[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989/2 p.2 later designated J11]


Chris Upward.


In this issue we celebrate a double first. Our first first is Donald Scragg's inaugural address as the Society's new President, in which he distils some judicious reflections from his years of study of the history of writing and of written English in particular. What emerges perhaps more clearly than anything else is the sheer fluidity of writing systems: their endless onward flow through the millennia, swirling and eddying and rarely subject to the kind of rational control that spelling reformers dream of exercising. In most systems the relation between speech-sounds and graphic units has become crucial, and yet on the fringes of even the most phonographic system today (more so today, perhaps, than ever before) there is a host of graphic images (international road-signs are just one of many examples) that lie outside the rules of sound-symbol correspondence. Sound-symbol correspondences is central, yet it can no longer be quite the predominant guiding principle that it was to the New Spelling generation of reformers in the first half of this century. In a language like English, whose writing system has evolved over some 15 centuries, a revolutionary break is inconceivable because impracticable. Instead, so Donald Scragg suggests, we must capitalise on present trends in spelling. We must swim with the current that is bearing us along, and not make futile attempts to dam or avert it.

Our second first is the Professor Asmah's account of the Malay spelling reform of 1972, which our editorial consultant in Singapore, Adam Brown, was instrumental in arranging for us. What is unprecedented about her article, as far as this Journal is concerned, is that it is not about some castle in the air, which is still alas the substance of which spelling-reform proposals for English are largely made: rather, she is describing a successful reform that she had a hand in implementing. Maybe the social, political and linguistic circumstances were unusually propitious, but that does not detract from the fascination that the achievement must have for us. The underlying linguistic analysis is itself interesting, but what must surely give us most pause for thought is the political and administrative skill that must have been involved. Are there any direct lessons for English? Perhaps the previously different writing systems of Malaysia and Indonesia have a parallel in the irritating differences between British and American spelling. Perhaps to tackle them first (as the Australian Style Council was in effect considering doing) would be just the kind of swimming-with-the-current that Donald Scragg is advising as the most promising approach to modernizing written English.

Professor Asmah's article is however just one of a rich selection in this issue of reports on spelling developments in other languages. Their collective message is that the modernization of writing systems ought in all languages to be accepted as normal and necessary, and there should be recognized machinery for carrying it out. Our Submission to the National Curriculum Council suggests that that body might tentatively develop such a role for itself, and that an uncontroversial issue on which it could start is that of the many alternative spellings now found in English


English spelling, as observed in our last editorial ('Prescriptivism'), is often thought to be unduly rigid, and as Donald Scragg points out, it might be beneficial if our literacy culture tolerated variants, such as between the error-prone <-ant, -ent> endings. However, another view of English spelling is that it is in fact not rigid at all, or rather, as it has increasingly stabilized in the past 400 years, its stability-cum-rigidity is mainly confined to commonly occurring words and morphemes; and indeed, once one begins to collect spelling variants, one cannot fail to be struck by how many there are.

The reason is not far to seek: since written English (unlike most languages) has no firm inventory of sound-symbol correspondences, the lexicographer has no authority to turn to for approving one variant or condemning another. When a preference is stated, as often in the OED, it can appear quite arbitrary. Convention is the main guide, etymology and analogy having so frequently proved false guides in the past; but if a word is rarely used, it may be that no single convention becomes established. Who, for instance, can stipulate today which of gibe, jibe, gybe should be the preferred spelling? Loan-words from languages using the Roman alphabet usually bring their spelling with them (though guerilla, garotte do not), but if a word has to be transliterated/transcribed from a different alphabet or writing system, English can find itself at a total loss for what letters to use. Hence we find in Collins Dictionary as many as four possibilites for such non-Roman delicacies as Russian borshch, borsch, borsht, borsh (Collins even recommends different pronunciations for the different spellings) and Chinese lychee, lichi, litchi, lichee.

Perhaps, though, spelling reformers can use all this confusion for constructive ends. Why not analyse all the variations for their sound-symbol correspondences, and use the findings to establish an inventory of existing correspondences which can then serve as the yardstick by which the most regular, phonographic forms from amongst all the variants can then be determined? If this were done, dictionaries might then feel they had an authority they could call on for the purpose of recommending the best spellings from amongst the alternatives available. Here, then, is a research task waiting to be carried out: the systematic search for alternative spellings of English words given in a widely-used modern dictionary, as a basis for recommending the most consistent forms.

That could in itself be an important task. But a curious question arises: when does a misspelling achieve the status of an alternative spelling? Webster gives surprize as an alternative to surprise; yet in Britain the <z> form would clearly rank as an error. Perhaps if American dictionaries are more tolerant of variation, they would be the more rewarding source to search. However, if we pursue this point, it suggests a further possible field for investigation: paradoxically, perhaps misspellings are themselves a basis for the ideal inventory of sound-symbol correspondences in English, since by definition they imply a kind of consensus. Then such common forms as accomodate, seperate might be proposed as a new standard.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989/2 p.35 later designated J11]

Harry Lindgren has kindly given permission for us to reproduce cartoons from his Spelling Reform - A New Approach.

Cartoon of an early steam engine

Caption: "It's a lot better than horses. Need we improve it?"

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