Spelling options, or degrees of normativity in spelling

In my spelling reform proposal for Spanish, I floated the idea of allowing for equally acceptable spelling variants in some cases, to allow for greater ease for those who have variant pronunciations of some words. I believe this shouldn’t cause many problems when reading for those who don’t have those pronunciations and don’t go for those spelling options, provided the options don’t affect too many words or cause collisions with other words. If the reader is also familiar with the variant pronunciation, there will be even less chance of a reading problem.

I believe a certain amount of this is also necessary in a reformed spelling for English. The fact is that for many English words, there is more than one acceptable pronunciation. And sometimes, these variant pronunciations don’t have to do with systematic accent differences between different varieties of English, but are equally acceptable even among people who have what appears to be the same exact accent.

Two examples: data, where the quality of the first vowel can be TRAP or FACE (I say it with FACE), and amphitheater, where some people (like me) pronounce an F sound for the PH, and others a P sound.

Similar cases are herb and vehicle, the first of which has a silent H in American English but a pronounced one in British English; and the second of which does not have a silent H in some accents of American English.

In cases like these, I think the best solution is to allow variant reformed spellings: datta/data, amfitheeater/ampitheeater, urb/hurb, veeikl/vehikl.

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A concession to the i(s)le

In the first proof of concept draft of my reformed spelling proposal I ended up changing new -> noo to nu instead, because of a collision with traditional no. Later, when writing about the FOOT set, I thought about whether nuke should be spelled nook or nuuk.

This got me thinking about how to best represent in a reformed spelling the differences between American (and Canadian) English and British English as regards yod-dropping. Yod-dropping is a process where a word originally pronounced with a CUTE vowel comes to be pronounced with a GOOSE vowel instead. For example, suit used to be pronounced /sjut/ by most people (like saying the word you between the S and the T), but now the majority pronunciation is /sut/, and it is possible that the more conservative pronunciation will in time disappear entirely. It has happened with many other words before.

Going into a little more detail, yod-dropping is a historical process that has gone further in North America than in the the UK. So, while in the British isles yod-dropping happens in many accents after /tʃ dʒ j r Cl/ in every case, and after /s l z θ/ provided the j is in the same syllable as the preceding consonant (chew, juice, yew, rude, blue; suit, lute, Zeus, enthusiasm), in America and Canada it also happens after /t d n/ if the same condition applies regarding the j (tune, dune, new). There is some variation here, and it might depend on the specific word, but this largely applies.

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Putting your FOOT in it

In item 21 of my ideas for spelling reform post I mused about whether the FOOT vowel should be spelled with short U or with OO in reformed spelling. In the first proof of concept, I chose short U. There was only one word with this vowel sound in that text, though (should -> shud).

Whichever option we choose, the set of words with FOOT is a small set, and because of this it carries a low functional load.

Since the set is small, I thought, why not list all the words in it, and look for possible collisions that might happen in reading depending on the choice we make on how to spell them. So far this is the list I have come up with:

Put, full, pull, bull, bush, push, tush, pudding, sugar, butch, whup, puss, kush, cushion, foot, good, wood – would, look, book, hood, cook, toots, crook, soot, booger, wool, brook, nook, hook, shook, took, woof, whoops, could, should, woman and wolf belong to this set. Room, broom and cuckoo belong to this set for some speakers, and to the GOOSE set for other speakers, including me. Mush belongs with STRUT for some speakers (like me) and with FOOT for others.

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Degrees of radicalness in English spelling reform

In my previous post I mentioned the power of familiar word shapes. But how do we define this familiarity? We can start by saying that if the word looks exactly like its traditional counterpart, that is 100% familiarity. After that, there is a lot of gray. The word can have the same amount of letters and start and finish with the same letter as in the traditional spelling, or only two or only one of those factors can be true. The word can also resemble a usual (or possible) “phonetic” respelling of the word more or less following the rules of traditional spelling. In other words, it doesn’t look like the original, but it looks like a version of the original, or at least a possible one.

So there is a need for the new spelling to sort of look like the old spelling, or a possible version of it. And on the other hand there is a need for the new spelling to be internally consistent, have relatively simple rules with few or no exceptions, and to avoid the pitfalls that the traditional spelling presents not only when spelling, but when reading.

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English spelling reform: proof of concept, first draft

What follows is a proof of concept draft of the reformed spelling for English I am working on.


When in the kors ov huumn events, it bekums nesesery for wun peepl too dizolv the politikl bands which hav konekted them with anuther, and too asoom amung the powers ov the urth, the seperet and eekwl staashn too which the laws of nacher and ov nachers god entiitl them, a deesnt respekt too the opinnyans ov mankiind rekwiirs that they shud deklear the kawzes which impel them too the seperaashn.

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Ideas for English spelling reform

I have been thinking for some time now about creating a scheme for English spelling reform. There are many reasons for English spelling reform, the most important ones being that English is not only hard to spell for native speakers, but also hard to read. I’m not out to sell the idea of reform on this post, but just to lay out some ideas on how it could be done. So far, my ideas stem from the current spelling system, and the way English reading and spelling rules are currently taught, and some principles underlying Dutch spelling. The driving principle is to regularize the spelling system and do away with difficult to learn exceptions whenever possible, and to make the spelling correspond to pronunciation as much as possible. The goals of this reform are, in order of importance: first, to make learning to read it less difficult for native speaking children; second, to make it easier to spell for every native speaker; third, to make it easier to learn to read and spell for non-native speakers.

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Spelling reform and backwards compatibility

The concept of backwards compatibility lends itself nicely to illustrating one of the possible problems of introducing spelling reform. When changing the system, you not only need to worry about teaching the new one to children learning to read, but to the adults who are already proficient, imperfectly or not, in the old one.

One of the main problems is one I call “collision”. Basically, it may happen that because of the introduction of a new rule, you end up with a sequence of letters which represented a certain sequence of sounds in the old system, but is intended to represent a different sequence of sounds in the new one. Someone proficient in the old system is likely to interpret the sequence of letters in the old way. This does potentially happen in three cases in my spelling reform proposal for Spanish.

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