Language reformers hope to teach US to 'spel wel'

English always has been full of quirks. For example, why is it that we can't get bough, cough, dough, and rough to rhyme? How is it that read sometimes sounds like reed and sometimes red? And what, after all, is the use of using all those extra letters to spell knight and though?

For 45 years, John TeWinkel has been horrified by though. Now, the semi-retired library assistant in Northampton, Mass., has come up with an answer. It is called Spelwel.

Admittedly, the system at first looks more like random typing than spelling, but readers can usually puzzle it out by knowing a few simple rules.

There is a great need to simplify English spelling, Mr. TeWinkel and other reformers say. More schoolchildren would take an interest in learning the language. Foreigners could pick up the language more readily. Printing costs would be lower. (TeWinkel claims his system takes 15 percent less space to print than traditional English.)

And ''if they don't do something about the spelling,'' adds reformer Arnold Rupert of Lunenberg, Ontario, ''I have a feeling TV and radio will make reading obsolete in the next few years.''

There are an estimated 60 spelling reform systems in the United States and Canada. The 150 or so active spelling reformers have their own newsletter, their own council, and one striking feature in common: Virtually no one has given them a bit of serious attention.

''It's very hard to get people to pay attention to a new idea,'' TeWinkel says. ''People take the letters as sacred. . . . People think a dictionary is an authority. And it's not! It's a statistical sampling of how various people pronounce a word.''

The problem is tradition, explains Herbert Tjossem, an English professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

While pronunciations have been changing throughout the history of the English language, spellings have been rather rigid, he explains.

For example, Geoffrey Chaucer, the 15th-century English poet, pronounced the ''k'' in words like knight and knee. Later, although the k had become silent, British printers decided to stick to parts of Chaucer's spellings.

Despite calls for spelling reform through the ages, little has been done. Eighteenth-century British satirist Jonathan Swift called for it in vain. Benjamin Franklin and George Bernard Shaw invented new alphabets - but to no avail. Noah Webster, with his influential school spellers, managed to rid American English of the ''u'' in such words as honour and colour, shorten programme, and rearrange the British spelling for centre and theatre. But even he couldn't get the public to accept reforms like giv and hav for give and have.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered public documents to use new spellings in certain words. But that was reversed when Congress threatened to withhold funds for printing executive department documents.

So now, the two major problems with the language still remain: how to get 26 letters to represent the 40 or 41 sounds in English; and how to find one letter to represent the most common of those sounds - what linguists call the unstressed schwa (the ''a'' in sofa, the ''e'' in children, the ''u'' in unless, and so on).

Even reformers themselves cannot agree on what changes to make. While some still want to institute new alphabets, others, like TeWinkel, think it better to devise systems that only use keys on modern typewriters. Still others think even that is too radical.

Perhaps the brightest hope for spelling reform is a group called Better Education thru Simplified Spelling, which advocates gradual reform over some 30 years. Its international advisory board includes such luminaries as author Isaac Asimov, former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, and Leonard Woodcock, former president of the United Auto Workers.

But can it be done?

''Probably not,'' says Professor Tjossem. ''The whole system of education . . . is fairly conservative, and there's that weight of thousands and thousands of (printed) pages that hold back any changes that would be made.''

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