English language's rules just too Greek, some say

Movement: At his Web site, a retired writer espouses his belief that the simpler spelling is, the `beter.'

April 02, 2001|By Barnaby J. Feeder | Barnaby J. Feeder,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Richard L. Wade, a retired British television, radio and advertising writer, wants the English-speaking world to spell in whatever way is "kumfertable" without regard to widely accepted rules. Or, as he puts it on his Web site, www.freespeling.com, "Let's chanj the way we spel."

To many educators, that is a scary invitation, given the number of students who already spell haphazardly with blissful confidence that the spelling-checkers on their computers will clean up the mess.

It is not a novel thought, though. Standard English spelling has long been criticized for being a minefield of excess and inexplicable letters that regularly trip up native speakers and make learning the language a nightmare for immigrants.

Wade figures that computers - or more specifically, the Internet - may help him succeed where others have failed. "The Internet is the perfect medium for effecting this kind of change," he said in a telephone interview. "Publicizing this idea by conventional means would cost a fortune."

The wireless world is seeding the potential revolution, he said, as millions of Europeans and Asians gain experience using abbreviated and simplified words to send text messages on cell phones. In the United States, e-mail and instant messaging, like the telegraph in an earlier time, have also lent themselves to shortcuts in spelling.

Language experts say about 13 percent of English words are not spelled the way they sound, a fact that has perturbed respected free thinkers for more than a century. As Richard Feynman, the physicist, put it in a 1963 speech, any English professor complaining to him about university students unable to spell "friend" would get the response, "Something's the matter with the way you spell `friend.' "

The world of spelling has long seemed ripe for simplification. " `Correct' spelling is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by schoolma'ams than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world," H. L. Mencken once pontificated. The social satirist was also an authority on American English.

For all that, the list of luminaries who got nowhere trying to simplify things includes presidents (Theodore Roosevelt), powerful industrialists (Andrew Carnegie) and any number of literary giants, including George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain and Isaac Asimov. Col. Robert R. McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune from 1914 to 1955, made his newspaper a laboratory for his own simplified-spelling campaign.

Wade, 62, has a different strategy than many of his predecessors. Unlike many serious linguists, his attitude is summed up by Nike's marketers: Don't worry about rules; just go ahead and do it, he advises visitors to his Web site.

A few suggestions

There are some suggestions - many of which have been on the wish lists of those advocating a spelling overhaul for a century or more. Drop silent letters, like the "b" in debt, the "k" in knee and the "e" at the end of words like infinite. Get rid of double letters where they are not needed, as in beginning or parrot, and use one instead of two where the meaning is clear, as in skool or fotograf. "Dont" use apostrophes. But don't go overboard for the sake of "konsistency."

"Start by freespeling only a few words on each page," Wade advises. "Help your readers - dont confuse them."

Wade waxes enthusiastic about the response - sorry, respons - he has received in the few weeks the site has been active: 80,000 hits from 33 countries. To be sure, there have been skeptics. "I don't think I have ever come across a more irresponsible Web site" was how one writer put it, according to some anonymous samples Wade provided.

Then there was the demise of the hard disk on his Gateway computer early this month, which wiped out most of his records related to the venture. The crash, Wade said, was a reminder that the venture he envisions is too complex for him to run and needs a commercial sponsor and paid technical support. His long-range goal is to put 10 to 20 words a month on the site, have visitors vote on the preferred spelling and then assemble the winning versions in a lexicon.

"It's too much to hope for worldwide agreement," he said.

Veterans of the spelling simplification movement say even the Internet may not overcome people's resistance to serious spelling changes.

"The Internet lets hundreds of people who are interested find out about the hundreds of others who are interested, but that's about the size of it," said John J. Reilly, a freelance writer in Jersey City and an editor of the newsletter of the Simplified Spelling Society, which is the world's oldest surviving organization working for spelling modernization (www.les.aston.ac.uk/sss). The group, based in London, was founded in 1908.

An uphill battle

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