Why English Spelling Reform Is Doomed

Syelle Graves, Writing for
11-minute read
Episode #571

There Isn’t Really a Better Way: English Has More Sounds than Letters

Now you know the main reason that spelling doesn’t perfectly match speech. Let’s imagine we ignored those facts about language changes over time, and across space, and still wished to “update” our spelling standards. In reality, that would be nearly impossible using our current alphabet! Let’s take an example: The present-tense verb read seems to have an extra letter, and, it is a homograph (also called a “heteronym”) with the past-tense verb read. So, let’s say we take out the A. Now we have the color, red. Let’s try an I for the verb, then. Well, now we have R-I-D, rid, which is already taken by a different word. If we add a second E, we get R-E-E-D, reed, and that is also already a different word in English. This means that our remaining options are to add new letters to the alphabet, or add extra letters to the end of R-E-D. Even if we assigned the present-tense verb read to be spelled R-E-D-E, what do we do with the past-tense version, except combine its form with R-E-D like the color?

The main reason that this spelling ideal is more imaginary than realistic is that English has a pretty large vowel inventory (there are some gray areas, but at a minimum, there are about 11 vowel sounds and about three diphthongs in most American English dialects). However, as you know, we only have five letters to indicate vowels in writing (six if you count Y). This means that we cannot have a one-to-one correspondence from sound to letter. (4) To do so, we would have to add letters to an alphabet that is already well-known and deeply ingrained in millions of people who read and write in English, all over the world.

In addition to the 14 vowel sounds, English has about 26 consonant sounds. That makes around 40 distinct sounds for the 26 letters in our alphabet (plus, technically, there are more sounds in English, but we produce them unconsciously, so we would never spell them—a topic for another article!). More importantly, this inventory varies from one English dialect to another. We’ll come back to that.

It Makes Sense to Maintain Written Conventions

A third reason to keep spelling standardized is that writing human languages is an artificial process. Unlike spoken and signed languages, which are acquired by young children without instruction, literacy skills are taught laboriously in a controlled setting, and take years to master. The earliest writing systems date back only 5,000 years in all of human history of people talking to each other. If you met an adult who grew up where you did, but had tragically been denied access to literacy education, you would not be able to know that by having a conversation with the person. You may have met preschool-age children who can’t read yet, but can correct you if you make a mistake in their native language! In that way, trying to alter the way human beings speak naturally is futile, but continuing to set standards for the way we write is understandable, and pretty enforceable.

We Can Share Written Materials across the Anglophone World through Space and Time

One of the best reasons not to spell more like we speak is that to do so, we would have to choose one pronunciation. Imagine if we couldn’t read any books or signs written in England, Australia, Mississippi, or Canada, because everyone tried to spell English words like a local pronunciation! There is an imperfect correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, and it’s a good thing. Besides, how would we choose which pronunciation to follow? For example, many British English speakers, and Southern American English speakers, and African American English speakers, do not pronounce the sound “R” unless it comes before a vowel. That means there is no R sound when those speakers say “murder” (the first R is followed by a consonant, and the second one comes at the end of the word), but there is a definite R sound when they say “inherent” (R before a vowel). Removing all those R's in spelling would be very strange, because those speakers know that they belong in writing, no matter how they pronounce them. Plus, if a word starting with a vowel comes after an R at the end of the word, like “murder express,” that R pops right back in for those speakers! Ask a British friend to read “murder” and “murder express” out loud to you, and you’ll hear it.

In addition, don’t forget that much classic literature was written at a time when English was pronounced completely differently, as we learned in Part I. Leaving writing standardized allows us and future generations to preserve ideas, study history, and enjoy literature while spoken language continues to evolve.


About the Author

Syelle Graves, Writing for Grammar Girl

Syelle Graves has a PhD in linguistics and is the assistant director of ILETC (Institute for Language Education in Transcultural Context). She was also a 40 under Forty alumni award honoree at SUNY New Paltz. You can find her at syellegraves.com.