International Writing Systems Reforms and Revolutions

Over 31 major modern languages have improved their writing systems in the past 150 years, often radically. They include (with major reform dates)

Some details of interest


The Chinese writing system is recorded from about 1700 BC. It was standardised in the 3rd century BC, and remained basically the same as in Confucius' time until recently. From 1919 on political radicals sought to get rid of the 'primitive and barbaric' ideograms. The writing system was a clear hazard in modernization. Before the Japanese invasion the Rural Mass Education Movement had begun setting up People's Schools, with a phonetic syllabary to supplement the characters the villagers did not know. A month after achieving power in 1949, the Communists set up a Language Reform committee, as urgent business, as has been a characteristic action of modern revolutionary governments. In 1950 orthographic characters were simplified In 1951 Chairman Mao promoted pinyin, while taking care to maintain Chinese linguistic tradition, Mao being a part-time poet himself. More than 1700 schemes for the alphabetisation of Chinese were submitted and in 1958 an official pinyin was adopted. By 1973 anti-Soviet motivation increased efforts to spread pinyin, which was given further letters to represent phonemes of border languages in order to enhance Chinese unification with the non-Han Uigars and Kazakhs of Sinkian. However, these minorities resist, preferring the old Arabic forms that link them with their Soviet ethnic groups and their Islamic faith. Pinyin has not superseded Chinese characters for practical, linguistic and social reasons. The homophonic Chinese language itself contains obstacles, and tonal spelling is still inadequate. Most newspapers do not bother with all the phonemically necessary diacritics and tone marks to distinguish homophones, which adds to the problems. According to Chao (1968), the written words chu chun chuan would have (2x2x4)3 = 4096 possible ways of pronouncing them and could mean to boil spring rolls, to station military ships, gentlemen admonish, or scarlet skirt turns.


Spelling reforms show both the problems and possibilities of change in a democratic nation whose language, extent of dialects, and international ramifications are similar to English. The Dutch government makes small modifications periodically and with vicissitudes, amid heated public discussion, to slowly bring the writing system closer to the changing spoken language. Middle Dutch orthography became inconsistent partly due to scholars' attempts to establish it according to classical grammar and derivation. In 1804 an attempted reform was rejected partly on religious grounds. From 1883 an official reformed dictionary set up a rather difficult system but 'One Hundred Years of Spelling Struggle' followed - and that is the title of a book about it. A Dutch simplified spelling society was founded in 1891 with the title of 'Verenging tot vereenvoudeging van onze spelling'. A limited 'New Spelling' that was decreed in 1934 had 'varying fortunes'. The Dutch Nazis classed spelling reform with the evils of plutocrats, socialists and Jews. Patriotic Netherlanders were therefore ready to consider it to be important part of postwar reconstruction.

An orthographic commission continues to work on changes based on compromise, through the Spelling Law.

Interestingly, Afrikaans speakers in South Africa find reformed Dutch spelling easier to read than the more archaic versions, because their own Afrikaans form of the Dutch language has already become radically simplified.


Japan shows the importance of social and political context for the type and nature of writing system reforms. Japan is a country whose script in some ways may seem even more formidable than Chinese, but whose educational standards and wealth are envied by the rest of the world. The Japanese are both pragmatic and nationalistic in their attitude to their writing system. After 1940 patriotism put a stop to serious proposals that had been made to use the roman alphabet as the major script, but a new 'official' list of only 2000 Chinese characters included some simplifications, and the kana were updated to make up for a thousand years of speech change. A common strategy with computers is to type in hiragana or a similar simple symbol system, and the computer transforms it to the complex script including kanji. Interestingly, Japanese were prominent in early development of computer analysis of English language to develop electronic techniques to deal with its structure

The Korean writing system has a dramatic history of politics, nationalism, elitism and pragmatic economics. It also shows a transition made without difficulty, expense or fuss between two writing systems that are very different in their script and principles of language representation.

In the nineteenth century, the revived and improved script, with the fine title of Hangul, 'the Great Letters', was a nationalist symbol in the face of Chinese literary domination and Japanese conquest. Western traders and missionaries used it for easier communication and the missionary goal of popular education, and it helped Christianity to gain ground in Korea as in no other non-colonial Asian country. With the expulsion of the Japanese in 1945, hangul gained official status, supported with popular enthusiasm. It had the irresistible combination of being both patriotic and easy, so that it was preferred over the internationally advantageous option of the roman alphabet. ,North Korea now uses hangul alone, but in the South, mixed text is still common in the South because an acquaintance with Chinese hanja is seen as useful for the many Chinese loan words, and links with other Asian culture, but general education and publications use mainly hangul. Hangul has been further revised to increase Korean industrial competitiveness. October 9, the day it was established by King Sejong, is celebrated as Hangul Day. One could imagine a Spelling Day in England.

Over one hundred million people in Portugal and former colonies share the same orthography and the same spelling reforms with only minor differences. This has prevented the dialects that have developed from becoming completely new languages. The original Portuguese spelling system had been phonetic, but it was superseded by the 'pseudo-etymological' classical spellings of the Renaissance 'with utter disregard for pronunciation' (Williams, 1962) - a move also seen in English spelling up to 1800. This was so awkward that a spelling commission was set up within four months of the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1911. Minor but significant modifications have continued since 1931 through the co-operation of the Portuguese Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Brazilian nationalists rebelled in 1934 and the 'anarchy' of the old Brazilian spelling of 1891 was reinstated, but after years of work, Brazil and Portugal finally signed an historic Orthographic Agreement in 1943.

Mayhew (1975) reported that the great expense in reprinting books and tragedy of cutting ties with the past that had been predicted did not eventuate after all. Educated Portuguese and Brazilians accepted the new forms more easily because they recognised their resemblance to Spanish and even Italian, thus showing a value for international commonalties.

Etymology and tradition together maintain some irregularities, and Portuguese and Brazilian spelling does differ slightly, but further reforms are expected.


Russian spelling was dramatically a product of revolution. 'As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education.'

'The illiterate person stands outside politics. First it is necessary to teach him the alphabet. Without it there are only rumors, fairy tales, prejudices but not politics' (Lenin).

The first Russian spelling reformer was Peter the Great (1689-1725). Like other early unifiers of new nations, such as Charlemagne and Alfred, the great dictator sought vernacular literacy to promote national unity. He encouraged reform of the Cyrillic script, and from his time onward further Russian spelling reforms continued to be proposed. Even the 19th century commissions of the Academy of Sciences pondered reforms despite the tsars' fears that popular literacy might incite the serfs to rise against their bondage. There were terrible penalties for peasants who defied the laws that prohibited them from learning to read However the plan that the Academy produced in 1904 and that was further modified in 1912 had the later result that a blueprint for reform was ready and available in 1917.

Comprehensive spelling reform aimed at mass literacy was one of the first acts of the democratic provisional government in the 1917 Revolution. Immediately the Bolsheviks seized power they ratified and imposed further sweeping spelling decrees. The story of how the Baltic fleet sailors removed the obsolete letters from the printing plants of Petrograd adds a dramatic element to show popular support. The 1919 Decree on Illiteracy made it a criminal offence to refuse to learn or teach how to read. There was a 'heroic' literary campaign from 1917-1921, with 6-10 week courses going on despite the terrible conditions of famine and civil war. Stalin's literacy campaign has been described as 'based on the Komsomol like a military campaign, and as if the illiterate population was the enemy'. After 1945, spelling reform was predictably again on the agenda of reconstruction of a war- ravaged society. By the 1960s doubled letters without functions had been dropped. It was claimed that 90 tons of paper were saved annually by now spelling Kommunist as Komunist. One could imagine. Russian spelling reforms aimed at colonial unification have been less successful, as they have run up against local patriotisms. Soviet linguists developed phonemic spellings in the Cyrillic alphabet for previously unwritten languages in the U.S.S.R, with the aim of uniting in a common writing system the very different native tongues of sixty or more minority peoples. Nationalist resentment has burst out in the 1990s.

The world-wide spread of Spanish and Portuguese has encouraged rather than prevented a series of orthographic reforms over the past century. This is because spelling reform has been regarded as essential to help to keep forms of these languages that are separated by vast geographic distance from drifting too far apart linguistically.

Historically, the Spanish Language Academy was founded in 1714 to settle matters of language and spelling after Renaissance scholars had produced confusions with misplaced Latinisations. The Academy's reforms of 1844 were promulgated by royal decree.

Relative efficiency through occasional updating has been achieved despite the context of the Old World's political upheavals of fascism and democracy, and the New World's revolutions and dictatorships. As part of the revolt of the Spanish New World against all things Spanish, there have also been periodic proposals for indigenous spelling, such as that put forward by Bello of Venezuela and temporarily set up in Chile last century.

The Turkish reform came about as part of Kemal Ataturk's sweeping social and economic changes, and were imposed with dictatorial imperative. However, the ground had been prepared by 75 years of discussions of alphabetic reform.

Finally a commission in the 1920s replaced the 612 Arabic symbols with 29 Roman-style letters plus diacritics, that gave almost complete one-letter-to-one-sound phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Dictator Kemal Ataturk was not bothered at all about questions of dialects, derivations or homophone distinctions. In 1928 he ordered all Arabic lettering to vanish overnight from public places. Deadlines were set for changes, with the final transition set for January 1, 1931. The conservatives lamented that it was contrary to faith and morals to abandon the Qur'an script, and that easy learning was bad for discipline, but the new writing system was popular because it was easy. Although only 40% of children attended school, literacy rose rapidly to 75% of men and 43% of women, partly through Ministry of Education-approved little picture-story books sold cheaply at local shops to 'teach yourself to read', which was made possible by the easy spelling. However, the graceful Arabic script is still used for the Arabic language Qur'an and for decorative inscriptions. The cause of continuing illiteracy among Turkish peasantry is not defects in the spelling system, but poverty, with lack of schooling and opportunity.