Children are being held back at school because they are forced to memorise irregular spellings and learn how to use the apostrophe, a leading academic will claim this week.
John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London and president of the Spelling Society, will use the society’s centenary dinner this week to call for a “freeing up” of English spelling.
“The teaching of literacy in schools is a major worry. It seems highly likely that one of the reasons Britain and other English-speaking countries have problems with literacy is because of our spelling and the burden it places on children.
“In Finnish, once you have learned the letters, you know how to spell, so it would be ludicrous to hold spelling tests. In countries like Italy and Spain it’s similar. But with English it’s not phonetic, and there are just so many irregularities,” he told The Times.
“It seems to be a great pity that English-speaking countries are holding back children in this way. There are lots of other things that are neglected in class because so much time is spent on spelling,” he said.
Professor Wells said that the apostrophe was an equal waste of time. “Instead of an apostrophe we could just leave it out (it’s could become its) or leave a space (so we’ll would become we ll). Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?
“Let’s allow people greater freedom to spell logically,” he said. “It’s time to remove the fetish that says that correct spelling is a principal (principle?) mark of being educated.” Professor Wells pointed towards the emerging technologies that are leading to a reevaluation of spelling, saying: “Text messaging, e-mail and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English.”
Elaine Higgleton, editorial director for Collins Language, said that the problem with a phonetic approach to spelling would lie in deciding whose pronunciation to base it on.
“Would we continue spelling the word think with a ‘th’ because that is how some of us pronounce it, or would it be spelled ‘fink’ as it is in the East End of London or ‘tink’ as in Ireland?” she said.
David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics and author of the book Txting: the Gr8 Db8, believes that Professor Wells’s crusade for simplified spelling is doomed because, no matter how sensible it may be, sooner or later people rise up against such reforms. But he agrees that a shift to a more phonetic form of spelling will eventually come about.
“Change has to be [from the] bottom up. It is already happening on the internet – people are simplifying spelling all the time.
“Type the world rhubarb into Google without the ‘h’ and you will find thousands of references to it,” he said.
Short vowel sounds
Drop the final e from words if the preceding vowel sound is short: Give becomes giv but love remains love
Allow double consonants when the preceding vowel sound is short: River becomes rivver; model becomes moddel
Danger, Anger, Hanger
Replace the soft g with a j: Danger becomes danjer
Use a double g after the n if the sound is hard: Anger becomes angger
Use a single g if the sound is elided: Hanger remains hanger
Many people already use an s in “practice”, as in the US. Also, the American version of organize with a z is accepted. Why not thru?
Abolish the apostrophe
Get rid of the two types of its (it’s and its) as it is hardly likely to confuse your meaning. If removing the apostrophe is a problem, then leave a space: We’ll becomes we ll
Their, there and they’re
They all sound the same and the meaning is unlikely to be lost if we just use “there” in each case
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Would this be dumbing down? I'm not sure. English was a phonetic language original until spelling became standardized. It sounds like a return to our roots to me. Back to the confusion that was old and middle English; that would see us returning to irregular spelling due to different accents. I like it. As far as I can tell MS Office is doing more (harm?) to standardize English than anything else. Is the future of English American?