Taking Ockham's Razor to English spelling

An address on 'Ockham's Razor', Radio National, Australia, 5th and 6th May, 2002. See transcript 

We English-speakers take for granted that our English language is the international language of the world. It is used by more people than any other language, mostly as a second language, not a native tongue. It is the language of the air, the sea, and cyberspace.

However, English became what Pope Paul called 'the modern Latin' for much the same imperial reasons that Latin was an international language until the last few hundred years. It went with the flag, it went with the traders and the soldiers. But Latin went and so could English.

The Achilles heel - or the cloven hoof - or the bottom line - is lowdown English spelling. English has to be learnt as two languages - the spoken and the written; you cant learn one from the other. And the natives, even the Anglo natives, are getting restless.

In Europe they joke about the evolving EuroEnglish language, used by non-English speakers to communicate within the European Union. Linguists are now studying EuroEnglish, and how it is regularising English grammar and cutting down verbs. Indeed this developing Euro-English might have a pragmatic advantage over Esperanto as a truly international language, because Euro-English is based on a language and printed heritage that already exists world-wide.

And in Europe they are joking too about a possible new Euro-English spelling - Wil der Drem kom tru?

Multilingual developing countries have mostly left off trying to use English as the medium of education and national comunication, despite the obvious advantages in materials and access to the world. But even their teachers cant cope - and so Papua Niugini now uses Tok Pisin, a pidgin with a spelling so easy that you and I can recognise the English words in it.

India has so many regional writing systems that even phone directories can be useless across regional borders - but a reformers' campaign to use roman letters as an alternative script failed hopelessly - And the reason for failure, even stronger than regional patriotisms, is the Indians' fixed belief that a roman script would mean spelling as difficult as English.

The English-speaking natives are also getting restless about spelling. Away from a spelling-checker, out in chat-rooms, anything goes. More and more youngsters are diagnosed as dyslexic for refusing to buckle down to lerning English spelling. An upper-class Oxford gentleman, Richard Wade, formerly a BBC producer, claims that his website www.freespeling.com receives millions of hits, that welcome his message,

'If you cant remember how to spel a word, spel it how you would like to spel it."

And when enough people start doing just that, Wade thinks, then dictionaries would have to start accepting more sensible spellings, such as ACOMODATE with no dubl letters.

I have a sixteen word spelling test, to spell common words like GUARDIAN and OCCASION. And even the great and good can rarely spell all sixteen words correctly. Less than ten percent of educators in literacy, and reserchers on intelligence have been all-correct. And at an international conference of psychologists studying dyslexia, the only word they could all spell correctly was PSYCHOLOGY.

I was proud of being a perfect speller. My clue was that when I was about six I discovered that the most economical way to learn spelling was to think of how I thought a word ought to be spelled, and then note where the correct spelling was different. For example, DAUGHTER had a GH before the T.

Then I married a man who could not spell, who became a highly regarded professor in spite of this. Then I became a clinical child psychologist, and children and adults were sent to me to be diagnosed as dyslexic. I found that if I took them through what I thought it helped to know to learn to read, at some stage, they would usualy say, "Oh! I didnt know that!" and often all they need to go ahead is to have that gap or confusion cleared up.

And one of the most common and helpful discoveries for failing lerners is, "Oh, it's the spelling that's stupid! I always thought it was ME that was stupid!" Once people labelled dyslexic realise that the spelling is more dyslexic than they are, they can cheer up, and look calmly and even with a superior contempt to see HOW it is stupid - too many letters, too few letters, or silly letters.

English spelling is stupid because it is unpredictable and not user-frendly. Why need there be over 218 ways to spell only 20 vowel sounds! It does not help lerners that 80% of English spellings follow some sort of rule - because lerners cannot predict which words or which rule.

The final straw for me was when a ten-year-old boy was stumbling- mumbling through a reading test. In utter frustration, I transliterated a parallel form of the test. "Here, try this. No spelling traps." He began, stumbling as usual, then picked up, and ended almost at a gallop. Then he looked at me and said, "But I could read this!" I thought, 'You poor boy!' That was around 1970.

Since then, I have studied spelling and its history; I have experimented; I have studied spelling reforms and the psychology of spelling reformers and the psychology of conservatives and the psychology of vested interests - because there are vested interests.

I spent seven years working on experiments to see how readers respond if useless letters are left out of the spelling of words - useless because they serve no purpose to represent meaning or pronunciation and may even confuse - as in HEAVEN with an A and PRIVATE with an E. One way to start improving English spelling is simply to apply Ockham's Razor to its clutter.

'Litera non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum.' No more letters are needed in English spelling than are actually necessary.

Most people hardly even notice when useless letters are dropped - which shows the letters really are useless - and many poor readers and English-language learners are helped when the briar-patch is thinned out. Only a few readers are repelled - an interesting elite to study.

I thought the powers-that-be would be interested in such experiments. I thought wrong.

But over the thirty years since I became interested in spelling, the shackles are shaking - but unless there is consistent spelling to use instead, the rebellion is unfortunatly shown in mass poor literacy. Published research is now proving how English spelling is a real handicap to achieving literacy in the English language, compared to more regular European writing systems.

How words are written fascinaes me - the history of spelling is fascinating - how for two hundred years English spelling has been used as a quick screening test to keep out the vulgar mob, brand those who cannot cope with our bad spelling as bad spellers, and make good spellers feel they are virtuous.

In any science, the first thing to do is to examin accepted assumptions. That is how breakthroughs are made. Now eamin every assumption about why English spelling must stay as it is in every jot and tittle while the whole world changes around it - and you find that every assumption turns out to be fallacious, from etymology to representing dialects.

About every other major language in the past 150 years has modernised its writing system to a greater or less degree - including even French - but not English.

Why can't the English?

In brief, the English cant improve their spelling because their tradition for spelling reform, set in the 19th century, went in the wrong direction - considering only phonetics - the relation of letters to speech sounds.

Yet present English spelling represents other aspects of the English language as well - such as units of meaning, and grammar - and these features may be worth keeping. Simply clean them up to be more consistent. Cleaning up the basic spelling system that we have already is a pragmatic solution, because old and new can co-exist during transition.

A hundred years of argument is no substitute for research. At present cognitive psychologists are like the astronomers' establishment in the story of Longitude. They study present spelling and how people cope with it or cant cope, but do not yet think innovatively about improvement. Yet psycologists and psycolinguists are well placed to take up reserch in human engineering, to investigate how spelling could be made a better match to the differing needs and abilities of users and lerners worldwide, and how it could still be backwards compatible with our heritage of print, so nothing was lost.

Australians could lead the way. The Macquarie Dictionary people have already been exploring popular preferences in spelling and the moods for change. We have the electronic tecnology to permit change, and the Internet is an inexpensive place for experiments and evaluations. We need no longer idolise mess.

Spelling is an absolutely basic element in modern comunications tecnology. It need not remain primitive. Reforms of writing systems have typically accompanied revolutions against other oppressions. If Australians want a republic, then recognise that English spelling remains our greatest colonial oppression.

For an example of principles to investigate for improving English spelling by maximising its advantages and removing its disadvantages, see Spelling Principles to Reserch

The Sixteen Word Spelling Test

For anyone who thinks they are a good speller

Some or all of these words may be incorrectly spelled. Write them out correctly.

acomodate . . . . exessiv . . . . miniture . . . professr  . . .

remembrd . . . unparaleld . . . .disapoint . . . gardian . . . .

mischivus . . . psycology . . . . sovren . . . . disiplin . .

iliterat . . . . ocasion . . . . . recomend . . . tecnicly .

Some typical results: -

Of 16 primary teachers at a voluntary in-service course on teaching spelling, 2 had perfect scores. Average score 14.8

Of 45 experts at an international conference on intelligence, 4 had perfect scores. Average score 13.8

Of 50 reading experts at an International Conference on Reading, 12 had perfect scores. Average score 13.6

Of 30 cognitive psychologists at an international.conference on reading, 5 had perfect scores, average score 13.6. 'Psychology' was the only word they all got right.

Of 7 lawyers concerned with delinquents' illiteracy none had perfect scores . Average score 12.8

Of 30 post-graduate teacher trainees one had a perfect score. Average score 12.

Of 75 undergraduates 8 had perfect scores. Average score 12.

Of 100 secondary school students, mean age 15, no perfect scores. Average score 6.9

Of 25 students of English as a foreign language undertaking tertiary courses in an Australian University, no perfect scores. Average score 4.3.

Of 12 aboriginals on a year's pre-course for University studies, maximum score 2. Most refused to even try. Aboriginal people are desperately handicapped by English spelling, as shown by their ability to become literate in their own languages spelled predictably. It is no 'reconciliation' to maintain such a barrier against them.