Repairs which would help learners most

One problem which is at least partly responsible for preventing modernisation of English spelling is the large number of its irregularities. It has become so unsystematic that it is no longer immediately obvious which spellings are rule-governed and which not. It was not until the 1950s, when Paul and Jean Hannah devised the first computer program for identifying main and variant spellings, that this became easier.

They concluded that half of all English words contain unsystematic spellings. In the late 1990s I used Microsoft Excel for locating regular and irregular spellings in words which pupils can be expected to have met by age 16. In the 7,000 words which I analysed, I found 4,219 with one or more unpredictable spellings.

The difficulties of identifying regular and irregular spellings led most earlier reformers, from John Hart in the 16th century to Bernard Shaw in the 20th, to propose the adoption of a completely new English spelling system. Most current members of the English Spelling Society also still favour the phonically simplest solution, of just one spelling for all the 44 sounds.

Theoretically this is possible. The current 205 spellings offer plenty of choice, although not quite enough, despite their vast number. – The short /oo/ sound of ‘foot, put, could’ has no spelling of its own (cf. boot, cut, shoulder), and the soft and sharp /th/ sounds of ‘this thing’ share the same spelling. – But 40 sounds could easily be left with just one easily readable spelling, such as:      a, ai, air, ar, au,     b, ch, d, e, ee,      er, f, g, h, i,           ie,  j, k, l, m,     n, ng, o,  oa, oi,     oo, or, ou, p, r,   s, sh, t, u, ue,   v, w, y, z, si.

This would however change the appearance of written English quite dramatically. The start of this post, for example, would end up looking something like: [Wun problem wich iz perhaps at leest partli responsibl for preventing moderniezaishn ov Inglish speling iz the larj number ov its iregularitees. It haz bicum soa unsistematic …]

The alien look of most earlier reform proposals was probably at least partly responsible for their failure to find favour. Webster’s original scheme for the US was rejected too.  Only a small number of his changes, designed to make some American spellings slightly different from UK ones, have ended up in US dictionaries (center, labor, supervize).

Learning to read and write English could however be made much easier without altering any of its main spelling patterns. It could be much improved by merely undoing some of the worst changes introduced over the centuries. The literacy progress of beginners especially, could be made much faster by merely reducing exceptions to:                          the spellings of e, i, o and u (head, women, want, some),                                                      /ee/ (speak, speech, even, believe, weird, people …),                                                         omitted consonant doublings (funny – money) and                                                         surplus letters (gone, have).

The spelling of short /u/ next to n, m, v and w was first made irregular with o  (son, mother, love, wonder) in the 9th century, when the letter v (or Latin number 5) was used to spell four sounds (i.e. vp, vse, even, vvith). Now that the sounds of short /u/, /v/ and /w/ (double vv) have different spellings, the use of o for /u/ does nothing but make learning to read more difficult.

The 15th century introduction of ea, for both short /e/ and /ee/ (bread, head; to lead, to read) in 51 and 156 words, created even worse reading and spelling difficulties. They could already be much reduced by at least dropping the surplus a from the 51 words in which ea spells /e/ (head, meant  → hed, ment).

The most detrimental part of irregular English spellings is to make the first two school years much harder than need be. And the biggest cause of this are the irregular spellings for short vowels, in around 200 very much used words like ‘said, any, other’. Any reduction in their number would be of great help to pupils at the elementary level, but especially irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/.

Nearly all children make good progress at the start of learning to read and write, because they are usually at first taught only with regularly spelt short words, like ‘dad met him on the bus’. – If /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ were always spelt like that, their reading and writing would continue to improve rapidly. It becomes markedly slower only when pupils begin to meet more and more words in which same letters spell different sounds, like ‘was, he, kind, once, push’.

Short /a/ is spelt irregularly just in ‘plait, plaid’ and ‘meringue’. Exceptions to short /i/ make only 6 common words tricky (build, built, English, pretty, busy, women). The other 39 occur less often and do not obstruct early learning significantly (abyss, crypt, cyclical… sieve.)  The irregular use of [a] for /o/ after w and qu (was, want, squash…) in 29 words is almost predictable. It is spelt regularly only in a few words like ‘wobbly, wombat, wonky’, but wa and qua cause some reading difficulties (swan swam; was wagging).

The irregular spellings for /e/ and /u/ hinder early progress much more, because they occur in many of the tricky words that children meet soon after starting school. Improving at least most of those would make a clearly noticeable difference to their  literacy learning.

Adopting the even bigger change of regular spellings for the /ee/ sound would also be of great help, to both young and older pupils. The 12 different spellings for /ee/ (leave, sleeve, believe, these, weird, police, people…) are used in 459 words and pose one of the biggest memorisation burdens in learning to write English. Nine of the 12 different spellings are used for other sounds as well and cause reading difficulties in addition to spelling ones:  treat – great, threat, react;     even – ever;    ceiling – veil, eider;               fiend – friend, died, diet;   he – then;  key – they;  machine – define, engine;    ski – hi;  people – leopard, leotard.

Adopting ee for all the different spellings for /ee/ would clearly help learners immensely. This amendment alone would reduce the current total of 4,219 unpredictably spelt common English words by more than a tenth. Even adopting ee for just the 156 words in which /ee/ is currently spelt with ea (lead, to read → leed, reed) would make a substantial difference.

Regular spellings for /ee/ would also help to reduce the labour caused by differently spelt homophones like ‘heel/heal’ which are an endless source of English misspellings. – At least 2,500 other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (bank, boot, trunk, act, play…). The US use of ‘practice’, for both noun and verb, causes no problems either, while the English differentiation between ‘to practise’ and ‘a practice’ is continually ‘misspelt’.

The different spellings for 335 homophones became standardised in 1755, when Samuel Johnson published his authoritative dictionary.  Johnson was also responsible for weakening  the English method of distinguishing between short and long vowels (mad, madder – made). He made the system unpredictable, with hundreds of exceptions like ‘radish, shadow, study’.

There is no good reason why his whims should continue to be obeyed. Consonant doubling could easily be used consistently instead. Children’s ‘errors’, like ‘annimal’, ‘fammily’ and ‘holliday’’, show that its original purpose is easy to grasp.

Should repairing irregular /e/, /u/ and /ee/ and inconsistent consonant doubling together be deemed too much change for one reform, systematic doubling should at least be adopted when amending irregular uses of e, i, o or  u. Several dozen words have irregular vowel spellings and omitted consonant doubling (e.g. many, women – cf. penny, swimmer). Some words with irregular /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/ have surplus letters as well as omitted doubling (honey – runny). A few have surplus letters instead of doubling (ready – teddy).

Surplus letters were added mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Printers often did this to fill more lines to earn more money. They now serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Surplus –e endings especially, undermine the use of -e as a marker of long vowels (home, alone). They undermine the whole short-long vowel system, as well as make make learning to read more difficult. They should at least be scrapped when their short vowels get regularised (done, some).

There is much else wrong with English spelling, in addition to the irregular spellings for /e/, /u/ and /ee/, unpredictable consonant doubling and surplus letters. But some irregularities would be harder to amend, because they have no clear best spelling (e.g. her, bird, turned, early). Quite a few create only writing difficulties, like ‘er, ir, ur’ or the many irregular spellings of vowels in unstressed endings, such as ‘pardon, certain, urban, truncheon’. They are much less detrimental to overall literacy progress. They also get efficiently corrected on the electronic devices which most adults now use for writing.

The five deliberately imposed irregularities (for /e/, /u/, /ee/, doubling, surplus -e) are the main reason why all English-speaking countries continue to have high levels of literacy failure despite repeatedly spending vast sums and much effort on ameliorating them. Reducing them would be a more certain and permanent way of speed up learning to read and write and reduce overall educational failure. But changing old habits invariably entails some discomfort. It tends to get embraced only when continuing to cling to them begins to seem as too costly.

Sadly, most English-speaking adults are not aware of the harm that their irregular spellings do. After completing their education, most people don’t give much thought to the ins and outs of English spelling, unless they become schoolteachers. Even parents of young children don’t lose much sleep over them. And so generation after generation of schoolchildren is obliged to keep wasting a great deal of time on needless and often stressful rote-learning which could be put to much better use instead.


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