Let's Make English Spelling Simpler!

Posts Tagged ‘history’

Attempts at reforming English spelling: before and today

Posted by Massimo on January 25, 2010

There is a long and noble history of trying to change the English language’s notoriously illogical system of spelling. The fact that through, rough, dough, plough, hiccough and trough all end with -ough, yet none of them sound the same as any of the others, is the sort of thing that has been vexing poets and learners of English for quite some time. Proponents of “fixing” this wayward orthography have included some of the most prominent names in American history. Benjamin Franklin suggested changing the alphabet, and Andrew Carnegie provided money for people to study the problem. President Theodore Roosevelt issued an edict in 1906 that gave the Government Printing Office a list of 300 words with new spellings: problem cases like artisan, kissed and woe were to be changed to artizan, kist and wo. Roosevelt was largely ignored by the G.P.O., and the matter was soon dropped. Although this issue has been extensively studied and argued over by these and other eminent thinkers, there has been an almost complete lack of success in effecting any substantial progress
Perhaps the most successful attempt at spelling reform (at least in America) was wrought by Noah Webster, who managed to forever make Americans view the British honour and theatre as off-kilter. Some portion of Webster’s determination to change -our to -or and -re to -er was due to nationalist fervor; he wanted his countrymen to break free of the orthographic bonds of their oppressors. He was noticeably less successful in convincing Americans of the utility of many of his other ideas, like spelling oblique as obleek, machine as masheen and prove as proov
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Shaw and his alphabet

Posted by Massimo on July 6, 2009

This is a post from which I probably should have started this blog, and the quotation cited below might well serve as an epigraph to the whole blog. But better late than never :)

In the preface to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw writes:

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They cannot spell it because they have nothing to spell it with but an old foreign alphabet of which only the consonants – and not all of them – have any agreed speech value. Consequently no man can teach himself what it should sound like from reading it … Most European languages are now accessible in black and white to foreigners: English and French are not thus accessible even to Englishmen and Frenchmen. The reformer we need most today is an energetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

Actually, Shaw himself was such an energetic enthusiast and supporter of reforming English spelling. It was he who indicated the inconsistencies of English spelling by inventing a new spelling for the word fish, which was ghoti. He said that ghoti might well be pronounced as [fıʃ], because gh is sometimes pronounced as [f] (as in enough), o is pronounced as [ı] in women and ti is pronounced as [ʃ] in words like nation, ration, etc. Shaw proposed his own version of English alphabet known as the Shavian alphabet and bequeathed a large sum of money to establish it. His alphabet consists of  bizarre-looking characters which are quite different from standard Latin alphabet; they were designed “to avoid the impression that the new spellings were simply misspellings”. Shavian alphabet was designed to be phonetic, that is, that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to sounds (this principle is quite successfully applied in the artificial would-be international language of Esperanto). However, this project did not gain acceptance, and only one book was published in Shavian spelling, namely Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion, in bi-alphabetic edition with both conventional and Shavian spellings.

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Posted by Massimo on July 2, 2009

In medieval England, various monasteries, which were the centres of thought and education in the Middle Ages, used different spellings to write in English, because at that time there were not any standardized variants of English spelling. In some spellings of that time we can find attempts to consistently use doubled consonants in order to indicate the shortness of the preceding vowel; undoubled consonants, in their turn, indicated the length of the preceding vowel in such spelling. An example can be “Ormulum”, a 12th century Biblical exegesis written by an English monk named Orm. Here is a passage from that work:

Icc hafe wennd inntill Ennglissh
Goddspelles hallghe lare
Affterr þatt little witt þatt me
Min Drihhtinn hafeþþ lenedd.

“I have translated a holy teaching of the Gospel according to the little wit that my Lord has given me”.

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