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.

So, at this point, we can ask the question. Just how radical, or familiar, is this spelling reform proposal so far? Let’s take a look at the proof of concept draft I put together for the previous post.

I have also presented alongwise this version a version where “hard C” is reinstated, according to the following rule: K before E, I, W and morpheme-final; C before A, O, U and before any other consonant. The doubled version of K remains CK and the doubled version of C is CC. This follows the traditional spelling, to a certain extent. The idea is to see whether this one simple rule will significantly increase the familiarity of the text.

In orange are the words that look exactly like in the traditional spelling. In red are common “phonetic” respellings or common misspellings of words that I have previously encountered. In blue are new spellings that start and end with the same letter and whose only difference from traditional spelling is that one letter has been removed. In green are new spellings that start and end with the same letter and have the same number of letters as their traditional spellings. In underlined green are words that satisfy the previous condition, but the first two and last two letters are the same as in the traditional spelling. In green italics are new spellings that, in addition to the green condition, only one letter has changed from the traditional spelling.

 

 

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 ov 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.

When in the cors ov huumn events, it becums nesesery for wun peepl too dizolv the politicl bands which hav conected them with anuther, and too asoom amung the powers ov the urth, the seperet and eekwl staashn too which the laws ov nacher and ov nachers god entiitl them, a deesnt respect too the opinnyans ov mankiind rekwiirs that they shud declear the cawzes which impel them too the seperaashn.

 

We hoeld theez trooths too be selfevidnt, that ol men ar kreeated eekwl, that they ar endowd bi thear kreeater with sertn unalyanabl riits, that amung theez ar liif, liberty and the persoot ov happynes. —That too sekuur theez riits, guvermnts ar institooted amung men, deriving thear just powers from the konsent ov the guvvernd, —That whenevver enny form ov guvermnt bekums destruktiv ov theez ends, it iz the riit of the peepl too olter or too abollish it, and too institoot nu guvermnt, leying its fowndaashn on such prinsipls and organizing its powers in such form, az too them shal seem moest liikly too efekt thear saafty and happynes.

We hoeld theez trooths too be selfevidnt, that ol men ar creeated eekwl, that they ar endowd bi thear creeater with sertn unalyanabl riits, that amung theez ar liif, liberty and the persoot ov happynes. —That too secuur theez riits, guvermnts ar institooted amung men, deriving thear just powers from the consent ov the guvvernd, —That whenevver enny form ov guvermnt becums destructiv ov theez ends, it iz the riit of the peepl too olter or too abollish it, and too institoot nu guvermnt, leying its fowndaashn on such prinsipls and organizing its powers in such form, az too them shal seem moest liikly too efect thear saafty and happynes.

 

Proodens, indeed, wil diktaat that guvermnts lawng establishd shud not be chaanjd for liit and tranzyant kawzes; and akordingly ol experyans hath shoen, that mankiind ar mor dispoezd too suffer, whiil eevls ar sufferabl, than too riit themselvs bi abolishing the forms too which they ar akustmd. But when a lawng traan ov abuses and userpaashns, persooing invaryably the saam objekt evinses a deziin too redoos them under absoloot despotizm, it iz thear riit, it iz thear dooty, too thro awf such guvermnt, and too proviid nu gards for thear fucher sekurity.

Proodens, indeed, wil dictaat that guvermnts lawng establishd shud not be chaanjd for liit and tranzyant cawzes; and acordingly ol experyans hath shoen, that mankiind ar mor dispoezd too suffer, whiil eevls ar sufferabl, than too riit themselvs bi abolishing the forms too which they ar acustmd. But when a lawng traan ov abuses and userpaashns, persooing invaryably the saam object evinses a deziin too redoos them under absoloot despotizm, it iz thear riit, it iz thear dooty, too thro awf such guvermnt, and too proviid nu gards for thear fucher security.

 

 

Some numbers: this text has 274 words. In the original version without “hard C”, 31% of the words were orange (exactly the same as in traditional spelling). Orange words plus red words, 46.7%. Orange plus red plus blue, 48.2%. Orange plus red plus blue plus italicized green, 51.8%.

In the second version with “hard C”, 32.5% of the words were orange. Orange plus red, 48.2%. Orange plus red plus blue, 51.1%. Orange plus red plus blue plus italicized green, 53.6%.

So what does this all mean? Impressionistically, and drawing from my memory of the first experiment with four native speakers, I think it’s safe to say that orange words present absolutely no problem (which is predictable), and red and blue words present little trouble. The same is true for words in green italics. For words in green or underlined green, we would think that underlined green words would be generally easier than non underlined ones, but that wasn’t always the case. Also, some times there wasn’t much of a difference between some of these green words and some words that aren’t colored.

We also need to take into account that familiarity with the word in question is a very important factor, and this further nuances everything said in the previous paragraph. The word evinces -> evinses is only one letter away from the traditional spelling, but only one person got it right, and they happened to be an English major with teaching experience. The fact is that this word is very uncommon. That is going to create more reading problems than any other factor, including spelling it in a reformed fashion. The same thing happened with usurpations -> userpaashns. Impel has exactly the same spelling as in the traditional spelling, but it still tripped some people up because of being unfamiliar. This is not something that a reformed spelling can fix. Collision with traditional forms is also a very big factor.

It appears some new spellings are easier to understand by literate adults than others. Spelling /k/ uniformly with K / CK seemed to present no problem at all. The new way to spell “long” vowels initially took the readers a moment when it resulted in unfamiliar spellings (AA II UU, and to a lesser extent OE), but after the initial trouble it seemed to get progressively easier. Also, when something is initially unfamiliar, it becomes harder if it is also inmediately followed, or preceded and followed, by something also unfamiliar. For example, seperaashn presented more problems than saam or mankiind.

So at this point we can at least say that there are some factors which make reading a word aloud in the new spelling easier:

– How far removed, in general, it is from the traditional spelling (how many letters are the same)

– Whether it starts with the same letter, or the same digraph when that digraph corresponds to a single sound, as in traditional spelling

– Whether it ends with the same letter or digraph as in traditional spelling

– Number of letters compared to the traditional spelling

– How many new spelling-pronunciation correspondences appear in the new spelling of the word, and how easy it is to predict their pronunciation. This includes completely new ways to spell sounds (i.e. AA in saam) and known ways in new places (i.e. ER in actor -> akter).

– Whether the reader is familiar with the word (how fresh is their visual or auditory memory of it, both of these factors not necessarily being equally important)

– Context (what other words are around it and the subject the text is about)

– Whether the word collides with a different word with a different pronunciation in the traditional spelling.

This last factor is very important and a reformed spelling should try to avoid collisions, especially collisions regarding strictly pronunciation (as opposed to just regarding sentence stress) as much as possible. As for the other factors, how important they are in relation to each other, and whether there are other factors we still don’t know about, remains to be seen. Reading aloud experiments need to be carried out. Ideally, these experiments would test the readers with full texts, or at least full sentences. In a real life context, people seldom read words in absolute isolation.

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3 thoughts on “Degrees of radicalness in English spelling reform

  1. Recien puse un comentario aqui, pero al apretar post comment me desaparecio. Ayer paso lo mismo con otro comentario, vos los estas recibiendo igual?
    O lo vuelvo a mandar?

    Like

  2. One idea for a reform of spelling in English, would be to introduce the idea to the people a bit at a time. For instance, present first the changes that simplify spelling, and that do not present difficulties in being recognized for reading, by people that already know the language. For example, some of the changes you propose in:
    3) change soft c into s
    5) use k instead of hard c
    6) eliminate silent letters that give no clue to pronunciation
    8) change ph into f
    10) eliminate double consonants at the end of a word
    etc.
    Once this smaller changes are accepted, start introducing the other more difficult ones a bit at a time.
    This could be a way that native English speakers could accept it better.

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