Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Russian spelling reforms

Matching language and writing system

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. By the mid-1920s, further orthographic reform was almost complete, with rules that simplified spelling and eliminated surplus letters.

The literacy campaigns were hampered by shortages, confusion and waves of idealist experiments. In 1921 Lenin was still writing of his country's 'semi-barbarity - even total barbarity' through illiteracy. 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'. The teaching emphasis was predictably on rote learning. But in twenty-two years, by 1939, 'the Soviet Union had accomplished what it took Britain, France and Germany at least a hundred years to do, and . . . most of the progress took place in a single decade' (Fitzpatrick, cited by Arnove & Graff 1987). Soviet estimates of Russian literacy rose from 40% of men and 16% of women in 1897, to 93% of men and 82% of women in 1939.

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. Even omitting the hard sign at the end of words saved around 5% of text, which Time Magazine 1964 estimated made a saving of seventy pages in a single copy of War and Peace.

It is reported, although I do not know on what evidence, that modern readers can still read the old orthography without much difficulty, but the advantages of the new have ensured its popularity. Some writers even claim that children need spend no time on learning spelling; however, the newspaper Verchernaya Moskva of February 28, 1964 reported that further spelling reforms were needed because 'at present in the fifth grade, of 176 total hours of class time, 113 are assigned to spelling problems. The new orthography will require considerably less time.' The editorial linked patriotism and spelling reform:

'The existing Russian orthography had changed long ago from the servant of language into its master. School experiences which should help children to write effectively had deteriorated into a kind of mechanical cramming of rules and exceptions. (Further reform) will make spelling simple. Rhetoric (stylistics) will come into its own in school and a true opportunity will be given to raise the speech and literary cultural levels of students. The Russian language will become more accessible to foreigners... The powerful and impressive Russian language.. has become the international language of science, culture and progress.'

Russian Cyrillic orthography is regular, in that it has three types of rules to compensate for inconsistencies or ambiguities, although stress is not assigned systematically and must be memorised for each new form. It is ironic that America looked on the high rates claimed for Russian literacy as a challenge for its own educational system - but did not recognise it as a challenge for its own unreformed spelling. Spurred on by the space race, Americans produced publications such as Why Ivan Can Read and Johnny Can't and there were vocal and controversial American calls for a comparable disciplined phonics approach to learning to read - but these calls did not arouse awareness of need for any spelling reforms that would make a phonics approach less problematic.

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.