APPENDIX III: TWO Archaic Technologies

Note: text in red and bold reflect my emphasis

Table of Contents

The Alphabet and Spelling – 26 Letters Spell 44 Sounds Hundreds of Ways
The History of the Alphabet
The History of English Spelling
Champions of Change & Efforts to Compensate

The Alphabet and Spelling – 26 Letters Spell 44 Sounds Hundreds of Ways

From: CURRENTS IN LITERACY: Understanding the Phonics Debates: Part I
By William T. Stokes

In principle, an alphabet provides a simple visual code for representing an oral language. An ideal alphabet would assign one letter to each sound (or phoneme) in the language; thus a spoken language could be written down and read by others who know the code. This requires some knowledge of the sounds of the language and the relations between sounds and letters. The difficulty for English is that it departs significantly from an ideal alphabetic system.

Unfortunately, English is represented by an alphabet that does not permit an ideal one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. To begin with, there are roughly twice as many sounds as letters. Each letter is used to represent several sounds in different contexts (e.g., notice the t in native, nation and nature, or in bat, bath and bathe). Each sound can be represented by several spellings (e.g., notice the "long-e" in be, bee, key, ski, sea, and baby). Moreover, for historical reasons, there are hundreds of exceptions within our complex system of spellings (e.g., maid and said, or hear and heart). Experience has shown that many children require at least three years to acquire the written code for English. During this time, learning to read becomes the primary purpose of schooling, while exercising literacy to learn more about the world is largely deferred until mastery of the code is evidenced.

From the: American Literacy Council – Spelling Matters

Dr. Rondthaler on Illiteracy Figures and Causes

If you're flying to Mexico, you can hold in your hand a little card that shows the spelling of every Spanish sound. Then, when the plane lands, you can pronounce, in Spanish, virtually every word on every sign you see. You won't know the meaning of many words, but you can pronounce them, and that's a good start toward learning the language.

The reverse is not true.
No immigrant coming to the U.S. can hold a card that shows the spelling of English sounds. Such a card, if it could be made would be the size of a refrigerator door since we spell our 42 sounds in a potpourri of over 400 different ways. Scores of rules and exceptions add to the confusion.

English Spelling


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From: The Simplified Spelling Society: Modernizing English Spelling:

The problem with English spelling is that the letters do not correspond predictably to speech sounds.

The 40-odd sounds of English can be spelled in hundreds of ways, and one spelling can represent many sounds.

Inconsistency is rife because English has no strategy for ensuring consistency. No other language tolerates such alphabetic chaos.

Alphabets for English  A Personal View by Steve Bett

Since the year 1100, the development or English orthography has largely ignored the alphabetic principle and the idea that each letter (or digraph) should be a sound sign. The result has been a chaotic and inconsistent orthography and the dubious distinction of being "the world's worst spelled language." English has a minimum of 40 significant speech sounds. In a phonemic or alphabetic system, these sounds would be spelled about 40 ways. In the traditional English writing system, they are spelled over 400 ways.

In traditional English orthography (TO) the same sound is spelled an average of 14 different ways.

From: Alphabets: advantages and disadvantages (

The original principle of the alphabetic writing system, in strong contrast to ideographic writing, is a visual codification of speech.

Ideally each letter represents one speech sound (grapheme-phoneme correspondence), and rules govern combinations from this small set of basic symbols into higher order linguistic units.

From: Nicholas Fabian’s Type Design, Typography and Graphic  Images (

It is self evident that the Roman alphabet is superbly well suited to represent the Latin language. But, it is also clear that without numerous accents, additional characters, grammatical rules and even more exceptions, the same twenty-six characters are a poor choice to represent the sounds of English or most other western languages.

From the: The Spellings of Sounds: A quick review of Godfrey Dewey's (1971) Research1 - Lamar University: (

In an ideal phonemic writing system, one that follows the alphabetic principle, a sound can be spelled one and only one way.

When words are spelled the way they sound it is relatively easy to spell any word you can pronounce. In a phonemic writing system, such as Portuguese, the way a word is spelled is a guide to its pronunciations.

On the average the consonants can be spelled 9 different ways. Consonants with 14 or more different spellings include sh, j, n, s, k, and t.

The average vowel can spelled a phenomenal 20.7 different ways, according to Dewey's research. This suggests that vowels in TO (the traditional English writing system or orthography) are little more than place holders.

Veblen wrote that English spelling satisfies all the requirements of conspicuous waste. "It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective..failure to acquire it is easy of detection..." On having a spelling error pointed out, Andrew Jackson once remarked, "It is a poor mind that cannot think of more than one way to spell a word." Spelling is difficult, according to Harry Shaw (Harper: Spell It Right! p. 4) because "the correct spelling of many words does not even approximate the sounds being represented." Laubach called English "The world's worst spelled language."

From: Great Adventure 2000: Wendell H. Hall (

Our dictionaries must give keys and guides to the pronunciation of every single word. Not true for the pronunciation of one single word in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, etc., etc. We have spelling bees (unknown in countries with far superior writing systems) and are dazzled when the 14 years old U.S. Champion properly spells eleven words which, if we had a decent way to spell, could easily be handled by a kindergartner.

We spend years on what rightly ought to be accomplished in a few months--years that ought to be devoted instead to math, science, art, music, literature, creative and technical writing, history, geography, foreign languages, computer science and many other crucial, vital, exciting, enriching studies and pursuits.

Billions of dollars are thrown at this.

So, is it fair that our children and all of us should be perpetually hogtied, strung up and hung up by our Gordian spelling, our brains and stomachs tied in knots by it, and millions--tragically--never managing to adequately cope with it and not infrequently giving up and dropping out in despair? Why should we citizens of a supposedly progressive nation, the most advanced on earth, so unknowledgeably and senselessly cling to an ancient, impossibly irregular non-system of spelling that has no place in this space age, this computer age? Endowed with a nearly perfect Spanish spelling system, so-called "third-world" countries like Bolivia and Cuba are actually leaving us in the dust in their efforts to eliminate illiteracy.

From: Spelling is a social invention by Valerie Yule

In proportion to what is spent and invested in education, English-speaking countries have the greatest problems of illiteracy and semiliteracy in the world. Many multilingual third world countries have attempted to use English as the medium of education and government; English is the language of books and international contacts, and was often their colonial heritage. But these countries have been driven to using pidgin (with simplified English spelling) or the major indigenous language more because of English spelling than because of nationalism. English has to be learnt as two languages - the spoken and the written - while most foreign languages can be learnt with books to help learn the spoken language, and speech to help with the written language.

Most of the 700 million people using English today are not English-speakers born - and could not care less about Norman-French etymologies. They want a writing system that is user-friendly. For English to remain the international language of the world, an internationally usable English spelling is essential.

Less than 5% of Britains and Americans (and Australians) can spell in English without mistakes, or without dictionaries or computer spell-checkers - but the big and serious problem is not their inability to write - it is the high proportion of the population who cannot learn to read properly.

The History of the Alphabet

From Encyclopedia Britannica: Writing: History of Writing Systems

While speaking is a universal human competence that has been characteristic of the species from the beginning and that is acquired by all normal human beings without systematic instruction, writing is a technology of relatively recent history that must be taught to each generation of children. Historical accounts of the evolution of writing systems have until recently concentrated on a single aspect, increased efficiency, with the Greek invention of the alphabet being regarded as the culmination of a long historical evolution. This efficiency is a product of a limited and manageable set of graphs that can express the full range of meanings in a language. As Eric Havelock wrote, "At a stroke the Greeks provided a table of elements of linguistic sound not only manageable because of economy, but for the first time in the history of homo sapiens, also accurate." Ignace Gelb distinguished four stages in this evolution, beginning with picture writing, which expressed ideas directly; followed by word-based writing systems; then by sound-based syllabic writing systems, including unvocalized syllabaries or consonantal systems; and concluding with the Greek invention of the alphabet.

The invention of the alphabet is a major achievement of Western culture. It is also unique; the alphabet was invented only once, though it has been borrowed by many cultures. It is a model of analytic thinking, breaking down perceptible qualities like syllables into more basic constituents. And because it is capable of conveying subtle differences in meaning, it has come to be used for the expression of a great many of the functions served by speech.

From a forthcoming article: “Inner Interfaces” By David Boulton

The most significant human/technological accomplishment in the past 5,000 years, is right before your eyes. Nothing else even comes close.  Writing is the most pervasive, enabling and influential invention in the recorded history of human technology (it could be argued that developing language 50,000 to 100,000ish  years ago and agriculture 10,000ish years ago were more significant).

Our politics, science and religion, the ways our minds abstract, what we ‘know’ about everything that we know anything about - have either come into being or been significantly enhanced by writing and the kinds of thought writing made possible.

According to the records of history, the earliest forms of writing were receipts and records. Before living in cities people sold or exchanged directly with buyers and traders.  They made scratches on bones and used counting stones but they had relatively little use for receipts or records. But, with the emergence of cities and the consequent need for storing, reselling, consigning and taxing goods, it became necessary to develop a system to ensure that such transactions could be remembered accurately.

The earliest records involved tokens. There were tokens for quantities; tokens for objects and tokens that represented a person’s name and/or ‘signature’. Pots were used to hold the tokens of a transaction; they were the first receipts, the first records. As transactions became more frequent people invented different kinds of pots for holding the tokens of different kinds of transactions. It was probably someone trying to better make a better pot that discovered that you didn’t have to put tokens into the pot if you could make an impression of them in the still hardening clay. This, of course, led to ‘scribing’ images of tokens into the clay, ownership seals, and the, inevitable, flattening of the pots into tablets.

The rulers of these cities began to use this ‘technology’ to record their rules and laws. Soon, a whole sub society of scribes developed, and, under the influence of both the marketplace and the rulers, they began to develop scribable images for both the things of the world and for the words of the rulers. Some systems were pictographic like the Egyptian hieroglyphics – others, like the Jewish Midinites (the people Moses is reported to have lived with before going back to Egypt), began to develop a kind of notation for capturing and recording the sounds of their spoken language. Around 1,000 B.C. The Phoenicians either independently or through interactions with the Jews extended the system and developed the earliest form of what is still called the Phonetic Alphabet.

There are numerous theories as to how the alphabet was invented – for example the following from theThe Articulatory Basis of the Alphabet(

We have to attempt to put ourselves mentally in the situation of the original inventor, the circumstances which made the construction of an alphabet desirable and the decisions to be made in representing the articulation of speech sounds by visual patterns.

One can only speculate about the circumstances. What seems certain is that there must have been some strong incentive - some keen perception of the potential usefulness of an alphabet representing articulatory movements. …the inventor could have been someone involved in the sea-trade of the Syrian coast, dealing with traders speaking many languages, needing to keep records, to transmit orders to distant ports and so on. Or he could have been someone working with records in many languages and scripts as at Ugarit in the library of the high priest. If the inventor was a merchant, or working for a merchant, then there would be no guarantee that those he traded with would be able to understand cuneiform or hieroglyphic scripts. If the inventor was associated with the library at Ugarit, he would be very much aware of the multiplicity of scripts and languages and the usefulness of some medium which could be used regardless of differences of language or origin. I am inclined to prefer the idea of a clerk (an academic!) at Ugarit familiar with the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet but who recognised that alphabet was only useful for people already familiar with cuneiform and to whom the necessary writing equipment was available, the clay tablets and implements needed to produce cuneiform characters.

The circumstances of the invention, trade or religious or record-keeping, or some combination of all three, fit well with other pointers to Syria as the origin of the alphabet, somewhere intermediate between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and not wholly committed either to the hieroglyphic or to the cuneiform tradition. The idea which might have sparked off the construction of the alphabet would simply be: Why should I not represent speech by a picture of someone's face as he produces a particular sound? A next stage might have been: Why should I not limit the picture to the parts of the face which are used in speaking? And then if observing others speak resulted in diagrams which were not sufficiently distinct for the different sounds: Why not pay attention to my own way of speaking, and try to represent that?


This shift, from the iconic representations of real world objects, to the transcription of speech (irregardless of whether the transcription was intended to capture articulatory movements) resulted in the development of the world’s first and still foremost mental technology. Marshall Mcluhan and Richard Logan called it: “the mother of invention

As the sophistication and number of records piled up the people began to develop ways to organize and codify their writings. New words were invented that had never existed in the oral languages.  The order of the alphabet (ABC…) became a codification system. The ways of ordering the presentation of written words became so powerful that for those that practiced them it changed the way they used their oral language.

The Phoenicians through their overseas trade passed this way of writing like a virus into the receptive mind-womb of the Greeks. The Greeks a society based on oral traditions – of Homeric poems and Socratic dialogue (Socrates refused to write) absorbed the alphabet and became the first civilization organized by the written word. The written word extended their power of abstraction and they employed it in what would become the first (Western) golden age of learning.

In a book called the “Alphabet Effect” Robert K. Logan, an associate of and co-author with Marshall McLuhan of an article by the same name, says:

“There is widespread agreement among scholars that spoken language has had the single greatest influence of all factors on man’s thought processes and is responsible for its very origin. Second only to the impact of speech on thought has been writing.”

Harold Innis, was one of the first scholars to study the way in which writing affected man’s thinking process:” 

The art of writing provided man with a transpersonal memory. Men were given an artificially extended and verifiable memory of objects and events not present to sight or recollection. Individuals applied their minds to symbols rather than things and went beyond the concrete experience into the world of conceptual relations created within an enlarged time and space universe. The time world was extended beyond the range of remembered things and the space world beyond the range of known places. Writing enormously enhanced a capacity for abstract thinking which had been evident in the growth of language in the oral tradition. Names in themselves were abstractions. Man’s activities and powers roughly extended in proportion to the increased use and perfection of written records.

From Encyclopedia Britannica: Writing: History of Writing Systems

The transition from consonantal writing to alphabetic writing, writing with full representation of both consonants and vowels, occurred when the Semitic script was adapted to the Greek language. This occurred about 1000-900 BC. Scholars have traditionally considered the Greek invention as a stroke of genius. While not minimizing the significance of the Greek invention, it is now recognized that the invention of the alphabet was, in fact, the rather straightforward consequence of applying a script invented for representing one kind of language to a quite different kind.

The letters used by the Greeks to represent consonantal sounds were borrowed rather directly from the Semitic script. What was distinctive was that the Greeks used six of the Semitic letters, those that represented sounds that did not occur in Greek, to represent vowel sounds. Greek, like English, is an Indo-European language that uses vowel distinctions to make lexical contrasts. Moreover, words may consist simply of vowels, words may begin with vowels, and words with adjacent vowels are not uncommon. Such forms are rare in Semitic languages in which simple consonant-vowel syllable structures predominate and in which vowel differences usually mark only grammatical inflections. Sampson has suggested that in the Semitic language some of the consonants that preceded a vowel sound may have been nonphonemic to the Greeks, who thus in hearing the syllable would have heard only a vowel corresponding to a vowel already prominent in the Greek language.

The Romans borrowed the Greek alphabet (along with many Greek words and much of Greek culture) to form the Roman, or Latin, alphabet. Written "learned" Latin was the language of state and of scholarship in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages. Further developments of the alphabet resulted from changes in the phonology of Latin and of the Romance languages that evolved from it. For English, the differentiation of all the 26 letters was completed only in the 19th century.

From: Alphabets: advantages and disadvantages (

The principle was invented when the Greeks added vowels to the original consonants of the first Middle Eastern systematic 'phonemic' 1 writing. This had itself evolved from the phonetic principle begun when rebuses and phonograms were first used as stratagems to extend the repertoire of logographic scripts.

A hundred or so alphabets exist today. The most widely used are roman, arabic and cyrillic. Until there is a startling breakthrough, the writing system for European languages must continue to be based on the roman alphabet, however modified. It is the script of their heritage of print, and of international communication, and is used by six of the twelve international languages of the world - French, Spanish, German, English, Italian and Portuguese. It is essential to understand the alphabetic principle and its range of applications in other languages, in order to evaluate the spelling of any single one.

From: Writing Systems of the World: (

There are about 3000 languages in the modern world. Thousands of different languages have been invented all over the world, branching off from many different root-languages, as dissimilar as could be. Most may be dead.. India alone has 14 major language families with almost 200 different languages, which break down further into dialects. Papua-New Guinea has at least 700 languages in its mountain valleys, and possibly over 900.

Written language is a also a human invention, like spoken language, but it is not a universal invention. Few societies have invented a writing system for themselves - most have been borrowed and adapted from the original inventors. Civilisations as advanced as the Incas have had no writing. The civilisations of the written word were limited mainly to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Writing systems in the New World, the Pacific, and much of Africa were usually primitive. Where no records remain, we do not know what vanished civilisations may have achieved, but into this century many hundreds of languages and societies have remained preliterate. Two thirds of the world's languages are still unwritten, and there are only several hundred different writing systems.

The History of English Spelling

From: Teaching Reading - a History by Robert McCole Wilson (

Ancient Greek and Latin were almost completely phonetically written. Since much teaching of reading and writing was in the hands of slaves or barely literate poorer people trying to earn a few coins, and there was no methodology of instruction, it is likely that teaching reading and writing varied, but we have a few hints that the usual method was "alphabetic"; that is, letters were learned first along with their sounds, then were combined into syllables and into words. Plato mentions:

Just as in learning to read, I said, we were satisfied when we knew the letters of the alphabet, which are very few, in all their recurring sizes and combinations; not slighting them as unimportant whether they occupy a space large or small, but everywhere eager to make them out; and not thinking ourselves perfect in the art of reading until we recognise them wherever they are found. (The Republic)

With the Reformation came a demand for reading the vernacular by the many not just Latin by the few. First Luther in Germany, then the Calvinists, asserted that each person should be able to read and study the scriptures as a means to personal salvation. The Bible was translated and the new invention, the printing press, meant books were available to many more people. In England, the monarchy wanted the boys "to read English intelligently instead of Latin unintelligently."

Borrowings from other languages, particularly French, Latin and Greek, were already making English a rich and diversified language, but the accommodation of these words meant that its spelling was so diversified, reading it became far more than deciphering a one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. This situation became aggravated over time by changes in pronunciation and the many dialects that have to be accommodated, so that spellings have become less and less indicators of sounds.

Because Latin letters were used for a language which was ill-suited to their pronunciation, the adaptation led to a mish-mash of spellings that took several hundred years to standardize. This occurred after the reign of James I largely as a result of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611. No longer could someone just learn the basic letters and translate them into the sounds of words. The same letter or letters could have different sounds and one sound could be represented by different letters. The method of teaching these many variations later came to be called the "phonics" system which is really an elaboration of the alphabetical system used by the ancients.

From: CURRENTS IN LITERACY: Recent History of the Phonics Debates, Part II By William T. Stokes (

An ideal alphabetic system provides one letter for each sound in the language, achieving one-to-one correspondence between letters and sounds. Unfortunately, the twenty-six letters of our alphabet must serve a language having at least forty-four sounds. As a consequence, a complex pattern of spellings in English emerged over many certuries as the language itself has also changed and been influenced by other languages, especially French, Latin, and Greek, as well as many other languages. (Balmuth, 1982)

From: The Simplified Spelling Society: Modernizing English Spelling:

Before 1066 English spelling was quite simple, but the next few centuries saw an influx of French, Latin and Greek words and major pronunciation changes (vowels shifted, consonants fell silent). As a result the spelling became incoherent. The advent of printing 500 years ago created some standards, but countless anomalies survived. America made a few improvements in the 19th century, eg, separating L/LL in modeling/compelling, OR/OUR in favor/devour and SK/SC in skeptic/sceptre, but English spelling is today reviled and ridiculed worldwide ('one of the world's most awesome messes', 'an insult to human intelligence', etc.) for its unpredictability.

For optimal literacy, spelling should show pronunciation, and pronunciation should determine spelling. But over time, as pronunciation changes and new words enter the language, this match between letters and sounds can break down. Then learning to read and write becomes harder, and all education suffers. Most languages have therefore modernized their spelling in the 20th century. English, however, has not done so systematically over the past 1,000 years.

From: CURRENTS IN LITERACY: Recent History of the Phonics Debates, Part I By William T. Stokes (

As a researcher and educator who was still new to these debates, I was astounded to discover that these issues were not merely recent technical arguments, but rather, had occupied educators for more than 400 years. How did such a controversy arise and what sustains it? As will be shown below, there are several replies to these questions, but it may be useful to point out a preliminary and rather surprising fact that there is no unique alphabet for the English language -- written English employs the Roman alphabet.

Throughout the middle ages, scholars studied and wrote primarily in Latin, or chose to represent other languages, such as English, using the familiar Roman alphabet. As the English language developed, pronunciations, spellings, and grammatical forms underwent rapid change and dialect variations abounded, especially during the period of Middle English. By the beginnings of the emergence of Modern English in the 15th century, a highly complex system of written English had evolved (Balmuth, 1982). Then, in the period of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, there were widespread efforts to increase literacy rates and to translate, print, and distribute the Latin Bible and other Latin texts in the languages of Europe, including English. The problem confronting Martin Luther's contemporaries was how to help the greatest number of people to become literate.


History tells us that English spelling made sense back during the reign of Henry VIII. Written letters corresponded to speech sounds in the language, so spelling was reasonably "phonemic." Ironically, that was a time when very few people could read (much less spell!) and less than a hundred years later the phonemic spelling system had deteriorated. It has gone "down hill" ever since, as this anonymous poem so devastatingly demonstrates:

Hints on Pronunciation for Foreigners:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and and sounds like bird,
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead --
For goodness sake don't call it 'deed'!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear;
And then there's dose and rose and lose --
Just look them up -- and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart --
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I'd mastered it when I was five!

Champions of Change and Efforts to Compensate

From: Writing Systems of the World: (

There have been major or minor reforms in the writing systems of every major language in the world except English, within the past hundred years. These include Afrikaans, Albanian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Filipino, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Greenlandic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Irish, Itlaian, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Niugini Tok Pisin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese Mandarin, Turkish and Vietnamese.

… if literacy is not to be restricted to an elite, an efficient writing system must be able to respond to needs for change…

Alphabets for English  A Personal View by Steve Bett

The reason that other European countries have a closer correspondence between pronunciation and spelling is because they have had one or more spelling reforms in the past 300 years. English has had some spelling reforms in the period from the Norman Conquest (1066) to the publication of Samuel Johnson's influential Dictionary in 1754. These included the introduction of etymological, Latin, and French spellings and conventions.

Few of the reforms were designed to make the English writing system simpler and more alphabetical or phonemic. The reforms were primarily "based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning." The exceptions include assigning fixed phonetic values to u and v (ca 1630) and changing the spelling of bytte to bit. According to Crystal, social tolerance of variant spelling came to an end around 1650 as 18th century notions of correctness began to emerge. By 1780, poor spelling became stigmatized.

Boswell credited Johnson's 1775 dictionary with conferring stability on the language. While this may be true, Johnson primarily endorsed what had already been accepted by the influential writers of his day. He did make a number of choices favoring one spelling over another but these judgments were not colored by any attempt to move spelling in the direction of phonemic regularity. While he favored morphemic regularity, he saw no reason to align spelling with pronunciation. He usually represented the plural as [s] although the sound was often a /z/. He consistenly represted the past tense as [ed] although the sound was often /t/. He replaced the medial [y] with [i].

Johnson reasoned that maintaining phonemic alignment was next to impossible because language continually changed. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Swift, Johnson felt it was folly to imagine that a dictionary could embalm language and preserve its words and phrases from mutability

By 1800 one type of diversity had been effectively abolished but the diversity of ways to spell a particular sound has remained. We can no longer use a [y] for the /ai/ in "diversity" but we can still use this letter to represent the "long I" or /ai/ in other words such as "fly". English spelling was standardized (at the word level) but it was never regularized.

The dissatisfaction with English orthography has a long history. The earliest proposal for a more phonemic writing system was probably advanced by Orm in 1180. Orm developed an orthography that doubled consonants after a short vowel. Orm's writing is a principle source of information on the pronunciation of early middle English. John Hart proposed a radical phonetic reform of English in 1569. In 1580, William Bullokar proposed an alphabet of 37 letters. In 1793, William Thornton wrote,

Ingli.5 ot tu kontein a' singl di.stinkt mark or kera'tr a.z th repra'senta'tiv 'v iich si.mple saund wich iz for th huma'n vois 'n breth tu u'tr. No' mark shu.d repra'sent tu or thri distinkt saunds nor shu.d eni si.mpl saund bi repra'sentd b'y tu or thri difr'nt kera'ktrz (Thornton used his own notation not CKS)

Since 1100, more than 70 phonemic notational systems have been proposed for English. Had any one of them been adopted, they would have provided a more consistent writing system and simplified the spelling of English words. Phonemic transcriptions substitute sound spellings for the archaic and etymological spellings found in the English writing system. e.g.,

GYM/jim   DEBT/det   MOVE/mu:v   SIGHT/syt   ROUGH/ruf   ALTHOUGH/o:ltho'

From: Nicholas Fabian’s Type Design, Typography and Graphic  Images (

Alternate alphabets.

In the middle of the eighteen century, the illustrious Benjamin Franklin designed an alternate phonetic alphabet in which each letter represented only one sound and each sound was represented by only one letter. In concert with Franklin's new alphabet, Noah Webster, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, initiated a system of simplified spelling which is responsible for many of the differences between American and English spelling of words today.

Another historical curiosity is the Mormon Deseret Alphabet devised in the 1850s by George D. Wyatt, who was one of Pitman's phonography students in England. In 1837 Wyatt converted to Mormonism, therefore it is not surprising that he was put in charge of the new Deseret Alphabet which had its origin in the shorthand system developed by Sir Isaac Pitman. After two years of revisions, the final version of the alphabet had 38 characters and each represented a unique sound in the English language.

Alexander Melville Bell's (1819-1905) Visible Speech alphabet was another contender to replace the existing Latin alphabet with a phonetic one, one which better illustrates the sounds used in the English language. The essence of his great genius was that the alphabet he created became independent of any specific language. The characters function was to accurately illlustrate predetermined sounds, in any language. Which of course included the vocalization of sign language for the deaf. (Melville Bell was Alexander Graham Bell's father and a highly acclaimed teacher of the deaf, as was Alexander in the early 1870s).

Henry Sweet's (1813-1898?) Organic Alphabet was another attempt to create a flexible phonetic alphabet. Sweet was a nineteenth century phonetician who modified Bell's Visible Speech concept to form his own less rigid Organic Alphabet. The current International Phonetic Alphabet was also based on Sweet's Organic Alphabet and today it contains enough exotic characters, accents and modifiers to satisfy even the most fanatical linguistic research scholar.

From: Noah Webster: Biography of a simplified spelling advocate By: Steve T. Bett,  Ph.D.

Noah Webster (1758-1843), along with his contemporary Ben Franklin, advocated simplified spelling, championed "American spelling," and added such words such as "skunk," "squash," "hickory," "lengthy," and "chowder" to the lexicon.

For 100 years, Noah's popular book taught children how to read, spell, and pronounce words.  Ben Franklin used it to teach his granddaughter how to read.

His early success in 1782 with the blue-backed spelling book earned him a steady income and the wherewithal to devote his life to the first American dictionary, published in 1806.  A second enlarged edition with less radical simplified spellings was published in 1828.

When Noah was 43, he started writing the first American dictionary. He did this because Americans in different parts of the country spelled, pronounced and used words differently. He thought that all Americans should speak the same way. He also thought that Americans should not speak and spell just like the English.

In a show of patriotism typical of the early years of the new republic of the United States, Webster wanted a dictionary to record the English language as spoken on this side of the Atlantic. This was the angle that permitted Webster to throw in a few streamlined spellings of words and deviate from the standards set by Ben Johnson in his 1755 dictionary.

Webster wanted the American language to be somewhat uniform. And he wanted it to be easy. Although he ultimately had to abandon Ben Franklin's idea of changing the spelling of ''tongue'' to ''tung'' and women to ''wimmen,'' the lexicographer did prevail with many simplified spellings that Americans use to this day.

He added a total of 50 American words like "skunk" to his ''Compendious Dictionary,'' and another 5,000 words in common English usage on both sides of the ocean that had previously been considered too ordinary to be included in any dictionary.

Webster worked out a system of diacritics to supply a guide to pronunciation and he gave rules for pronunciation, hoping at best to partially standardize American speech, or at least avoid the worst excesses in England of class divisions and incomprehensible regional patois.

By 1828 the enlarged version of his original dictionary was ready. He had added, by this time, 12,000 words never previously included in any dictionary of our language. Complete with definitions, it was considered better than Samuel Johnson's 1755 English masterpiece in scope and authority.  While highly praised, at $20 it was much too costly for most American households. He tried a second printing at $15 two years before his death in 1843.

From: Teaching Reading - a History by Robert McCole Wilson (

While a few people, such as Sir Thomas Smith (1568) and John Hart (1570) understood the problem could be alleviated by a truly English alphabet (for Smith 34 letters after redundant ones had been eliminated), teachers were bewildered or angered when their pupils who had clearly learned their letters could not read. Some tried to alleviate the dull and exhausting work of learning letters and syllables by using games, others felt more of the same would improve reading and spelling. A supplementary problem was that the idea of readiness for learning was not yet accepted. We read of children as young as three being forced into long recitations of their letters in many combinations.

From the: HISTORY OF SPELLING REFORM by Cornell Kimball

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the U.S. in 1906, and had a list of 300-plus spellings. One of the founding members was Andrew Carnegie, who donated more than $250,000 over the next several years. The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in the U.K. in 1908, as a "sister" organization. (Some more on the Simplified Spelling Society, which is still operating, a number of paragraphs down.)

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt also promoted simpler spellings. Initially, he ordered the Government Printing Office to use the Simplified Spelling Board's 300 or so proposed spellings. This order was issued on August 27, 1906 (while the U.S. Congress was in recess). There was resistance from the Government Printing Office and others who were to carry it out, and when Congress readjourned that fall, they set to revoke Roosevelt's order. From Ken Ives' documentation (his source for this is "Our Times," Volume 3, by Mark Sullivan, Scribner, 1937), we find:

Congress ... voted, 142 to 24, that "no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents ... unless same shall conform to the orthography ... in ... generally accepted dictionaries."

Writer George Bernard Shaw also expressed support for changing English spelling. In his will, Shaw provided for a "contest" to design a new, "phonetic" (meaning based on the speech of England's late King George V) alphabet for English. The contest was held during 1958. The alphabet chosen, which is referred to as the "Shavian" alphabet, has 48 characters, which are different looking from Roman letters; the designer's name is Kingsley Read.

One item to note is that Charles Darwin and Lord Tennyson gave support to the British Spelling Reform Association founded in 1879.

From: Franklin, Benjamin author, printer, scientist (electricity, physics, oceanography, meteorology), diplomat.

Benjamin Franklin, in addition to his other pursuits, was interested in promoting spelling reform. In 1768, while living in London, he wrote A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, a reasonably accurate phonetic system for spelling English which, published in 1779, greatly influence Noah Webster. His new phonetic alphabet consisted of 26 symbols: the conventional letters c, j, q, w, x, and y were eliminated as redundant and six new characters, were devised for sounds for which he thought there was no unambiguous orthographic representation. The remaining letters of the traditional Roman alphabet were retained but their sound value was strictly defined according to the principle 'one symbol (or unique digraph), one sound'. Thus g could only represent the voiced velar stop, as in give, never the voiced palatal affricate, as in gentle. This affricate and its voiceless counterpart (as in chew) he represented by clusters of stop plus palato-alveolar fricative (the fricative portion being the voiceless one in both cases). Other notable features of his system are: 1) the use of double vs. single vowel letters to stand for long vs. short vowels, e.g., mend for 'mend' but remeend for 'remained', 2) the transcription of the diphthong in words such as 'I' and 'buy' with two letters, the first equal to the initial vowel in 'unto' and the second equal to the vowel in 'did', or as we would transcribe it today using the International Phonetic Alphabet, [I]. This latter feature undoubtedly reflects a regional pronunciation which may still be found in some British English and New England dialects.


From: Franklin’s Letters 1768: (

Thus the g has no longer two different Sounds, which occasion'd Confusion, but is as every Letter ought to be, 
confin'd to one; the same is to be observ'd in all the Letters, Vowels and Consonants, that wherever they are 
met with, or in whatever Company, their Sound is always the same.  It is also intended that there be no superfluous 
Letters used in Spelling, i.e. no Letter that is not sounded, and this Alphabet by Six new Letters provides that there 
be no distinct Sounds in the Language without Letters to express them.  As to the Difference between short and 
long Vowels, it is naturally express'd by a single Vowel where short, a double one where long; as, for _mend_ write 
_mend_, but for _remain'd_ write _rime en'd_; for _did_, write _did_, but for _deed_, write _diid_, &c.

From the: Address at the Annual Dinner of the Associated Press, at the Waldorf-Astoria, September 18, 1906.(*) Paul Fatout, in Mark Twain Speaking


People say it is the spelling of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare and a lot of other people who do not know how to spell anyway, and it has been transmitted to us and we preserved it and wish to preserve it because of its ancient and hallowed associations.

Now, I don't see that there is any real argument about that. If that argument is good, then it would be a good argument not to banish the flies and the cockroaches from hospitals because they have been there so long that the patients have got used to them and they feel a tenderness for them on account of the associations. Why, it is like preserving a cancer in a family because it is a family cancer, and we are bound to it by the test of affection and reverence and old, mouldy antiquity.

I think that this declaration to improve this orthography of ours is our family cancer, and I wish we could reconcile ourselves to have it cut out and let the family cancer go.

From: The Alphabet and Simplified Spelling By Mark Twain

Address at the Dinner Given to Mr. Carnegie at the Dedication of the New York Engineers' Club, December 9, 1907.

…but Mr. Carnegie has brought destruction to the entire race. I know he didn't mean it to be a crime, but it was, just the same. He's got us all so we can't spell anything.

The trouble with him is that he attacked orthography at the wrong end. He meant well, but he attacked the symptoms and not the cause of the disease. He ought to have gone to work on the alphabet. There's not a vowel in it with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to.

….. But look at the "pneumatics" and the "pneumonias" and the rest of them. A real reform would settle them once and for all, and wind up by giving us an alphabet that we wouldn't have to spell with at all, instead of this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief.

….Now, if we had an alphabet that was adequate and competent, instead of inadequate and incompetent, things would be different. Spelling reform has only made it bald-headed and unsightly. There is the whole tribe of them, "row" and "read" and "lead" -- a whole family who don't know who they are. I ask you to pronounce s-o-w, and you ask me what kind of a one.

….If we had a sane, determinate alphabet, instead of a hospital of comminuted eunuchs, you would know whether one referred to the act of a man casting the seed over the ploughed land or whether one wished to recall the lady hog and the future ham.

It's a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling (

by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replased either by "k" or "s," and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c," "y" and "x"--bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez--tu riplais "ch," "sh," and "th" rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.


(This article, written during the autumn of 1899, was about the last writing done by Mark Twain on any impersonal subject.)

The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn't know how to spell, and can't be taught. In this it is like all other alphabets except one--the phonographic. This is the only competent alphabet in the world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language.

That admirable alphabet, that brilliant alphabet, that inspired alphabet, can be learned in an hour or two. In a week the student can learn to write it with some little facility, and to read it with considerable ease. I know, for I saw it tried in a public school in Nevada forty-five years ago, and was so impressed by the incident that it has remained in my memory ever since.

I wish we could adopt it in place of our present written (and printed) character. I mean SIMPLY the alphabet; simply the consonants and the vowels--I don't mean any REDUCTIONS or abbreviations of them, such as the shorthand writer uses in order to get compression and speed. No, I would SPELL EVERY WORD OUT.

I will insert the alphabet here as I find it in Burnz's PHONIC SHORTHAND. [Figure 1] It is arranged on the basis of Isaac Pitman's PHONOGRAPHY. Isaac Pitman was the originator and father of scientific phonography. It is used throughout the globe. It was a memorable invention. He made it public seventy- three years ago. The firm of Isaac Pitman & Sons, New York, still exists, and they continue the master's work.

From: George Bernard Shaw (  

"...hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. From the preface Shaw wrote to the "Miraculous Birth of Language"

It was Shaw's opinion that language (or the social inferences made from a person's use of language) was partly to blame for keeping the lower classes in the social, professional and educational gutter. He believed that the seemingly arbitrary relationship between the Roman alphabet's letters and the English language's sounds contributed to this. "Consequently," he wrote in the preface to Pygmalion, "no man can teach himself what [the English language] should sound like from reading it; and it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him."

English, then, is written in a dead, unsuitable alphabet, using spellings which often represent dead sounds. The playwright, critic, socialist and polymath George Bernard Shaw knew this, and wanted to do something about it. He did all his writing in the phonetically-based Pitman's Shorthand, and recognized the benefits that a phonetic alphabet could offer. He gave instructions in his will that for the first 21 years after his death, the earnings from the royalties of all his works should be spent on the creation and promotion of a phonetic alphabet, using 40 or more letters, each of which represented one sound -- and one sound only -- of the English language.

It is, however, for his plays that Shaw is largely remembered. While hugely entertaining, full of exuberant and witty dialogue, they are also didactic, packed with ideas and social messages. This is not the place to list them all, but among the most famous are Mrs Warren's Profession (1898), Man and Superman (1902), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Saint Joan (1923) and Pygmalion (1913) (which was also made into the enormously successful musical and film My Fair Lady).

From: Teaching Reading - a History Part 2 by Robert McCole Wilson

As the cause was seen by many as the non-phonetic nature of much of the English language, a new call for spelling reform went out. Among other solutions, Sir James Pitman, grandson of Sir Isaac, and his followers prepared what was to be called the Initial Teaching Alphabet or i.t.a. of 45 letters, to be first used in 1961. Again great claims were made for its effectiveness and that no problems were encountered in transferring to normal spelling. It was, for a while, used in places both in the U.K and North America.

From: Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov on Spelling Reform by John J. Reilly


From: "This Unscientific Age," one of the John Danz Lectures that Dr. Feynman delivered at the University of Washington in April, 1963.


"Now let me get to a lower level still in this question. And that is, all the time you hear the question, `Why can't Johnny read?' And the answer is, because of the spelling."

After making a few allusions to the history and theory of alphabetic writing, Dr. Feynman observes that "things have gotten out of whack in the English language," which leads him to ask, "[w]hy can't we change the spelling?" In what may be taken as an expression of exasperation with his colleagues in the liberal arts, he declares: "If the professors of English will complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell `friend,' I say to them that something's the matter with the way you spell `friend.'"

So obvious does Dr. Feynman find the need for improvements in English spelling that he has trouble seeing what arguments could be raised against such a project: "[I]t can be argued ..... that [language reform is] a question of style and beauty in the language, and that to make new words and new parts of speech might destroy that. But [the professors of English] cannot argue that respelling the words would have anything to do with the style. There's no form of art form or literary form, with the sole exception of crossword puzzles, in which the spelling makes a bit of difference to the style. And even crossword puzzles can be made with a different spelling."

This brings us to the question of how a reform might be accomplished: "And if it's not the English professors that do it, and if we give them two years and nothing happens -- and please don't invent three ways of doing it, just one way, that everybody [can get] used to -- if we wait these two or three years and nothing happens, then we'll ask the philologists and the linguists and so on because they know how to do it. Did you know that they can write any language with an alphabet so that you can read how it sounds in another language when you hear it? [sic] That's really something. So they ought to be able to do it in English alone."

From: A Question of Spelling," in The Roving Mind, by Isaac Asimov, (Prometheus Books 1983), page 340

Asimov jumps right in and makes a stab at some suggested respellings. Consider "through," "coo," "do," "true," "knew" and "queue," he asks. Why not just spell them "throo," "koo," "doo," "troo," nyoo" and "kyoo"? These respellings would in fact fit within some familiar reform proposals, though perhaps few reform advocates would go along with his assertion that the obvious respelling of "night" should be "nite." Then there is a larger problem.

Noting that the plural of "man" is "men," but that young children will naturally assume that "mans" is the plural, he goes on to assert that the children are right. Thus, along with his advocacy of spelling reform, he includes an argument for a completely regularized grammar, though he does not elaborate on it as fully. The suggestion, "Why not reform grammar, too?" is a common retort made by people who have just been introduced to the idea of spelling reform. Why some people confuse these things is a mystery to people who don't confuse them. In any case, Asimov's essay is the first instance I have ever seen of someone who equated spelling and grammar and who also proposed to reform them both. [5]

Asimov does acknowledge that a great deal of trouble would be occasioned by implementing the reforms he proposes. However, he give three reasons for why it would be worthwhile for everyone to take the trouble:

  (1) However much trouble the reforms would be to us, they would make the lives of our 
  children and grandchildren immeasurably easier. This is the sort of sacrifice that parents
  should be willing to make for their children.

(2) The reforms, once in place, would promote literacy. This would boost worker productivity and assist in enhancing national prosperity.

(3) Earth is in need of a common second language, and English is the most widespread current candidate. Removing the idiosyncrasies of English would promote its spread, which would promote international understanding and world peace.

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