Spelling reform

Natural languages often develop cumbersome manners of spelling words. Particular sounds may be represented by various letter combinations, while one letter may be pronounced in various ways. This is especially true of languages such as English that borrow heavily from other languages. Spelling reforms generally attempt to introduce a logical structure connecting the spelling and pronunciation of words.

It may be associated with other efforts of language planning.

People whose spelling does not conform to that of the standard language often suffer prejudice, being seen as uneducated, lower-class or even stupid.

Proposed spelling reforms range from modest attempts to eliminate particular irregularities (such as Cut Spelling) to attempts to introduce a full phonemic orthography, like the Shavian alphabet, the Latinization of Turkish or Hangul in Korea. Stated reasons for these reforms include making the language more useful for international communications and easier to learn for immigrants and children. Opposition to reforms is often based upon concern that old literature will become inaccessible, the presumed suppression of regional accents, or simple conservatism based upon concern over unforeseen consequences. Reform efforts are further hampered by habit and a lack of a central authority to set new spelling standards.

Proponents of spelling reform usually do not go into grammar reform; that would mean greater change and arguably benefits.

The idea of phonetic spelling has faced more serious criticism, on the grounds that it would hide morphological similarities between words that happen to have quite different pronunciations. This line of argument is based on the idea that when people read, they do not in reality try to work out the sequence of sounds composing each word, but instead either recognize words as a whole, or as a sequence of small number of semantically significant units (for example morphology might be read as morph+ology, rather than as a sequence of a larger number of phonemes). In a system of phonetic spelling, these semantic units become less distinct, as various allomorphs can be pronounced differently in different contexts. For example, in English spelling, most past participles are spelled with an -ed on the end, even though this can have several pronunciations (compare kissed and interrupted).

This criticism is corroborated by the experience of some peoples of the former Soviet Union whose language was switched from the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic alphabet, notably Moldovans. Accompanying elements of "phonetization" severed etymological links between related words thus destroying certain subtleties of the languages.

One of the concerns in introducing a spelling reform is how to reflect different pronunciations, often linked to regions or classes. If the reform tries to be absolutely phonemic according to some model dialect, some speakers will find collisions with their usage.


English spelling reforms

English spelling contains many irregularities due to a number of factors. Borrowing from other languages is one of them; an even greater cause is the fact that English began to be widely written and printed during the Middle English period. While English spelling was relatively systematic during the Middle English period, the shift to modern English involved undergoing a Great Vowel Shift and many other changes in phonology. The older, etymological spellings have been retained despite major shifts in phonology.

Modern English has anywhere from fourteen to twenty-two separate vowel and diphthong phonemes, depending on dialect, and 26 or 27 consonants. Representing this language with the twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet is going to be a challenge no matter what sort of system is chosen. Many digraphs or diacritical marks would be needed to create a phonemic spelling for English.

Practicalities of devising a phonemically based system are also the target of criticism. The vowel inventory of British English and American English differs substantially, and many words are pronounced differently. A phonemic system would have to pick between the two. And that neglects Australian, Caribbean English (in several forms), and so on.

A number of proposals have been made to reform English spelling. Some were proposed by Noah Webster early in the 19th century. He was in part concerned to distinguish Imperial British spelling from republican American usage. Some, but by no means all, of his suggestions result in the differences between American and British spellings. His changes are eschewed by Southern separatists in the Dixies, who prefer a more British-oriented orthographic system.[1] (http://www.dixienet.org/spatriot/verbal_independenc.htm)

Spelling reform is parodied in "A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling". It is attributed to Mark Twain [2] (http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/87/2094.10.html) who was actually a supporter of reform.

List of leading spelling reform proposals

The reform proposals below are considered to be amongst the most likely to succeed for the following reasons:

  • They do not introduce any new letters or symbols, unlike the radical proposals of the Shavian and Deseret alphabets
  • They rely upon familiar digraphs
  • They do not introduce diacriticals (accents), which are not favored by North American English speakers
  • They do not dramatically change the appearance of existing words
  • There is an increased regularity to the spelling rules
  • There is an improvement to the consistency in the way the vowels are sounded
  1. SoundSpel SoundSpel™ (http://www.spellingsociety.org/pubs/pvs/pv8rondthaler.html)
  2. Cut Spelling (http://www.spellingsociety.org/pubs/leaflets/cutspelng.html)
  3. Freespeling (http://www.freespeling.com/)
  4. Stage 1 (http://www.spellingsociety.org/pubs/leaflets/tough.html)
  5. New Spelling 90 (http://www.spellingsociety.org/pubs/pamflets/p12ns90.html)
  6. Saispel™ (http://www.saispel.com)
  7. Nuspelynh (http://crockford.com/wrrrld/nuspelynh.html)

Numerous other proposals exist. Perhaps the best starting point to explore them is The Simplified Spelling Society (http://www.spellingsociety.org/)

Successes in spelling complication

Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755 introduced "Saxon" spellings for English words, actually from French.

  • music became musick
  • critic became critick

Some dictionaries of this time period also adopted false Latin etymologies:

  • iland became island (from the Latin insula, although island is actually a Germanic word)
  • ile became aisle (also from insula)

Successes in spelling simplification

Noah Webster, when developing his dictionary in the early 19th century, advocated spelling reform and used many simplified spellings in his dictionary. The most commonly seen, which separate American English from British English in this area, are, from the 1821 edition:

  • musick became music (musick spelling is no longer in use today)
  • publick became public (publick spelling is no longer in use today)
  • cheque became check
  • colour became color
  • plough became plow
  • favour became favor
  • phantasy became fantasy (phantasy is now only used as an old-fashioned affectation)

The 1806 edition uses some alternate spellings which did not gain acceptance:

  • isle became ile
  • examine became examin
  • feather became fether
  • definite became definit
  • thread became thred
  • thumb became thum

Spelling reform managed to make some progress in the early 20th century. Most notably, beginning in 1934, the Chicago Tribune adopted many simplified spellings for words, which they didn't entirely abandon until 1975. Some simplified spellings of the 20th century have become widely accepted:

  • hiccough became hiccup
  • interne became intern
  • mediaeval (or mediæval) became medieval
  • gramme became gram

Others were only accepted in certain regions:

Others survive as variant spellings:

  • aghast became agast
  • prologue became prolog
  • hearken became harken
  • proceed became procede
  • socks became sox (remembered in the names of the Red Sox and White Sox Major League Baseball clubs)
  • through became thru (informal or archaic, as in "drive-thru")
  • night became nite (informal or archaic — "late nite")
  • clue became clew (archaicism)
  • telephone became telefone (archaicism)

Finally, some never gained acceptance:

  • hockey became hocky
  • cigarette became cigaret
  • thorough became thoro
  • definitely became definitly
  • traffic became trafic
  • tongue became tung
  • subpoena (or subpœna) became subpena
  • drought became drouth

French spelling reform

Main article: Reforms of French orthography.

In 1990, a substantial reform ordered by the French prime minister changed the spelling of about 2000 words as well as some grammar rules. With much delay, the new recommended orthography received official support in France, Belgium and Quebec in 2004, but it has not been widely adopted. Some major French-language dictionaries have incorporated some of the changes.

German spelling reform of 1996

Main article: German spelling reform of 1996.

Even though German spelling has already been much more consistent than English or French spelling, German speaking countries signed an agreement for spelling reforms in 1996, planned to be gradually introduced until 2005.

The so-called Rechtschreibreform is still subject to dispute, and polls consistently show a majority against the new rules. In Summer of 2004, several newspapers and magazines returned to the old rules.

It was not the first reform of the German spelling. There was an earlier reform in 1901. In 1944 another was due to be introduced, but ultimately came to nothing because of the war situation.

Portuguese spelling reform

In the early 20th century, Brazil and Portugal started talks on spelling reform to end the pseudo-etymological writing system. Because of delays, Portugal adopted the reform alone in 1911, resulting in a split between the orthographies of the two countries. In 1924, the Portuguese and Brazilian academies settled on an International Agreement. In 1931, a preliminary agreement adopted the new ortography in Brazil. But there remained many differences, leading to the new orthographic agreement of 1945, which would have removed the remaining differences; however, Brazil never adopted it. In 1971, some differences were removed. In 1986, Brazil invited the other six Portuguese-speaking countries (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal and São Tomé and Príncipe) to a meeting in Rio de Janeiro to address the remaining problems, but the results were not adopted. In 1990, these seven countries entered into a new agreement, to take effect in 1994. For various reasons, ratification was delayed in the nations' parliaments. But slowly, Portugal, Brazil and Cape Verde ratified the agreement; an alteration was made in 1998 in Cape Verde, which does not set a specific date to implement the agreement.

In 2004, the seven nations and East Timor, assembled in the CPLP, agreed that the agreement should enter into practice immediately in the countries that had ratified it, and to accept both orthographies. This led to the acceleration of the ratification process in East Timor and Guinea-Bissau. The old orthographies, however, continue to predominate in the respective countries until three countries rectify ithe alteration to the agreement. As of January 2005, only Brazil has fulfilled the requirements. In the other and, Portugal is facing elections delaying the use of the new spelling reform.

All this is moot in Brazil, where apart from some enthusiasts the reform is being thoroughly ignored, as most people do not see any problem with the current orthography and many linguists argue it would enforce uniformity where Brazilian usage is actually more regular or reflects local pronunciation.

Russian spelling reforms

Main article: Reforms of Russian orthography.

Over the time, there were a number of changes in spelling. They were mostly related with elimination of letters of the Cyrillic alphabet rendered obsolete by changes in phonetics.

When Peter I introduced his "civil script" in 1708, based on more western-looking letter shapes, spelling was simplified as well.

The most recent major reform of Russian spelling was carried out shortly after the Russian revolution. The Russian orthography was simplified by eliminating four obsolete letters and the archaic usage of the letter yer (hard sign) at the ends of words.

Spelling reform of the Spanish language

Spanish orthography is such that every speaker can guess the pronunciation (adapted for accent) from the written form. While the same pronunciation could be misspelt in several ways — there are homophones, because of the language's silent h, vacilations between b and v, between ll and y, and between c and z (and between c, z, and s in Latin America and some parts of the Peninsula) — the orthography is far more coherent than, say, English orthography.

In spite of that, there have been several initiatives to reform the spelling: Andrés Bello succeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the standard set by the Real Academia Española. Another initiative, the O.RR.L.I., remained a curiosity. Juan Ramón Jiménez proposed changing -ge- and -gi to -je- and ji, but this is only applied in editions of his works or his wife's. Gabriel García Márquez raised the issue of reform during a congress at Zacatecas, but, with all his prestige, he got attention but nothing going. The Academies however from time to time change several tidbits, such as allowing este instead of éste ("this one"), when there is no possible confusion.

Norwegian spelling reforms

Prior to Norway becoming independent in 1905, Norwegians wrote Danish. After the independence there were spelling reforms in 1907, 1917, 1938, 1941 and 1981, reflecting the tug-of-war between the spelling-style preferred by traditionalists, nazis, urbane middle class and urban working class.

Related articles

External links


FODOR István, HAGÈGE Claude (eds) (1983-1989), La Réforme des langues. Histoire et avenir. Language reform. History and future. Sprachreform. Geschichte und Zukunft, Hamburg, Buske

cs:Reforma pravopisu de:Rechtschreibreform fr:Rectifications orthographiques


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