I recently read Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris (a dauntingly thick, but fantastic book) and was intrigued by a concept that Teddy Roosevelt tried ramming through congress – Simplified Spelling Reform.
After further research on the subject, I wondered what a design-minded opinion of spelling reform would look like. So here are a few thoughts on Simplified Spelling through the lens of a few basic design principles.
The English language, like America itself, is an incredible melting pot of other languages and is constantly encountering alteration, moderation and even corruption. (Some would say that a current example of this corruption is texting, where we use a variety of abbreviations and short cuts in order to save ourselves time and exertion.)
Its gr8 when u txt!
However, before you give your 13 year-old a lesson in “proper grammar whilst one texts” - you should realize the English language is packed full of bizarre spelling traditions.
Have you ever taken the time to think how completely mind boggling it is that the letter combination ough can be pronounced in such a variety of ways?
Consider the following words:
bough, cough, dough, enough and through
cow, scoff, flow, puff and zoo
each corresponds in its’ pronunciation but is spelled completely different! So is the English language really any better for not using “texting” spelling? It’s a disaster right?
Welcome to the world of Orthography.
Orthography is a little-known and rarely appreciated subject; its most broad definition is the investigation as to how spoken language is committed to a written format, including the symbols utilized and the process by which such characters are engendered and employed.
If you skimmed over that, orthography = how we spell.
The irregularities of English are the very things that make it an extremely difficult language to learn. For centuries, English spelling has been the bane of its speakers’ existence, and the reason children often need 8+ years of writing and spelling classes in school.
How much easier would these spellings have been to learn in school?
bow, coff, dow, enuf and throo
versus these words:
bough, cough, dough, enough and through
There have been many people throughout history who have been frustrated with these inconsistencies – and they have all more or less come up with something called Spelling Reform (or simplified spelling reform).
To best understand what Spelling Reform is all about, (and get a rather extreme taste of it) the following is from Astounding Science Fiction, Street and Smith Publications, Inc. from 1946:
English spelling is in much need of a general overhauling and streamlining. However, our resistance to any changes requiring a large expenditure of mental effort in the near future would cause us to view with some apprehension the possibility of some day receiving a morning paper printed in - to us - Greek.
Our own plan would achieve the same end as the legislation proposed, but in a less shocking manner, as it consists merely of an acceleration of the normalprocesses by which the language is continually modernized.
As a catalytic agent, we would suggest that a “National Easy Language Week” be proclaimed, which the President would inaugurate, outlining some short cut to concentrate on during the week, and to be adopted during the ensuing year. All school children would be given a holiday, the lost time being the equivalent of that gained by the spelling short cut.
In 1946, for example, we would urge the elimination of the soft “c,” for which we would substitute “s.” Sertainly, such an improvement would be selebrated in all sivic-minded sircles as being suffisiently worth the trouble, and students in all sities in the land would be reseptive toward any change eliminating the nesessity of learning the differense between the two letters.
In 1947, sinse only the hard “c” would be left, it would be possible to substitute “k” for it, both letters being pronounsed identikally. Imagine how greatly only two years of this prosess would klarify the konfusion in the minds of students. Already we would have eliminated an entire letter from the alphabet. Typewriters and linotypes kould all be built with one less letter, and all the manpower and materials previously devoted to making “c’s” kould be turned toward raising the national standard of living.
In the fase of so many notable improvements, it is easy to foresee that by 1948, “National Easy Language Week” would be a pronounced a sukses. All skhool tshildren would be looking forward with konsiderable exsitement to the holiday, and in a blaze of national publisity it would be announsed that the double konsonant “ph” no longer existed, and that the sound would henseforth be written with “f ” in all words. This would make sutsh words as “fonograf” twenty persent shorter in print.
By 1949, publik interest in a fonetik alfabet kan be expekted to have inkreased to the point where a more radikal step forward kan be taken without fear of undue kritisism. We would therefore urge the elimination at that time of al unesesary double leters, whitsh, although quite harmles, have always ben a nuisanse in the language and a desided deterent to akurate speling. Try it yourself in the next leter you write, and se if both writing and reading are not fasilitated.
With so mutsh progrs already made, it might be posible in 1950 to delve further into the posibilities of fonetik speling. After due konsideration of the reseption aforded the previous steps, it should be expedient by this time to spel al difthongs fonetikaly. Most students do not realize that the long “i” and “y,” as in “time” and “by,” are aktualy the difthong “ai,” as it is writen in “aisle,” and that the long “a” in “fate” is in reality the difthong “ei” as in “rein.” Although perhaps not imediately aparent, the seiving in taime and efort wil be tremendous when we leiter elimineite the sailent “e,” as meide posible bai this last tsheinge.
For, as is wel known, the horible mes of “e’s” apearing in our writen language is kaused prinsipaly bai the present nesesity of indekeiting whether a vowel is long or short. Therefore, in 1951 we kould simply elimineite al sailent “e’s” and kontinu to read and wrait merily along as though we wer in an atomik eig of edukation.
In 1951 we would urg a greit step forward. Sins bai this taim it would hav ben four years sins anywun had usd the leter “c,” we would sugest that the “National Easy Languag Wek” for 1951 be devoted to substitution of “c” for “Th.” To be sur it would be som taim befor peopl would bekom akustomd to reading ceir newspapers and buks wic sutsh sentenses in cem as “Ceodor caught he had cre cousand cistls crust crough ce cik of his cumb.”
In ce seim maner, bai meiking eatsh leter hav its own sound and cat sound only, we kould shorten ce languag stil mor. In 1952 we would eliminait ce “y”; cen in 1953 we kould us ce leter to indekeit ce “sh” sound, cerbai klarifaiing words laik yugar and yur, as wel as redusing bai wun mor leter al words laik “yut,” “yor,” and so forc.
Kontinuing cis proses, ier after ier, we would eventuali hav a reali sensibl writen langug. By 1975, wi ventyur tu sei, cer wud bi no mor uv ces teribli trublsum difikultis, wic no tu leters usd to indikeit ce seim nois, and laikwais no tui noises riten wic ce seim leter. Even Mr. Yaw, wi beliv, wud be hapi in ce noleg cat his drims fainali keim tru.
Some English Spelling Reform has been implemented, although not drastically and it’s often so minor the public hasn’t even noticed. Teddy Roosevelt sent a mandate to congress asking for a fairly severe change to the way we spell. Congress immediately shot it down, but Roosevelt’s influence did bring about the disappearance of the unnecessary “u” in the American spelling of such words as honor, valor and color (today in England they remain honour, valour and colour ).
So what design principles would apply to spelling reform?
Form is Function
If we consider the form only, staying true to the word origin root spellings as we have, we’ve ended up with words that don’t make sense at all to how we speak them! (comb vs home vs some vs numb!?) Should the form (written) of each word be designed (spelled) and considered in a direct relationship with its pronunciation?
Less Becomes More
A well-written language is made in a way that is relevant and simple for everyone to use. Replacing duplicating sounds with the same letter (communicate vs duc
k) simplifies our language – not at first, but you have to admit reading the example above started to make sum sens at a sertain point.
Wuld les bekum mor?
Consider the Cost & Go Green
If our spelling did eventually follow the example quoted above, our overall language would contain much shorter characters per word – this potentially would mean shorter books, which means fewer pages, which means less use of resources.
Could adopting a simplified spelling system mean less material use and potentially result in cheaper books as well? Is this even relevant in an ever-increasingly digital world?
Could a simplified usage of le
tters or symbols a llow for great er literacy, easier understanding between cultures and le ss confusion? Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain all thought some type of simplified spelling would benefit society greatly - and I’m begi nning to think it might as we ll.
Does simplified spelling reform have a place in our society or would it be impossible to implement? Should it be implemented at all? Is there any value?