Simplifyd Spelng Society wants to cut excess letters


April 07, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- If u can read this without trubl, ther may be a futur for th Simplifyd Spelng Society and help for us al.

If there is, it was a long time coming. The society has been laboring toward the goal in its name for 84 years. The latest fruit of its efforts is Cut Spelng. You have just read a sample.

Cut Spelng is largely the work of Chris Upward, a friendly 53-year-old academic who teaches writing systems "and a little German" at the University of Aston in Birmingham.

"I have been the person most involved with it, though the original concept comes from Australia, from the work of [psychologist] Valerie Yule," Mr. Upward says.

"This is only a concept being advanced here, not the society's final word. Nobody is as yet sure what that will look like."

This effort has taken 10 years.

The Simplified Spelling Society may be a little tentative about the future of Cut Spelng ("we don't expect to wake up tomorrow to find everybody using it," Mr. Upward says), but it couldn't be more certain that something must be done to rescue English from the chaos of its orthography.

English has not had a coherent and consistent spelling system in 1,000 years and has not been reformed in 300, according to the society's president, Bob Brown. It has evolved into a maddening complexity of words that have letters that serve no purpose.

The language is confusing to native children trying to learn it. It is hellish for foreigners.

How bad is it? George Bernard Shaw made the point once by spelling fish as "ghoti", using the "gh" as in tough, the "o" as in women and the "ti" as in nation.

So the society thinks it is time for a change. It has thought this way since 1908, when it was founded here. Before and since then, other countries have seen the sense of regularized spelling.

In 1901-02, Germany cut unnecessary letters from many of its words.

In 1982, the Greeks purged most of their accent marks.

Spain's Royal Academy, the watchdog over its language, ruled in 1958-59 that superfluous letters could be dropped from some words.

Recently, Mr. Upward and Christopher Jolly, chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society, came to London to unveil Cut Spelng at a news conference at the London School of Economics. Only four or five reporters showed up, and one left early mumbling about "the mutilation of the English language."

According to Mr. Upward, Cut Spelng purges many redundant letters from English words. It is not phonetic spelling, a system that allocates a single letter or pair of letters to represent each sound, then applies this to every word in the language.

"There are practical problems with phonetic spelling," Mr. Upward says. "Among them is the difficulty of representing pronunciations that differ around the world -- tomato, for instance.

"Also, phonetics involves a revolution in the appearance of written English, and a lot of parents are put off."

Cut Spelng, by merely eliminating superfluous letters and substituting letters closer to the actual sounds, does not do the same visual damage to words, as the following sentence shows:

"Ecnomic and social problms in Britn and America ar increasingly being linkd to educationl standrds."

The society believes Cut Spelng would enhance educational standards because it would give students an earlier grasp of the language, which would enable them to use it to absorb concepts sooner.

The system would also save time, paper, computer memory -- not to mention money.

"When the Russians reformed their spelling after the revolution in 1917," Mr. Upward says, "they published Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina' and it came out 36 pages shorter."

The Society for Simplified Spelling has only about 100 members around the world. The idea it represents is an old one. Benjamin Franklin, worked at it, for instance, as did Noah Webster, the great American lexicographer.

"Noah Webster went for the simple alternatives then used in America," Mr. Jolly says. "He propagated a spelling that caught on."

Webster did this with his dictionary and his very popular Elementary Spelling Book. He made the United States the first Cut Spelng country.

That is why Americans spell it "labor" while Britons spell it "labour," why for Americans it is "program" and for Britons "programme," and on and on and on.

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