John Humphrys - Change Our Spelling: Rite or Rong?

November 25, 2022, 1:10 PM GMT+0

This is wun of the moast difficult collums I have had to rite for YooGov. As yoo may have notissd, the spelling is verry strainj and my spell chek insists on me maiking correkshuns. But I am reluktant to do so beekoz I am preparing for sum verry dramatic changes being proposed by a well-respected instityooshun.


Ghastly eh? How can anyone seriously suggest that our beautiful language should be butchered in the way I have done in that opening paragraph? Well… the English Spelling Society, that’s who. And they have done so because they believe there is a strong case for making spelling less convoluted.

At the heart of their argument is that the same letter should almost always have the same sound. There are a vast number of words where that is simply not the case. Take the word “wood” and compare it with the word “pudding”. We pronounce the letters “oo” in exactly the same way as the single letter “u”. And what about the word “should”? Once again, we get the same sound even though this time the letters “ou”. And yet “ou” produces a very different sound in “sound”.

The list of these contradictions is as long as your arm. Come to think of it, why does “arm” have an “r” in it? We get exactly the same sound with an “l” if it’s in the word “calm”. Or what about the letter “o”? If it appears in “lot” it’s perfectly obvious what it should sound like to you and me. But if you were a stranger to English pronunciation you might be surprised that when you ‘put “o” in “love” it has exactly the same sound as “u”. But which use of “u” do I have in mind? The one I used in that last sentence or the “u” that appears in “sum”? Then again, it also sounds exactly the same as “o” when it appears in “some”. And don’t get me started on a word like “doubt”. What in heaven’s name is that “b” doing in there? Or the “o” in “people” when it should obviously have an extra “e”? Just as “field” should have two “e”s.

Surely it’s all wrong? Or, as the English Spelling Society might prefer, “rong”. The real question, though, is whether it matters. And even if we were to decide that it does, would we be capable of changing our spelling to make it more rational? That, I suppose, depends on how long we’ve got. After all, our language has changed dramatically over the centuries. In fact English did not begin as English.

The scholars tell us it was a West Germanic language that was brought to Britain by Anglo-Saxon migrants starting in the 5th century AD. After the Noman conquest of 1066 Old English was replaced for a time by Anglo-Norman French followed by Middle English and then Early Modern English – the language used by Shakespeare. It was around that time that the so-called “Great Vowel Shift” began to happen and that’s what we have to bless (or curse) for much of the way we speak today – especially those long drawn-out vowels.

What is not in doubt is that we care greatly about our language. I know that from my own experience. I have written eight books over the years and the best-selling by far have been the two dealing with the way we use (and abuse) our language. And half a century of broadcasting for the BBC have removed any doubts I may have had about the subject that is most likely to arouse the anger of even the most placid Radio 4 listener. The days may have long gone when “received pronunciation” was de rigeur (forgive my fleeting foray into French!) but correct English is still regarded by a great army of listeners as the sine qua non (ahem!).

The subject is slightly complicated by our many different regional and class-based accents. As a working class kid brought up in Cardiff it never occurred to me and my friends that some people might think the “correct” way to pronounce, say, “bath” or “class” might be “barth” and “clarse”. Seventy years later I still resist it.

But a wholesale reform of our spelling rules is something else again. Even those who bemoan the idiosyncrasies of English might wonder why we should bother. After all, most of us have no trouble making sense of it. We grew up with it and learned to read in spite of it. But the National Literary Trust paints a pretty disturbing picture.

In England alone it has been calculated that more than seven million people can be described as having 'very poor literacy skills.' They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems. This, says the Trust, is also known as being functionally illiterate. And many are too ashamed of it to seek help. A colleague of my father came to work every day with a copy of The Sun tucked in his pocket, which he would produce during tea and lunch breaks and read diligently. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed. Years later I discovered that he could not read a word. As the Trust reports, adults with poor literacy skills are often locked out of the jobs market and, as parents, find it impossible to help their children if they are struggling too.

It was George Bernard Shaw who co-founded the English Spelling Society (ESS), which had begun life as the Simplified Spelling Society in 1908. Its aim was to raise awareness of problems caused by the eccentricities of English spelling and improve literacy. What we cannot know is whether a simplified spelling system would make it easier for those struggling to read. But if we do accept the broad principle that we should make spelling simpler, how might it work?

Seventy years after Shaw, the ESS has agreed on what they reckon is the best way to do it. Or, at least, the best way to start. The simplest proposal is to omit redundant letters. There would be no “w” in wrong; no “K” in knight; no “g” in gnash; no “e” in snore. And so on ad infinitum. So far… so simple. Or at least relatively simple. It gets a bit more complicated when it suggests there would be only one letter or combination of letters to represent one sound. So, for instance, wash would become “wosh” and cough would be “coff”.

It has taken the ESS a long time to make a firm proposal as to how things might change. A standardised spelling system was provisionally agreed in March last year but was fully approved only after members around the world were consulted. The new approach is called “traditional spelling revised” (TSR), which the ESS will promote to run voluntarily alongside traditional spelling in the hope that it will eventually gain wide acceptance.

The ESS says on its website: “English spelling is broken. Examples like comb, bomb and tomb, or height and weight, abound. English spelling has been chopped and changed by countless scribes, printers, invaders and others since the Roman alphabet was first used to write Old English during the seventh century, and it does not match the way we speak today. The English Spelling Society exists to repair our broken spelling.”

Jack Bovill, chairman of the society, said: “We hope this will move forward the debate on the need for reformed spelling and also help children and young adults who struggle to learn to spell. Compared with other languages, English has relatively simple grammar and punctuation. However, English spelling is a different matter.

“The spelling of roughly 35 per cent of the commonest English words is, to a degree, irregular or ambiguous. Such a need to memorise irregularity has traditionally been regarded as a minor and inevitable inconvenience for successive generations of schoolchildren. But there is growing evidence that this is not just an inconvenience — it costs children precious learning time, and us [as a nation] money.”

So what do you think? Do you agree that our eccentric spelling is at least partly responsible for so many children (and even adults) being unable to read adequately and should be changed? Or do you think the transition between two spelling systems would be quite simply impossible to achieve? Do you think you might be able to adapt to the new spelling?

Or are you a traditionalist? Do you take the view that our spelling may be a bit eccentric (or “eksentrik?) but it’s served us well enough for 500 years so why mess with it now?

Do let me know.

Photo: Getty

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