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Do u find this rticle ezi to reed : Spelling reform

01:00 Fri 29th Mar 2002 |

Q. Doesn't this just go round and round What's new

A. Dont u meen wots nu Yes, attempts at reforming the spelling of English go back over 200 years, in fact, to the time when the rules were first codified in the late 18th century, largely through the influence of publications such as Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (first published in 1755).

Q. So why haven't they had any success

A. They have, more obviously in the USA - where, for example, -or rather than -our endings are standard and alternative spellings such as thru and nite are quite acceptable - than in the UK. Examples of simplification in British spelling conventions are public, magic and fantasy, which, up to the end of the 19th century were commonly written publick, magick and phantasy.

Q How come it worked in the USA

A. Throughout the 19th century movements for spelling reform grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, and probably the most influential proposals were those put forward by the American lexicographer Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary. The big difference between the USA and Britain was that the US Government Printing Office adopted the new conventions pretty much wholesale in 1864, so the reformed spellings have been the ones used in all US government documents since and they have thus gone into general usage.

Q. Cut to it. What's the latest

A. A new website has been set up to canvas opinion on reform and to campaign for simplifying our spelling conventions. Called it's the brainchild of Richard Wade, a retired broadcaster.

Q. What does he want

A. Given that as many as 13 percent of all English words are not spelled the way they sound, Mr Wade is suggesting simple shortcuts such dropping the silent 'b' in 'debt' and replacing the 'ph' in photography with 'f'. An article on the site puts the case quite succinctly: 'Learners must decode this chaos for reading and memorise it for writing. Literacy is therefore far harder to acquire in English than in most languages.' This, states, is the essence of the problem.

Q. So, who is Mr Wade

A. He is a former executive producer of the BBC science show Tomorrow's World and deputy controller of Radio 4 - who says, incidently, that he's an accomplished speller. Yet even he gets caught out sometimes. 'I celebrated my 40th birthday at Radio 4, and pointed out to my colleagues that they had spelt my age wrong on the card - they'd written "forty" rather than "fourty". When someone gently told me that 40 was actually spelled that way, I thought, "That's just ridiculous".' Seeing the problems faced by his mildly dyslexic wife and school-age stepchildren also proved to be an eye-opener. 'There's a stigma attached to bad spelling, yet we're very tolerant of accents and bad grammar. I think that's not fair.'

Q. What does he suggest children are taught

A. He recommends sticking to the established rules when writing for school or work, but using freespelling with friends and family.

Q. Using a phonetic language, then

A. He doesn't advocate the wholesale adoption of phonetic spelling, because that doesn't take into account regional differences in pronunciation. What he says is that we 'should be working towards a consensus to spell for the comprehension, clarity and comfort of the reader' and no more leaving it up to the vagaries of freespelling than the archaic rules we have at the moment. He is quoted as saying: 'I'm getting a lot of e-mails where every word is freespelled - they're impossible to read. People should only freespell the words they find tricky or illogical.'

Q. How is he going about this revolution

A. His goal is to put up to 20 words a month, have visitors vote on their preferred spelling, and then assemble the chosen versions in an online dictionary. Although he sees little chance of a global agreement on changing the way we spell, Mr Wade is keen to get the text-message generation on board. 'If I can get all the teenagers in California freespelling, then it'll be well on the way.'

In its first three months the site had 500,000 hits, had visitors from 39 different countries and received 50,000 e-mails from supporters and detractors alike. 'The internet is the perfect medium for effecting this kind of change. Publicising this by conventional means would cost a fortune, ' he says.

Q. Presumably he has his critics

A. David Lister of the Plain English Campaign says such reforms would most likely provoke resistance, if not outrage. 'Changing the language is not like the metrification of weights and measures - you can't just change the rules overnight. The English language is one of the things people hold very dear - they know it's illogical, they know it's annoying, but they love it.'

When Mr Wade was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4, John Humphrys - a self-confessed carmudgeon when it comes to all things linguistic - harrumphed on air at the idea.

Find Richard Wade's site at

See also the answerbank articles on US vs British spelling and Canadian English

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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