Is the English Language Ready for a Change in Spelling?

March 26, 2009 08:56 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Some professors want spelling variants incorporated as proper English words to help students learn, but are they allowed to change the English language?

Spelling variants have long troubled English learners

According to Time magazine, criminology lecturer Ken Smith of Bucks New University in Buckinghamshire, England, is so fed up with his students’ misspellings in papers that he has proposed "doing away with certain spelling rules altogether."

Smith is taking a page from Mark Twain, who in 1906 lobbied for the use of phonetic spelling, according to Time. Other non-English-speaking countries, such as Spain and Hungary, have reformed and simplified their language "for centuries," Time reports.

Since 1908, British organization The Spelling Society has been promoting spelling reform to improve literacy. The society aims make people more aware of the problems and difficulties "caused by the irregularity of English spelling," which can become puzzle-like, particularly for "children and dyslexics."

The debate over spelling was reignited in August of 2008, when British national test results showed tha nearly one third of English 14-year-olds can't read properly, reported the Economist. Smith suggested accepting "the most common misspellings as variants" rather than correcting them. For example, standardization of double consonants, and removal of silent letters could make the language simpler and more easily learned.
But spelling is not the only difficulty entrenched in the English language. A BBC interview with linguist and professor Vivian Cook spotlights another tricky aspect—pronunciation—which Cook calls "a problem for children and adult learners." In addition, the expansive vocabulary and mysterious grammar of English make learning it and perfecting it extremely difficult.

Even so, Cook is against altering English, and feels doing so would be costly and harmful to children learning to read. He believes English, and other languages, are "full of features that seem illogical but add up to a whole that works," reports the BBC.

Like the aforementioned Ken Smith, Alan Mole, president of the American Literacy Council favors “an end to "illogical spelling," reports the Boston Globe. Mole uses German and Spanish as examples of languages more easily learned by children "in weeks instead of months or years as is sometimes the case with English," said the Boston Globe.

Background: Who is in charge of the English Language?

Unlike other countries that have set up regulatory organizations to preserve national languages, neither the United States nor Great Britain have such regulatory bodies in place. For English, the language changes with the publication of new dictionaries, or with changes in the way that the media uses language, or with the creation of colloqual terms, or it changes however and whenever a person believes it has changed.

One organization, the Global Language Monitor, tracks how English is used in the United States. It says that the English language will reach its one millionth word in 2009.

But other sources might disagree. Many dictionaries do not contain nearly one million words. And, with each new publication comes a new list of additions and deletions from each dictionary, all at the discretion of the editors.

Related Topics: Hungary alters language, the "clbuttic" spell check mistake

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences announced that it would make changes to the spelling rules of the Hungarian language. The country’s language committee plans to meet again this fall to address “controversial spelling issues such as the usage of lower and upper case, hyphens or certain endings.”

In Smith's discussion of reasons for allowing multiple spellings in English, he notes technology. “In the 21st century, why learn by heart rote spelling when you can just type it into a computer and spell-check?” he asks. But technology is not always the answer to proper spelling, the famous "Clbuttic Mistake" in which the word "classic" is replaced with "clbuttic" in an attempt for a computer spell checker to avoid profanity, is a good example of technology failing the user.

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