National Spelling Bee protests: Should we simplify English spelling?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee highlights what a mess the English spelling is – a hodgepodge of orthographies borrowed from German, French, Greek, and Latin. Is it time for a makeover?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Gina Liu, 13, of Charlestown, Ill., competes in the semifinals of the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, on Friday.

If the Scripps National Spelling Bee teaches us anything, it's that the English language is a complete mess.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is said to have joked that the word "fish" could legitimately be spelled "ghoti," by using the "gh" sound from "enough," the "o" sound from "women," and the "ti" sound from "action."

Shaw was probably not the originator of this joke, but he was one of a long line of people who thought that the English language's anarchic spelling, a hodgepodge of Germanic, French, Greek, and Latin, was desperately in need of reform.

To this end, he willed a portion of his estate toward the development of a new phonetic script. The result was the Shavian alphabet, whose 47 letters have a one-to-one phonetic correspondence with sounds in the English language. Like just about every other attempt to rein in English spelling, Shaw's alphabet continues to be widely ignored to this day.

But spelling-reform advocates press on. The Associated Press reported that this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was picketed by four protesters, some dressed in bee costumes, who distributed buttons reading "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much."

The demonstrators were from the the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society, organizations that aim to do to English orthography what the metric system did for weights and measures. The American Literacy Council endorses SoundSpel, which seeks to "rationalize" the English language by spelling each of the English language's 42 (or so) phonemes one way and one way only. In SoundSpel, "business" becomes "bizness," "equation" becomes "ecwaezhun," "learned" becomes "lernd," "negotiate" becomes "negoesheaet," and so on.

An overhaul of English spelling would be not without its pitfalls. Even if you could get every printer, publishing house, signmaker, and blogger to agree on a new system, there would still be the problem of those who have learned only the new system of spelling being unable to read literature printed in the old one.

What's more, in giving a fixed value to each letter, someone has to decide what counts as "correct" pronunciation. It's easy to imagine the holy wars that would erupt over whether "either" becomes "eether" or "iether," or whether "envelope" becomes "onveloep" or "enveloep"?

Still, many other languages – including Dutch, French, German, and Indonesian, to name a few – have successfully undergone top-down orthographic makeovers. Perhaps the English language can too.

The key would be to start slow, beginning with the most troublesome irregularities. We could start with the "ough" words: That such distinct-sounding words as "though," "tough," and "through" have the same ending is a historical accident that could be easily rectified. American English is already trending in that direction, having coined such sensible words as "plow," "donut," and "thruway." By eliminating all "ough" words in one go, we would simply be doing a more thurrow job of it.

Next, doing away with the whole "i before e" nonsense and just going with "ee" or "ay," depending on how the word is pronounced, would no doubt be met with much releef among those trying to learn English.

This change would position us for a more comprehensive vowel overhaul, discarding such variations as "wait," "weight," "straight," "great," "vein," and so on, and representing eech vowel sownd by a uneeque single letter or pare of letters. This wood allow us too finalee doo away with the silent "e."

Then wee cood moov on to fixing the consoenants. Under ar noo sistem, thare wood be noe moer need for the sawft "g," the voyced "s," the letterz "c," "q," and "x," or anee eeraygyoolar konstrukshuns. Wee kood alsoe eeliminate thos yoosles dubil leterz.

Wiel wee ar at it, wee might az well cleen up ar eeraygyoolar verbz, mayking the preterit and past participal the saym in awl kasez and regyoolarizing awl ar plooralz. Bi then wee wil hav noe dowt bringed the literasee levelz of Inglish speekerz up to thoz uv other kuntreez.

The reezult would bee a langwadje that iz konsistent, lojikal, and abil too bee eezily understud by evereewon. Jorj Bernerd Sha wood bee prowd.


Owin Oekarol iz a member ov the Kristin Sians Monitor'z Web teem.

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