6 quests to fix English's messed-up spelling

Some succeeded. Some failed. Some made things worse.

George Bernard Shaw
(Image credit: (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images))

You've probably noticed that English spelling is not as consistent or phonetically reliable as the spelling of many other languages. Writing English is sort of like one of those computer games where you'll always get killed eventually, and your score depends simply on how long you survive before you slip up.

So why don't we fix it? Why keep spellings like island and debt, for instance? Other languages such as Dutch and Norwegian have successfully tidied up their spelling. Norwegian now spells the French loan word chauffeur as sjåfør, for instance — perfectly phonetically for them. Why can't we do likewise?

Actually, there have been quite a few attempts at reforming English spelling. Some of them have even been at least partially successful. Unfortunately, some of them have just made things worse. Here's a look at a few historical reformers and the effects they had.

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1. Renaissance classicists

When the English language rolled into the Renaissance in the 1500s, the pronunciation had shifted away from the spelling in many ways, and the spelling had gotten extra twists from people such as French clerks and Dutch typesetters. Dictionaries didn't exist yet, so there was no solid reference for people to follow. So what did the bright minds of the time do? They fixed some of the spelling.

Unfortunately, the way they fixed it was to try to make the words show their classical roots. Many words that came from Latin — or that they thought had come from Latin — got extra silent letters just to show their glorious classical origins. So det, which could be traced back to debitum, got the b stuffed in just as a schoolmasterish rap on the knuckles. Iland, which actually came from an Old English word, was mistakenly thought to come from Latin insula and so an s was erroneously stuffed in.

Words such as receipt, indict, and victual ("vittle") also got their forms from the same "reform." Some words even changed pronunciation after the spelling changed. For instance, fault and vault were formerly faute and vaute but got Latin-inspired l's, and now we say them that way.

2. John Hart

In 1551, he published The Opening of the Unreasonable Writing of our Inglish Toung, in which he proposed adding new letters to stand for sounds we spelled sh, ch, and th. He also wanted to drop c and q in favor of just s and k for their sounds, and he wanted to get rid of many silent final e's. He wanted, as much as possible, a one sound–one letter correspondence. Alas, most of his proposed changes did not catch on: We still write can, good, like, and certain rather than kan, gud, leik, and serten, for instance.

3. Jonathan Swift

The noted satirist and author of Gulliver's Travels wrote a public letter in 1712 advocating the assembly of a body of qualified persons to fix the English language properly, setting formal rules for spelling and grammar and also throwing out some undesirable new words and bringing back some nice old ones. Swift did not propose specific rules himself, but did inveigh against "a foolish Opinion, advanced of late Years, that we ought to spell exactly as we speak; which beside the obvious Inconvenience of utterly destroying our Etymology, would be a thing we should never see an End of." (You can see that Swift capitalized all his nouns, too, which was a common practice at the time.)

We should remember, though, that Swift was known for some very dry satire. So was he for real? Scholars are still arguing about that. Whatever the case, the committee he proposed never came to be. Meanwhile, many people still argue that spelling reform will destroy etymological awareness, as though most English speakers were all that etymologically aware. Few people know that warp used to mean "throw" and throw used to mean "twist," for instance, or that helicopter and pterodactyl both use the Greek root pter for "wing." And while people argue against changing ph to f as in filosofy (a change Italian has easily made), no one screams against fantasy replacing phantasy. We don't look at the forms of words to know their origins; we look at good dictionaries.

4. Noah Webster

The creator of the first American dictionary took it upon himself to enshrine some better spellings in it: get rid of unnecessary letters and use clearer spellings where possible. Some of the spellings he chose were already in use by some people; others were innovations. Some of them stuck — they're the main reason American spelling is different from British: For instance, color, center, check, anemia rather than colour, centre, cheque, anaemia. Others didn't catch on and were left out of later editions of the dictionary, among them definit, bild, tung and — yes — iland.

5. George Bernard Shaw

This noted playwright would have liked to chuck the existing alphabet altogether. He came up with a lovely, sinuous new alphabet with which English could be spelled exactly as it was spoken — at least as it was spoken by people with his accent. But who wants to have to learn a new alphabet and invest in new type sets?

Shaw also supported reform with the existing alphabet. He was a major supporter of the Simplified Spelling Society, which — now called the English Spelling Society — is still around, though it has not seen any major reforms implemented. Even Shaw's simplest reform — eliminating most uses of the apostrophe, which he did without trouble in his own works — has not caught on.

6. The Chicago Tribune

Newspapers and other publications have had some effect on spelling. One paper that made a long and valiant effort at reform was the Chicago Tribune, which through the middle of the 20th century respelled a number of words more simply. A few of these changes have come to be reflected in more general American use: catalog without ue, ameba rather than amoeba, program without me. Many others just never caught on, and the Tribune ended up running up the white flag on useful reforms such as tho, thru, frate (in place of freight), ruf, and — sigh — det and iland.

That's right: Old spelling changes that introduced errors and trouble just couldn't be reformed back to simple good sense. We may complain about the spelling, but as a whole we seem to be addicted to its weirdness.

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