Category Archives: English

Why some spelling reforms fail and others succeed

This week on the BBC Radio show Fry’s English Delight, the topic was spelling.  (You can listen to the episode until next Monday. Also, thanks to the Virtual Linguist for the heads up on her blog.)

We like to think of English spelling as absurd and unruly. But it wasn’t always this way: When it was first written down, English enjoyed an almost one-to-one letter-to-sound correspondence. But, as Fry outlines, English spelling received several layers of outside influence throughout history. The Norman French wanted English spelling to be a little more Frenchy (hence mice instead of mys), publishers thought the spellings of certain words should remind readers of their Holy Latin Origins (hence debt instead of det), and the Flemish typesetters were apparently homesick and thought English words should be spelled like Flemish words (hence ghost instead of gost). Some more fun examples can be found in this Mental Floss article.


Today, Fry says, “Our alphabet isn’t exactly fit for representing our language in writing.” He points inefficiencies, such as our 11 different ways of spelling the /e/ sound: hey, gauge, weigh, pay, staid, lei…

Inefficiencies notwithstanding, our alphabet isn’t so bad. After all, we seem to get along just fine. Some proponents of reform say that English’s wacky spelling slows learning, but it’s not the worst, by far—Japanese, anyone? As I’ve blogged about before, a complicated writing system might even be making us smarter.

Why do spelling reforms work sometimes but fail other times? I think there are two primary reasons: convention and identification.

John Hart, a 16th century spelling reformer, recognized that even though his proposed system was objectively better and easier to learn than current English spelling, it would seem more difficult to people who were already accustomed to English spelling. Why should they have to relearn everything? Moreover, people need to be able to read things that were written before the reform—so many people would have to learn both forms anyway.

The other main issue with spelling reform is that reformers propose that English spelling should correspond to pronunciation. But, as David Crystal says in the broadcast, “Any spelling reform system which tries to reflect pronunciation… which pronunciation do you use?” Crystal suggests that this very issue may point to the strength of current English spelling: that it works for the many different pronunciations that English has around the world. In other words, if a speaker doesn’t identify with the proposed reformed spelling system, they will reject it. An acceptable reform to the system of English spelling must appeal to all English speakers.

Spelling reform is certainly possible, and it’s happening right now. It’s just that a system-wide, overnight reform is unlikely. Instead, it goes nice and slow, championed by the democracy of English writers rather than any reforming body in particular. For example, the alternate spelling “nite” is popping up more and more—in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before it’s accepted in more formal arenas.

For an overview of spelling reform in other languages, check out the Spelling reform Wikipedia article. The article on Simplified Chinese characters, an example of government effort to increase literacy through spelling reform, may be of particular interest.

For a systematized examination of the sense behind English spelling, check out English Isn’t Crazy, by Diana Hanbury King.

Does English have logograms?

A logogram is a symbol that represents a word or part of a word. Chinese is a great example of a logographic writing system. English, on the other hand, uses what’s called a phonologic writing system, in which the written symbols correspond to sounds and combine to represent strings of sounds.

Theory is one thing, and real life is another—like in so many other instances. Though there is a clear theoretical difference between logographic and phonologic writing systems, it’s safe to say that all writing systems are, to some extent, hybrids.

This begs the question: Does English have any logograms?

At first blush, the question seems silly. Of course not.

But wait, what about &. That’s a logogram. Let’s look at the other symbols we’ve got on the keyboard: @, #, $, %… they’re all logograms. We know how to pronounce them, but there are no clues as to their pronunciation in their shapes; they have to be learned. Numbers too: 4 is a single-symbol stand-in for the letters f–o–u–r.

But there may be even more. For example, I think everybody knows what lol means by now. Explicitly it’s an acronym that stands for “laughing out loud,” but it doesn’t quite mean that anymore. After all, of all the times you write “lol,” in how many were you actually laughing out loud? According to this article by Anne Curzan, “lol” is now used as an acknowledgement that a message was supposed to be funny, or even as a simple receipt. “A written version of a nod of the head and a smile,” Curzan writes. It could be argued that “lol” is no longer analyzed as an acronym. In other words, it’s become a logogram.

Does spelling always lag behind pronunciation?

English speakers seem to take pride (or maybe frustration) in how little our writing system seems to match up with the pronunciation system. Come across a word in writing that you’ve never heard before? Good luck.

Why don’t we just make the writing system simpler? Countless people have asked this, including (perhaps most famously) Noah Webster, and they continue to do so today. But a top-down, this-is-how-it’s-gonna-be spelling reform is unlikely to happen, and pipl hu trai tu riform the system on their own won’t likely get anywhere.

But we can attempt to come to peace with the situation, and that begins by asking the question: Why is our spelling like this, anyway? The answer is that the writing system lags behind the sound system. That is, the way populations pronounce things changes over time, but the writing systems won’t reflect those changes for a long time after.

There are plenty of examples of this. Here’s one: The word knight used to have all its letters pronounced. (The gh was a glottal fricative—that throaty sound you hear a lot in German.)

I realized today, though, that there are apparently some occasions in which the writing system is actually ahead of the sound system. For an example, let’s look at wh- words. If you’re like me, you pronounce what, where, why and when such that they begin with a w sound. But if you’re like one of my gradeschool substitute teachers (i.e., old), hoity toity, and/or from certain areas of the southeast United States, you may begin them with an hw sound.

The written hw comes to us from Old English, but it had flipped to be written as wh by the time of Middle English. The pronunciation lagged behind this change – in other words, many dialects still pronounced it hw, and some still do. If you’d like to read more about this, here’s the Wikipedia article.

So it seems the writing system isn’t always behind the times!