National Spelling Bee Protests: Should We Simplify English Spelling?

By Eoin O'Carroll CSMonitorcom | The Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

National Spelling Bee Protests: Should We Simplify English Spelling?


Eoin O'Carroll CSMonitorcom, The Christian Science Monitor


The Scripps National Spelling Bee highlights what a mess the English spelling is - a hodgepodge of orthographies borrowed from German, French, Greek, and Latin. Is it time for a makeover?

If the Scripps National Spelling Bee teaches us anything, it's that the English language is a complete mess.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw is said to have joked that the word "fish" could legitimately be spelled "ghoti," by using the "gh" sound from "enough," the "o" sound from "women," and the "ti" sound from "action."

Shaw was probably not the originator of this joke, but he was one of a long line of people who thought that the English language's anarchic spelling, a hodgepodge of Germanic, French, Greek, and Latin, was desperately in need of reform.

To this end, he willed a portion of his estate toward the development of a new phonetic script. The result was the Shavian alphabet, whose 47 letters have a one-to-one phonetic correspondence with sounds in the English language. Like just about every other attempt to rein in English spelling, Shaw's alphabet continues to be widely ignored to this day.

But spelling-reform advocates press on. The Associated Press reported that this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was picketed by four protesters, some dressed in bee costumes, who distributed buttons reading "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much."

The demonstrators were from the the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society, organizations that aim to do to English orthography what the metric system did for weights and measures. The American Literacy Council endorses SoundSpel, which seeks to "rationalize" the English language by spelling each of the English language's 42 (or so) phonemes one way and one way only. In SoundSpel, "business" becomes "bizness," "equation" becomes "ecwaezhun," "learned" becomes "lernd," "negotiate" becomes "negoesheaet," and so on.

An overhaul of English spelling would be not without its pitfalls. Even if you could get every printer, publishing house, signmaker, and blogger to agree on a new system, there would still be the problem of those who have learned only the new system of spelling being unable to read literature printed in the old one.

What's more, in giving a fixed value to each letter, someone has to decide what counts as "correct" pronunciation. …

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