883, the American Philological Society and American Philological Association worked together to produce 24 spelling reform rules, which were published that year. In 1898, the American National Education Association adopted its own list of 12 words to be used in all writings: tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, program.
The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the United States in 1906. The SSB's original 30 members consisted of authors, professors and dictionary editors. Andrew Carnegie, a founding member, supported the SSB with yearly bequests of more than US$300,000. In April 1906, it published a list of 300 words, which included 157 spellings that were already in common use in American English. In August 1906, the SSB word list was adopted by Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered the Government Printing Office to start using them immediately. However, in December 1906, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution and the old spellings were reintroduced. Nevertheless, some of the spellings survived and are commonly used in American English today, such as anaemia/anæmia→anemia and mould→mold. Others such as mixed→mixt and scythe→sithe did not survive. In 1920, the SSB published its Handbook of Simplified Spelling, which set forth over 25 spelling reform rules. The handbook noted that every reformed spelling now in general use was originally the overt act of a lone writer, who was followed at first by a small minority. Thus, it encouraged people to "point the way" and "set the example" by using the reformed spellings whenever they could. However, with its main source of funds cut off, the SSB disbanded later that year.
In Britain, the cause of spelling reform was promoted from 1908 by the Simplified Spelling Society and attracted a number of prominent supporters. One of these was George Bernard Shaw (author of Pygmalion) and much of his considerable will was left to the cause. Among members of the society, the conditions of his will gave rise to major disagreements, which hindered the development of a single new system.
Between 1934 and 1975, the Chicago Tribune, then Chicago's biggest newspaper, used a number of reformed spellings. Over a two-month spell in 1934, it introduced 80 respelled words, including tho, thru, thoro, agast, burocrat, frate, harth, herse, iland, rime, staf and telegraf. A March 1934 editorial reported that two-thirds of readers preferred the reformed spellings. Another claimed that "prejudice and competition" was preventing dictionary makers from listing such spellings. Over the next 40 years, however, the newspaper gradually phased out the respelled words. Until the 1950s, Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries listed many reformed spellings, including the SSB's 300, alongside the conventional spellings.
In 1949, a Labour MP, Dr Mont Follick, introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons, which failed at the second reading. In 1953, he again had the opportunity, and this time it passed the second reading by 65 votes to 53. Because of anticipated opposition from the House of Lords, the bill was withdrawn after assurances from the Minister of Education that research would be undertaken into improving spelling education. In 1961, this led to James Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet, introduced into many British schools in an attempt to improve child literacy. Although it succeeded in its own terms, the advantages were lost when children transferred to conventional spelling. After several decades, the experiment was discontinued.
In his 1969 book Spelling Reform: A New Approach, the Australian linguist Harry Lindgren proposed a step-by-step reform. The first, Spelling Reform step 1 (SR1), called for the short /ɛ/ sound (as in bet) to always be spelled with <e> (for example friend→frend, head→hed). This reform had some popularity in Australia.
In 2013, University of Oxford Professor of English Simon Horobin proposed that variety in spelling be acceptable. For example, he believes that it doesn't matter whether words such as "accommodate" and "tomorrow" are spelled with double letters. Note that this proposal doesn't fit within the definition of spelling reform used by, for example, Random House Dictionary.
It is argued that spelling reform would make it easier to learn to read (decode), to spell, and to pronounce, making it more useful for international communication, reducing educational budgets (reducing literacy teachers, remediation costs, and literacy programs) and/or enabling teachers and learners to spend more time on more important subjects or expanding subjects.
Advocates note that spelling reforms have taken place already, just slowly and often not in an organized way. There are many words that were once spelled un-phonetically but have since been reformed. For example, music was spelled musick until the 1880s, and fantasy was spelled phantasy until the 1920s. For a time, almost all words with the -or ending (such as error) were once spelled -our (errour), and almost all words with the -er ending (such as member) were once spelled -re (membre). In American spelling, most of them now use -or and -er, but in British spelling, only some have been reformed.
In the last 250 years, since Samuel Johnson prescribed how words ought to be spelled, pronunciations of hundreds of thousands of words (as extrapolated from Masha Bells' research on 7000 common words) have gradually changed, and the alphabetic principle that lies behind English (and every other alphabetically written language) has gradually been corrupted. Advocates argue that if we wish to keep English spelling regular, then spelling needs to be amended to account for the changes.
Unlike many other languages, English spelling has never been systematically updated and thus today only partly holds to the alphabetic principle. As an outcome, English spelling is a system of weak rules with many exceptions and ambiguities.
Most phonemes in English can be spelled more than one way. E.g. the words fear and peer contain the same sound in different spellings. Likewise, many graphemes in English have multiple pronunciations, such as the different pronunciations of the combination ough in words like through, though, thought, thorough, tough, trough, plough, and cough. These kinds of incoherences can be found throughout English spelling and pronunciation, and they cause extra difficulty in learning and practice and lead to uncertainty because of their sheer number.
Such ambiguity is particularly problematic in the case of heteronyms (homographs with different pronunciations that vary with meaning), such as bow, desert, live, read, tear, wind, and wound. In reading such words one must consider the context in which they are used, and this increases the difficulty of learning to read and pronounce English.
A closer relationship between phonemes and spellings would eliminate many exceptions and ambiguities and make the language easier to master.
Some proposed simplified spellings already exist as standard or variant spellings in old literature. As noted earlier, in the 16th century, some scholars of Greek and Latin literature tried to make English words look more like their Graeco-Latin counterparts, at times even erroneously. They did this by adding silent letters, so det became debt, dout became doubt, sithe became scythe, iland became island, ake became ache, and so on. Some spelling reformers propose undoing these changes. Other examples of older spellings that are more phonetic include frend for friend (as on Shakespeare's grave), agenst for against, yeeld for yield, bild for build, cort for court, sted for stead, delite for delight, entise for entice, gost for ghost, harth for hearth, rime for rhyme, sum for some, tung for tongue, and many others. It was also once common to use -t for the ending -ed where it is pronounced as such (for example dropt for dropped). Some of the English language's most celebrated writers and poets have used these spellings and others proposed by today's spelling reformers. Edmund Spenser, for example, used spellings such as rize, wize and advize in his famous poem The Faerie Queene, published in the 1590s.
Many English words are based on French modifications (e.g., colour and analogue) even though they come from Latin or Greek.
The English alphabet has several letters whose characteristic sounds are already represented elsewhere in the alphabet. These include X, which can be realised as "ks", "gz", or z; soft G, which can be realised as J; hard C, which can be realised as K; soft C, which can be realised as S; and Q ("qu"), which can be realised as "kw", (or, simply, K in some cases). However, these spellings are usually retained to reflect their often-Latin roots.
There are a number of barriers in the development and implementation of a reformed orthography for English:
The main criticism of many purely phonemic reform proposals is that written language is not a purely phonemic analog of the spoken word. While reformers might argue that the units of understanding are phonemes, critics argue that the basic units are words. Some of the most phonemic spelling reform proposals might re-spell closely related words less alike than they are spelled now, such as electric, electricity and electrician, or (with full vowel reform) photo, photograph and photography. This argument applies even more strongly to technical words that appear more often in writing than in speech, and to words that are similar to or identical to the corresponding words in other languages.
However, there are also a great number of words in the current lexicon that look like they are related in their orthography, but that are not semantically related at all. These words would be respelled differently and remove the ambiguity in such words as are and area, rein and reinvent, river and rival, ampersand and ampere, caterpillar and cater, ready and readjust, man and many, now and nowhere, etc. False-positives are bound to occur no matter what system is used. What reformers want is for words to be spelt more closely to how they are pronounced and for the spelling rules to be adhered to more regularly and consistently across the whole lexicon.
English is a West Germanic language that has borrowed many words from non-Germanic languages, and the spelling of a word often reflects its origin. This sometimes gives a clue as to the meaning of the word. Even if their pronunciation has strayed from the original pronunciation, the spelling is a record of the phoneme. The same is true for words of Germanic origin whose current spelling still resembles their cognates in other Germanic languages. Examples include light/ German Licht, knight/ German Knecht; ocean/ French océan, occasion/ French occasion. Critics argue that re-spelling such words could hide those links.
Spelling reformers argue that, although some of these links may be hidden by a reform, others would become more noticeable. For example, Axel Wijk's 1959 proposal Regularised English proposed changing height to hight, which would link it more closely to the related word high.
In some cases, English spelling of foreign words has diverged from the current spellings of those words in the original languages, such as the spelling of connoisseur that is now spelled connaisseur in French after a French-language spelling reform in the 19th century.
The orthographies of other languages do not pay special attention to preserving similar links to loanwords. English loanwords in other languages are commonly assimilated to the orthographical conventions of those languages and so such words have a variety of spellings that are sometimes difficult to recognise as English words.
Another criticism is that a reform might favor one dialect or pronunciation over others. Some words have more than one acceptable pronunciation, regardless of dialect (e.g. economic, either). Some distinctions in regional accents are still marked in spelling. Examples include the distinguishing of fern, fir and fur that is maintained in Irish and Scottish English or the distinction between toe and tow that is maintained in a few regional dialects in England.
Reformers point out that learners learn accents before they see any spelling. Throughout their life, learners have a natural tendency to acquire and use the accent that they hear around them. Later, as learners learn to read, they naturally use and assign the correct allophones or accent they have learned to the right phonemes or words, as is currently happening and has been for centuries, with a spelling system that is phonemically more accurate or not so much. Moreover, dialectal accents exist in languages whose spelling is called phonemic, such as Spanish. If a reform were to happen, learners will use the correct accent for the right letters or combinations of letters (words), whether the spelling is phonemic or not. A reform will simply make the match more intuitive, possibly more regular or systematic than is currently the case. A spelling reform would only affect how we spell words, not how we say them. After a reform, English would still allow multiple pronunciations of a standard spelling, as it is currently the case, with no one struggling to use the correct pronunciation for an ambiguous spelling. Some reformers also suggest that a reform could actually make spelling more inclusive of regional dialects by allowing more spellings for such words.
Some reform proposals try to make too many spelling changes at once and do not allow for any transitional period where the old spellings and the new may be in use together. The problem is an overlap in words, where a particular word could be an unreformed spelling of one word or a reformed spelling of another, akin to false friends when learning a foreign language.
For example, a reform could re-spell wonder as wunder and wander as wonder. However, both cannot be done at once because this causes ambiguity. During any transitional period, is wonder the unreformed spelling of wonder or the reformed spelling of wander? This could be resolved by using the old wander with the new wunder. Other similar chains of words are device → devise → *devize, warm → worm → *wurm and rice → rise → *rize.
Some reformers would avoid these confusions completely. No literate person familiar with the current system would be required to learn the new system. The reform would be generational and happen in parallel for one generation. The reform would be introduced in schools first, starting at the Grade 1 level in the first year. The next year, another cohort would go to school and be taught the new spelling system, and the previous year's Grade 1 would continue to learn using the spelling system that they learned in their first year. This reform would take 12 years to implement, giving time for programmers to make transcoding programs that could transcode any text (on the internet or from digital files) into the old or the new spelling system, as needed. This would of course require a vastly improved image-to-text technology (such as OCR) than is available currently, as is demonstrated by the appalling standard of accuracy in scanning and converting to text for most books not published using modern fonts, or including foreign language passages using accents and other marks other than those regularly occurring in the most common languages with the best developed graphics-to-text technologies. This means that, until this problem is solved, all who have learnt the new system would not have access to such books. The first cohorts would need to learn to read public signs that would not be transcoded. People in the workforce not familiar with the new code or the old code would be able to use transcoding programs that would transcode on the fly whatever documents would be needed to be decoded.
Most spelling reforms attempt to improve phonemic representation, but some attempt genuine phonetic spelling, usually by changing the basic English alphabet or making a new one. All spelling reforms aim for greater regularity in spelling.
These proposals seek to eliminate the extensive use of digraphs (such as "ch", "gh", "kn-", "-ng", "ph", "qu", "sh", voiced and voiceless "th", and "wh-") by introducing new letters and/or diacritics. The impetus for removing digraphs is so that each letter represents a single sound. In a digraph, the two letters do not represent their individual sounds but instead an entirely different and discrete sound, which can sometimes lead to mishaps in pronunciation, in addition to much lengthier words.
Notable proposals include:
A number of respected and influential people have been active supporters of spelling reform.
[c]hange ... has been almost continuous in the history of English spelling.
We do not print Shakespeare's or Bacon's words as they were written