User-friendly spelling

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Your guide to the issue of spelling (Friday magazine, October 7) is a shocking indictment of the unnecessary barriers in English spelling.

Eighty per cent of the time learning and teaching spelling is due to the irregular 20 per cent that is unpredictable and could be cleaned up. The old arguments for Chinese footbinding compare with the arguments against tidying up our spelling.

While millions worldwide fail in learning to read English well or at all, hardly anybody seeing the word "sign" needs to think "signature" or "signal". To have to learn to spell words like rhyme with mnemonics like "Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move" is being ridiculous before the world.

Thousands of books are continually published about teaching English spelling, because it is so unnecessarily tricky, but practically nothing for the general reader about understanding it except The Book of Spells Misspells (funny) and Masha Bell's Understanding Spelling (serious).

Public ignorance is constantly revealed in newspaper letters pages about spelling, yet six main points about understanding spelling indicate how it could be made more user-friendly. These six points are:

* Standardised spelling is a convention, like a line sketch compared with a photograph of speech.

* Reading and writing are by eye as well as by ear, and the visual appearance of print can show word relationships, word structure and grammar.

* Thousands of words in dictionaries already have alternative spellings and slowly the easier ones win out - a way to help introduce improvements.

* The biggest problem in improving English spelling is how long and short vowels toggle in many word-families, such as nationnational, but this is soluble.

* Half the words you read are the same 100 common words repeated and, of these, only 31 are irregular. They could be kept as "sight-words" to help maintain the present appearance of print.

* Almost every other modern language has had writing system reforms, major or minor, so it can be done.

It is a scandal that millions of pounds go on never-ending research in what is wrong with failing learners, and none on how English spelling could be made principled and predictable.

It is time that spelling improvement was no longer censored in public discussion and academic journals. Humans learnt to fly without flapping their wings, by understanding aerodynamics. Humans can master space. It is a lesser challenge to improve English spelling, by understanding its technology.

Dr Valerie Yule Australia 314921

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