Should English spelling be reformed?

Did you catch much of the Spelling Bee last week? It finished up last Friday. The winner, Anamika Veeramani, knew how to spell nahcolite and stromur. Do you? Yes, you caught me: the correct spelling for a rheometer that measures arterial blood flow is actually stromuhr. Well done.

English spelling is full of oddities and inconsistencies. Humorists and reformers alike love to string together non-rhyming orthographic siblings like “The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough“.

Tough Coughs book

The humorist pauses for the laugh, but your true reformer plows (ploughs?) ahead with serious mean (I mean mien). Joe Little, my buddy from high school, is a true reformer. He puts his money where his mouth is too. Not only is he the director of the reform-oriented American Literacy Council, he actually traveled to Washington DC for the recent Spelling Bee so that he could protest its very existence. Not that he has anything against clever kids like Anamika Veeramani. It’s just that he thinks that, as his sign says: “English Spelling Spells Trouble”. Listen to what he has to say in this sympathetic USA Today video. By the way, that’s Joe in the bee costume.

Where do you come down? Are you convinced? Should English spelling really be reformed? The ever-informative Language Log has a good discussion about the relationship between spelling vs. rate of learning. But it all seems to be fairly equivocal. On the face of it, English spelling IS nutty. But who gets to reform it? And what gets left behind?

As I see it, the simplification of Chinese characters is a good historical lesson to learn from. In the name of stamping out illiteracy, Chairman Mao pushed through a set of drastically simplified characters. It’s easy to see the motivation, but the old characters didn’t go away, and as a result, some 2000 new (simple) characters have been added to the traditional set of around 50,000 characters. Is Chinese better off or not? The debate rages on.

Finally, now that you’re wound up about spelling, would you risk a wound to your pride by attempting the Spelling Bee’s sample test? If you take it, let us know how you did.

4 thoughts on “Should English spelling be reformed?”

  1. 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.

  2. I recommend reading Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. It’s what happens in a small society as letters are taken away(and that book reminds me of Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.)

    Spelling bee sample test results: 23/25 plus both extras.

  3. 21/27 I was most impressed with bouleversement, a real “huh?” moment, but I got it right anyway. I still think the ending to “Akeelah and the Bee” is crap though.

    That said as a Brit I have strong opinions about Americans changing the language just because they fear looking dumb. I understand Germans trying to cut the language down to size as it plays hell up with newspaper formatting at times, but enuf? Thu? I can only hope he’s joking.

  4. As a pseudo-historian a lot of these things will ultimately not matter. While dictionaries can have some say about what happens with the English, languages are and always will be defined by the people who use them.

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