Tag Archives: English Spelling Society

The Vagaries of English Spelling

When George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, he bequeathed a substantial portion of his estate to finance the creation of a new English phonemic alphabet. The word ‘ghoti’, i.e. ‘fish’ (gh, pronounced [f] as in tough; o, pronounced [ɪ] as in women; ti, pronounced [ʃ] as in nation), is often cited as an example of the irregularities in English and misattributed to Shaw. While his endeavours to simplify English orthography are well known, he is not the first one to have taken steps towards this end.

Shavian Alphabet

The Shavian Alphabet, devised in 1958 by Kingsley Read and three other entrants who won a competition to create an economical writing system for English, as stipulated in Shaw’s will

The Keynes Bequest features a first edition of Epistolae Ho-Elianae: Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren (1645) by James Howell (ca. 1594-1666), in which the author argues in the epilogue: ‘Amongst other reasons which make the English language of so small extent, and put strangers out of conceit to learn it, one is, that we do not pronounce as we write, which proceeds from divers superfluous letters, that occur in many of our words, which adds to the difficulty of the language’.

Keynes.D.3.16-2 Title page

Engraved title page of Howell’s Epistolae Ho-Elianae: Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren (1645)

Keynes.D.3.16-2 Epilogue

Howell’s Epilogue ‘To the Intelligent Reader’ criticising redundant letters in English words

Keynes wrote to Shaw on 5 January 1946 to draw his attention to Howell, ‘the first pioneer whom you are following’. The carbon copy of the letter, initialled by Keynes, is preserved in the book and accompanied by his transcription of Howell’s epilogue ‘To the Intelligent Reader’. This highlights the importance of cataloguing the collection, as it throws light on Keynes himself, his book-collecting habits and uncovers new correspondence between him and his illustrious friends.

Keynes.D.3.16-2 Letter

Keynes’s letter to Shaw, 5 January 1946 [recto]

Keynes.D.3.16-2 Letter 2

Keynes’s letter to Shaw, 5 January 1946 [verso]

Later this year, the English Spelling Society will host the first International Spelling Congress to come up with proposals to update the English spelling system. While the implementation of such recommendations is likely to face major obstacles, the case for simplification has been made compellingly in a 2003 study which investigated literacy acquisition rates in 13 languages, and concluded what Howell had already highlighted in 1645: ‘Children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. […] The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow.’

In 1991, the Académie française recommended a number of ‘rectifications orthographiques’ to regularise French spelling, which, though largely ignored at first, have now become widely accepted. The Germans too introduced an orthography reform in 1996, which has been adopted throughout German-speaking countries after some initial controversies and teething problems. So shud Inglish follou sut?

IJ