The English spoken today in
In the process of absorbing foreign words into English, they were (and are)
"anglicized." Pronunciations shifted to English phonemes, but
original foreign spellings in some (often stylized) form eventually found
permanent places in dictionaries. The result of this evolution over many
centuries is astonishing. By the count of one lexicographer, Americans have an
estimated 251 common ways to spell 43 phonemes. (A more painstaking count
enumerated 1120 different letters or combinations in all.) Even more
confusing to beginning readers is the fact that many spellings represent more
than one phonemic element. [See English Words and their Spelling by
Elaine Miles, Whurr Publishers,
Just as words that persist in a language are those passed on from current usage, their constituent (phonemic) elements that persist are those learned by children who, as adults, then pass them on to their children in a process covering many generations. Of the nearly infinite variety of sounds human speech organs can make, only a few more than 40 have been selected "naturally" by English speakers as the elements of words. Fortunately for spoken English, early linguists failed to "stabilize" the language through full use of the more than 500 discrete language-related sounds they have identified and categorized (International Phonetic Alphabet, IPA). Unfortunately for written English, the British literary establishment did "stabilize" the written form using many complex spelling patterns to represent relatively few phonemic word elements rather than limiting writers to just the number needed. (See history in Spelling Dearest by Niall McLeod Waldman.)
From the eleventh through seventeenth centuries, written English evolved from hand-written documents for communication among very few individuals to an explosion of mass-produced magazines, pamphlets, and books. Because only the ruling classes read, these developments meant nothing to the average person. During this period of rapid development in the English language, proponents of two principal orthographic philosophies emerged. The first group believed words should be spelled the way they sounded (call them "populist") while the second were determined that words be spelled as dictated by language authorities (call them "elitist"). Populists hoped that a sound-based orthography would bring reading and writing to all people and encourage greater uniformity in pronunciation. Elitists were convinced that was impossible. They believed such tampering somehow corrupted "the genius of the tongue" and predicted it would lead inevitably to chaos in the English language. From today's perspective, it seems that chaos was no more inevitable with one system than the other, but initially raged because neither was adopted. The controversy subsided when British publishers, authors, and literary critics (most confirmed elitists) embraced Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1755) as ultimate authority. Johnson's orthographic system was simple and direct: He alone decided the correct spelling of words as he selected them from other dictionaries and the works of prominent English authors of the previous 280 years. If these authorities did not agree (or their choice did not please him) he adopted the spelling he perceived as "most English." [See Johnson’s own Preface and comments on Johnson and his work in Johnson’s Dictionary, A Modern Selection by E. L. McAdam, Jr. and George Milne, Pantheon Books, N. Y., 1936.] Since then, American dictionaries have continued the same authoritarian orthographic tradition.
Noah Webster, an avowed orthographic populist, wrote,
"... simplicity of orthography would facilitate the learning of the
language." He reported hearing Benjamin Franklin remark "that those
people spell best who do not know how to spell" which he interpreted as
meaning that "they spell as their ears dictate, without being guided by spelling
rules, and thus fall into a regular orthography." The Revolutionary War
had recently been won, and Webster exhorted Americans to "seize the present
moment and establish a national language as well as a national
government." He warned that "
Webster's youthful plans for a "user-friendly" orthography fell mostly on unsympathetic ears just as his political views years later were unfavorably received. He explained why this might happen: "Thus most people suppose the present mode of spelling to be the easiest and best. This opinion is derived from habit; the new mode of spelling proposed would save three fourths of the labor now bestowed in learning to write our language. A child would learn to spell as well in one year as he can now in four. This is not supposition, it is an assertion capable of proof; and yet people, never knowing or having forgot the labor of learning, suppose the present to be the easiest. No person but one who has taught children has any idea of the difficulty of learning to spell and pronounce our language in its present form."
Undoubtedly force of habit and resistance to change were factors in
Webster's failure to win support for his linguistic revolution. Lexicographers
cite similar reasons for failure of spelling reforms over the centuries:
"The new American scene was able to simplify shillings, pounds, and pence,
but even in
Webster's youthful enthusiasm made no progress against the
entrenched tyranny of British authors, publishers, and literary critics. Most
literate Americans of his time still looked to authorities in their recently
politically estranged "homeland" for guidance in matters of the
common language. The fruits of his efforts to shake American minds out of
"indolence" were bitter; in his 1828 American English Dictionary, the
only visible result was the introduction of a few shortened alternative
spellings (dropping "u" from words like honour
and labour and "k" from the end of publick,
for example.) As innocuous and ineffective as these changes were in easing the
burden of learning to read and write, they sparked violent attacks against
"spelling reform" from English purists on both sides of the
The downfall of Spelling Reform is inherent in its name and accompanying challenge: "we should spell words like we pronounce them." To the literary priesthood and ordinary literate people alike it signifies trivial tinkering, is seen to accomplish nothing useful, and, in the end, creates only greater confusion. Its use of the words "spell", "spelling", and "pronounce" lead to unfortunate misunderstandings.
"Spell" means no more nor less than "say (or write) from memory the correct sequence of letters signifying a word." It follows then that "spelling reform" means "for X number of words, substitute this set of 'now correct' spellings for that set of 'incorrect' spellings," and children shall now memorize these letter sequences instead of those they did before. Adult readers visualize the task in terms of memorizing a multitude of strange new spellings. The reformer insists that children and literate adults memorize the changed spellings. That prospect is unacceptable to the literate who see no benefit for either themselves or their children and express great horror over the inconvenience it will cause them. Spelling reform promises continuation of the difficult task of learning to spell, threatening unnecessary trouble for adults but not lifting the burden of memorizing word spellings for children either.
"Pronounce" means no more nor less than "utter sounds
signifying a word." Webster probably did not have a clear
understanding of the relationship between word elements and speech
sounds. Even today, many do not make the important distinction. People
who should know better make statements like, "The quest for a phonographic
notation that adheres rigidly to the spoken language is illusory." This
statement wrongly implies that phonemic characters are intended to represent
the idiolect of individual’s speech, setting up a "straw man" for the
following: "The aim of writing is not simply to record phonemes, and to do
so is only useful insofar as it can transmit messages, regardless of how
accessible the forms it produces. What it comes down to is finding a
conventional means of representing linguistic content." [Jean-Pierre Jaffre in Learning to Spell,
The most telling weakness of spelling reform is its word-by-word strategy. Reform fails because great public outrage greets each attempt to introduce a limited number of words with changed spellings. The inevitable result is that few or none of the proposed changes survive. From about 1857 to 1940 a number of organizations promoted various spelling reform schemes, each based upon lists of respelled words - as few as 11 or as many as 3500. A few of these spellings survive today, but it is not certain that any can be credited to overt reform efforts rather than on-going shifts in public habit. The public is smart enough to understand that a piecemeal approach prolongs the unnecessary pain and confusion that inevitably occurs when such changes provide no practical advantage.
Linguistic theory recognizes that all languages develop from oral traditions in which speakers of a given language utter meaningful sounds mediated by shared primary speech elements (phonemic sounds). For main-stream English speakers, about 40 phonemes suffice world-wide. The primary information element in English is the word, a mental construct consisting of one or more phonemic word elements. Written words are separated from each other by spaces; spoken words by (apparent) brief pauses. Expressed either way, individual words represent identical concepts, actions, or things comprising a thought.
English usage demands a strict word-for-word equivalence between spoken and written forms. A few modern linguists ignore this fact and attempt to establish asymmetry between the two, suggesting that only written English relates to a higher "prime" language. This concept is pure nonsense; it proposes the indefensible idea that the greatness of past authors is somehow captured by the way they spelled words, not in their thoughts and the way they assembled words to express them in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books. It should be obvious to everyone that information is carried by the words themselves, not by their spelling or pronunciation.
The inescapable conclusion is that written words are visible incarnations of authors’ words just as spoken words are similar aural incarnations of words that first spring to life in a speaker's mind. They are useful copies only if recorded with accepted orthography. A child, writing a word in a personally invented orthography, feels a sense of accomplishment until parent or teacher harshly declares that it is spelled wrong! This reaction is unprecedented in a child's language experience. Instead of gentle coaching to produce slightly altered sounds to recreate in sound a word's elements, the child is scolded for having written wrong letters; the authority then produces a spelling that is declared to be right, but no logical reason is given for the difference. A persistent child may then attempt to extend previously learned "correctly-written” words to new words that sound the same (analogous to copying speech sounds into new words to expand oral vocabulary). This logical "natural" approach is doomed to failure. After several such experiences, most children stop trying to read until they are later forced to do so in school by rote memorization.
The conflict between the spelling we demand and the orthography children expect (one consistent with spoken English) creates a major roadblock to universal literacy. To put it bluntly, children fail to learn reading and writing, not from lack of desire, nor laziness, nor low intelligence, nor because of improper teachers' skills, but because society requires them to use Johnson's authoritarian orthography, the wrong tool for the tasks. It is the wrong tool because it does not allow children to develop written skills that harmonize with the way they developed their brains to handle oral language skills.
Alfubetik rīting krēāts werdz on pāper az dikshunairē spelingz.
With AKSES, u child ūzes ŧhu sām eliment paternz too rīt werds on pāper az too spēk
ŧhem. Vōkulīzd and riten werdz ekspres ŧhu sām thots.
Noah Webster apparently did not understand the concept that a limited number of phonemic word elements underlie articulation and mutual understanding of our language, but he did believe that children learn to read and write more quickly if similar sounds in spoken words are represented by the same spellings. Substitute "phonemic sounds" for "similar sounds" and "phonemic characters" for "spellings" and his ideas accord well with more progressive modern linguistic theory. Young children learn quickly if each character always represents a specific word element. If they are easily distinguishable one from another, which characters are used is immaterial to the children.
This concept was demonstrated both in
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted a spelling reform program. It was a dismal failure, partly for reasons discussed above, but mostly because it became a political "test of wills" between the President and Congress. 100 years later, a number of factors are different:
Is it possible for Americans, together with political and educational leaders and institutions, to set in motion a series of simple events to ensure universal literacy within the next several generations? I believe that can be done. Universal literacy will naturally develop if we eliminate roadblocks to reading and institute the following changes in this approximate order:
Continue to How and Why AKSES Works.
Published November 30, 1998. (Last worked on 12/02/08) - James H. Kanzelmeyer.