What’s wrong with spelling reform anyway? And what about the Shaw Alphabet?

I’ve heard that there are some people who think that English spelling is difficult. In fact, I think I know a couple of them.

But nobody has to spend years learning how to spell Spanish words, so why do we spend years learning how to spell English words?

Perhaps I should have written that “ayv herd that dhayr ar sum peepul huu think dhat inglish speling iz difikult. In fakt, ay think ay noe uh kuhpil uv them. But noebudy haz tuu spend yeerz lerning how tuu spel spanish werdz, soe way duu wee spend yeerz lerning how tuu spel inglish werdz?”

There have been many different arguments against proposals for reforming English spelling, some better than others. But none of these proposals will work. That makes me sad, as I had long ago become committed to learning and using one such reform; it was when I was 15 that George Bernard Shaw’s phonetic alphabet for English appeared in a complete edition of his short play Androcles and the Lion, with facing pages in standard and Shavian spellings and with a card (reproduced here) giving the entire alphabet in a well-organized form (unlike A–Z). Sounds are illustrated as bold letters in sample words, such as “th as in thigh“ or “th as in they.” You notice right away that this alphabet uses somewhat… unfamiliar, shall we say?… forms for the letters, as well as being phonetic. See the bottom of this post for an image of the cover, which shows the alphabet when used in a sample of running text.

Of course the arguments pro and con depend on each specific proposal, and this one would cause particular stress and anxiety for most people. Only strange teenagers like the one I was at the time (budding linguists, of course) would eagerly embrace this self-assigned task of reading an entire play in this script and learning to write it with reasonable fluency. My Andover teachers didn’t quite know what to make of me, although my Greek teacher at the time had no issues with my idiosyncrasies as he had plenty of his own, such as requiring us to keep our ties and jackets on in every class except during the winter when we could remove our jackets as long as he had the windows wide open (preparing for COVID 58 years early?). But I digress…

Justin B. Rye, the author of the document linked to in the third paragraph above, posits a baker’s dozen of objectors to spelling reform. In each case he gives a very brief summary of the objector’s claim followed by a slightly longer rejoinder. Dip into them to find a compelling example of objection+rejoinder, and you’ll get the flavor. Here’s one example (note that Rye was writing in 2007):

Remington Salesman: Any phonemic script would need to provide distinct graphemes for each of the forty or so phonemes of English, which means seriously expanded typewriters!  We’ll need either ugly diacritics or entirely novel letters — for instance, show (two phonemes, /ʃ/ + /oʊ/) will have to become something like šō!

Answer: At present almost every letter of the alphabet is severely overstrained – it’s “EIGH” as in beAuty, “BEE” as in numB, “SEE” as in musCle, “DEE” as in hanDkerchief, “EE” as in siEvEd, “EPH” as in oF, “JEE” as in Gnomonic, “AITCH” as in Hour, “EYE” as in busIness, “DGEIGH” as in mariJuana, “CAIGH” as in Knee, “ELL” as in couLd, “EM” as inMnemonic, “EN” as in damN, “EAU” as in leOpard, “PEE” as in Pneumonic, “KEW” as in lacQuer, “AHR” as in dossieR, “ESS” as in iSle, “TEE” as in husTle, “YOO” as in bUild, “VEE” as in kalashnikoVs, “DOUBLEYOO” as in Wry, “ECKS” as in fauX, “WIGH” as in mYrrh, “ZED” as in capercailZie!  But in a reform, what’s to stop us using two‐letter graphemes (as in sh ow)?  That way there are more than enough possibilities; we can even retire Q, X, and our existing ugly diacritic, the apostrophe!  One new vowel symbol would be handy; I’d go for Scandinavian‐style slashed O as in Bjørn.

But by the way, while we’re addressing hypothetical typewriter manufacturers, I’d better warn them that the old QWERTY keyboard will be declared ungoodthinkful too.  Its deliberately unergonomic layout, designed to slow down common sequences on early manual typewriters, is a thoroughly pointless legacy once we’re typing different common sequences on unjammable palmtop keypads.

Prestige and recognition will be awarded to the first person who spots and identifies Rye’s reference to Orwell.

Here’s the promised book cover:



Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning