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BACKGROUND OF ENGLISH ORTHOGRAPHY

"ANCIENT" HISTORY

The English spoken today in America had its origins in fifth century England among Germanic invaders - the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. It evolved by borrowing large numbers of words from many other languages to enrich meanings and broaden the scope of ideas it could express. Details of that evolution are not important to this discussion. It is important, however, to realize that, unlike other major modern languages, English was an amalgam of words from many different sources from the start. [See front matter in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., for details.]

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, London and Philadelphia, 2005.] These statistics should give pause to those who advocate the current fad in linguistic theory that written English is fundamental, immutable, and more effective in communicating ideas than the spoken form. That concept is self-serving balderdash that interferes with a quest for a path to universal literacy in America.

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.

AMERICAN ENGLISH

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 "America is in a situation the most favorable for great reformations, and the present time is in a singular degree auspicious... Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes favorable to language, science, and government.  Delay in the plan here proposed may be fatal; under tranquil general government the minds of men may again sink into indolence; a national acquiescence in error will follow, and posterity be doomed to struggle with difficulties which time and accident will perpetually multiply." [From an appendix to Dissertations on the English Language, 1789.  Boldface added.] Those words were prophetic of today's well-publicized educational problems and failures.

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 America the spelling tradition has been cultivated with loving and stubborn care." [W. Cabell Greet. American College Dictionary, Random House, 1965.] Most effective, however, was the pernicious opposition of British critics and publishers to any change in traditional English spelling and that virulent opposition continues unabated.

SPELLING REFORM

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 Atlantic.

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, Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates, 1997.] That argument is clearly wrong. It implys that the written word "cat" represents greater "linguistic content" for thoughts of a writer than the spoken word /kat/ does for identical thoughts of a speaker. Spelling's supporters reason with a strange logic; written words have linguistic content (their definition) because they are spellings from a dictionary (conventional means), but spoken words do not (again, their definition) because they "simply" transmit phonemesThis is wrong:  Any style of writing has but one objective - to enable the transfer of writers’ words to readers’ minds.

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.

CONFLICT AND ROADBLOCKS TO LEARNING

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
ŧhemVōkulīzd and riten werdz ekspres ŧhu sām thots.

A NEW SYSTEM

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 Britain and the US by initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.) programs. Ultimately, children in the programs failed to read better than children in conventional reading programs as they progressed above third grade. Professional educators have taken little notice of the fact that the first i.t.a. goal - teaching all children to read and write phonemic text early in first grade - was a spectacular success, experimental proof of Webster's thesis. The programs provided no advantage when children were switched from phonemic orthography back to traditional spelling, proving that conventional spelling is the wrong tool for teaching written English. The same children that read and wrote competently in first grade using phonemic text lost that ability when subsequently forced to read and write conventional text.

THE FUTURE?

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:

  • The public is now aware we have an educational crisis. A majority have come to believe that poor reading skills are the cause.
  • The Federal Administration and Congress both support programs to improve reading in a bipartisan way.
  • Most linguistic and psychological experts accept phonemes as the ultimate "bits" of the mental information used by everyone to form or interpret English words.
  • Television exerts a powerful influence in educating and influencing the public. The internet and e-mail permit rapid communication between individuals as well as exposure of ideas to groups of potentially influential people.
  • American dictionaries are sensitive to changes in the English language.  They provide pronunciation guides that can be converted to a phonemic listing as the basis for an AKSES lexicon.

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:

  1. General acceptance of the doctrine that oral and written English words are equivalent forms for expressing thoughts.
  2. General acceptance of the (already widely recognized) theory that spoken words are articulated and understood in cerebral processes involving translation of thoughts into words (and the reverse) via word elements.
  3. Recognition that traditional spelled orthography is not the best way to write English; it does not "naturally" represent written words in the way spoken English does.
  4. General acceptance of phonemic training in home and preschool environments.  Children are encouraged to memorize phonemic characters and names not the letters of the alphabet.
  5. Recommendation by prominent child development and educational psychologists (acting as consultants to all political parties and candidates) that Congress and Administrative Departments of the Federal Government provide leadership in a universal literacy program for all citizens.  Effective leadership entails adopting AKSES for official correspondence, forms, and published documents according to an efficient and cost-effective plan.
  6. Recommendation by prominent educational institutions, psychologists, and professors of reading and writing education, etc. that all schools ensure mastery of reading in first grade by using AKSES text in the primary grades.
  7. Publication of Dictionaries of Phonemic American English with entry words and definitions in AKSES orthography.
  8. Publicity and special programs by electronic and print media to educate parents in using AKSES to achieve universal literacy starting with their own children.
  9. Eventual acceptance of AKSES for business and interpersonal correspondence.

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Published November 30, 1998. (Last worked on 12/02/08) - James H. Kanzelmeyer.