Spelling reform could be as easy as shedding A, B or C

21st October 2005 at 01:00
The Issue on spelling (Friday magazine, October 7) gave little serious consideration to reform when minor amendments to a few dozen key words would make an enormous difference to children's reading.

The biggest obstacles to the reading progress of pupils in key stage 1 are a mere 230 words which contain graphemes that have several possible pronunciations, as in "read" and "lead". If we amended even just 100 of those, we could turn far more children into successful and enthusiastic readers and writers.

At least 70 of the tricky spellings that obstruct literacy progress and hamper the teaching of basic phonics can be improved by shearing them of their surplus letters, such as "friend, believe, beautiful". In the 17th century this was done to thousands of words such as "inne", "itte", "hadde", "olde", "shoppe".

The main arguments of opponents concentrate on the importance of preserving historical roots and etymological links. Anyone with a smidgen of linguistic ability can see that the words "beef" and "mutton" are related to the French "boeuf" and "mouton". They are just easier to spell and a better guide to English pronunciation, for native children as well as learners of English as a second language.

If "sign" were to lose the "g" that Professor Vivian Cook seems so attached to, it would be no more difficult to see that "sine" is related to "signature" than it is to appreciate the connection between "slept" and "sleep" or "flew" and "fly". If etymological uniformity were really important, we would not be putting up with "speak" and "speech".

If the past tense of "read" lost its superfluous "a", anti-reformers would point out that this would conflate the past tense "read" with the colour "red". So it would, but this is not a good reason for opposing reform. We have roughly 2,000 words that have two or more meanings for one spelling.

If we were brave enough to get rid of all the 522 heterographs (letters that represent different sounds in different words, eg "g" in "get" and "gin") for the 253 words which have them, even the most extreme traditionalists would not miss them for long and we would reduce spelling hassle exponentially.

English speakers tend to think that the Germans and the French are daft to divide nouns into three or two genders, with more than one word for "the"

and "a". Still having a formal and informal "you" (DuSie, tuvous) seems superfluous. Having different spellings for identical sounding words (homophones) is just as silly. The introduction of heterographs, like that of the apostrophe, and incorporating "ea" into the Chaucerian spellings of "erly", "lern", "hed", "neer" was nothing but a complication to ensure that oiks could not learn to read and write as easily as their masters.

Sadly, this is now detrimental to the educational progress of more privileged learners too. No one can, for example, memorise, without spending a great deal of time, which longer words are spelt with a doubled consonant, as in "arrow" or "dilemma" and which apparently similar ones, such as "baron" and "lemon", are not. Children are taught that when a short word gains a suffix, its final consonant must be doubled ("tinny", "hatter") to keep the preceding vowel short, and because this helps to distinguish them from the likes of "tiny" and "hater".

Unfortunately, in longer words this rule applies to just 400 out of 800 words; and 200 others have doubled consonants for no apparent reason, as in "apparent" and "accommodation", both of which get by without doubling in more Latin-based Spanish. Unpredictable doublings are the most common reason for English spelling mistakes. Fixing this would be easy; simply decide that regular, rule-governed consonant doubling is acceptable.

We have been collectively brainwashed into thinking that the way English has been spelt for the past 250 years is somehow right, but we are obeying the spelling choices of one arrogant individual with an overblown reverence for Greek and Latin. Before Samuel Johnson arbitrated on English spelling, it had changed constantly, particularly between 1400 and 1700.

Unfortunately, few of the changes were systematic or aimed at making English spelling more learner-friendly. We should at least consider undoing some of the damage.

Masha Bell is the author of Understanding English Spelling, Pegasus Elliott Mackenzie Publishers, pound;12.99 (reviewed in The TES on July 9, 2004)

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