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Spelling reform

Natural languages often develop cumbersome manners of spelling words. Particular sounds will be represented by various letter combinations, while one letter may be pronounced in various ways. This is especially true of languages such as English that borrow heavily from other languages.

English spelling contains many irregularities due to a number of factors. Borrowing from other languages is one of them; an even greater cause is the fact that English began to be widely written and printed during the Middle English period. The shift to modern English involved undergoing a Great Vowel Shift and many other changes in phonology. English spelling was relatively systematic during the Middle English period. The older, etymological spellings have been retained despite major shifts in the underlying phonology.

Modern English has anywhere from fourteen to twenty-two separate vowel and diphthong phonemes, depending on dialect, and 26 or 27 consonants. Representing this language with the twenty-six inadequate letters of the Latin alphabet is going to be a challenge no matter what sort of system is chosen. Many digraphss or diacritical marks would be needed to create a phonetic spelling for English.

Language reformers propose new systems of simplified spelling to make it more phonetic, sometimes even a full phonemic orthography is suggested. They argue that this will make their language more useful for international communications and easier to learn for immigrants and school children. However, their efforts are faced with concerns that old literature will become inaccessible. Their efforts are further hampered by habit and a lack of a central authority to set new spelling standards.

The idea of phonetic spelling has faced more serious criticism, on the grounds that it would hide morphological similarities between words that happen to have quite different pronunciations. This line of argument is based on the idea that when people read, they do not in reality try to work out the sequence of sounds composing each word, but instead either recognize words as a whole, or as a sequence of small number of semantically significant units (e.g. "morphology" might be read as "morph"+"ology", rather than as a sequence of a larger number of phonemes). In a system of phonetic spelling, these semantic units become less distinct, as various allomorphs can be pronounced differently in different contexts. For example, in English spelling, most past participles are spelled with an "ed" on the end, even though this can have several pronunciations (compare "kissed" and "interrupted").

Another criticism is based on the practicalities of devising a system. The vowel inventory of British English and American English differs substantially, and many words are pronounced differently. A phonemic system would have to pick between the two.

A number of proposals have been made to reform English spelling. Some were proposed by Noah Webster; some, but by no means all, of his suggestions result in the differences between American and British spellings.

Germany recently instituted spelling reforms.

Spelling reform is parodied in "A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling" and attributed to Mark Twain [1] who was actually a supporter of reform.

See also: