Monday, April 23, 2007

Revise inglish spelling by Guest Blogger Theo Halladay

Recently, I began a correspondence with Theo Halladay about English spelling. Ms. Halladay graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1948 and is a “retired Montessori scool teecher, artist, art teecher, composer of 30+ songs & coral anthems” with “riting credits in 23 publications.” You will notice from that description that Ms. Halladay uses simplified spelling. That’s why I asked her to be a guest blogger and to tell us about spelling reform. I hope readers will respond to her post about reforming English spelling!

Revise inglish spelling by Theo Halladay:

Brett has askd me to rite sumthing about the movement to update & reggularize inglish spelling. I am activ in the Simplified Spelling Society, based in London, England & founded in 1908. We ar a group of educators & uthers in inglish-speeking cuntrys all over the world, who ar concernd about the massiv illiteracy problem – between 20 & 40 million functional illiterats in the US alone. We note that uther european cuntrys hav updated their spelling sistems so words ar speld the way they sound. English has never dun this, with the result that italian children, for example, lern in 2 yeers wot menny anglo children fale to master in 12, namely how to spel their own language corectly. Unemployment, crime & the high cost of scooling ar the results.

Eleetists & stubborn “inglish traditionalists” jellusly gard a mishmash of uneddited spellings from 4 difrent language roots - words wich must all be individdualy memmorized, since spelling patterns ar not at all consistent. e.g. do we realy need 11 difrent ways of spelling the sound ee?

We solicit ideas from people like yurselvs as to wot & how menny changed spellings would be tollerated the best, not only by angloes but also by foreners. Chek out our magnificent archives on the history of spelling reform, & join us as we argue the subject & plan for our CENTENNIAL convention in England next yeer!


Anonymous said...

This is, of course, how English used to be 200+ years ago. There were no fixed spellings and people often spelled the same words multiple ways within a single document. A movement to reform English spelling could make some words easier to learn how to spell for people who don't already know how to spell the word. For everyone else, it would be harder. It's kind of like the Qwerty/Dvorak keyboard controversy. Yes, Dvorak is more efficient and superior, but very few Qwerty keyboard typers have switched.

The whole debate seems rather a waste of time to me. The countries of the English speaking world don't have language academies. Ergo people already have the right to spell however they want. The only problem is that users of simplified spelling will come off as uneducated. And Ms. Halladay is obviously someone who (refreshingly) doesn't mind people assuming she's uneducated. She isn't beholden to them.

If I worked as a Montessori teacher, artist or composer, I might take up such a cause myself. But sadly, as a professional translator, I'd lose all my clients and then be destitute if I took her approach.

Anonymous said...

Many people don't realize it (especially Germans, Germans are very bad about this), but the previous commenter is absolutely right: there is "langauge academy" for the English-speaking world. Like common law, the conventions of English spelling are customary and quite fluid over time. As new spellings come into vogue, they trickle up and supplant older spellings. English-language dictionaries will include the various spellings for words that have multiple spellings, and over time if a certain spelling becomes more common (in print) than another spelling, dictionaries start listing that spelling first.

An example is "catalogue." In American English, I learned to spell this word as "catalogue" when I was in grade school in the 1970s. In the mean time, "catalog" has become by far the more common spelling.

Also, English-language dictionaries do not spell things the same way--again, because there is no one standard. For instance, Merriam-Webster uses "copy editor" (with space) and American Heritage uses "copyeditor" (no space).

Look at the SMS spelling conventions of today's young people--e.g. thru, lite, tho, nuff, etc.--and in fifty to a hundred years you'll see such spellings as acceptable, correct spellings in dictionaries. You have to wait for the current batch of language reactionaries and grammar marms to die first before they can root.

In any case, spelling simplification is an ongoing, organic process of convention in the English speaking world, and it is in no need of bizarre, unetymological "simplifications" like "uther."

Literacy in the English-speaking world has nothing to do with spelling. It has to do with the educatioal system. If you look at French, Faeroese, or Danish spelling (both of which are arguably more out of touch with the spoken language than English) and see their high literacy rates, you can see that spelling and literacy have precious little to do with each other.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you both for your comments! To play devil's advocate, I will argue with a couple of your points.
One of you mentioned that such reform would make things easier for new learners of English, but harder for others -- well, obviously, this would only be the case for a generation or two, right? Also, other languages have dealt with this, and perhaps some of them had periods in which both the old and the new spelling systems were accepted.
And it is true that the conventions of spelling any language do change over time, and also that they vary from English-speaking country to English-speaking country. But that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be sensible to be more active about spelling reform. Spellings may seem bizarre or unacceptable at first, but gradually begin to seem normal. Although I do agree about the etymological issue -- surely many people have had an easier time increasing their vocabulary (and even learning other languages) because of the clear etymological links between roots and modern words, and also between various words all based on one root. I am not sure what the spelling reformers would do about this.

Best wishes,

B.J. Epstein said...

Someone mentioned SMS texters and how that is affecting spelling. As an English teacher, I certainly saw my share of students writing me emails such as "I'll be l8 for class. Thank u!"
And speaking of SMSing, Ms. Halladay was kind enough to write me about how she got interested in spelling reform and where the movement is now (including the effects of SMS), so I will paste that below. First, though, I'd like to note that I have deleted the names of the famous actors she mentions, to protect their privacy, despite the fact that it was interesting to hear about them and their parenting styles!

Ms. Halladay wrote:

U ask how I got interested in revised spelling. I taut in the Malibu Montessori School in 1972-3. ware one student was Mr. X's dauter Y, age 8. She luvd riting little plays, & she would spel the words in ways that made sense to her. That ment they wer offen speld "rong."

Mr. X was anxius for his beluvved dauter to lern to spel propperly. Her muther, Ms. Z, was eequaly anxius that the child's creativity not be stifled. I had the job of keeping peece between the 2 parents - not eesy since they disagreed profoundly. It was in that situation that I became convinced that the solution lay in updating the way inglish is speld.

This was not a new idea. In the 60's I had invented a foneemic sistem I calld Eoletics, but had put it aside. Then about 1980 my dauter sent me a clipping about the SSS. I joind, began receeving their litrature & their numerus proposed scheems, & since 2000 I hav been in activ comunication with them via email, dedicating about 2 hrs./day to the work as a volunteer, one of the core of a duzzen or so, the most activ vocal members of SSS all over the world. We hope to cum up with a usable plan for change, & present it next yeer along with expert speekers at our international Centennial to be held in Coventry, England.

For the last 4 yeers our members hav staged a demonstration outside the hotel wile the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee is held in Washington DC about June 1. I participated in this in 2004. We carryd posters & talkd to reporters & passersby, getting a good deel of cuvrage in the media & follo-up in the blogs. Our membership has grown a lot in the past yeer.

Now I am wurryd about a widening rift that is thretning to divide us into 3 factions - radical reformists [sum of whom ar SMS texters], absolute minnimalists, & modderat reformers such as myself. I'm debating opening up a new website just for modderats...but the absolute minimalists hav all the SSS foundation's munny under their control! So it's a problem. We would luv to finance one or mor reserch projects experimenting with change - havnt agreed on one so far.

Anonymous said...

I think both the for and against sides have been argued to some extent, so rather than taking a side, I have a question as to how such a system would work in the case of dialects. Granted, there are already words that have multiple spellings, most notably between the American and British versions of English, but if words are to be spelled based on how they sound, this disparity would become even worse. People could validly spell "hello" as "hullo" or "ello" or however else they pronounced it. There are times when I have a hard time understanding someone with a thick dialect and extending that to the writing system doesn't seem like it would make communication any easier. Would someone who thinks of "hello" as "ello" and sees "hullo" immediately know what it meant?

Also, I'm a little puzzled by the spellings in Ms. Halladay's writing that seem inconsistent with the idea that words should be spelled the way they sound. Shouldn't "revised" be "revized", "group" be "groop", "functional" be "funkshonal"? And "concernd" is spelled with "c" taking on the role of both "k" and "s", when in fact, the letter "c" is phonetically redundant except in cases where we need compounds like "ch". In addition, there are lots of silent "e"s everywhere. Was there some reason certain words were left with a closer resemblance to their normal spellings in spite of the topic at hand?

Anonymous said...

One thing about spelling in English is that it really has to be a phonemic, instead of a phonetic system. The proposed spellings are phonetic, but as a result are appropriate only for certain dialects of English--not all Englishes.

Take for instance a word like "divine." It is related to another word, "divinity," and visually the root is retained in both words (which helps comprehension). This is a hallmark of a *phonemic* spelling system, and is very logical and used widely by languages with regularized spelling systems, e.g. German, Spanish, Finnish, etc.

If we respelled these phonetically, you'd get "divain" and "diviniti"--except in some dialects you'd get "divan" and "diviniti," etc.

Phonemic spelling is the only rational approach to spelling reform in English, and anyone who advocates a phonetic approach to spelling reform is doomed--doomed!--to failure!

Unknown said...

I return to inform u that the centennial conference of the Spelling Society is being held at Coventry University, not far from Stratford-on-Avon, on June 7-8, '08with international speakers [in inglish] on the topic of The Cost of English Spelling. Free to visitors! Drop in if u ar in that vicinity. Dont wurry, out of curtesy to u evrything thare wil be in traditional spelling. But the expert speakers wil be detailing the price we pay for refusing to change.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for letting us know, Theo!

Best wishes,

Paulina said...

Goodness, what a load of BS. English is my third language and yet I had no trouble learning how to spell. If English speaking children cannot grasp spelling in 12 years it is not the fault of the language but of the school system and the children themselves.