Books about spelling reform

(In alphabetical order of author)

American Academy of Arts & Sciences, A report upon phonotypy, 1847

Andersson, M, To knock the eye out of a friend: assessment of an orthographic reform upon the English language, 2014

“The public might not be ready to let go of what is familiar, even with such a large number of irregularities as English traditional orthography possesses. A spelling reform would advance English into the 21st century and spare future generations of learners from difficulties that arise as a consequence of the distance in between English orthography and spoken language. Either way, spelling will change sooner or later: the only question is when and how. I would only hope that English learners in the future will be spared the burden of long and outdated spelling patterns, because of the wicked humour of Englishmen.”

Baker A, The life of Sir Isaac Pitman (inventor of phonography), 1919

“He did not live to see success attend his proposals for a drastic reform of English spelling on a strictly phonetic basis. But it is only just to his memory to point out that, to his work as a pioneer, is to a large extent due the revived interest in simplified spelling manifested in our own time.”

Baugh, A C and Cable, T, ‘The nineteenth century and after,’ in A history of the English language, 1951, 5th ed. 2002

“It is probably safe to say that if our spelling is ever to be reformed, it must be reformed gradually and with as little disruption to the existing system as is consistent with the attainment of a reasonable end.”

Bell, M, The problems and costs of English spelling, 2012

Bickers, A V W, On spelling reform, 1877

Carney, E, ‘Spelling reform,’ in English spelling, 1997

Craig, R, and Alexander, A, ‘A History of English Spelling Revision,’ in Lango: Language Organization, 1996

“A number of scientific studies have proved that, all other things being equal, children learn to read more easily and quickly when the spelling system of a language is regular and logical. They have also shown that the incidence of dyslexia is correspondingly reduced. Needless to say, the English language has long come out badly in these comparisons, as it has wherever orthographic regularity is an issue. People have been complaining about English spelling for centuries – why has nothing been done? A cursory look at history might help to answer this question.

“[…] Why has it all come to nothing apart from a few minor revisions in America?Firstly, English reform is unlikely as long as the language still largely centres upon a country whose social order is greatly influenced by class, as well as wealth, religion etc.. Thus the divergence between spelling and pronunciation functions as an educational and cultural shibboleth, to the despair of students from societies where such a device is irrelevant, and the difficulty of children learning to read. This observation is equally valid if the upper-middle class accent is deprecated and proletarian ones are fashionable.

Secondly, the social forces which have been transforming the English-speaking world since the 1960s, shaking many ancient institutions, customs, mores and beliefs to the foundations, dispossessing much of the old aristocracy and middle-class, and raising up previously disadvantaged sections of society along with new media interests and extensions to state sovereignty, have not operated primarily through the traditional rational arguments of literary culture. Rather have they fashioned their emotional appeals into images, focused via the new electronic media directly into the heart, using the spoken form of language about which rational orthography has very little to say.

Thirdly, the majority of people are simply not interested in spelling reform, because there is nothing in it for them. Since the advent of mass electronic entertainment most people seldom read anything much other than magazines and tabloid newspapers anyway. They had difficulty learning to read at school; but it never did them any harm – so their children might as well experience the same! In fact, within the English-speaking world, the idea of language reform is inconvenient or irrelevant to nearly everyone except primary schoolteachers and the organised English Language Teaching (E L T) industry, with its T E F L (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) and T E S O L (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) qualifications.

Crystal, D:

“The radical arguments presented by spelling reformers have never persuaded, with the sole exception of Noah Webster. As a result, learning to spell English today seems just as hard as it ever was. There is still a huge amount to learn…”

“As for Twitter, if you had asked me as recently as 2005 whether I thought that there was anything interesting about the consonant cluster tw, I should have said “nothing at all”. If you had suggested that one day it would be the basis for coining hundreds of new words, I would have said you were mad. Moral: word buffs should never try to predict the future.”

Dewey, M, ‘Four guidelines for spelling reform,’ in Fulford, J J, Spellopedia: The definitive guide to English spelling rules, 2014

Deutscher, G, ‘Perpetual motion,’ in The unfolding of language: the evolution of mankind’s greatest invention, 2005

“It is unfair to say that English spelling is not an accurate rendering of speech. It is – it is only that it renders the speech of the sixteenth century.”

Speaking of which:

Eastman, M, ‘Why English does not simplify her spelling,’ in Journalism versus art, 1916

Essinger, J, ‘The recent past, the present and the future,’ in Spellbound: The surprising origins and astonishing secrets of English spelling, 2006

“All attempts to reform English spelling have one thing in common: they’re failures [……] We are destined to be spellbound by English spelling for ever.”

Everson, M (ed), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – in the Unifon Alphabet, 2014

Everson, M, and Jenkins, J H, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – in the Deseret Alphabet

Gooden, P, ‘English: right and wrong,’ in The story of English: how the English language conquered the world, 2009

Gladstone, J H, Spelling reform from an educational point of view, 1878Follick, M, The case for spelling reform, 1965

“English speaking adults come near the bottom of the table in international studies of literacy and this is often ascribed to the vagaries of the way in which words are spelled (or spelt).

[…] But the campaign will not succeed. A few small changes may occur but there can be no root-and-branch revolution in English spelling. There are several highly practical reasons for this.[…] The erratic, peculiar byways of English spelling are a fitting reflection of a language which, whatever else it may be, is not homogeneous or orderly, and is never going to be either of those things. Yes, spelling changes over time but the changes come from the bottom up and they are not piecemeal and small-scale.”

Harley, G, Rational spelling: a conservative scheme for national spelling reform, 1878

Heffer, S, ‘The essence of good style,’ in Strictly English: The correct way to write… and why it matters, 2010

“I see no reason for orthography to be varied, since we have had a completed [sic] standard dictionary for over 80 years.”

Horobin, S, ‘Spelling today and tomorrow,’ in Does spelling matter? 2013

Kessler, B, and Treiman, R, ‘Is English spelling chaotic? Misconceptions concering its irregularity,’ in Reading Psychology, 2003

“In this paper we wish to state the case for English spelling. We do not want to claim that the English writing system is ideal, nor do we wish to gloss over the real challenges it poses for children. But it is important to understand the nature of English spelling, for it is seriously misunderstood. English spelling is by no means irrational or pathological, but serves several goals other than that of one-to-one phoneme–letter correspondence […] We will argue that English is not nearly as irregular as people think, and will put forward our own ideas about how to measure the regularity, or consistency, of English orthography.”

Lounsbury, T R, English spelling and spelling reform, 1909

March, F A, The spelling reform, 1893

Mencken, H L, ‘Simplified spelling,’ in The American Language, 1921

“The current movement toward a general reform of English-American spelling is of American origin, and its chief supporters are Americans today. Its actual father was Webster, for it was the long controversy over his simplified spellings that brought the dons of the American Philological Association to a serious investigation of the subject. In 1875 they appointed a committee to inquire into the possibility of reform, and in 1876 this committe reported favorably. During the same year there was an International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography at Philadelphia, with several delegates from England present, and out of it grew the Spelling Reform Association. In 1878 a committee of American philologists began preparing a list of proposed new spellings, and two years later the Philological Society of England joined in the work. In 1883 a joint manifesto was issued, recommending various general simplifications. Among those enlisted in the movement were Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson, Sir John Lubbock and Sir J. A. H. Murray. In 1886 the American Philological Association issued independently a list of recommendations affecting about 3,500 words, and falling under ten headings. Practically all of the changes proposed had been put forward 80 years before by Webster, and some of them had entered into unquestioned American usage in the meantime, e. g., the deletion of the u from the -our words, the substitution of er for re at the end of words, and the reduction of traveller to traveler.

“The trouble with the others was that they were either too uncouth to be adopted without a long struggle or likely to cause errors in pronunciation.”[…] Obviously this list is far ahead of the public inclination. Moreover, it is so long and contains so many exceptions […] that there is little hope that any considerable number of Americans will adopt it, at least during the lifetime of its proponents. Its extravagance, indeed, has had the effect of alienating the support of the National Education Association, and at the convention held in Des Moines in the Summer of 1921 the Association formally withdrew from the campaign. But even so long a list is not enough for the extremists.”

Millward, C M, & Hayes, M, ‘The question of spelling reform,’ in A biography of the English language, 3rd ed. 2011

Peters, M.L., ‘Would spelling be caught more easily by a simplified spelling system’, in Spelling: Caught or taught, 1967, 1985

“The difficulty with any simplified spelling system is that it would, once children had learned to decode it, also reduce our reading efficiency.”

Read T A, A biography of Isaac Pitman (inventor of phonography), 1890Millward, C M, & Hayes, M, ‘The question of spelling reform,’ in A biography of the English language, 3rd ed. 2011


 Extract from The Phonetic Journal, 1873

Peterson, D J, The art of language invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the words behind world-building, Penguin, 2015

English orthography was “devised by a team of misanthropic, megalomaniacal cryptographers who distrusted and despised one another, and so sought to hide the meanings they were tasked with encoding by employing crude, arcane spellings that no one can explain”. (p. 34)

Sampson, G, ‘English spelling,’ in Writing systems, 1985

Sebba, M, ‘Reform or revolution: where angels fear to tread,’ in Spelling and society, 2007

Skeat, W W, The problem of spelling reform, 1906

Suárez, S D, The English spelling reform in the light of the works of Richard Mulcaster and John Hart, 1996

“Two conclusions can be drawn from our analysis: on the one hand, in the light of present Spelling Reforms, the work of past authors does not look so old-fasioned: Mulcaster and Hart’s arguments are, for the most part, still valid, differences in this respect having to do with the new status of English and with technological changes. On the other hand, the work of past reformers also throws light on the future development of orthography planning. In view of the disappointing failure of the schemes so far designed, most sensible reformers are now aware that the future lies with interdisciplinary research, bearing in mind Upward’s words that ‘like a garden, a writing system cannot be left neglected for ages’.”

Upward, C, & Davidson, G, ‘Reformers, lexicographers and the parting of the ways,’ in The history of English spelling, 2011

Venezky, R L, ‘Spelling reform,’ in The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orphography, 1999

Webster, N, Dissertations on the English language, 1789

Wolman, D, ‘Fixers,’ in Righting the mother tongue: from Olde English to email, the tangled story of English spelling, 2008

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