Why English Spelling Reform Is Doomed

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

As a side note, when people discuss learning to read and write English, they often express the belief that Spanish is an “easy language” to read and spell, but that isn’t fully true. Spanish does have a smaller vowel inventory than English, and that leads to less vowel confusion. However, syllable stress, which is an integral part of both English and Spanish, must often be marked by accents in Spanish (but not in English), which can be tricky to learn. Furthermore, Spanish does indeed have silent letters! All languages have loanwords, and Spanish is no exception: There is a silent C in the Spanish word for “adolescent,” just like English. Also, Z and S are pronounced the same in many varieties of Spanish, which means those school children have to learn that zapato is spelled with a Z, etc. The letters G and J can share a single pronunciation in Spanish, as can the letters B and V (in many Spanish-speaking countries, though not all). Here is a link to an enormous book on the details of Spanish spelling, and here is a link to a middle-school Spanish spelling bee in Puerto Rico. Although spelling bees are generally rarer in Spanish-speaking countries, they do exist!

In fact, just as English sounds completely different based on where you hear it, Spanish (like most languages) also varies enormously, yet maintains a standardized spelling system. For example, there are parts of the Caribbean where Spanish speakers replace the R sound (called a “flap”) with the L sound, only in very specific environments (like “pol favol” for “por favor”), and drop the D in very specific environments (like “al la-o” instead of “al lado”). These variations are automatic, and there is no need to reflect them in writing.

What about Abbreviating Words in Texts, Chats, and Informal Emails?

This leads us to a question many of you may be wondering at this point: Is it OK to abbreviate and break the spelling rules when we chat and IM? Absolutely! Abbreviating texts and chats is completely normal, and does not suggest that we should change or drop standardized spelling, nor does it mean that anyone who does so is uneducated! The arguments in this article apply to documents, newspapers, textbooks, road signs, research, and the like. It is critical to learn standardized writing in schools, and then the beauty of human language is that it is creative and exploitable. The most educated professionals in the world send informal, abbreviated texts, and so the idea is that we can all be competent in multiple writing genres of the languages we speak. In fact, informal text abbreviations are actually very rule-governed—if they weren’t, texters would really struggle to communicate—in ways that we learn and use unconsciously. A related example is students, who have been abbreviating lectures for centuries, in similar shorthand. Also, people may spell out their individual pronunciations to other speakers of that same language variety, in a way of expressing solidarity, or to create humor the way some kids use slang spellings like K-E-W-L for cool. As long as people go through school and learn both forms of communication, nothing is lost. In fact, studies show that this writing genre, which is often referred to as “Computer-Mediated Communication,” or CMC, is classified as more like spoken than written language, in that those messages are produced almost in real time, like spoken conversation. There’s nothing wrong with saving time and space (and possibly avoiding a fight) by using an emoji instead of texting out “Read that last sentence sarcastically, not accusatorily.” These forms of shorthand emerge and catch on spontaneously, and are not imposed on us in an artificial way, like a spelling reform would be.


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.