Work in progress: A Grassroots Spelling Reform

I'd like to share my method of working, through showing at each stage where I'm at in the work. Below you will be able to follow as I work on this essay, and make progress towards a finished text. In this essay I will be making arguments for the use of spelling that lies closer to the spoken language, and that also moves with natural language development. I hope you will enjoy the process and the read.


There was a danish phonetician of high repute by the name of Otto Jespersen. In 1910 he published a small essay titled "The Usefulness of Phonetics." The essay is as clear as the title, but, as he says, extra-scientific. It is an educated opinion. Jespersen advocates the spread of phonetic knowledge as a means of teaching children how to read. He points to the common orthography, the way we spell, as lagging behind the spoken language, and also serves up some interesting research: Already at that time it was shown, in Denmark, Norway, England and France, that teaching children to write phonetically first, and then to go on to "proper" spelling, enabled them to learn reading faster than would otherwise be the case. 

Spelling has always been a political issue, from nasjonalalistic sentiments, to efforts to controll "correctness". What was different with Jespersen, though, was that he was arguing from a scientific standpoint. The motivation for reform was to help children learn everywhere, and to make spelling a more sensible activity for all of us.

It is obvious to anyone who knows anything about the english language that it is in bad need of spelling reform.

If you are not familiar with the fact that english is in need of spelling reform, allow me to show you a small sample of the wrongheadedness of our writing. Let's pick a one syllable word, "thought", for instance, then count the number of letters. That's right, seven is the answer. Now, how many sounds can you count? I hear three, which is represented with the IPA script system as: θɒt. Now, let's break this down. The first glyph is "th" the second "ough", and the third "t". Then why is it that a three-sound word has seven letters? Some of the blame, for the "th" especially comes from the fact that we are using a roman alphabet, and it simply didn't have a sound for the germanic th-sound. We used runes for a while, then settled on the th-representation. Standardisation often comes from the 1500'ds, when printing presses lead to a standardisation of spelling. Some of the earliest technicians were from the netherlands, which can help explain why there is an "h" in "ghost". 

From that time, the english language has slowly been sliding away from it's written form. The absence of proper spelling reform has exacerbated the problem.

Another thing advocated by  Otto Jespersen is spelling reform. His idea was that influential writers would choose some words at random, which they cared about, and spell it the way they thought was most logical, and by this building an understanding that things could be different, that we needn't stick to the old ways. In this he was half right. Now let me tell you a little story of a school day in Nicaragua.         

In the late seventies center for specialized learning opened a school for deaf children in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Attending must have been very difficult for the children. In 1979 there was a military coup, and the government changed hands to the Sandinistas. In addition there was no proper paradigm for the teaching of deaf children. Learning centered on lip reading of spanish, something that was all but incomprehensible to them. The children, however, found time to communicate between themselves. In the school yard, on the buss, and elsewhere in social settings they started using signs to communicate. Soon they had the beginnings of a sign language. By the mid eighties the teachers at the schools were in distress. They weren't understanding what their kids were saying, and sendt for help from a linguist at MiT. Judy Kegl, arrived in 1986, expecting what the teachers said was miming, not language at all, but just a visual mimicking of ideas. Instead she found a thriving sign language. 
Lacking proper instruction, the children had started developing a sign language by themselves. At first, it was simple. I imagine singled out nouns and words, put together, like a two year old will have a two-word sentence structure, based on the principle of juxtaposition "Table high", or "food hot". This was not what she found. By 1986 the children had agreed upon grammatical structures, a complex form of communication worthy of the title of a full language. Here is the rub, though. Children who had been part of the early development of the language, and had left school, did not benefit from these later advancements in complexity. As the passed into adolescence and adulthood, they moved further away from the critical age of language acquisition, and though they were able to learn of the later grammatical advancements, they never gained the fluency of the young children.

As adults we have passed from the early creative faze of life, where we are willing so sacrifice efficiency and jump into learning without reservation. Children are open to learning the most ridiculous things, and are incredibly flexible in their disposition to life and learning. As we get older we lose this flexibility for another virtue; efficiency. Without blinking our eye picks up the known structure, decodes it, and moves on. Even across nations, word comprehension is about the same for writing. The important time saver here, is in how easy it is to learn.

There is a problem though. Children will happily fill in any clear space you have with wonderfully productive nonsense, but they will not petition the government for spelling reform in their schools. For that, they will have to learn "proper" spelling first, finnish high school, and probably get at least a bachelor degree in phonetics, preferably while being a productive participant in student politics. And at that point, why redo the way you do spelling? Instead the work falls to us boring adults. And it is here that Jespersen enters the picture again. How about we just all, you know change the way we spell things okeishnally? As we will see the age of the proponents may not be the most crucial step after all, but first I'd like to turn your attention to a second issue; What are the stakes?

Have you heard of a "deep orthography?" A deep orthography is what you have when the grapheme (the written word) does not match the phoneme (the spoken word). 

Picture it like this. You are a kid, standing at the edge of the pool, about to learn how to swim. You are at the kiddy-pool side, simple words and phrases, but far ahead, there is the really deep pool where you will one day thrive as a literate adult. But okay. First things first, jump in. Staying at the surface you are at the "phonemic" level. You know how to speak. At the bottom you see the hints of writing. Those are the graphemes. Phonemic depth, here, is equivalent to the depth of the pool. The more unintuitive signs there are for the learner, the harder it becomes to see the spoken words at the bottom of the pool. Some kids are naturally good readers. They can hold a lot of breath and go down more easily. For others, it is harder.They will be left squinting for a good long time. But no matter what happens, the more phonemic depth your language has, the harder it becomes to learn how to read. If you are the unlucky speaker/reader og Danish or English, the orthographic depth can add more than 2 years (!) to learning basic reading. That, is too much.

The invention of the alphabet was a one time occurrence, and a revolution. The phoenicians, a mediterranean trading people took arbitrary signs from egyptian, and turned them into letters. Sometimes using the rhebus princple, like for the letter "m", which was written like a rippling form which mimicked "water" and stood for the same; "mem". The current letter is a simplification of that riple; now there are only two waves to our M. Alphabetication, was a huge step forward for language aquisition. In ancient egypt writing was so copmlex, it was only reserved for an elite class of priests. As the written language was increasingly sipmlifed, first by having a few simple signs, then by developing a syllaberry, writing spread to ever more circles of life. The phonecian alphabet was used in trade, but soon also for poetry. It was a democraticing power. Only now, has the english language taken a step back.

The great orthographic depth, indicates that english speakers must employ a "two method" decoding system. One alphabetic, and and one logographic! Meaning, they don't "read" the word, they just recognice it as what it stands for.The research indicating this was done in 2003 by Seymour, Aro and Erskine - but this knowledge seems not to have spread in a public forum. Apparently there is a cutoff point, where the distance between the spoken word and the written word becomes so great,  that this shift to a double system occurs - and danish and english are both below this cutoff point.

This is particularly distressing because language proficiency is what social scientists call a "key skill", which will control your access to learning other subjects. Spelling has consequences. 


Common orthography, the slow move away from common sense.

Printing a ghost.

Pedantry and coinage.

unneeded sounds, unwanted sounds. What, then, is the relationship between alphabet and language? Many of the vowels and consonants have direct correlates: N, m, a, b, k and so on, though "A" for instance, will stand for many variations of the vowel. But this must be so, and is sensible. Then there are a few, like x, sometimes z, that stand for more than one phoneme. Then we have a number of phonemes without a sound; like "th" in "thing", j in "judge", th in "this" and ng in "bang". It is in this area that we have the most to save on "mental space". Introducing new symbols for these kinds of sounds will drastically change english orthography.
      The ordering of the alphabet is also completely arbitrary, and this should change. It should reflect the physical characteristics of sound production. This would also make dictionary searches much easier, as one wouldn't have to guess at the start of the spelling of a word, but could go right onto the actual sound produced.

Using the ipa. The question becomes; where should be get the new symbols from? In this we essentially have three choices: We can go to other alphabets that have a common heritage with ours; meaning Greek, ethiopian and cyrillic, or even runes;(2) make new ones based on current research on readability (often done for dyslexic people, but applicable to everyone.), or we can go to the International Phonetic Alphabet; and I think this is the most sensible option. If we do this, we hitch a ride on an already established system, which is already international. This would then help us to learn foreign languages who adopt the same standard. Frankly, taking globalisation into account, I think it's the obvious choice.

The invention of writing novel writing systems seems to have been a uniquely end of last century effort, with many interesting contributions, such as Shavian - a phonetic, rather alien looking script invented by George Bernard Shaw - and curiously "Deseret", developed at the (now) university of Utah. These efforts failed, I believe, because they sought to create a new novel and comprehensive scripts - which would be very hard to implement. There was one man, however, who sought to reform the english language through a much subtler inclusion of just a few letters, and that man was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin excluded c, j, w, x and y - meaning that they could be replaced by other letters, and introduced for new ones, digraphs of th, dh (this -> dhis), ng and sh. His most influential letter was to be the ligature of ng, which became the ŋ, which was adopted into the IPA. His original article is available to read on open library, and I recommend a read. Especially entertaining are the "letters" at the end written in this new manner. It is quite legible, although somewhat difficult at first.

There are ways and there are ways. As a radicalist I'd say that Franklin didn't go far enough, as a realist I'd say that it was too much too fast. At any rate, adult efficiency overcame philosophical curiosity, and old Benjamin didn't make much headway. But he did allow us to dream, and to be critical. Why do we need capital letters? They are only double forms letter forms, and have little use. At least, let us get rid of them in the beginning of sentences, which is already marked by a period. Or, if we are to use it, let us mark something useful, like sentence subjects, or better, sentence head (that word which determines grammatical structure.) In this fever dream, I'd also like to do a revision of our diacritical marks. Though double consonants should go away, (they give entirely the wrong picture of what's going on; what really happens is that a vowel is elongated or shortened; which we rightfully call "stressed."), instead to be replaced by a flat accent, as in the japanese ö. And I'd also teach that words stand for concepts, and that, generally, a sentence should end at the end of the proposition.... but, I think I'm running ahead of myself. You see, it is easy to dream. Bernard Shaw dreamed, and Franklin too - but their contributions to orthography are all but forgotten.

The reason, I believe, is that adult convenience we were talking about. Reading Franklin's sample text are difficult for about fifteen minutes, and then it's quite fine - but, never great. The problem, I think, is that he jumps back and forth for the same words, depending on the pronunciation. The same words get different pronunciations depending on what other words they are next to. In the word pair "good dog", we pull the d-s together, and only pronounce one, like "good-og". This also happens within compound words. Listen, for instance to the different pronunciations of "photo" in"photograph" [/ˈfoʊtəɡrɑːf/] and "photographer." [/fəˈtɒɡrəfər/] In the latter word the stress is moved to the second syllable, and so the diphthong falls away.
     Franklin would have spelled these two words differently. But, I believe that this would have been a mistake. We need some degree of standardisation so that we don't actually have to read every letter, but can rather skip the middle and concentrate on the ends. But there is a way.

According to Jespersens studies, learning to read was faster when tied to a phonetic logic, but in adulthood it turns out that reading speeds are pretty much constant accross languages. The adult brain reads differently than children. We are elevated to a different level, and read two or three words together. And, although there is no direct research on this, what little we have would predict that adult reading speeds would drop if this standardisation falls away. This means that we have to be very careful if we want to change our writing system drastically. The middle ground, though, is open to us.

The trick is to introduce standardisation at the smallest level of meaning in each word, that is, at the morpheme level. The word photographer contains three morphemes; photo-graph-er. Once each are given a phonetic transcription, they are turned into natural "units", which we can then combine to form words. In this case, the result would be something like fotogræfer. In this case, I have chosen not to include diphthongs for the first two vowels, as I felt they added little to our intuitive understanding of that word.

There is a modern way for a state to accommodate spelling reform which removes some of the legacy problems. Most reading now is done online, and text in this instance is only code. And code, can be changed. Through a simple process, a browser can install an application that changes the spelling of english words. Every person can then themselves choose the varieties of spelling they choose, or even start a learning algorithm which changes the spelling of words little by little until a full transition has been made. The application can be made by the state, and installed on a voluntary basis. However, I don't think states will do this, until we first have a grassroots spelling reform by people world wide. If we wish, a shift on orthography could be planned as a long plan, introducing word changes one by one in public media and papers. Spelling is a policy issue which is easy to implement, contrary to other reforms requiring massive investments in material, like in the care for the elderly.

(Orthographic depth hypothesis was proposed in 1992 by Katz and Frost, and subsequent data was provided by Seymour et. al (2003))