new English spelling doesn't add up
Arizona Daily Star
July 8, 2006
Our view: 100-year-old effort to spell words phonetically gains no trakshun
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/opinion/136930
English is confusing. There are about 400 ways to spell about 42
separate sounds. Indeed, two ways to spell one word can be
too difficult for those perplexed by English's spelling
idiosyncrasies — or bad spellers.
Simplified Spelling Board, created and pushed by philanthropist Andrew
Carnegie, is a 100-year-old campaign to spell words phonetically — the way
they sound — that is still pushing to make spelling ez, the
Associated Press reported in Thursday's Star.
Advocates of the spell-it-like-it-sounds system claim that children would
learn faster and illiteracy rates would drop, the AP reported. Children
learn to spell languages with sound-based spellings, such as German, in
weeks instead of months, advocates note.
"In many languages of the world such as French and Spanish, when you see the
word spelled you know how to pronounce it. Not so with English," said
Michael Hammond, head of the University of Arizona Linguistics Department.
Before adopting spelling-lite and rejoicing at the elimination of Friday
spelling tests in schools, let's think this through (not thru): A vast,
rapid change to our writing system would diminish our nation's ability to
communicate and would be extremely costly.
"English is hard in some ways, and easy in others," said Hammond. "It is
easy to see the relationship between words."
What's that "k" doing at the beginning of "knowledge"?
It may be silent, but it's not meaningless, said Hammond. "Knowledge" is
related to "acknowledge." To drop the silent letter in "knowledge" would be
to lose the relationship between the words.
Changing the spelling of homophones, words that sound the same but are
spelled differently, such as "bear" and "bare," would eliminate the words'
The spelling of a word also may add nuance to its meaning. Hammond points to
"baroque." Not only would a spelling change lose its French etymology, it
would lose the subtle sense of the word from its flamboyant spelling.
Importantly, a common spelling gives unity to a common language, said
For the United States to adopt a new English spelling system, all
English-speaking nations would need to follow suit or we could not
communicate. Even if all English-speaking countries did adopt it, the many
variations of a spell-it-like-you-speak-it would create a jumble of versions
of written English.
Languages have various types of writing systems that give the language
unity. Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese speakers may not be able to understand
each other when talking; however, they can understand and communicate
through writing, said Hammond.
Likewise, English's alphabetic writing system allows all English speakers,
regardless of dialect, to communicate in writing. If a spell-as-you-speak
system were adapted, there would be differences among the spelling of words.
"Process" in the United States, for example, is pronounced process with a
long "o" in Canada. "Wash" might be spelled with that extra "r" that is
often pronounced in many parts of the country.
The variation of spellings between the United States and other
English-speaking nations such as Australia would be significant and perhaps
From a practical, financial standpoint, there are millions of books and Web
pages in the current writing system. Changing all of those to accommodate a
new system would be cost-prohibitive, said Hammond.
Children taught to read and spell with the "simplified" spelling wouldn't be
able to read books now on the shelves.
The language evolves and spelling goes through gradual shifts. "Through" has
become acceptable as "thru" in some circles, especially in finance and
Hammond said that the retooled written version of English might be easier in
a superficial way, but would complicate communication.
This "simplified" system doesn't seem to be gaining acceptance. So we'll
still need to remember spelling gimmicks like: Accommodate is a big enough
word to have two "m's."
A spell-it-like-you-speak system is popular with cell phone and instant
messaging users, but we'll stick with our quirky, but traditional spellings.
You may say, C U L8R. We'll still say, "Bye for now."