by Chris Bertram on August 12, 2004

Whilst English speakers doughtily plough on with our archaic and tough spellings, and have to acquire a tolerance for the inconsistencies between British English and American English (to name but two), the German authorities have fought to implement a thorough spelling reform. But it seems that implementation faces a major hiccough as some of the major German newspapers have had second thoughts. Scott Martens gives “a rough but excellent account of developments”:http://fistfulofeuros.net/archives/000759.php and rationales over at Fistful of Euros. (In other news, I shall be travelling to Loughborough this weekend.)



st 08.12.04 at 3:30 pm

We should rationalize English language; it should be more like, say, Sanskrit where there is no need for spelling or pronounciation keys. We should have our kids focus on cure for aids or cancer than having them to spend inordinate amount of time figuring out spellings and pronounciations.


st 08.12.04 at 3:30 pm

We should rationalize English language; it should be more like, say, Sanskrit where there is no need for spelling or pronounciation keys. We should have our kids focus on cure for aids or cancer than having them to spend inordinate amount of time figuring out spellings and pronounciations.


chris 08.12.04 at 4:09 pm

IIRC, Loughborough advertises itself on the station platform as “the home of Ladybird Books” – a fine introduction to the grand old traditions of English spelling.


Des von Bladet 08.12.04 at 4:17 pm

Really big spelling reforms (such as which Engleesh is often said to need) are typically associated with Regime Change:

* when Engleesh came back after the Normans it had mislaid its nice ð and þ and abandoned much of the inflectional morphology that the conservative written standard based around West Saxon (I think) had retained .
* Ataturk wasn’t mostly a spelling reformer, I think it’s fair to say.
* Norwegian spelling (which is much more a result of 19th century nationalisme than Scott’s claim of a C20 origin suggests) arose from a desire to throw off the orthographic shackles of Danish along with Danish colonial status. (Personally I would much prefer a unified spelling of Danish, Swedish and Norwegish, even if it was not especially phonemic.)
* The biggest Danish spelling reform happened in 1948, and its effects were generally to make the language look a lot less like German (eg. Capitals for nouns were dropped, finally adopting å). Danish spelling still sucks, despite this and subsequent changes, but now Kierkegaard is unreadable too. (Insert Kierkegaard readability joke here.)

From what I hear (on sci.lang, usually, where spelling reform loonies are fairly common) smaller incremental spelling reforms, as practiced in, say, the Netherlands generally get bogged down in dialect politics and end ip with messy and incoherent compromises that no one likes (and often no one uses).

When a language has gone global the way English has, and its dialects prosper in India, Australia, Ireland, the USA and Canada, a thorough spelling review that accomodates all of the users is impossible, and one that doesn’t – while manufacturing an unprecedented break with Our Glorious Literary Patrimony is flat out batshit loopy.

(Of course, The Sound Pattern of English, by Chomsky and Halle says that standard English orthography is pretty much optimal for English morphophonology, but that’s Chomsky and Halle for you.)


Duane 08.12.04 at 4:38 pm

Good point des!

You can add the linguistic reforms that the Chinese Communist Party brought in with the revolution to your list — the change from traditional to simplified Chinese ideograms; mandating the teaching and use of Mandarin; the development and use of Pinyin as a standard method of romanisation.

Probably the most significant, wide-reaching and successful linguistic reforms ever.


Scott Martens 08.12.04 at 5:10 pm

Des, you’re right that big changes in spelling have often been associated with regime change. This is precisely because difficult spellings are useful to established elites. But small and irregular changes have been a part of most major languages over the last couple of centuries.

I’m not a phonetic spelling zealot. Language management has to balance many concerns, and one is the diversity of the target population. The break-up of the continental Scandiavian languages certainly strikes me as unnecessary. It damages the group as a whole to be broken up into three small languages when they could easily have one language accessible to all.

Nor do I advocate a phonetic “Received English” spelling and the dialects be damned. I don’t even mind etymological spelling. However, there is no excuse for words like “enough”, or distinguising “-ence” and “-ance” when few if any English speakers can distinguish between them anymore.


Chris Bertram 08.12.04 at 5:17 pm

Sympathetic as I am to your position, Scott, I think that

few if any English speakers can distinguish between them anymore

is a bit of an overstatement!


Scott Martens 08.12.04 at 5:38 pm

“Independence” vs “balance”. I’m not totally familiar with the ins and outs of English dialectology, but is there really any large area where the last syllable sounds different in those two words? I thought that they never sounded different when the -ence/-ance is unstressed, since the days of the Normans.


des von bladet 08.12.04 at 5:55 pm

Well, I’m certainly willing to sacrifice the “b” in debt and the “b” in doubt and any other redundancies introduced by misguided etymololigistes.

Beyond that, I would expect any attempt to weed out obsolete phonemic distincitions to exercise a good deal of care that the distinctions aren’t preserved in at least a very wide range of (UK, say) Englishes.. (And even then I think you’ll need to send in the tanks.)

Do you have respectable scholarly studies on the educational burden imposed by Engleesh orthography, by the way? Something quantitative with serious consideration of methodology and control groups and stuff?


Strange Doctrines 08.12.04 at 5:59 pm

Actually, German spelling is far more uniform than its English counterpart. (A couple of irregularities with the scharfes s v. double s. Big deal.) It’s German grammar that needs reforming.


Jonathan Lundell 08.12.04 at 6:06 pm

No discussion of newspapers and spelling reform should leave out at least a mention of the Chicago Tribune’s effort in the 20s & 30s.

There’s an account of it from the Trib itself here: http://www.ericzorn.com/extra/spelling/page2.html


Matt McGrattan 08.12.04 at 6:08 pm

Some of the issues raised re: English are clearly dialect specific.

Some of the ‘redundant’ or ‘silent’ letters are in fact NOT redundant in dialects that retain some ‘archaic’ pronunciations — the silent ‘gh’ is not silent in some Scots dialects, for example.

Similarly, some of the distinctions marked by things like ‘-ance’ versus ‘-ence’ also follow genuine pronunciation differences.

The number of vowel and consonant phonemes can vary quite radically across different English dialects.

Scots English, for example, has several fewer vowel phonemes [several of the dipthongs are replaced by monopthongs] than RP English and several more consonant phonemes [specifically the ‘ch’ sound in ‘Loch’ and the aspirated sound at the start of ‘which’ and ‘what’].

Our spelling system reflects some of these pronunciation differences.

Some dialects of American English in certain ‘rhotic’ vowel contexts have an almost comically small number of vowel phonemes… e.g. in sentences like “Merry Mary wants to marry” where all of the M words are homophones [with a rhoticized schwa type vowel sound].

You could go on at great length in this manner…

One ought to be very wary of making any pronouncements about the redundancy of certain spelling differences with respect to pronunciation.


Another Damned Medievalist 08.12.04 at 6:40 pm

Wait a minute — get rid of the b in debt? For some of us, it’s not just the fact that certain letters may be silent for some speakers and not for others (often, almond, salmon, burgh … ), but it’s also the fact that some of these are remnants of roots. “Det” makes it impossible to relate to Latin or any other Romance words. Just make the kid memorize the bloody spelling — it isn’t that hard, and there is more and more indication that memorization opens up more pathways in the brain and “activates” more brain cells (at least according to a New Scientist article the spouse read aloud to me a while back). It’s bad enough that most US schools have given up on vocabulary and Greek- and Latin root words as part of the curriculum. I can’t even express the stupidity of making English (esp. in the US?) speakers more linguistically isolated.

As for the German spelling changes — they were taliking about this when I lived there, and I think it’s pretty lame, since the rules really don’t change anything in any meaningful way. Moreover, when learning German (and this is true for the child, who spent her first 8 years at school in German schools, things like the scharfes S made perfect orthographic sense, if only for proper hyphenization.


Anthony 08.12.04 at 6:53 pm

The only thing I have to say is, “Filosofie.” I was so happy to find out the ‘ph’ was retained in German spelling when I arrived in Austria (where I’m learning German this summer), and so depressed when I found out my dictionary predated the language reform.


Des von Bladet 08.12.04 at 7:23 pm

Another Damned Medievalist:

Wait a minute — get rid of the b in debt?

Damned right get rid of it with knobs on! You do not, I observe, claim that it is actually etymologically sound, but neither do you remark that it is not, which it is not. I quote:

<Debt> isn’t an inherited spelling; the <b> got put in in the 18th c. (should be or some such, because it’s borrowed from French) by some lexicographer who thought it ought to look like Latin .

The one “reform” I’d advocate is the reversal of such pedantic pseudo-etymological mistakes.

As for “any other Romance words”, the French is (une) dette, which is precisely the bloody point!

Everyone should stick with 18th century orthographic hypercorrection because you get a whole letter’s worth of hint in learning Latin? You;’ll qualify for your own circle of hell, at that rate.


bza 08.12.04 at 8:31 pm

Well, even if “debt” doesn’t give a proper clue to its etymology, the “-ance”/”-ence” suffixes do. I’m not saying that justifies it, mind.

But I’m skeptical that erasing such a disitinction would really improve literacy. The “-ance”/”-ence” distinction, for example, lacks any justification except (1) tradition, and (2) the tiny bit of etymological information encoded therein. But is that lack of a rationale for the distinction _of itself_ a good reason for erasing the distinction? We might, in our armchairs, suppose that it causes problems for even native speakers, but in my experience (grading essays by undergraduates at a public university) this _particular_ construction doesn’t cause widespread problems. And if it doesn’t cause many problems, then it doesn’t seem to me as if the fact that its presence in English orthography detracts from the logicality or brevity of written language is a sufficient reason for retaining it.

I guess my point is that some of the commentary thus far has had too rationalistic a flavor, advocating that we eliminate what seems insufficiently motivated in the orthography. But a reform adopted on that basis isn’t guaranteed to achieve the practical effects of language reform (that is, if it’s not _actually_ causing people problems, eliminating it isn’t going to improve matters). A more sensible principle for reform would be more resolutely empirical: change those aspects of the orthography that people in fact have difficulty getting right, not just those that seem baroque, illogical, or otiose.


bza 08.12.04 at 8:35 pm

Correction: “sufficient reason for retaining it” should have been “sufficient reason for expunging it.”


Backword Dave 08.12.04 at 10:59 pm

Beautiful post Chris. But if you try anything similar in future, could you use line breaks (as in poetry) for those of us who had to read it twice to get it?


dsquared 08.13.04 at 12:51 am

Will you be going to Loughborough, or just passing through?


Another Damned Medievalist 08.13.04 at 1:58 am

Des —

i hadn’t realized that the b was added later, but you misunderstand me if you think I meant that it helped with Latin. What I meant was that that link to Latin Debeo, opens up a whole bunch of cool relationships in English — the relationship between owing and what one ought to do, for example.

Maybe I’m odd in that I relate words and idioms back and forth in as many languages I can — I find it very helpful when I’m reading something (in English, Lating, or German, usually) from a different time period. But like I said — maybe other people don’t find it useful to know where words come from and how they evolve in other languages …


Scott Martens 08.13.04 at 8:47 am

Bza – one of the issues in language management is the notion that literacy ought to mean more than just being able to read and understand, it means being able to construct texts. Communication is a two way street. While eliminating unnecessary distinctions may not raise people’s ability to comprehend texts significantly, it can raise their ability to produce them by quite a lot.

It’s not just being able to read books that matters. Linguistic empowerment also means being able to use print media to communicate what you want to say.

With the rise of the ‘Net – and the proliferation of micropublishing fora like blogs – I think this element of language politics has become terribly important. In the past, relatively few people expressed themselves regularly in print. Now, tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions do every day.

This problem is extremely acute in Chinese and Japanese, much more so than in English and French. But it’s present in those languages as well.


Des von Bladet 08.13.04 at 9:16 am

Another Damned Medievaliste: I do think you’re odd. Since I dout [sic], however, that you’re quite odd enough to endorse a proposal for a spelling based on reconstructed proto-Indo-European roots, you presumably accept that the line has to be drawn somewhere.

For me, etymologically-motivated retrofitting of silent letters not present in the source language of a loan word is the wrong side of that line.

As a philologiste, you apparently find a writing system optimised for philologistes convenient. (Quelle, as they say in West Belgian, surprise.) The bulk of the persons who end up grappling with Engleesh orthography are not philologistes and never will be and there is simply no “maybe” about it.

To add to what Scott says, it’s an orthodoxy in linguistics that in practice lots of people need to be able to read, but almost nobody needs to write. That used to be true, but it increasingly isn’t. My theory, which is mine, is that the standards of spelling and written grammar that are always said to be falling are doing no such thing, but rather a wider range of the competence spectrum is now on view.

But Scott is also right that it’s essentially a political issue, and correspondingly wrong (IMHO) in so far as he thinks that the political will to address it is likely to come when it’s called.


Scott Martens 08.13.04 at 11:58 am

Des, I’m not sure that we disagree about the likelihood of English language reform ever happening. Just because I think it wouldn’t be the end of the world if some of the worst bits of English spelling – especially the ones that I have trouble with – were to go away doesn’t mean I think I’m ever going to see it happen.

The only plausible scenario I have where it happens in the next century involves English actually becoming an international vehicular language in a much wealthier world. In a world where 80+% of English users were non-native and accounted for the vast majority of the money earned by anglophones, I think it is just possible that they would demand a reform and have to power to do it despite resistance from English speakers.

But I doubt it, on essentially political grounds. Learning English is, just like French in the 18th century, another skill that requires time and money to learn, and thus separates ruling classes from ruled classes. Simplifying English undermines that end even for non-natives.


Scott Martens 08.13.04 at 12:06 pm

Des, as for studies on literacy and spelling, there are some, but not where I can get to them quickly. A lot of the Ebonics research touches on this stuff and I suspect you could find what you’re looking for by sifting through their bibliographies. I’d gladly do it myself, but I haven’t the time right now or the easy library access.


Des von Bladet 08.13.04 at 1:07 pm

Scott: I’ll look for Eboniciste studies; thanks for the tip.

But as handwriting is progressively obsoleted by computer-mediated text, and spell-checker technology trickles down, then surely orthography ceases to be a barrier to entry. So long as my spell-checker can figure out what I mean, of course.

In fact, a dedicated software front-end that mapped phonetic (or reformed) spelling to standard is not only doable, but very closely related to things I’ve been doing anyway. (Banish your spelling woes! With the New Von Bladet Wordiciser you can spell the way you speak and our software will take care of the rest!)

(Of course, I want to get seriously disgustingly rich by finally solving the speech recognition problem, but this might be a nice way to start.)

Have you seen/heard about Japanese phone tech, though? The numeric keypad is perfect for kana entry, and the subsequent kanjification is menu based, and everyone seems to like it.


Scott Martens 08.13.04 at 1:58 pm

Des, yes, spellcheckers reduce – or at least postpone – the problem. I would certainly agree that there are more pressing issues of social justice in the wealthy anglophone states than spelling reform. But I do want to highlight the political character and political consequences of the decision that there should be just one written English. This too was an unexamined element of the Ebonics debate way-back-when.

I came across a paper a while back suggesting that English spellings may be the principle cause of dyslexia. I can’t remeber who wrote it, but I’ll see if I can dig it up for you. I don’t remember being too impressed with the conclusions at the time.

As for the mechanics of spellchecking, you can use Levenshtien distance and Soundex to guess what someone is trying to spell even when they totally screw it up. If you use context vectors to guess which word they meant to say as well, you can get 95%+ accuracy in automatic spellchecking. My understanding is that this is the current dominant paradigm in spellchecker design. The major problems have to do with morphology errors, for which you need a local parsing model to make an automatic correction. The real problems are lazy spellcheckers who correct words incorrectly.

As for the speech recognition problem, the problem is no longer phoneme recognition, since for isolated sounds the machines do that as well as people do. (Which is to say, badly.) The problem is in the internal language model used to prime the recogniser for the next sound and to correct errors. It seems people primarily use an internal language model – some system of expectations about what the next sound or word will be – to recognise speech. Getting the machines to do that is a bitch. Lernout & Hauspie blew countless millions on the problem, and managed to make some progress but never did quite “solve” the problem. (One of my grad school profs was – IIRC – the head of research there at one time.) There was somebody in the LSA community the last time I was in grad school who was getting good results using distribution matrices and singular value decomposition in lieu of a rule-based language model, and getting good results. I don’t know what has become of his work since. I did some experiments myself with spreading activation networks for the same purposes, but my results were mediocre and proved more useful in automated thesaurus development.

There are suspicions that the problem is not fully solvable as conventionally understood. Too many extra-linguistic factors have to go into a language model sound enough to minimise error to the level of the human speaker. We can’t encapsulate a lifetime of human context knowledge into a piece of software, and we are not really any closer to doing so than decades ago when speech recognition was first dreamed up.

AI people like me are professionally pessimistic. Our highest aspirations are to minimise error. Actually solving problems is not within our expertise.


Scott Martens 08.13.04 at 2:05 pm

Oh, and as for kana-based cellphone entry, I saw the system you’re talking about on Language Log a few months back. I’ve always wanted to see if you could make it work using a one-handed keyboard so that you could chord kana in. I’ve always thought that would be cool. And, if you extended it to Chinese using an attack-nucleus-coda model for each syllable, and then chording in the appropriate hanzi from an on-screen menu, you might be able to simultaneously solve the Chinese/Japanese data entry problem, establish a defacto Chinese phonetic alphabet, and figure out the best way to marry a keyboard to a PDA.

That would be cool. And might make a ton of cash on the side.


Des von Bladet 08.13.04 at 2:18 pm

Scott: I will look at spell-check technology, but my gimmick is precisely client-side spelling reform, as it were – I want persons not to care at all about the spelling and use a (correctable, for sure) inverse pronouncing dictionary-esque map.

As for speech recognition, your remarks can be summarised (polemically, yes) as “speech recognition people don’t know anything about phonology”. Post-Chomskyan phonology is well worth not knowing much about, generally, so the blame is distributable but even so, it’s pretty desperate out there. (Thanks for the review, nonetheless.)

I think several strands in pre-Chomskian phonology offer plausible leads for a way in to modelling phonology, which is what’s needed. (My day job isn’t AI, and amateur cynicisme doesn’t have quite the same appeal.)


Another Damned Medievalist 08.13.04 at 4:36 pm

Des —

Maybe it’s because ever good language teacher I’ve ever had leaned towards philology, and maybe it’s ’cause I’m a historian. All I know is that Spelling isn’t particularly difficult if you let rote memorization take over part of the workload. And rote memorization is not a bad thing — it can be a useful tool. I know that my students are always interested when I talk about word roots and relationships in regards to history, and those discussions seem to stick in their heads much better — a simple example is the burg, bourg, burgh thing — what the word meant originally and how it’s been applied since. If we were to all agree to drop the ‘unnecessary’ h at the end of burgh, or even spell it phonetically as borough or boro or burrah, that lesson would be lost. Sorry, but I find learning spelling to be a minor inconvenience compared to losing a lot of the richness of language.


Des von Bladet 08.13.04 at 5:41 pm


Or maybe it’s because you success has desensitised you to the difficulties others reallly do experience.

In case you’ve forgotten, I oppose spelling reform (in the weak sense of thiniking it won’t happen and not caring very much) except for the isolated examples of articially retrofitted ‘b’s that I gave. (I don’t think, of course, that that tweakette will happen, either, but I am infinitessimally less sanguine about it.)

But riddle me this:

The “straw” in “strawberry” was, in the Old English form of the word, transparently connected with the OE form of “strewn”, and it is clear that it refers to the way wild strawberries are found as if strewn along one’s path, hoorah! But, alas, the ravages of time have rendered the compound semantically opaque! (Example swiped from Bloomfield Language 1933/5)

Now, are you:

* prepared to agitate for a change in the spelling to “strewnberry” (leaving the pronunciation alone, of course) to repair this tragic and untimely morphological disaster?
* content that, notwithstanding this sad loss, the One True Spelling system in which we rejoice is the best of all possible spellings, even when its ways are difficult to fathom?
* not really bothered?

And why?

(Answers on the back of a fascicle, please, to:

The English English Academy of England,
Behind the bike sheds,
The Old Vicarage,
Cholmondley Street,


MM 08.14.04 at 9:27 am

des/another d. m.
Are you aware that the German spelling reform did exactly this – return to the roots? Some German words whose spelling concealed their origin were given a spelling that showed the origin, e.g. Stengel became Stängel, Quentchen became Quäntchen, verbleuen became verbläuen. At the same time the opposite was done with foreign words, so you can write Delfin as well as Delphin (there are quite a lot of alternative spellings) or Pappmaschee as well as Pappmaché.
Well, I suppose this isn’t about the German spelling reform now.


Another Damned Medievalist 08.14.04 at 6:25 pm

Ugh — never comment early in the morning. Des — I am not saying we should return to OE (which is, after all, a different language) or that language should be stagnant (although I will continue to fight for the subjunctive, at least in the case of reported speech and ‘if … were’). All’s I’m saying is that spelling reforms to make things easier are EEEEEVILLL, because dumbing down never helps and because I really believe that learning more about languages does more good.


Tom Morris 08.16.04 at 11:18 am

Spelling reform is great. And it works. Spelling reform by government is not great, and does not work. Spelling reform is a slow process taking generations for spellings to be accepted and formed in to languages via dictionaries, common usage and adoption by different people over time. Government have enough control over our life without trying to control our language too.

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