Simplified Spelling Is Confusing

Push for simpler spelling persists:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?
Americans doen’t aulwaez go for whut’s eezy — witnes th faeluer of th metric sistem to cach on. But propoenents of simpler speling noet that a smatering of aulterd spelingz hav maed th leep into evrydae ues.

I don’t like it. I had to almost say the words out loud in order to understand their meaning; but that’s because I’m used to their pattern more than anything. Still, no one would agree to the phonetic spellings; people would probably get them wrong as much as they do now since their pronunciation also depends on the dialect used.

(via Slashdot)

22 Replies to “Simplified Spelling Is Confusing”

  1. There’s a lot of English orthography that can be simplified without causing confusion among dialects. “silent” letters like gh could be removed. Certain vowel spellings could be simplified, for instance “read” “reed” “receive” have different spellings but the same vowel sound. This could be regularized.

    Simplified spelling doesn’t have to be “phonetic” or even consistent, it just has to be simpler.

  2. John,

    Simplified spelling should be either phonetic or consistent otherwise there’s frankly no reason to do it. And the first two examples you provide would make written English harder to understand as, as with spoken English, there would be only be context to distinguish them.

  3. The point of simplified spelling is to make it easier to learn.
    Whether spelling homophones the same will cause confusion is a good question. I don’t know. We don’t get homophones confused in speech, we might not get them confused in writing.

    But surely removing “gh” can only make things simpler.

    It can never be completely consistent, since there are morphological connections that should be retained – for instance the connection between electric and electricity would be obscured if the first was spelled with k and the second with s. For this reason it wouldnt be phonetic either, since “c” would still represent two different sounds.

  4. I’m not a fan of American English. Changing plough to plow and colour to color kind of annoys me. The influence of US culture on the rest of the world is out of control. The world isn’t becoming democratize or westernized — it’s becoming Americanized. I don’t think that’s a good thing. I appreciate cultural diversity. So I fight against American influence on my culture by using traditional Canadian spellings. To hell with color, and to hell with plows and donuts! For me, it’ll always be colour, and ploughs and doughnuts!

    Okay. Now that I got that out of the way, American English makes a hell of a lot more sense than British English. Eventually, it’ll be the only English on the planet. You won’t need to make any of these simplifications offical. They’ll just happen. I’ll be dead by the time it all happens, but it’ll happen.

  5. John,

    As someone who is in the throws of learning a new language, I can attest that context is often easier to follow in speech. In general, people tend to avoid long sentences where context can become abiguous. I do also feel that by and large, learning to spell is not an impossible task and certainly not one that is beyond the grasp of most people. As a price to pay for retaining etymological roots and often for a greater understanding of other languages (who almost certainly wont follow the same rules of simplification[1]), it strikes me as good value.

    Jon

    [1] By way of example, English acquired a number of words from French and a number have remained in the language often with no change in spelling but with a different pronunciation. To change such words to a more rational spelling is certainly possible, but would remove the obvious link which enables English students of French to benefit from them. For this to be an argument however, you obviously need to have a desire to learn another language.

  6. “However, it is an established fact that countries that have a more complex or irregular system of writing, or orthography, have a higher incidence of dyslexia, for example, a study of the prevalence of dyslexia in 10-year-old children in Italy was found to be half that of the USA.”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/03/010316073551.htm

    That seems like a good reason for simplified spelling.

    The retaining etymological roots argument is irrelevant imo. The point is to make spelling easier to learn.

  7. It’s an interesting article, but the comment you’ve quoted is taken out of context. The authors did not find that the simplicity of the Italian orthography decreased the actual rate of dyslexia, simply that it ameliorated the symptoms. And the principle argument that they presented for simplification was based on phonetics, the idea apparently being that having an orthographic system that mirrors the spoken language (or vice versa) makes both easier to learn. It would have been interesting to have included Russians in this study as that is another example of a language in which orthography perfectly mirrors speech.

    One side effect which the authors did note in passing, is that it is very likely that there are larger numbers of unidentified dyslexics in Italy, meaning that there are a larger group of people for whom the other symptoms may be mis-interpreted.

    Other studies have shown that for the population in general, ability to spell is linked to handwriting as the brain learns the patterns that words form. Teaching people to write using joined-up handwriting (Not calligraphy, as my primary school insisted!) tends to lead to an increased ability to spell.

    I would also wonder whether you would approach the problem of people who don’t understand mathematics in the same way. Namely: simplifying the system.

  8. “I would also wonder whether you would approach the problem of people who don’t understand mathematics in the same way. Namely: simplifying the system.”

    Of course not. I don’t know much about math, but I know that you just can’t change the rules. On the other hand, orthography is a tool and we can change it to suit our needs.

    “It’s an interesting article, but the comment you’ve quoted is taken out of context. The authors did not find that the simplicity of the Italian orthography decreased the actual rate of dyslexia, simply that it ameliorated the symptoms.”

    OK, that doesn’t change the point that a simplified spelling is easier to learn.

    I’m not sure how your comments about handwriting are relevant.

    English spelling does not mirror the spoken language. There are a number of things we could change about English spelling to make it more closely mirror speech, and thus make it easier to learn.

    Surely removing gh is one obvious thing that could be done. Also other “silent” letters like the l in “could”. We don’t have to spell homophones the same, but we could at least regularize vowel letters so that “weigh” and “receive” would be spelled differently to indicate that they have different vowels.

  9. “Of course not. I don’t know much about math, but I know that you just can’t change the rules. On the other hand, orthography is a tool and we can change it to suit our needs.”

    Granted. I would however suggest that orthography is a tool which is broken only for a minority of people and any large scale changes (And changing spelling IS large scale) will inconvenience a larger proportion, both in the short term (Learning new orthographics) and in the long term (Understanding of common roots aiding language acquisition).

    “OK, that doesn’t change the point that a simplified spelling is easier to learn.”

    That largely depends on how you simplify the spelling. The simplest spelling system would have a one-to-one correlation with the spoken language although this will obviously suffer massively from the problem of accents. This is exactly what the Russians use and is fairly much what the article describes in Italian.

    “I’m not sure how your comments about handwriting are relevant.”

    Simple. We don’t naturally think in terms of letters, we think in terms of shapes. Joined up hand writing (and similarly, touch typing) associate the words that we speak with individual patterns. When the letters are joined, a word consists of a small number of shapes (Often just one) which are formed by a continuous line. That shape is easier to learn than a series of letters. Next time you encounter someone who has trouble spelling, watch them write. In extreme cases letters are often inserted out of sequence (Yes… I have seen this!).

    “English spelling does not mirror the spoken language. There are a number of things we could change about English spelling to make it more closely mirror speech, and thus make it easier to learn.”

    IMO if you want to cause the level of chaos that a wholesale change to English spelling will entail, you might as well do it properly and reform it completely to a phonetics system, putting in place rules for dealing with words from foreign languages and brand names.

    “Surely removing gh is one obvious thing that could be done. Also other “silent” letters like the l in “could”. We don’t have to spell homophones the same, but we could at least regularize vowel letters so that “weigh” and “receive” would be spelled differently to indicate that they have different vowels.”

    But “i before e except after…” is not a hard rule to learn and at least in that case there is a rule. I guess my point is that if you are going to do a thing… do it properly. A half-arsed attempt at reform will do no-one any favours. My personal take is that the benefits of retaining a system which shows the roots of language so plainly far outweigh those of a partially (but not usefully) simplified spelling system.

  10. The vast majority of speakers don’t care about the roots of the language. Etymology is irrelevant – and I say that as someone who loves finding etymological connections between words.

    And I’m still not sure what handwriting has to do with anything. Just because it’s easier to learn to spell by handwriting doesn’t mean that English spelling isn’t incredibly complicated and out of date.

    “i before e except after c” is a rule that is broken in words like “weigh”. So how is it a useful rule at all.

    You’re saying it’s not worth doing unless it’s completely regularized. That’s what I’m saying too. But completely regularizing spelling still means that

    you should take homophones into account – ie, spell them differently, or differentiate them some how – or maybe its not necessary to do that, I’m not sure.
    you should preserve morphology – ie electric and electricity

    I don’t think those goals are inconsistent with a transparent spelling system.

  11. “The vast majority of speakers don’t care about the roots of the language. Etymology is irrelevant – and I say that as someone who loves finding etymological connections between words.”

    The vast majority of English speakers also have no problems with spelling. If etymology is not a good reason to keep the quaintness, then spelling problems are an equally poor one for getting rid of it!

    “And I’m still not sure what handwriting has to do with anything. Just because it’s easier to learn to spell by handwriting doesn’t mean that English spelling isn’t incredibly complicated and out of date.”

    No, but it demonstrates that there is another solution to the problem which doesn’t have the same drastic effect as a change in spelling rules.

    “i before e except after c” is a rule that is broken in words like “weigh”. So how is it a useful rule at all.

    Because the full British English includes an extra line (“when they sound like ee”) which solves most of the problems. It leaves some exceptions but they are not beyond the ability of most people to learn them, as demonstrated by the fact that most people have.

    “You’re saying it’s not worth doing unless it’s completely regularized. That’s what I’m saying too. But completely regularizing spelling still means that

    you should take homophones into account – ie, spell them differently, or differentiate them some how – or maybe its not necessary to do that, I’m not sure.
    you should preserve morphology – ie electric and electricity”

    But I fail to see how that can be done without either adding accents, or accepting the use of some other modifying letter to change (for example) the hard c, into a soft one. We could use a cedilla, but I’m not convinced that add accents will make English easy to spell. To differentiate between homophones without affecting the spelling? I think that one of the principle problems is the homophones, there’s no way of “spelling our way round them”.

    “I don’t think those goals are inconsistent with a transparent spelling system”

    I do. And I’m reasonably confident that with the examples you’ve posted, you’ve amply demonstrated why. I stick to my principle that it’s only worth the inconvenience of completely breaking the system in order to rebuild it, if you can ensure that a) you have solved the problem for now and the future, and b) there is a problem in the first place. I don’t believe that either of those criteria has been met with either the more drastic phonetic solutions or your minor corrections.

  12. Let me just add something that I think maybe isnt clear: Italian does not have a one-to-one phoneme grapheme correspondence. I don’t know if any language has. Regular morphological and phonological sound changes would prevent it.

    For instance:
    gioco “I play”
    giochiamo “we play”
    both “c” and “ch” represent the same sound. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence – but it’s a heck of a lot simpler than English.

    And another thing: You imply that learning to spell isn’t difficult. I learned to spell, and I don’t remember finding it too hard. But I still make mistakes because of all the inconsistencies, and I’m stigmatized because of them. The stigma associated with “bad” spelling is huge.

  13. “Let me just add something that I think maybe isnt clear: Italian does not have a one-to-one phoneme grapheme correspondence. I don’t know if any language has. Regular morphological and phonological sound changes would prevent it.”

    Russian has something fairly close. The characters of the cyrillic alphabet directly represent the sounds in the spoken language. There are not diphthongs and all letters are pronounced. Once you can accurately pronounce the letters, you can effectively speak the language (Barring the obvious problem of getting your head around a case system that is nearly as complete as Latin).

    “And another thing: You imply that learning to spell isn’t difficult. I learned to spell, and I don’t remember finding it too hard. But I still make mistakes because of all the inconsistencies, and I’m stigmatized because of them. The stigma associated with “bad” spelling is huge.”

    But do you not find that by and large the mistakes are easily corrected. In my own experience I found that the times that I had problems were those where I heard a word before I saw it written, and subsequently tried to use it in writing. Generally these were not “common” words and thus I was forced to resort to a dictionary. I don’t require the dictionary everytime I write those words. I have never been stigmatized for bad spelling although I have been mocked for occasional lapses of grammar (I tend to speak English with French grammar if I’m not quite awake), but this is never serious. In my field of study (Biochemistry) the level of both grammar and spelling amongst the professors was atrocious and yet they were never criticised for it. Indeed, no marks were awarded or deducted from essays for use of English. I would respectfully suggest that the problem may more with those you associate yourself, than with the language you speak and write. ;-)

  14. I do not have a grand plan for how to simplify spelling, OK? I guess I should have got one before I started this conversation. I’m just trying to make some points.

    English spelling is more complicated than the spelling of other languages.

    English spelling can be made more regular. It won’t be “phonetic” –
    that is, a one-to-one phoneme-grapheme correspondence, but that’s ok because it doesnt have to be – and no orthography is that regular anyway.

    A more regular English spelling is good, because it will be easier to learn for dyslexics and bad spellers. Lots of people have problems spelling. A quick look at what is written online shows that.

    “Even after 11 years at school barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers.
    Italian children can spell accurately after just 2 years at school.”

    A more regular English spelling is good, because it will be easier to remember for everyone. Rite now if I spell a word wrong everyone thinks I’m stupid. I don’t believe it is just the people I hang around with. Why do we have spelling checkers and copy editors?
    For example I’ve read lots of articles about how people are stupid because they don’t understand the difference between “its” and “it’s”. But everyone understands the difference, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to speak. They just forget which one has the apostrophe – and no wonder, the rule for “its” is completely the opposite from the rule for punctuating other words.

    Languages change. The orthography should be updated to reflect that change.

    I’ve offered a few examples of how it mite be simplified. I’m not proposing minor corrections – they would be huge changes – but I’m not proposing a “phonetic” system either, because I don’t think that’s necessary.

    I don’t know how to handle homophones, because I don’t know what the evidence is. Do languages exist that spell homophones the same? And if so, do readers have difficulty differentiating them? I don’t know.

    All languages have homophones, and many languages have a simpler orthography than English. Therefore, the homophone problem is not insurmountable.

    In Russian, nonstressed vowels are reduced to a small set of sounds, no matter what letter they are spelled with. I think its called akan’e. Also, the hard sound and soft sound do not represent phonemes by themselves but instead are read together with the proceeding letter as a single phoneme. Also word-final stops are voiceless no matter how they are spelled. It is not a one-to-one correspondence, but again much simpler than English. It’s almost as if the alphabet was modified to fit the sounds of the language!

    Simplifying spelling is not “breaking” it.

    It will require a huge change. You don’t think it’s worth it, and fair enuf, but I do.

    Alternatively, society could just not get so uptight about it. So people mite spell words differently, it’s not a big deal.

  15. “I do not have a grand plan for how to simplify spelling, OK? I guess I should have got one before I started this conversation. I’m just trying to make some points.”

    I wasn’t intending to jump at you, it’s just that you happened to be the public voice for a argument that I disagreed with. One of my concerns about formalised language reform is that it is entirely possible (and probable) that we would rush forward and implement such a new system without thinking it through properly.

    “English spelling is more complicated than the spelling of other languages.”

    For some values of “other languages”. Despite this, 34% of the population of Europe manage to speak it. I don’t know what the percentage is for the world as a whole. I do know that the mistakes that are frequently made by foreigners are different from those frequently made by native speakers which suggests that the basic orthographics are not necessarily the root cause.

    “English spelling can be made more regular. It won’t be “phonetic” –
    that is, a one-to-one phoneme-grapheme correspondence, but that’s ok because it doesnt have to be – and no orthography is that regular anyway.”

    Except Russian. It has regional accents (as far as I’m aware), but the system of pronunciation is formalised to the extent that a given series of letters can only be pronounced in one way. Sure there are non-pronounced letters such as the hard and soft signs, but they have a rigidly defined effect on ONLY the preceding letter. The hardest thing as a non-native speaker is learning where to put the emphasis.

    “A more regular English spelling is good, because it will be easier to learn for dyslexics and bad spellers. Lots of people have problems spelling. A quick look at what is written online shows that.

    “Even after 11 years at school barely half of all English speakers become confident spellers.
    Italian children can spell accurately after just 2 years at school.””

    I’m not going to comment too heavily on this as it isn’t your writing (presumably), but… This assumes that all other factors are equal. It also doesn’t appear to offer any definition of ‘confident spellers’ and how they differ from accurate spellers. Given that a significantly greater proportion than 50% of my peers can spell with no problems I would suggest that the comparison is akin to certain wildly different fruit. As the previous article you quoted explained, a simplified spelling system will not reduce the incidence of dyslexia, just the symptoms. There are other symptoms than bad spelling.

    “A more regular English spelling is good, because it will be easier to remember for everyone. Rite now if I spell a word wrong everyone thinks I’m stupid. I don’t believe it is just the people I hang around with. Why do we have spelling checkers and copy editors?”

    People are often blissfully unaware of how to use spell checkers and copy editors do more than correct spelling errors. ‘If someone wishes to conduct a rite rite now, do they have the rite to the rite.’ A copy editor exists to ensure that the ambiguity in such a sentence does not make it into print. Their life is made easier by differing spellings for homophones. ;)

    “For example I’ve read lots of articles about how people are stupid because they don’t understand the difference between “its” and “it’s”. But everyone understands the difference, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to speak. They just forget which one has the apostrophe – and no wonder, the rule for “its” is completely the opposite from the rule for punctuating other words.”

    I agree. Apostrophes do cause a problem for lots of people, but the rules are far from complex. People learn more complex rules and ideas everyday, but for a number of people, orthography is not considered an issue and thus no effort is applied. This is a very simple rule with only one exception.

    “Languages change. The orthography should be updated to reflect that change.”

    It tends to drift with the language anyway. Languages don’t (often) change in ordered and rationalised steps, so it seems strange to expect the orthography to do that.

    “I’ve offered a few examples of how it mite be simplified. I’m not proposing minor corrections – they would be huge changes – but I’m not proposing a “phonetic” system either, because I don’t think that’s necessary.

    I don’t know how to handle homophones, because I don’t know what the evidence is. Do languages exist that spell homophones the same? And if so, do readers have difficulty differentiating them? I don’t know.”

    Neither do I. But I think you’ll agree that a change to spelling rules is non-trivial. To do so on behalf of a minority (~10% of the British population, according to the article you linked, which doesn’t specify the age ranges and thus offer a cause) when the proposed changes WILL inconvenience, not only the remaining 90%, but also all the non-native speakers (In Europe alone there are more non-native speakers of English than there are native ones).

    “Simplifying spelling is not “breaking” it.”

    It is if it involves different rules to the current ones.

    “It will require a huge change. You don’t think it’s worth it, and fair enuf, but I do.

    Alternatively, society could just not get so uptight about it. So people mite spell words differently, it’s not a big deal. ”

    In my experience people don’t. It’s good to be correct in your CV, but for daily use it’s not a problem. If you’re a professional writer by trade then I would expect you to have already grasped the rules (Despite everything they’re often simpler than English grammar). If not, then the majority of you writing will be in forums such as this where by-and-large, spelling errors are overlooked as long as it is possible to read the sense. Grammatical errors tend to cause far more problems and yet no one appears to be interested in reforming English grammar. In my opinion that would be both more interesting and more beneefissiul that remooving gh from bough.

  16. “Except Russian.”

    Wrong. Russian does not have a one-to-one phoneme-grapheme correspondence, as I have already explained. akan’e: unstressed vowels are reduced, no matter how they are spellied. It is very regular, but it is not “phonetic”.

    My point here is that you seem to think that if English spelling is going to be simplified, it has to be phonetic. I’m saying no it doesnt, because that is an unreasonable expectation. No language has phonetic spelling.

    “I agree. Apostrophes do cause a problem for lots of people, but the rules are far from complex. People learn more complex rules and ideas everyday, but for a number of people, orthography is not considered an issue and thus no effort is applied. This is a very simple rule with only one exception.”

    If its simple then why do so many people get it wrong?

    “People are often blissfully unaware of how to use spell checkers and copy editors do more than correct spelling errors. ‘If someone wishes to conduct a rite rite now, do they have the rite to the rite.’ A copy editor exists to ensure that the ambiguity in such a sentence does not make it into print. Their life is made easier by differing spellings for homophones. ;)”

    The thing is that there is no ambiguity in that sentence. There is only one word that can reasonable fit into each of those four slots. It mite take more time to process, but it’s not ambiguous.

    “It tends to drift with the language anyway. Languages don’t (often) change in ordered and rationalised steps, so it seems strange to expect the orthography to do that.”

    It’s not strange at all, because orthography is a human invention. We can and do change it to suit the language we’re speaking. When orthographies are adapted for other languages, they are changed. Letters are dropped or added. For instance the Japanese specifically and consciously developed their syllabaries as a solution to the problem of how to represent their language. I believe one story is that the Russian alphabet was modified to suit the sounds of Russian.

    “Grammatical errors tend to cause far more problems and yet no one appears to be interested in reforming English grammar.”

    What does that mean? There is an important difference between language and orthography. Language is a system of rules that are largely unconscious. We can’t change them. We can try to influence some of the minor outcomes, such as “it is I” vs “it is me”, but the large part of the rules is impervious to human intervention.

    On the other hand, orthography is a conscious human invention which can be and is changed.

  17. In order to be absolutely clear, in my second last paragraph I should have said “There is an important difference between grammar and orthography. Grammar is a system of rules…” etc.

  18. “phonetic” for me means C but you mite have something more like A or B in mind.

    A. the pronunciation is predictable from the spelling
    B. the spelling is predictable from the pronunciation
    C. there is a one to one phoneme-grapheme correspondence

    In Russian, A is not true because stress is not marked, and B is not true because of akan’e. C is not true.

    In standard Italian, A mite be true – z and s mite be pronounced the same, I hear different things about that. B is not true because stress is not marked. C is not true.

    There mite be languages where A and B are true. I’m less confident that there are languages where C is true. A and B are worthwhile goals to try to achieve, but C is not reasonable.

    But that doesnt mean A and B are necessarily achievable. To achieve B, we’d have to obscure morphological differences, for instance spell electric and electricity “elektrik – elektrisity” and photograph – photography “fótegræf – fetágrefy”. By the way, French does exactly this: “électrique – électricité”. So it may not be a big deal.

    If we spelled them “eléktric – eléktricity” and “fótagræf – fotágræfy” we wouldn’t acheive B, but we would achieve a high degree of regularity. But since even very regular orthographies like Italian and Russian don’t acheive B, I don’t see the problem with that.

  19. Why is C not reasonable? My English has 14 vowels, but only 6 vowel letters to represent them. C would mean the addition of 8 more letters to the alphabet.

  20. grrrr… I got the bit about Italian mixed up… it should be:

    In standard Italian, A is not true because stress is not marked. B mite be true – z and s mite be pronounced the same, I hear different things about that. C is not true.

  21. argggh… and in standard Italian, B is definitely not true because of silent h. “a” and “ha” are pronounced the same.

  22. I propose something completely different. CAPITALIZATION. The current rules are flawed. Why are the names of different sports NOT capitalized? If one were to look at the RULES of PROPER NOUNS, one could see that a noun is capitalized when it cannot be broken down into further sub-genres. e.g. person—>male—>adult—>Frank

    or liquid—>soft drink—> Coke (where this can be broken down further IF you add “Diet etc.”)

    SO… let’s take a look at sports…

    games—>sports—>basketball (cannot be broken down anymore unless you add “Street or European or World or American”)

    Why can’t it be “Basketball”?? and only “basketball” when you refer to the actual ball used to play the game of “Basketball” ?

    the same for, “I play Baseball.” “Do you have a baseball?”

    I state this because languages are ALWAYS capitalized. English, Korean, Spanish etc.

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