WALTER RIPMAN, M.A., Chief Inspector, University of London.

SIR MARK HUNTER, M.A., D.Lit., formerly Director of Public Instruction, Burma.

PROFESSOR R. E. ZACHRISSON, of The Royal University, Uppsala, Sweden.


HAROLD Cox, Former Editor Edinburgh Review.

GODFREY DEWEY, Hon. Secy. United States Simplified Spelling Board.


August 1930. Price 6D

The Simplified Spelling Society.

[See New Spelling 1948 by Walter Ripman and William Archer.]

BY WALTER RIPMAN, M.A., Chief Inspector, University of London.

If a nation has the spelling which it deserves then we must be in a bad way; and if we have a reputation for "muddling through" we may in part owe it to the way in which we have to muddle through the early stages of learning to read.

There can be no doubt about it: our spelling represents an unholy muddle.

From picture-writing it was a long way to sound-writing, of which the underlying idea was : ascertain how many significant sounds there are in a language, and then assign one sign to each sound. When our missionaries meet with a language that has never yet been written down, they devise for it such a spelling, a phonetic spelling. It is such a spelling that we find in Sanskrit and in Greek and in Latin, and many modern languages approach pretty closely to this ideal.

But consider English from this point of view and see how lamentably it fails. The words with ough are perhaps an extreme case, but there are many others just as bad. Our spelling suffers from redundancy and inconsistency. Deceit and receipt, water and daughter, six and sticks, time and rhyme, end in the same sounds, but how they differ in spelling. No and know, nose and knows have identical sounds, but their spelling is anything but identical.

For a grown-up person to be confronted with these and hundreds of similar difficulties would be bad enough; but we compel the little child to face them.

At the very threshold of its school life it must be taught to read; reading is the indispensable key to the acquisition of knowledge. Where the spelling is phonetic, the task is pleasurable enough, because the process is a reasonable one. The Italian language has a sensible spelling, and it has been calculated that the Italian child takes a year less than the English child to learn the spelling of its mother tongue.

When a language is written in the right way, the child will be taught first to know its sounds. This affords a valuable opportunity of teaching good speech. If some of the child's sounds are bad or unsuitable, they can be corrected or modified. Then the next step is to supply the proper sign for each sound. That leads on to reading and writing.

In our spelling there is such a wide divergence between the spoken and the written or printed language that excessive energy has to be concentrated on acquiring the latter, and training in the sounds tends to be neglected. The spelling is so irregular that to learn it means, not the use of the reasoning powers, but sheer memorising. The child asks its teacher in vain why a word should be spelt as it is, for the teacher generally does not know the answer, for which we can hardly blame her; and if she does know it, it is probably too difficult for the child to understand. After a time the child ceases to ask, and acquiesces in all these absurdities; and in the course of years its attitude towards the spelling may even become one of affection or admiration. Quite well educated people have been known to call our spelling "beautiful!"

There is no excuse for the appalling waste of time involved in acquiring our spelling, nothing to make up for the irritation it so often causes.

Misguided supporters have urged that it is good discipline for the young to have to undertake disagreeable tasks. That might be adduced as an argument for making our children learn to write with their feet instead of their hands.

It is quite true that we must not make the path too easy for the learner, we must not do for him what he can do for himself; he must make independent effort. This can be done in many ways in learning our spelling he cannot reason things out for himself, he has to take our statements on trust, and that is bad for him.

Those who have watched children taught by means of a simplified spelling of the English language know how pleasurable the process can be. The child learns to read quickly and to write readily; and because it reads with ease any word it meets, it does so with good expression.

Experience shows that the transition from simplified to ordinary spelling is accomplished without difficulty and in a short time, and that those who have a year of simplified spelling before embarking on the ordinary are soon actually more advanced in ordinary reading than those who tackled it without the sensible and helpful groundwork afforded by simplified spelling.

The scheme of spelling which was issued under the auspices of the Simplified Spelling Society was not put forward as something incapable of improvement, but rather to form a basis of discussion. This it has received, and it has in some respects been modified in consequence. It has been used for practical experiments in schools, with very satisfactory results.

As an alternative a more strictly phonetic scheme has been adopted, for other experiments, and this has also met with encouraging results.

Through these experiments enough evidence has been accumulated to enable us to say that in this way a great improvement may be achieved in the teaching of reading and writing, and much waste of time and energy avoided.

That the general adoption of a rational spelling would bring about great gain is obvious to those who have earnestly studied the question; not the least would be the impetus to the study of English in foreign lands. That study has increased in a very remarkable manner during the last ten years; it would grow still more rapidly if we took steps to purge our spelling of its manifold shortcomings. No doubt that requires a great effort; but it is worth while making.


formerly Director of Public Instruction, Burma.

Not the least, perhaps the greatest, of the causes which hinder the adoption of even quite modest reforms in English spelling, reforms desirable on practical, educational and imperial grounds, is the laudable disinclination to tamper with anything closely knit up in the national life and sanctioned by long usage. "The spelling," says the plain man, "which was good enough for Shakespeare, Milton, and the men who gave us the English Bible should be good enough for me"; and, reasoning in like fashion, the cultured literary critic must needs take the late Poet Laureate severely to task because (so the critic fancies) he has committed an outrage on our venerable language by the use of a few modifications of the current orthography.

And yet, if the plain man and the literary critic only knew it, reverence for ancient usage should incline them to favour rather than to resent reformed spellings. If, for example, we were accustomed to read the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton in the old texts, or in faithful reproductions of these, instead of in ruthlessly modernised editions, we should realise that our spelling is by no means that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that, if the Poet Laureate has offended, those responsible for the redressing of our older classics have offended far more. There is a certain irony in the situation; for our sentimental attachment to the spelling we know has largely been made possible for us by a treatment of an older English spelling which is in direct defiance of the sentiment. We hold up our hands in horror at the thought of reprinting Tennyson or Browning in a reformed phonetic spelling - and this indeed is, on certain grounds, a thing not to be desired - but we accept Shakespeare and Milton in a spelling which, though neither reformed nor phonetic, is assuredly none of theirs. We accept the comparatively new spelling because it is familiar to us, but we forbid the coming generations to grow familiar with a newer spelling, though it should be, not merely changed, but in a variety of ways and to their great advantage, improved. And this, if we think of it, is a not quite reasonable attitude to assume.

It may be useful to consider for a little some features of the older spelling, as we find it in the early copies of Shakespeare and Milton. It cannot, as an adjustment of symbol to sound, be judged a good spelling. Chaucer's is much better, and King Alfred's better still. Nevertheless, if we remember that the history of the language has been throughout a record of sound-change and development; whereas the spelling has tended, irrespective of the sound, to become fixed, the spelling of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a more respectable thing - that is to say, has a closer relation to the sounds it purports to represent - than the orthography so laboriously beaten into the memories of children to-day.

One feature, not likely to strike us as admirable, in the older spelling is the absence of uniformity, not only as between one writer and another, but in the practice of one and the same writer. This lesser degree of uniformity - or, as we may justly style it, this greater degree of orthographic liberty, - carried with it certain advantages, some of which were turned to account, and, at the same time, presented possibilities which, if the opportunity had been seized, might have rendered English spelling as rational a system as is Italian or Spanish, and as easy to learn by children and foreigners. Thus Shakespeare and Milton could and did deliberately vary the spelling of a word in accordance with the requirements of their verse. Consider the line in Romeo and Juliet,
Hence banished, is banisht from the world -
. where "banisht" not only represents the syllabic value of the repeated word (two syllables, beside three in "banished") but by the substitution of final t for d, is almost a purely phonetic form. Milton too could and did use such simplified forms as the following (they all occur, with many others, in a single poem, Lycidas): emaneld, watry, som (some), slop'd (the apostrophe being a phonetic device to mark the quantity of the preceding vowel o, and to distinguish the word from the dissyllabic "sloped"), gon (gone), don (done), spreds, els (else), sed (said), freakt, bin ("been" - to indicate an unstressed form).

Another feature to be observed is the manner in which orthographic inconsistencies, as in the use of different symbols, or groups of symbols, to represent the same sound, are often avoided; thus in the First Folio Shakespeare we find beefe, theefe, beleefe, greefe, whereas we are required to spell beef, but thief. [1] Similarly we have (in A Midsummer-Night's Dream) coffe (cough); to the discomfiture of the leader-writer who, denouncing spelling reform, declared that to write "cough" with an f "would make Shakespeare turn in his grave." Further, the rules which compel us to write scholar, but butcher, terror, honour, figure, etc., had, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not attained their force, and spellings like scholler, [2] color, tuture (tutor) are quite common. In fact it would be easy to fill many pages with forms taken from the First Folio (1623), which to one unfamiliar with old texts would appear to be barbarously "phonetic," or else "American," or perhaps just illiterate spellings. Not all these forms are to be commended, by any means. The point, however, is that in the welter of permissible forms a great chance was presented, and seemly order, guided by reason, might have emerged from the confusion. The opportunity was lost ; the laws of spelling were left, for the most part, for the printer to lay down - with the deplorable result we see.

Let us however be just. The printer did effect some sensible reforms. He lopped off any number of "silent" e's, and he achieved a really considerable improvement when he instituted new rules for the use of the letters u and v and, in a lesser degree, of i and j. Formerly, the rule was: v was used initially indifferently for vowel and consonant, while u, similarly for vowel or consonant, appeared medially; thus vtter (utter); liue (live). Under the new rule v uniformly stood for the consonant, u for the vowel. Even here a chance was missed. The silent e in the forms liue, (live), loue, giue, &c., had some small use. It has none in live, &c., and should be dispensed with.

Can the opportunity lost in the seventeenth century be recovered in the twentieth? The Poet Laureate, at any rate, has pointed the way. In his recent philosophical poem, The Testament of Beauty, he writes wer, ther (unstrest), delicat, hav, tho', thru, nativ, wil, complisht, masculin, natur, &c., and he uses the apostrophe as Shakespeare and Milton did, and for purposes similar to theirs. Reform sanctioned by authority such as this deserves to win wide acceptance, and would lead to further reforms. If we could only destroy the mistaken notion that the phonetic spelling of English is a new thing, unwarranted by history, and implying either illiteracy or eccentricity in those who use it, the first, perhaps the greatest obstacle in the way of reform would be surmounted.


[1] The ea for the ee-sound which now presents such difficulty to the child, in Shakespeare's time gave no trouble, for it stood for a different sound from ee.

[2] e.g. Thou art a Scholler; speake to it Horatio. Hamlet, I. i. 42.

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Forward to Part 2, Prof Zachrisson, Bishop Welldon, Harold Cox and Part 3, Godfrey Dewey and G B Hunter.