Sili nu speling rools set kritiks larfing

Write and wrong: 8.5 million people in the UK have a low literacy level. © Getty

Should English spelling be simplified? Campaigners argue that its complicated rules hold too many students back, and the time has come to introduce some fundamental changes.

The publisher scratched his head in despair. What was he to do with this young writer? He could not spell for toffee! He had written “chaoticly” for “chaotically”, “yatch” for “yacht” and “ecceptionally” for “exceptionally”. His novel contained hundreds of mistakes like this. The easiest thing might be to reject it right away.

Fortunately for us, the publisher decided that the book was worth persevering with. The author was F Scott Fitzgerald and his novel was The Great Gatsby, now considered one of the finest works of 20th-Century fiction.

Many people, regardless of their intelligence or literary ability, have struggled with English spelling. Now, campaigners at the International English Spelling Congress have voted for new rules to simplify the language.

The proposed Traditional Spelling Revised would eliminate silent letters such as the w in “wrong” and the k in “knight“. Double letters thought to be unnecessary would also disappear, so “committee” would become “comittee” (but not, for complicated reasons, “comitee”). The organisers of the congress, the English Spelling Society (ESC), estimate that up to 18% of words would change as a result.

The ESC claims that learning to spell takes three years longer in English than in any other language. Over 200,000 children are expected to leave primary school this year without being able to read and write properly.

The proposals have added to controversy in universities. Hull University has announced that it will no longer penalise students for bad spelling in case those from poor or minority backgrounds are discouraged. The University of the Arts London has told staff they should “actively accept spelling, grammar or other language mistakes” for the sake of inclusivity.

These developments have been met with widespread ridicule and condemnation. “So, yeah, fine, go on, lower the bar,” wrote Giles Coren in The Times. “If they’re simplifying spelling, then surely they must do the same with maths.” The Mail on Sunday condemned “this insidious culture of low educational expectations” as insulting and patronising.

But simplified spelling has had some formidable supporters: George Bernard Shaw left his entire estate to the cause.

Should English spelling be simplified?

Sound and vision

Some say, yes: written words should be a straightforward indication of how they sound. In English, this is often not the case, because spelling has not kept pace with changes in pronunciation. Language exists to help us communicate, so there is no point in rules which just make that more difficult. It is up to us to decide what works best today.

Others argue that introducing new spellings beside existing ones, as the ESC suggests, would only cause confusion. Many words would lose their foreign roots, making it harder for those learning English as a second language. Every printed book would become as difficult to read as Chaucer.

You Decide

  1. Does the fact that computers have spell-check programmes make changes to spelling unnecessary?
  2. Should universities make studying less challenging for their students?

Activities

  1. Organise a spelling bee for your class by following the link under Become an expert.
  2. In pairs, study the first three paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. Make a list of the words whose spelling you think could be simplified; suggest new spellings and explain why they might be an improvement.

Some People Say...

“Literature is the art of… saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.”

Boris Pasternak (1890 – 1960), Russian novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that English spelling has been complicated by historical factors. After the Norman Conquest, French replaced Anglo-Saxon as the dominant language, affecting pronunciation: for example, the letter c became both soft (as in “cement”) and hard (as in “case”). In the 16th Century a widespread change in pronunciation known as the Great Vowel Shift created inconsistencies such as the long second i in “divine” and the short second i in “divinity”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether English or American spelling should be the norm. When the US became independent from Britain, some Americans were keen to establish cultural differences – among them Noah Webster, who compiled a dictionary with some systematically different spellings. These included ending verbs with “-ize” rather than “-ise”, and nouns such as “centre” with “-er” instead of “-re”. He also dropped the u from words such as “colour”.

Word Watch

F Scott Fitzgerald
An American author whose other novels include This Side of Paradise and Tender Is The Night. He was synonymous with the Jazz Age of the 1920s.
The Great Gatsby
The novel was a commercial failure when it was published in 1925; only after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940 was it widely recognised as a masterpiece.
International English Spelling Congress
The congress considered a variety of different schemes for simplifying spelling before voting on a shortlist of six.
Traditional Spelling Revised
It was devised by a retired civil servant called Stephen Linstead, who argues that it is “based essentially on making English spelling observe its own rules”.
Knight
It was originally a Germanic word in which the k was pronounced.
English Spelling Society
Dating from 1908, its main aim is to “publicise the unnecessary difficulties of English spelling and the benefits that its simplification would bring.”
Insidious
Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with disastrous effects.
George Bernard Shaw
An Irish playwright whose best-known work includes Pygmalion and The Doctor’s Dilemma. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1925.

Subjects

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