THE BOOK OF SPELLS AND
A treasury of spelling for everyone
with selections from Ron Tandberg, Andrew
Phillip Adams, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain,
William Shakespeare, the worldwide web and
Illustrations are not shown here and may be obtained
Creative Commons Copyright # Valerie Yule 2005
The right of Valerie Yule to be identified as the author of
this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. Any part may be copied for personal use
A catalogue record for this book is available from
The British Library.
ISBN 1 85776 937 6
Chapter 1. Spelling and Culture 3 Spelling as culture 3
Olde Worlde spelling 7 Modern spelling 11 They spell
with their thumbs 11 Words without spelling – letters
as words 14 Words without spelling – reading logos 16
Funny Biznis – Spel’n ‘n a Biskit 17 Sclambred Slepnilg
– the cosmic mess 18 Spelling and technology 20 When
spell checkers succeed 21 When spell checkers fail 21
Geography 23 The American way of Spelling 23 Dialect,
Scots, Pidgin, Australian and Black spelling 24 The
world spells back 28 International English spelling 29
International spellings for English 30 Eurospelling 31
History 32 A dated history of spelling 32 A pocket
history of spelling 33 Spelling in literature 34 Dickens –
Spelling at Dotheboys Hall 34 An old-time American
Spelling Bee 35 Mark Twain – Spelling in ancient Egypt
38 Spelling by numbers 40 Verse and werse 41 Spelling
limericks 41 The Chaos – Double-Dutch 42
Chaucer on spelling 43 Not quite Sir Walter Scott 44
Hamlet, partly written by Shakespeare 45 Keats looks
into the spelling of Chapman’s Homer 45 Spelling
Chapter 2. The wild shores of spelling 47 The def and dum
alfabet 47 The wild shores of consonants 48 The wild shores
of vowels 49 Double-dealing curiosities 51 Back-to-front
spelling 52 Infernal spelling – the demons 52 I before E after
tea 54 Double trouble consonants 56 Homonophobia 58 Half
the words you read – 100 words 62 How dictionaries spell 62
The Chomsky legend 63 Is English spelling irregular? 65
Chapter 3. Sealed Sexion 66 Unprintable spelling 66 Laptop
dancing 66 Spelling stripping 66 Spam spelling 68 Gorgeous
spellings 68 Vulgar spelling 69 Spelling on Mars and Venus
70 The spelling adventures of Don Quixote 70 English
spelling and the world 74 In Xanadu did Khublai Khan 75
Chapter 4. Pun and games 76 Only punning 76 Synchronized
Spelling as an Olympic sport 77 A Spelling ABZ 77 Ghoti on
the menu 80 Spelling as a joke 81 Trivia Box 82
Chapter 5: The Psych of Pspelling 84 How children
want to spell 84 How people spelled when they could
spell as they liked 87 How people want to spell 88 They
can’t spell to save themselves 89 Acid opinions and
spelling rage 90 Personalise your spelling 93 The
spelling ethic 94 Spelling and society 95
Chapter 6: It’s Thyme U Gnu 97 Spelling for fun 97 Spelling
for communication 98
Reading onward 102
Preface: a revel in the earliest
information technology – writing
Spelling has two real purposes, fun and communication.
We can have both. We who are fascinated by crosswords,
codes and Scrabble , can be fascinated by spelling itself.
This is a little treasury to dip into, swig, taste drop by
drop, or follow the argument through from A to Z. It goes
into a world that has been cruel to many in the name of
literacy. It can enrage you or encourage you. Dozens of
books are published every year to teach spelling, yet still
spelling is not easy to learn. Titles like Fun with Spelling
may offend against the Trade Descriptions Act. There is
even a book, honest, on Death by Spelling (David Gram,
1989). Yet Bryson, Crystal, Truss and other lively bestsellers on language and even on punctuation, hint that
spelling, too, can break the suitability barrier for Christmas
presents for aunts and teenagers. Now Vivian Cook (2004)
has given us a rich miscellany of spelling curiosities and
current spelling flux, such that nobody can now ever be
certain how to spell Acomodate, Brocoli or Cemetry. This
book follows on with still more curiosities and curiosity.
Spelling has wild shores. Who would have thought such
topics to have so much blood in them!
There is graveyard humour and spelling humour. Where
there’s a will there’s a spell. We dare to go over the top,
and gallop on into the future. Our only punctuation rule is
to go for clarity. Slips are possible, but occasionally the
book will spell better than the dictionary. An unwanted
letter may drop from the spelling, or ‘ph’ appear as ‘f’,
which is the modern translation of the Greek F. A small
prize to everyone who notices all the changes, and a
certificate to everyone who notices none of them.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell.
John Milton, Il Penseroso, 645.
What else was it that Milton wrote? Paradise Regained.
I thank Ron Tandberg and Andrew Weldon for their
cartoons, and Phillip Adams for ‘They can’t spell to save
themselves’. Many of the odd curiosities and verses in this
book come from Anon and the world-wide-web and its
mailing lists; others have appeared in Newell Tune’s
Spelling Progress Bulletin and the Journal of the Simplified
I also thank Jane Yule, Kirsty Anderson and Richard
Wade who commented on early drafts of a longer version
of this book, Bill Anderson for lively ideas, and Carol Biss,
Sara Fisher, Jonathan Ingoldby, Joanna Bently and Janet
Wrench at The Book Guild for their care and attention to
the spellbound manuscript.
A Spelling Witch tried to compensate for mischievous gifts
that other fairies gave me at my cradle. Because I could not
see a moving ball, the most important requirement at my
school, she tried to make up for it with the ability never to
spell ‘mischievious’. I could take one look at ‘affect’ and
never mix it up with ‘effect’. I was proud of my perfect
spelling. This pride was humbled when I faced the awful
truths about spelling in the world. I married a professor
who could never spell ‘lenght’or ‘idolatory’. I tuaght (sic)
students who wrote what was kindly called ‘Creative
Spelling’. Undergraduates’ essays began to confuse me
about whether it was heterogenousor heterogeneous. I
found that some students spelled better when spelling
however they liked than when they tried to spell correctly,
and I encountered failing learners who could read if they
were given ‘Spelling No Traps’. The headmistress of a little
village school in Kent wept to me that her life’s work had
been in vain. For three generations, no child had left her
school unable to spell ‘because’ and ‘sincerely’, yet every
excuse written by past pupils for their current child at
school misspelled one or both words.
One word rarely appears in the index of books on
linguistics or reading, where it might reasonably be
expected. I was advised not to mention it on the cover of
this book, but I have. The word ‘spelling’ can arouse
traumatic memories, so readers may substitute the
euphemism ‘SP’, rather than requiring a personal stress
counsellor to be supplied with every copy.
This book has zero tolerance for nonsense, and for
spelling rules that are not common sense. There is a dirge
that has long been part of childhood folklore:
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead.
For goodness sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
They rhyme with suites and straight and debt.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for pear and bear.
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
1 Spelling and Culture
A short romp through spelling in technology, geography,
history and literature
Spelling as culture
There was an old man of Khartoum
Who kept two tame sheep in his room
To remind him, he said,
of two friends who were dead,
But he never could recollect whom.
English is a fabulous museum of linguistic fossils. (Kastner
and West, Phonetics)
Spelling is widely known to be Culture. We accept -ibles
and -ables, -ents and -ants, because we know that these
express something important to us and our culture.
Entomology, I have been told, is the reason why English
spelling must be conserved. Let us go to the ants and check
English is a living language. It keeps dictionary-makers
busy with new words, new uses of words and now, new
Englishes. Each generation and place has its own sort of
Spelling is not a living language. It is the repository of our
culture. So we believe. Each stone and pebble, carefully
preserved, tells a story that we ought to treasure. What
story? The story of spellings comes from the accidents of
history and the intrusions of scholars, webs of links with
ancient Greece and Rome, with Vikings, Angles, Saxons,
Danes, Norman-French, with the Black Death and Caxton’s
Dutch and German printers, and how the outliers of the
British Empire brought a tribute of new words with strange
spellings transliterated from strange scripts. Let’s look.
What, for example, does the spelling of the Australian
National Anthem tell us?
Australians all, let us rejoice,
For we are young and free,
Our something something something something . . .
and something girt by sea . . .
I asked Australians what they could share about their
culture from the spelling of their national song. Some
suggested that the short strong words might be AngloSaxon and the longer words perhaps Greek and Latin. You
could imagine Anglo-Saxons at their Thing (Parliament),
young and girt with somethings.
I tracked down the Old English, Northumbrian, Old
Teutonic and Old French, using the Australian Macquarie
Budget Dictionary backed up by the Concise Oxford
Dictionary, since dictionaries can vary, and in the past,
spellings were not fixed. Without tangling with grammar,
inflexions and ancient markings, here is the Australian
national anthem brought back to its etymological roots, to
represent the richness of our culture:
Australiens eall, lettan us rejoiss,
Fore we aron geong anda freo
Ure sum thing sum thing sum thing sum
Anda sum thing aron gyrdan bi sae.
(Thing should be spelled with that original Anglo-Saxon
letter for /th/ that looks like a boiled egg in an eggcup, for
Eggfrith or Eggbert to brecan faestan.)
People love detective stories, and it is fascinating to ask
why ‘i before e except after c’, and to discover the mixture
of Latin and French sources that have determined whether a
word ends with -ence or -ance, and the unpredictable uses
of silent ‘e’ and doubled consonants. To reflect that the
spelling of Eschschol(t)zia, the California poppy, records the
Anglicisation of a Russian mistranslation of the eponym of a
German botanist, and that the catch-phrase All Sir Garnet,
meaning ‘all right’, and also spelled all cigarnette, all
segarnio and all sogarnio, is supposed to derive from a
British Field Marshal noted for probity. There is now an
academic side-industry in finding out where earlier
etymologists got it wrong and respelled harmless words to
People can still believe that they would miss out if
English spelling did not show them the origins of words,
rather than looking them up in a dictionary, if ever you
wanted to know, as they do for every other language. Even
young people can fear that leaving out an m in commission
could mutilate the meaning of the word, causing unknown
and mysterious problems. They have never traced how the
Latin derivation of commissionem came into Middle
English via Old French, and further back to the common
derivation and meaning of the prefix com/con/co, and its
relation to the cognate commit from com mittere miss.
Hmm. Even Latin and Greek derivations may not be reliable
– those ins and ens and uns and coms. Guesses and even
confident opinions can be mistaken, as shown by H W
Fowler of Fowler’s Modern English Usage for ‘anyone who
is curious about the value of such knowledge’. Such as:
Belfry does not come from bell, bliss is not from bless, cocoa
is not related to coconut, cookie comes from a Dutch word
for cake, not from cook, crayfish does not come
Page from the first edition of Nathan Bailey’s Etymological English
Dictionary published in 1721
from fish, nor a cutlet from cut. Gingerly does not come from
ginger, pen is not related to pencil, and river does not come
from Latin rivus, a river.
Words can drift from their original meanings – flair
comes from French flairer from Latin flagrare, to smell.
Word pairs like pan – panic, muse – music and weal –
wealth were originally linked, but their connections are now
in the realm of legend. The rich and curious archaeology of
English spelling is a constant source of fun for writers on
language. But how often in a day does anyone say to
themselves, ‘How nice to see that this word comes from the
Slav word splotska’, or that silly is thought to have meant
blessed and should still be spelt selye or perhaps saelig.
English spelling is a fabulous museum for culture.
Outside the museum, the value of spelling for our culture is
its usefulness as a tool. A tool to communicate. The
importance of a spade is for digging.
Dictionaries rather than spelling can be safer guides to
word meanings. Then the pressure can be off to change
words like manufacture or manual because they are
believed to be male-chauvinist.
Olde worlde spelling
It’s fascinating that ‘cow’, ‘beef’ and ‘bachelor’ all go back to
the same Indo-Germanic root, but I’m not sure I want it
reflected in the spelling.
(J G, on the Internet)
The belief that English spelling shows the history of the
language is called the etymological principle. The belief that
if spelling is changed to make words easier to spell, we
would no longer know where words came from, and that
would make them harder to spell, is called circular thinking.
Shakespeare is famous for inventing 40,000 new words –
among other things. He made the most of his ‘little Latin
and less Greek’ to make his new words. We still use
thousands of the words he invented; others survive only in
his plays, with notes for students in the margins. But
Shakspere/Shaksper/Shakspeare was not pedantic about
spelling. He never signed his own name correctly, coming
from a family that ran to 34 different spellings of it. No
wonder some people have thought he must have been
Scholars of his time wanted to re-spell Old English and
Norman-French spellings according to the resurrected
languages of the ancient world. Shakespeare poked fun at
them with a pernickety character called Holofernes,
‘I abhor such fanatical fantasms, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of orthography,
as to speak dout, when he should say doubt; det, when
he should pronounce debt, d, e, b, t, not d, e, t. He
clepeth (calls) a calf, cauf; half, hauf; neighbour vocatur
nebour; neigh abbreviated ne . . . This is abhominable,
insinuateth me of insanie.
(Love’s Labor’s Lost, Act V, Scene 1)
Some of the scholarly ‘back to basics’ in spellings are
notorious, such as admiral, adventure, scissors and knight,
when the Middle Ages had got along quite all right with
amiral, aventur, sisours and the Old English cniht, which
were how they spoke those words.
A crash course in English history would help learners to
spell, some say. This is a bit much for those children who do
not even know where England is. Other languages may not
even have a word for spelling, let alone need history lessons
to help learn it. Poor spellers can feel less stupid, however,
when they realise the problem is not themselves, but the
spelling – a mixture of three writing systems: Old English,
French and Latin, plus a dash from others. French words
tend to be spelled in French, as in restaurant, boudoir,
bourgeois, ballet, quiche, cafe« and fete. Old French words
like boeuf and mouton took several hundred years to turn
into the English beef and mutton. It is thought that the Black
Death may have helped by causing a shortage of NormanFrench teachers. Words like hotel, hospital, herb and cadet
are now pronounced as English, but hour, honest, heir,
depot, cachet and chalet have not yet mellowed. Foreign
words keep their strange foreign spellings through inertia,
or the pleasure of knowing their exotic roots, or because
they may look ridiculous in English spelling patterns:
‘Looey took his feonsay to a matinay at the ballay and a
restarong at a shalay and she lounjd by the buro eating
keesh, aclairs and merangs and drinking shampain and
Why bother about the origin of words in spelling?
Because, like Everest, they are there, although as Fowler
advised, ‘etymological knowledge is of less importance to
writers than might be supposed’. It is a funny sort of fun to
explore how spellings have changed, when generations of
learners have to learn the petrified outcomes. Spellings are
the only modern tools expected to carry their own history
around with them. ‘Horseless carriages’ at first still tried to
look like horse-carriages, with carriage lamps and a place
for the missing shafts, but now cars try to look like the
If you want to know how spellings became worse
I once explored a sample of spellings, and found that 61
per cent were different and often worse than their earlier
versions. Nine per cent of the original spellings were closer
to how we speak today. Some examples. Sithe, scol and
sinder were Old English for scythe, school and cinder.
Stomak, sisours and corde were Middle English for
stomach, scissors and chord. Sentir and caractere were Old
French for scent and character. Schooner was spelled
scooner by the boat’s designer in 1713, and choir comes
from the Middle English quere from the Old French cuer.
Scholars of Greek changed sicamore to sycamore, sillab to
syllable, simphonie to symphony and sirop to syrup. They
turned fantosme to phantom, fenix to phoenix, fesant to
pheasant, fleume to phlegm and filosofre to philosopher.
Extra letters were added because the fashion admired
elaboration, and changed spellings that had been closer to
our present pronunciation. Old English blod, flod, tunge
and tro became blood, flood, tongue and trough – which
some people still pronounce as tro. Middle English broche,
gess, plage, molde, beute, highte, lorel, sive and yung were
elaborated into brooch, guess, plague, mould, beauty,
height, laurel, sieve and young. They changed French
garder and vue into guard and view.
Old spellings still close to present pronunciation, such as
wurs, wurth, bisy, parlement, huni, sum, wunder, spunge
and perswade became worse, worth, busy, parliament,
honey, some, wonder, sponge and persuade. Middle
English erthe, perle, lernen, ernest, serch and herd became
earth, pearl, learn, earnest, search and heard, confusing the
Silent letters that mislead pronunciation were added to
coude, lim, eir, exorter, rubarb, hole, iland, tyme, forain,
ahter or eht, hous, engin, favorit and feminin, to produce
could, limb, heir, exhort, rhubarb, whole, island, thyme,
foreign, eight, house, engine, favourite and feminine.
Letters were added to turn plain spellings into ache, aisle,
almond, anchor, colonel, crumb, delight, dinghy, foreign,
ghastly, gherkin, ghost, haughty, island, lachrymose,
posthumous, ptarmigan, queue and rhyme. Garde, gild,
garanty, gyden and gise were turned into guard, guild,
guarantee, guide and guise.
The common spelling pattern for y in word endings, as in
happy baby, was confused when spellings such as bi, mi,
drie, replien, trien, supplie and satisfier were turned into by,
my, cry, dry, reply, try, supply, and satisfy. The peculiar
spellings who, where and why were originally spelled more
phonetically in Old English with hw,asin hwa, hwar and
And old English words like cwik were given Frenchified
spellings like quick. Over a third of words with the plain
sound e have had their spellings changed, such as the old
spellings def, plesure, spred, medow and dremt, used by
Milton and in the Shakespeare folios.
Let us jump to spelling as Modern Culture. While spellings
in dictionaries have shifted only a little over 250 years, the
world itself has changed around them in the past thirty.
They spell with their thumbs
RU2BZ2TRI2REDTHIS?? NSR QIK. Spelling on mobile
phones for sending text messages has only two rules. Go
fast, and hope the other end will understand you. For speed
and economy, leave out spaces between words, like ancient
Greek. Use letters as syllables, like Japanese, or as words,
like Chinese, or like Hebrew, give words only as skeletons,
as in RMMBA BNANA, or go for telegrafese and young
children’s spelling. Abandon the problems of traditional
spelling. When friends communicate with each other, they
are not at the same time considering their cultural heritage.
TXTMSG SpLn cannot replace the spelling we have in
print because you need to be in the know about its tricks,
although, indeed, you need to be in the know with
traditional spelling. Users share common idioms and buzzphrases to work out MSGs such as:
YUDO You’re under doctor’s orders WIPO World Intellectual
Property Organisation SDI Selective dissemination of
information or Strategic Defence Initiative NGUTE I’m not
giving up that easily
There are also many smartypants taunts, better not to know.
If you want to know how to send Text Messages . . .
Dubld consonants? Omit them! 2moro Bak, Hec, OFa, LuK,
MoBDik. Words that sound the same? Who cares? No =
know, Rap = wrap. Final s or z or c: BiZniZ, DAz, Hz, Hznt,
Nobz, Woz, Sox, Fascin8, Is = eyes. Soft sounds like j or sh:
DAnjrus, MchEn. Grgus = gorgeous. Rg = rage. Letters X, L,
M, N, R, S to spell syllables – Xclusiv, Xcus, Xtreme, Clevr,
Evl, REdr, TraFk, Opn, Rpulsv, Outa, FrEdm, GoTa,
CatrpLa, Luvabl, ResQ. NEthng = anything, SRE = sorry,
ANvrsrE = anniversary, Soons = soon as. Numbers used for
spelling: U R not 2 B L8 4 1s. Street speech: F or V for th, N
for ng, as in lsty, Wiv, STPin, Borin, Doin, Luvn, FLIn,
Cumn, Goin, Mi$n, Init = isn’t it, GoNa, GIME. Solving
tricky spellings: GEnys, Larfn, Helthea, Blyud = billiard, HIr
= higher, SCe$ = success, ACdnt = accident, U = you, ya =
you/your, WAs = ways, Wd = would, HOl = whole, Us =
And emoticons for fuzzy feelings across languages: I:–)U.
NSR QIK R U GONA FLI 2 TH EPOT? This is like the
beginning spelling of children. The old Phillips Telegraphic
Code was similar. A radio transmission in 1897 could look
AA2ID de K4NT
R R FB OM C U RECVD TX OK
UR SIG 579
QTH HR CHICAGO, IL
CU LATER L FER U AGN ON BAND
SO BK TO U
73’S K4NT DE AA2ID
Over a hundred years later, ‘Now we have God’s
1 God:Im No.1
Uz my name nicely
Day7 = holy
Take care of mumNdad
Dont kill, play round, steal or lie
Keep yr hands &IIz off wot isnt yrs
(from a compatition 2 upd8 txts frm d bibl on shipoffools.com, ed. Simon Jenkins)
And modern Shakespeare
2 B or not 2 B; dat is d Q wethR tis nObla n d mInd 2
sufR D slings & arOs v outrAjus 4tUn 2 tAk arms
against a C v trubls & bI opOzing end dem? 2 dI, 2
SlEp n mo; & bI a slEp 2 sA we end d hRt-Ak & d
1000 natUrLshox dat flesh is eir 2
Like telegrafese, TXTMSG spelling may be superseded by
progress. You can now enter first letters of words on mobile
phones that calculate probabilities, guess what you mean
and send off the complete message. TXT adepts can still go
faster with SMS fonetic spelling at their thumb-tips rather
than hesitating to think of first letters, but even if the
efflorescence of their DIY spelling turns out to be short, they
have shown how easily tradspell can be abandoned when
hides are not bound.
Words without spelling – letters used as words
KISS can mean ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ or ‘Knowledgebased
Interactive Signal-monitoring System’.
The shortest possible spelling uses just one letter per
word. Acronyms made from initial letters are now the
spelling equivalent of Orwell’s Newspeak. They can be
rude, as in TXTMSGs – SOB, BF, GTH, WDYTYAFF. They
can become real words with their origins forgotten – for
example, radar – radio detection and ranging, and laser –
light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.
They can convey messages like RSVP, E & OE. They can
even summarise philosophies, like QED and WYSIWYG
and the tragic ISAGIATT – it seemed a good idea at the
time. Bureaucrats, government agencies, NGOs and CEOs
love acronyms. They like the antisocial bonus of confusion
when they keep changing the names, and make
organisations hard to find in telephone books, and require
new letterheads, thus increasing useless employment. An
Australian Federal education department called DE took
only a few ministries to become DEE, then DEET, then
DEETYA, then DEST. An English Studies authority zoomed
from VISE to VICAB to VBOS to VCAA, leaving a trail of
discarded stationery. Contract typists were required to
write to them. One Victorian government environmental
department was eventually known as the Department of
Continual Name Changes. The
Science Education in the UK 1988
Primary School Initiatives in Science and Technology
to all Primary School Establishments
Northamptonshire Education Committee
Following the introduction of new initiatives such as TVEI, SSCR, INSET,
SCSST, GRIST, etc. into the Secondary Curriculum, it is time to explain to
you some of the Primary Initiatives which I as your CEO consider
At the centre is Curriculum and Home Advanced Organisations Systems,
CHAOS, for close links between home and the school curriculum.
CHAOS responds to recent HMI and LEA guidelines on Primary School
Science and Technology – PSST. It encourages Curricular Home
Advanced Organisation of Technological Inter-disciplinary Conceptual
Teachers With Inservice Technical Training – TWITT – will be known as
TWITTS. Following an intensive two-day course, participants will be in a
position to introduce CHAOS into the schools. TWITTS training is
undertaken by Inservice Dedicated Instructors of Technology (IDIOTS).
The first task of the IDIOT is to Co-Opt Nominated (CON) teachers in
schools to be coordinators. To sustain the initiative, more Resources
Orientated Technology (ROT) is required, to be funded by Ministerial
Inservice Support of Educational Resources (MISER). Parent-Related
Advisory Technologists, known as PRATS, will be recruited to spread the
In summary, CHAOS is dependent upon MISER providing IDIOTS with
sufficient ROT in order to CON teachers into the role of being TWITTS.
PRATS will ensure home/school liaison and that the educational service
will become CHAOTIC. The entire initiative is to be known as
Curriculum Orientated Basic Bi-Partisan Lessons to Encourage Revisions
in Science – COBBLERS.
The future looks promising. A working party entitled Teachers and
Workers Investigation of Technology, Children and Homes
– TWITCH – is soon to report. PSST looks set to play an increasing role in
the CHAOS in our primary schools.
UN has a department busy about acronyms; I think it is
Cryonics is storing a dead body at below freezing point in
the hope some future technology will enliven it. Some
acronyms could be called acryonyms.
The previous page shows a British document circulated
anonymously in the 1980s by teachers furious at secondary
education initiatives named TVEI, SSCR, INSET, SCSST and
Words without spelling
Friendship Happiness Fortune Prosperity
Can you read Chinese? But, hey, count how many words
you, you clever person, can read without spelling! You may
not even know the words for the icons and logos that you
read daily on your computer, car dashboard or electrical
circuits. There are hundreds of international pictograms.
Visual literacy, huh?
These are a bit harder.
Chinese can cross languages. Systems of picture-writing
such as the Australian Blissymbols can help people with
severe language difficulties. However, alfabet letters are
easier for coding and decoding new words, especially for
ideas and grammar. Try putting that last sentence into
pictograms. The disadvantage of an alphabetic spelling is
when it defeats its own purpose by being made hard to
Funny biznis – Spel’n ‘n a Biskit
It may be because they are so familiar with advertising
spellings that young people have latched so quickly on to
TXTMSG spelling. They apply principles they have already
Advertising cries ‘Look at moi!’ by breaking social, moral
and spelling rules. Biznis misspellings are aimed at wide
mass markets and a low level of reading ability, and to
stand out as hurrying shoppers glance along supermarket
shelves. Seventy per cent of biznis re-spellings are shorter so
they can be faster to read. Their spelling is closer to
everyday speech, and cuts out unnecessary letters, unless
they want to look deliberately Ye Olde Worlde Shoppee or
TweeKiddee Nappee. And so: they give us: BluTak, BufPuf, Flothru, Glu Stik, Gro-Plus, Hi-Spread, NuBrik,
Quikshu, Playskool and Tru-Valu. (Legal note: real brandnames here may be
, # or 1. Regard their presence here as free advertising.)
But advertising spellings develop unsystematically, like
other English spellings, through lack of a common reference
point. Easy can be spelled ezi, eze, ezee and easi. Look out
for these spellings as the trend gathers pace: booteek! (Eek!),
bedNbrekfst, lybri, hitek, barba, greengrosa, menzcloze,
rayway stayshn, longzheray, postofis, turistinfo, jenuwin
anteeks, habadasha, supamarket, ionmunga, garij, takawa,
cofishop, swimnbarz, jimnnazhum and sitisenta. Sinfl
Sinny! fun’n Lun’n! Stop it! If u drink and spel, ura bluddy
How to invent Advertising Spellings
. Simple vowels: Supa, Sola, Blu, Glu, Shu, Uneeda, Flo, Lo, Glo,
Brite, Lite, Spreds,
. One letter replaces two: Kwik, Buz, Biskit, Elektrix, Brix, Sox,
Klix, Trix, Fotek
. Single letters as syllables: Met-L, Brit-R, Ris-N, Chikn,
. When brand-names rhyme they usually have matching
spellings like Ritelite, Buf Puf, Biskit, Froot Loops, Kix For
Kidz, and Tru Valu. but they can make a contrast: True Bloo,
Hi-Rise, Hy-Fibe, Twilite, Ski Lite, Fotograffiti, Speediklean,
Krazy Nails, Ezy Seal
In the very shrine of education called Edbiz, even literacy
kits can abandon the spelling they teach, with names like
RediGuide and SpellPak.
Sclambred Slepnilg – the cosmic mess
In September 2003, an email magsese ran like wlid-frie
round the world:
RDIAENG Aoccdrnig to a rscheear at an Elingsh uinervtisy,
it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the
olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit
pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it
wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter
by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe. Sdnous lkie smoe
lgnisiuctis gard sdnetut has jsut been hdnaed a gaert tihses
Bloggers sprouted like moorshums. Surfers googled into
‘Elingsh uinervtisy’ and newspaper columns ran hot. A
Brazilian in Germany complained that ‘in 9 days time i got
this 3 times in the english version, 5 times in the portuguese
version, 10 times in the german version and wunse eeven in
Erveyone was ectexid because it looked as if it might not
matter how you spelled as long as the first and last letters
were right. Some thought it meant that words were read as
whole word-shapes. No more need to learn spelling!
Even scrambled letters might not be needed, if you could
work out a message like this:
A————g to a r————r at an E——h u——y, it d—
n’t m——r in w–t o—r the letters s in a w–d are, the o–
y i——t t—g is t–t f—t and l–t l——r is at the r——t p—
A third leader in The Times (23 September 2003)
Taht ptus piad to the shcool oof thuoght that we raed
lteter by letetr. It sgugests insetad taht our barins
pratcise a more sophistciated from of ptatern
recogintion with wrods, maknig it poitnless to work
too hrad at odrering eevry letetr crroectly . . . It wlil
strike trreor into the haerts of eidtors aruond the
ltierary wolrd . . . What does the ftuure hlod for these
domoed suols, if splleing has smiply sotpped
Stop. Nothing about spelling is as simple as that.
My computer’s spell-checker can work out all except 8 of
the 83 scrambled words in the paragraph that started all
this. It was stumped only by rscheear, Elingsh, uinervtisy,
iprmoetnt, pclae, wouthit, bcuseae and ervey. My computer
obviously does not read words as whole shapes. It takes the
letters on board and sorts them until it gets some genuine
words. Like devotees of Scrabble and anagrams. Writers work like this
too, with a several-stage process, so that when they type very fast their fingers can
be faster than their brains. It is like thinking, when ideas
come in a stream of consciousness, and then have to be
sorted out and grammar applied to write or speak them.
The cataracts of Internet interest about Smiple Snellpig
were joined by linguists and psychologists. They posted
emails about entropy, frequency, compression, indexes of
displacement, lexical decision tasks, Coltheart’s Dual-Route
Cascaded Model, the MROM-p syntax, neighbourhood
effects and the application of Zipf’s Law. The last word
came from one learned blogger: ‘I love this stuff ! holy crap.
this is the best shit since sliced meat’.
A moral may need seclusion in a brown paper envelope.
This one is in italics instead. Since skilled readers can read
these jumbled spellings, how easily they could read spelling
that was easier for poor readers and spellers.
Spelling and technology
The old information technology is spelling, but it is static.
The language itself changes, and the new information
technology changes all the time. Once scientists hoped that
computers could learn to spell, but then it was found that
spelling was one thing they still could not do, at least not in
English. At Stanford University, computers were fed with
hundreds of spelling rules, but all their algorithms were
stymied by so many exceptions. So it looked as if English
spelling might have to modify its irregular spellings so that
computers could spell. (This would have helped humans
too.) Unfortunately, scientists then came up with the spellchecker, which is simply a big database, so after all, English
spelling did not have to improve so that computers could
When spell-checkers succeed
Few humans among us can spell every word they know, but
a computer can have an enormous memory-bank, and allow
a little latitude, so that it can work out what words are close
to your mistakes. My spell-checker prefers show but it does
not mind shewn. It doesn’t mind today or to-day, tomorrow
or to-morrow. It will not flag me for faster spellings like
bandana, cutlas, encyclopedia, fulfil, jail, lanolin, monolog,
omelet, paraffin, toxin, trolly or wagon. And so, by allowing
spelling alternatives, computers help to change the world.
When spell-checkers fail
A letter in the London Independent newspaper voiced a
common belief that we can ‘rely on a spell-checker to deal
with spelling problems, give or take a few homophones.
Perhaps then these periodic calls for spelling reform will
stop, and schools can concentrate on improving children’s
skills of composition – much more important and more
difficult than spelling in the long run’. But spell-checkers
can do funny things. Here are words my spell-checker
comes up with: standley, webfeet, potentillas, unwigged,
emboli, anuline and seabag or teaberry. But it rejects
standby, website, potentials, unwaged, email, online and
teabag. My spell-checker does not recognise Shakespeare or
spellchecker, but can make strange suggestions to re-spell
typos – murre, bushies, bushoos, donee, amulla, whicker,
amole, buttony, bottley, donk, chlordane, serape, baccate,
quokkas, phellagen, comestible and baccate. It suggests prin
tout when I want printout. Amaze your friends. Collect
your own spell-check phenomena to use in your next
Type in the names of politicians, celebrities or places and
see what your spell-checker thinks of them. Hitler becomes
Hitter, and Cromwell is Crookwell. And who are Sadism,
Dooby, Condoles, Admass, Omasa, Ararat and
Blip? Who are the well-known Australians Costal, Braces,
Doily, Creak, Basely, Mingle, Emerge, Lounge, Warn and
A spell-checker for everyone in the world may not be the
answer to poor literacy. As emailer Mrs Hadler wrote: ‘with
spell-checkers, changing the spelling is unec . . . unnec . . .
Well, there’s no point, is there?’ Well, she thinks:
Awl thou this whirred processing soft wear has a spelling
cheque facility, ewe should not putt two match faith inn it.
Their are sum things it can cheque and sum it Cannes knot.
Four egg sample this paragraph had know treble hat awl in
getting threw it, butt it wood bee risk key to assume that big
horse yore letter got threw the spell chequer it must be
correct! It cud caws ewe to leaf a whirred inn witch yew mite
have spotted if ewe had red it properly in the furs plaice. The
mane thing is too yews it as Anne aid, butt knot two mutch.
A long poem by Jerrold H. Zar constantly goes round the
world on emails. Here are six verses:
Entry for a Pullet Surprise
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.
Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee caws my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting wan too pleas.
Spelling enshrines our culture. But what culture? There are
so many Englishes now – Caribbean, Pacific, Indian, African
. . . Literatures are now written in burgeoning Englishes that
are studied by linguists. Less recognised is the possibility
that many English spellings could go with them.
However, some distinctive ways of spelling English are
trying to emerge.
The American way of spelling
Spanish flu, Dutch courage, Scotch broth, German measles
and English spelling have been blamed on specific nations.
The USA has been edgy about the last one. A US spelling
authority, Dr Richard Venezky, asserts that The American
Way of Spelling is now the dominant English in the world.
We can expect that the American way of spelling will follow
free trade agreements across the globe. Several hundred
words are spelled differently. And so there are separate
dictionaries, spell-checkers and editions of books on the two
sides of the Atlantic. However, nothing else is changed by
the seven principles for American spelling set out by
Venezky in 1999. Rules and history are peppered with
phrases like ‘once again long exception lists are needed’.
Learning the early stages of American spelling takes 17
pages to set out, ‘where mainly the simpler patterns . . . are
introduced’. It may require ‘two or three years’ to learn 100
patterns that ‘should be taught explicitly’. We could feel like
Dante being escorted by Virgil around the perimeter of
Thank you, America, for spellings like theater, center,
program, catalog, honor and color, and occasionally, thru
and tho. Otherwise, the American way of spelling is as
English as ever.
The genre of stories in dialect was once full of apostrophes:.
‘Yoo ’avn’t ’eard wot woz a’goin’ ter ’appen darn ’n t’
flamin’ ’olly ’n hivey bits o’ owld ’Arvie’s ’amlet, yeers
a’gone, ’ave yer?’ Uncle Remus and Artemus Ward used
spelling to comic effect in representing the lower classes.
Writers rarely did this to their own accents. Today the yoo,
yor, wot, wos, wen and yeers of how they spelled subEnglish are pretty much how most of us speak. But they
have been so indelibly labelled as ‘Vulgah, my deah’ that
we would not dare to use them to spell as we speak.
Most Scots spell in English, except when Scottish spelling
gives a flavour to the Lallans of Lowland Scots. We don’t
sing Old Long Since instead of Auld Lang Syne. Gang hame
tae speir yon puir gudewyf is still the stuff of ballad and
lifts the sperrit as long as it is not thick with apostrophes.
Curiously, Scots numerals show where some misleading
English spellings hae coom frae – ane, twa, thri (with thrid
for our third), fower, fyf, six, seven, echt, nine, ten, eleven,
twalf – and twenty as a vague and expansive term meaning
‘plenty’, like the Hebrew word for ‘forty’.
Lallans words strayed in many varieties because the
spelling was not shepherded by dictionaries. There are at
least eight Scots words with their spellings that are cousins
and second cousins of gooseberry. Scots have the most
multi-spelled surnames in English. And every spelling of
McKie is for its owners the real MacCay.
It would be a pity if the Scots’ couthy pawky kenspeckled
multi-spelled vocabulary disappears. It chronicles an
inimitable and observant culture, unlike current spoken
English that is so often homogenised into sort of like, stuff.
Here is a sample of Scottish adjectives to be chewed slowly:
grimly, grewsome, grippit, grisk, grobble, groff, groo,
groogle, groose, groosh (excellent), grooze, groozle, gropsey
(gluttonous), gropus (stupid), grou, grouble, grouf, rouff,
grounch, grounge, grouse, grousome, grousy, growe,
growble, gribble (to feel with the fingers), gromish (to crush
severely parts of the body), and grimes-dike (a ditch made
Pidgin Englishes are a mix of English and local languages,
so simple that anyone can savvy quicksmart. Pidgin
spelling by English writers used to be based on
conventional spellings of the original English words. They
cluttered it with apostrophes and vowels that made pidgin
languages look uncouth and linguistically inferior, and
pidgin speakers more than slightly idiot-comic.
Pidgin spellings today are simple, and easy for anyone to
read or write. This accessible spelling has been a big reason
why places like Papua Niugini, with over 800 different
languages and needing a lingua franca to link the nation,
came to prefer an English-Melanesian pidgin like Tok Pisin
that everyone could learn easily, to the original intentions
on independence to continue with English alone in
education and government, in order to join fully with the
international world. English spelling has been just too hard.
Even insular Anglos with not a word of the spoken
language can read much of Tok Pisin – Gavman, Palamen,
Praim Minista, Dipartmen Praimeri Indastri, Nesenel
Brotkasting Komisi, Asosiet Pres, Provinsal Seketeri, Nius
Sevis Waia, Bisnis Kampani, Spesel Operata, Eksekyutiv
Opis and Komyuniti Projek. Any English kampan against
gobildiguk could also re-import their handy expression
Spelling for an Australian Aboriginal creole
Roper River Creole was first developed for local indigenous
education by white Australians in the 1970s, and then
increasingly by Aboriginal speakers. The creole spelling
looks like a language of its own, because ethnic identity was
regarded as more important for the locals than wider
communication. A writer’s distance from English-speaking
centres can be judged by the changes in words – sleep
becomes slip, then silip, jilip and jilib, and snake becomes
sneik, then sineik, sinek and jinek.
A story about two childless bandicoots begins like this, in
the old-style spelling of ‘pidgin English’.
Well, long another country, all the bandicoot been sitdown. Him and him wife been no-good-binjey toomuch two-fellow no-more been have-him piccaninny.
One-day two-fellow been listen gammon kangaroo
been have-him-lot-of piccaninny. Two-fellow been
have-to go long kangaroo belong ask-him kangaroo
belong two-fellow piccaninny.
Roper River Creole spelling has more dignity. It also uses
25% less paper:
Wel, langa naja kantri, ola Bendigut bin jidan. Im en im
waif bin nogudbinji dumaji tubala nomo bin abum
biginini. Wandei tubala bin lisin geman keingurru bin
abum loda biginini. Tubala bin labda go
langa keingurru bala
askim keingurru blanga
tubala bibinini. (from a
report of the Summer
Institute of Linguistics)
Aboriginal ‘Koories’ are showing the first signs of a distinct
spelling with a Koori Kolej and a play called Bran Nue Dae.
White Australian English does not have an official spelling,
which is just as well, because it could be unintelligible
beyond Australian shores. In ‘Strine’, spelling-as-we-speak,
aorta is what the govmin should be doing, Gloria Soames is
where we all want to live, and a namsemmitch will do us
for summanareet. A classic handbook, Let Stalk Strine, by
Alfabeck Lauder, was inspired by an incident when the
British author Monica Dickens innocently inscribed Emma
Chizzit in a book for an Australian who was only asking the
A recent import into Australian English is officially
spelled ciao, but you may see it written as caoi or coia or,
Spelling rebellion in Black America is rising, not only in
gangsta rap. It should be watched, because black culture
tends to percolate into the white mainstream. These lines
are by the activist Linton Kwesi Johnson:
how lang yu really feel yu coulda keep wi andah
heel wen di trute done reveal it is noh mistri wi
mekkin histri it is noh mistri wi winnin victri.
Creative spelling is no longer just what children do before
they know any better.
The world spells back
They spell it Vinci and they pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners
always spell better than they pronounce.
(Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869)
The English words pouring into foreign languages are
usually re-spelled in forms such as Franglais, Russlish,
Spanglish, Punglish (Punjabi), Japlish or Janglish, and mixes
that Paul Jennings has labelled ‘Minglish’. Taksi, cofi, soka,
bifstek, futbol, iscrem, mashin, komputa, niuspapa and
pasport are internationally recognised vocabulary.
Danish spelling is not systematic, and so ‘Danglish’ uses
English spellings for computer, juice, quiz, sweater and
yacht, but simplifies them in boykot, kricket, foto and
buldog, and has hybrids like booking-kontor.
Deutschlish is liable to change the sense of English words,
as in product names such as children’s lavatory seats
labelled Happy End and Baby Sitter.
Dutchling can keep English spellings for newer imported
words, as in this extract from a Dutch newspaper:
Kijk, de missiles zitten in roterende magazines, zij zijn
daar in geladen via de strike down hatches. Zij liggen
op een ready-service ring in ready-service trays,
worden hydraulic mhoog gebracht, nadat de
magazinedoors zijn open geklapt, worden danop de
tilting rail gezet. (Cited Gerritsen 1986)
Finnish, as may be expected, makes long words even
longer, as in Electronimikroskooppi.
Franglais is considered treasonable by the French
Academy. Even the Paris Opera was fined for unpatriotic
words like filter cigarettes instead of cigarettes filtrees. Fines
have been levied for hamburger, big cheese and Irish coffee.
Other borrowings include campings, le baby, sandwich,
weekend, data bank, barbecue, batch processing, chewing
gum, fast-food, hardware, hot-dog, juke-box, popcorn,
software and walkman. But even when it is given French
spellings, Franglais is never regarded as Frenchified
enough: bifstek, boulingrin (bowling green), pipele footing
(walking), le futbol, nitklub, le kartingle, redingote (riding
coat), stoque (stock), un dancing (dance hall), unpeeling, un
smoking and fondashon (foundation cream).
Indonglish is growing. Seventy per cent of the vocabulary
in an Indonesian picture book was recognisably English
with Indonesian spelling. Only words for relationships,
behaviour and the grammar remained 100% local. So
Indonesians have alkohol, dokter, stetoskop, foto, gitar,
koboi (cowboy), mikrofon, sekretaris, studio and trompet.
Japlish (gairaigo – language from abroad) is written in the
roman alphabet or in katakana script which can represent
only Japanese speech sounds and language structure – so
classic becomes kurashikkus, and Japlish words fairu,
erebeta, ragubi, rabureta, tishatsu, rakkisebun, uisuki on za
rokku, wapuro, hitto endo ran and hai teinzu represent file,
elevator, rugby, love-letter, T-shirt, lucky seven, whisky on
the rocks, word-processor, hit and run and older teenagers.
Portuguese usually re-spells its loan words, as in lider,
caboi, rosbife and draubaques for leader, cowboy, roast beef
and drawbacks. Examples of Spanglish and Texmex include
antifris, crismas, cauboi, detur, friser, aiscrim, picop ticher
and roquirol (pickup truck and rock and roll).
In South-East Asia, English spelling is usually copied
carefully, but English language makes trendy decorations in
shop signs and mottoes on note-paper. ‘May all the
happiness and gladness found you from this moment And
spacess betweem us . . .’ and ‘You’re always on my mine I’ll
be the until end of time’.
The international spelling of English A–Z in case you want
Afrikaans – Engel, Albanian – Anglisht, Arabic – Alingli’zia,
Bengali – Engreji, Breton – Saozneg Catalan – Angle`s, Croatian
– engleski, Czech – anglicky Danish – engelsk, Dutch – Engels
Esperanto – la anglan, Estonian – inglise Finnish – englantia,
French – anglais German –Englisch Hawaiian – Pelekane,
Hebrew – anglit, Hindi – angrejii, Hungarian – Angolul
Icelandic – Ensku, Indonesian – Bahasa Inggris, Irish – Be« arla,
Italian – Inglese Korean – Yong-o Latin – Anglice Malaysian –
Bahasa Inggeris, Mandarin – yi-ng yuv. Norwegian – engelsk
Polish – po angielsku, Portuguese – ingleˆs, Brazilian
Portuguese – Ingleˆs Romanian – engleza Serbian– engleski,
Sesotho – Senyesemane, Slovak – anglicky, Slovenian –
anglesxko, Spanish – ingle«s, Swahili – Kiingereza, Swedish –
Engelska Tagalog – Ingles, Thai – pa-sa-ang-krit, Turkish –
Ingilizce Ukrainian – po anhliy’s’ky Vietnamese – Anh Zulu –
International spellings for English
Schemes to improve English spelling have been offered to
the ungrateful Anglos by Russians, French, Italians,
Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, Israelis, Japanese,
Venezuelans, Germans, Indians and especially, for some
reason, Swedes. I have corresponded with many of them.
Schemes usually show their origins. A high-school teacher
in Ganzou, Jiangxe province, Mr Peh-ling Lee, has worked
out a Chinese way of spelling English, in which ‘l’ and ‘r’
are the same letter. Who knows? China has the numbers to
Eurospelling ELFE stands for English Lingua Franca in
Europe. EuroEnglish is becoming a new English pidgin
within the European Union for informal comunication
between nationals who speak other languages. They are
now abandoning grammatical niceties that ‘drive people
crazy’ when learning English, when they find that they do
not actually need gerunds or articles. ELFE English spelling
may follow. Indeed, a dramatic news item that flew around
the Internet in May 2001 has been so immensely popular
that it is still flying:
EURO ENGLISH GETTING BETTER!
The European Commission has just announced an
agreement whereby English will be the official
language of the EU rather than German, which was the
other possibility. Her Majesty’s government conceded
that English spelling had some room for improvement
and has accepted a five-year phase-in plan to be known
In the first year ‘s’ replaces soft ‘c’ . This will make
the sivil servants jump with joy. Hard ‘c’ will be
dropped in favor of ‘k’. This should klear up konfusion
and keyboards kan have one less letter.
There will be more publik enthusiasm in the sekond
year, when the troublesome ‘ph’ is replaced with ‘f’.
Words like Fotograf will be 20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new
spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage when more
komplikated changes are possible. Governments will
enkorage the removal of double letters, which have
always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil
agre that the horible mess of the silent ‘e’s is
disgraceful, and they should go away.
By the 4th yar, pepl wil be reseptiv to replasing ‘th’
with ‘z’, and ‘w’ with ‘v’.
During ze fifz yar, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords
kontaining ‘ou’ and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer
kombinations of leters.
After zis fifz yar, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no
mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand
ZE DREM VIL FINALI KUM TRU!!
That is, EuroEnglish will be spelled like German. The
French will then retaliate.
Ze« do Rock is a cosmopolitan in Germany who has
invented a jokey world Winglish: ‘World Inglish givs u
wings! Anglo-saxon words ar speld az dei ar pronaunst, but
Latin and greek, french, etc. words ar pronounced az thay
ar ritten’. By the time Ze«’s Winglish reaches its fifth year of
introduction, it looks like this: ‘After dis fift yir, wi wil hav a
rili sensible riten stail. Der wil bi nou mor trubles or
dificultis and evriwan wil faind it izi tu understand iich
DE DRIM WIL FINALI COM TRU!’
Ze« is now developing Winglish into an International
Pidgin. He has also written an adventure book in
Siegfriedisch, a ‘purely germanic german’ where a word
like bus becomes Vieleleutewagen (manypeoplecar).
Reders ar encurajd to come up with their own drems or
spoofs for Pinglish (Personalised English Spelling).
A dated history of spelling
(History was once all dates.)
to read letter by letter
a heavy influence
a relief shift
to spell as a verb
a period of time, as in dry spell
a speller is someone who spells out words
illness, as in fainting spell
spelling bees were already a form of trial
for public entertainment
spellbinding, what films tried to be
spell out, as in making instructions clear
spelldown, what you do in a spelling bee
Spelt is also a kind of wheat.
If we really wanted to avoid words that sound the same
being spelled the same, we could spell each meaning
A pocket history of spelling
Talking is natural, although it takes eight years or more to
be even moderately expert. Everyone learns to talk unless
something goes wrong. Writing is not natural. It was
invented for a few languages, then others copied it. The idea
of the alphabet is that letters represent sounds, and is so
clever that it has been invented only a few times. It is easier
to learn to read and write with 15 to 50 alphabet letters than
to rote-learn thousands of characters. The Phoenicians used
a consonant alphabet for trading, and then the Greeks
added vowels. Writing with single characters for syllables is
easier still, but the English language has too many different
syllables for this.
As linguistics professor Vivian Cook and many others
before him have pointed out, an unfair number of ‘correct’
English spellings began life as mistakes.
English spelling began with an Anglo-Saxon script that
was submerged by the Norman-French conquest of 1066.
When the English language re-surfaced in writing, it had
become mongrel English-French. Printing helped to stabilise
its spelling in the 15th century, but printers and scholars
were like too many cooks. The revival of learning set off a
vocabulary explosion, with much derived from Latin and
Greek. Scholars tried to make English words look as if they
came from the classics too, so now there were three spoons
in the pudding. Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 and Webster’s
in America later set standards for spelling. Both men were
reformers in their way but Webster moderated his radical
aims, and Johnson tried to base spelling on presumed
derivations of words because there was then no prestige
English dialect to follow. The British Empire next trawled in
vocabulary and spellings from all over the world. ‘Correct’
spelling came to serve as a quick screening test for privilege,
diligence, intelligence and even moral virtue for 18th
century aristocrats and Victorian middle-classes, to keep out
the aspiring vulgar mobs. The Swedish sociologist, Thorsten
Veblen, in 1899 described English spelling as an example of
‘Conspicuous Consumption’ that elites use to show off their
status, and it is still pretty much that way. The result from
all this burden of history is that many words are hard to
spell, and many are hard to read too. We have bad spellers,
but many more poor readers and failed readers.
However, TXTMSGs and the Internet show that winds of
spelling change are blowing in places where the young do
not fear to tread.
Spelling in literature
From Charles Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby comes to teach at
Dotheboys Hall, under headmaster Wackford Squeers:
Half-a-dozen scarecrows, out at knees and elbows,
ranged themselves in front of the schoolmaster’s
desk. One placed a torn and filthy book beneath
his learned eye.
‘This is the first class in English spelling and phi
losophy, Nickleby,’ said Squeers. ‘We’ll get up a Latin
one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the
‘Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back parlour window,’
said the head of the philosophical class.
‘So he is, to be sure,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We go upon
the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular
education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make
bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a
casement. When the boy knows this out of the book, he
goes and does it. It’s just the same principle as the use
of the globes. Where’s the second boy?’
‘Please, sir, he’s weeding the garden,’ replied a small
‘To be sure,’ said Squeers. ‘So he is. B-o-t, bot, ti-n,
tin, bottin n-e-y, ney, bottiney, noun substantive, a
knowledge of plants. When he has learned that
bottinney means a knowledge of plants, he goes and
knows ’em. That’s our system, Nickleby; what do you
think of it?’
‘It’s a very useful one, at any rate,’ answered
An old-time American spelling bee
From Laddie, by Gene Stratton Porter, published in 1915.
Everyone in the district has crammed into the schoolhouse
for the great event. The two finalists are the romantic leads –
Laddie, the heroic big brother of the child narrator, and the
‘Princess’, the beautiful daughter of a strange English
couple who are shunned by everyone, but who of course
turn out to be of noble blood.
Miss Amelia began with McGuffey’s spelling book, and
whenever some unfortunate made a bad break the
crowd roared with laughter. Peter Justice was nodding
on his feet, so she pronounced ‘sleepy’ to him.
Someone nudged Pete and he waked up and spelled it,
s-l-e, sle, p-e, pe, and it made everyone laugh. Isaac
Thomas spelled soap s-o-a-p-e, and it was all the
funnier that he couldn’t spell it, for from his looks you
could tell that he had no acquaintance with it in any
shape. Then Miss Amelia gave out ‘marriage’ to the
spooniest young man in the district and ‘coquette’ to
our Shelley, who had been making sheep’s eyes at
Johnny Myers. When she had trimmed the lines to half
a dozen on each side she pronounced the hardest
words she could find and the spellers caught them up
and rattled them off like machines. ‘Incompatibility,’
she gave out, and before the sound of her voice died
away the Princess was spelling: ‘I-n, in, c-o-m, com,
incom, p-a-t, pat, incompat, i, incompati, b-i-l bil,
incompatibil, i, incompatibili, t-y, ty, incompatibility.’
Then Laddie spelled incomprehensibility, and they finished up
the ‘abilities’ and the ‘alities‘ with a rush, and changed
McGuffey’s for Webster, with five on Laddie’s side and three on
the Princess’s, and when they quit with it, the Princess was alone,
and Laddie facing her. From then on you could call it real
spelling. They spelled from the grammars, hyperbole,
synechdoche, and epizeuxis. They spelled from the physiology,
chlorophyll, coccyx arytenoid, and the names of the bones and
nerves, and all the hard words inside you. They tried the diseases
and spelled jaundice, neurasthenia and tongue-tied. They tried all
the occupations and professions, and went through the stores and
spelled all sorts of hardware, china and dry goods. Laddie’s side
kept crying, ‘Hold up the glory of the district!’
The Princess was poised lightly on her feet, her thick curls
shining in the light; her eyes like stars, her perfect, dark oval face
flushed a rich red, and her deep bosom rising and falling with
excitement. Laddie, in his strength and manly beauty, trembled
before the Princess. Heavens, how they spelled! They finished all
the words I ever heard and spelled like lightning through a lot of
others the meaning of which I couldn’t imagine. Father never
gave them out at home. They spelled epiphany, gaberdine,
ichthyology, gewgaw, kaleidoscope, and troubadour. Then
Laddie spelled one word two different ways, and the Princess
went him one better, for she spelled another three.
They spelled from the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar, Potiphar, Peleg,
Belshazzar, Abimelech, and a host of others I never heard the
minister preach about. Then they did the most dreadful thing of
all. ‘Broom,’ pronounced the teacher, and I began mentally, b-r-oo-m, but Laddie spelled ‘b-r-o-u-gh-a-m’, and I stared at him in a
daze. A second later Miss Amelia gave out ‘Beecham’ to the
Princess, and again I tried it, b-e-e-c-h, but the Princess was
spelling B-e-a-u-c-h-a-m-p, and I almost fell from the window.
Miss Amelia at last picked up an old geography. Father often
did that, so Laddie was safe there. Miss Amelia pronounced Terra
del Fuego to the Princess. ‘T-e-r-r-a, Terra: d-e-1, del, F-i-e-u-g-o,’
spelled the Princess, and sat down suddenly in the midst of a
mighty groan from her side. ‘Next!’ called Miss Amelia. ‘T-e-r-r-a,
Terra, d-e-1, del, F-eu-g-o,’ spelled Laddie.
‘Wrong!’ wailed Miss Amelia, and our side breathed one big
groan. Then everyone laughed and pretended they didn’t care,
and the Princess came over and shook hands with Laddie, and
Laddie said to Miss Amelia, ‘Just let me take that book a minute
until I see how the thing really does go.’ I had heard him spell it
many, many times for father, he didn’t fool me.
An excerpt from Mark Twain’s Simplified spelling in
The first time I was in Egypt a Simplified Spelling epidemic had
broken out. This was four or five thousand years ago – I do not
remember just how many thousand it was. I am speaking of a
former state of existence of mine, perhaps my earliest
reincarnation; indeed I think it was the earliest.
The Simplifiers had risen in revolt against the hieroglyphics.
An uncle of Cadmus was trying to introduce the alphabet. He was
challenged to show cause. The discussion took place in the
Temple of Astarte. Croesus was foreman of the Simplifiers’
Revolt. Among the Simplifiers were many men of learning and
distinction, but all grades of intellect, erudition, and ignorance
were represented in the Opposition.
Uncle Cadmus began with an object lesson, with chalk, on a
couple of blackboards. On one of them he drew in outline a
slender Egyptian in a short skirt, with slim legs and an eagle’s
head in place of a proper head, and carrying a couple of dinner
pails, one in each hand. In front he drew a toothed line like an
excerpt from a saw; three skeleton birds of doubtful ornithological
origin; a partly constructed house, with lean Egyptians fetching
materials in wheelbarrows; some more unclassified birds; then a
large king, with carpenter’s shavings for whiskers; next another
king jabbing at a lion with a javelin; a tower, with armed
Egyptians projecting out of the top as crowded as the cork in a
bottle; and the opposing army below, fierce of aspect but much
out of drawing as regards to perspective. They were shooting
arrows at the men in the tower, which was poor military
judgement because they could have reached up and pulled them
out by the scruff of the neck. He followed these pictures with line
after line of birds and beasts and scraps of saw-teeth and bunches
of men in short frocks, and finally his great blackboard was full
from top to bottom. Everybody recognized the invocation set out
by the symbols: it was the Lord’s Prayer. It had taken him fortyfive minutes.
Then he stepped to the other blackboard and dashed off ‘Our
Father which art in heaven,’ and the rest of it, in graceful Italian
script, spelling the words, and finished it in four minutes and a
He went to a fresh blackboard and wrote upon it in
hieroglyphics – ‘At this time the King possessed of cavalry 214,580
men and 222,631 horses for their use; of infantry 16,341 squadrons
together with an emergency reserve of all arms, consisting of
84,946 men, 321 elephants, 37,264 transportation carts, and 28,954
camels and dromedaries.’
It filled the board and cost him twenty-six minutes of time and
labor. Then he repeated it on another blackboard in Italian script
and Arabic numerals in two minutes and a quarter. Then he said:
‘You have spent your lives in mastering the hieroglyphics, and
to you they are simple. It would not be worth your while to
acquire the new learning; the pictured records have become
beautiful to you through habit, and are associated with the great
deeds of our fathers, indestructively engraved upon stone. But I
appeal to you in behalf of the generations to follow you. Do not
send them toiling down to the twentieth century still oppressed
by this heavy burden. Let your sons and daughters adopt written
words and the alphabet, and go free.’ (Uncle Cadmus then made a
withering comparison of German and English spelling, and set
out Mark Twain’s own ideas about improving English.)
Uncle Cadmus sat down. The Opposition rose and combated
his reasonings in the usual way. They had always been used to the
hieroglyphics. The hieroglyphics had dear and sacred associations
for them. They loved to sit on a barrel under an umbrella in the
brilliant sun of Egypt and spell out the owls and eagles and
alligators and saw-teeth, and take an hour and a half to the Lord’s
Prayer, and weep with romantic emotion at the thought that they
had at most but eight or ten years between themselves and the
grave to enjoy this ecstasy.
Spelling by numbers
Numeric Reform in Nescioubia is a parable by Charles
Grandgent, telling of an ancient country that used Roman
numerals. Many mathematicians admitted the Arabic
system was better, but said that it could not apply to
Nescioubian problems. Others thought the change might be
advantageous, but it should come about spontaneously,
without pressure from any self-constituted body. The
Arabic numerals, apparently, were to silently steal in
without anybody noticing them. Others conceded that
change might be assisted by conscious effort on somebody’s
part (not their own) but maintained that it should be
effected very gradually, by the adoption, let us say, of one
Arabic figure in a generation. The number nine, they
thought, might be a good one to begin with, as it is written
in two ways, IX and VIIII, neither of them wholly
convenient in complex computation. Other mathematicians
said that Arabic numbers would destroy the philosophic
spirit of their science. How could one speculate on the
fourth dimension unless four were written IV? What
impression would their beautifully elaborated deductions
make if they were associated in the students’ minds with a
horrid Arabic 4? The conservatives were alarmed, especially
makers of the ponderous tomes of numerical reference
tables which Roman notation renders essential. They
enlisted an eminent pedagogue, who proved by a series of
psychological experiments that children can perform long
division more rapidly, more correctly, and with less mental
strain, with Roman numbers than with Arabic. The
conservatives were eloquent on the threats to continuity of
mathematical thought. Why, if we lose sight of the fact that
four presented itself to the Roman mind as five minus one,
we should be cut off from all contact with our ancestors.
The replacement of Roman numerals by the efficient
Arabic system was a fraught business in Europe, although it
has made modern science possible. The hinterlands hung on
to the old figures for another 500 years.
Verse and werse
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?
The wind was rough
and cold and blough.
She kept her hands within her mough.
It chilled her through,
her nose grough blough,
and still the squall the faster flough.
And yet although
there was nough snough
the weather was a cruel fough.
It made her cough.
Please do not scough.
She coughed until her hat blough ough.
from Brush up your English by T S Watt
A teacher whose spelling’s unique
Thus wrote down the days of the wique:
The first he spelt ‘Sonday’, the
And now a new teacher
A merchant addressing a debtor Remarked
in the course of his lebtor That he chose to
suppose, a man knose
what he ose, And the sooner he pays it the bebtor.
Scoundrels pushed to the front in a queue
With a shove and a bash and a shueue, But a
loser-out said, as they jumped on
his haid, ‘When I sueue
yueue, yueue’ll rueue
what yueue dueue.’
Whenever she looks down the aisle She gives me a
beautiful smaisle: And of all of her beaux, I am
sheaux She likes me the best of the paisle.
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoak
The less he spoak the more he heard
We all should be like that old beard
Anonymous sources include
Rimes without Reason, Lake Placid Club, NY.
The Chaos, A double-dutch epic
These heroic verses of 246 lines were written by a
Dutchman, Dr Gerard Nolst Trenite«, and circulate overseas
in institutions teaching English. Here are 36 of the 246 lines:
Dearest creature in creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Words like corpse, corps, horse, & worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear.
I hear you now. Here is my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
And be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Daughter, laughter, poem, toe.
Viscount, viscous, vicar, cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, and want and grant,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Finally, which rhymes with enough –
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is, give it up!
Dethless Verses from the Poets
Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1340–1400, the father of English
poetry, wrote on spelling in Troilus and Criseyde:
And for ther is so grete dyversite
In Englissh and in writyng of our tonge,
So preye I God, that non myswrite the, Ne the
mysmetere, for defaut of tonge. And red wherso thow
be or elles songe, That thow be understonde, God I
Chaucer’s spelling is still readable, but may be easier if
updated. ‘And because there is such great diversity in
English and in writing of our tongue, so I pray God, that
none mis-write you or mis-metre you, for lack of language.
And wherever you are read or sung, I beseech God that you
be understood.’ How modern are Chaucer’s ideas and
problems, if not his syntax. ‘It is a pity that Chawcer, who
had geneyus, was so unedicated. He’s the wuss speller I
know of.’ (Artemus Ward, 1834–67).
Not quite Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This spelling’s mad?
Whose heart has ne’er within him burned
As child-ward he his eyes hath turned,
To see that wandering alien band.
If such there be, go mark him well,
I bet that he too cannot spell
If truth to tell.
I think this poem ends with the pterified speller plunging
to endless night.
Hamlet, partly written by William Shakespeare
To spell and how to spell: that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arroes of outrageous customs,
Or to take arms against a set of trubls,
And by impruving, end them. Unbind the spel,
No more, and by this help to end
The hed-aches and the thousand nasty shocks
Our young are heir to. Just to amend –
Aye, there’s the rub. For if we spel with sense,
What pundits do, if we should shufl off this
Might make us pause. There’s a respect
That makes calamity of comon sense.
John Keats looks into the spelling of Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travel’d in the realms of ink,
And many horrid spellings have I read,
On many lists my memory was fed
So hard to spell or read, so hard to think.
Never of any hope were students told
For old eccentrics held it their demesne –
A word I can’t pronounce or spell, though seen –
Till I heard Reason speak out loud and bold.
Then felt I like some worm within a book
When metamorphosis comes in its ken,
Or like stout Cortes, when with eagle look,
He learnt to spell in Spanish, and his men
Gazed at each other with a wild Gadzook,
And left surmising to the English pen.
Three early 1970s expurgated Australian radio playlets were
Onky Upon a Timmy (a fairy story), The Miggrant who
Spelt licky an Angle (Leonardo da Vinci comes to Australia)
and A Miggrant’s Traggedigh (a Mediterranean momma
learns to speak English from books). Modern drama now
presents American Spelling Bees as tragedy, comedy,
suspense and horror.
2 Swept away on the wild shores of
What most people do not know about spelling
The def and dum alfabet
Every letter in the alphabet can be silent.
A feather was spelled fether in Old English
B limb – lim in Old English
C scissors – sisours in Middle English
D Wednesday – Wodnes daeg, Woden’s
Day, from Old English
E favourite – favorit from Old French
F halfpenny was a half penny
G foreign – forain from Old French
H school – scol in Old English
I believe – bileven in Middle English
J marijuana – American Spanish Maria
Juana? Mary Jane
K blackguard was black guard
L palm – paum in Middle English
M mnemonic from mnemonikos, Greek
N autumn from autumnus, Latin
O young – yong in Middle English
P receipt – receit in Middle English
Q lacquer – from lacre, Old French
R burr – burre in Middle English
S island – iland in Middle English
T hustle from husselen, Dutch
U though – thoh in Middle English
V fivepence was five pence
W whole – hal in Old English
X faux pas – French
Y mayor – from maire, French
Z rendezvous – French
So now we have feather, limb, scissors, favourite, foreign,
school, believe, palm, young, receipt, lacquer, island, hustle,
though, whole and mayor, with extra letters that were not
The wild shores of consonants – how sounds are
b–bob bobbed cupboard hautboy bhang
d– did diddle could dhow Buddhist
bdellium burthen mezzo f–fife fluff
enough photograph calf often sapphire
lieutenant g– gig giggle ghost jungle
guess plague exhibit
blackguard example eczema h–had who j–jig judge giant
soldier exaggerate k–keg kick can quick cheque school chalk
exit exhibition viscount antique khaki liquorice
bacchanal falcon pukka ache l–lid lull island silhouette m–
him common comb empty hymn Campbell
drachm phlegm palm sandwich n – fun funny gnaw know
mnemonic pneumatic demesne p– pop popped shepherd
hiccough halfpenny r–ran merry wrap rhyme corps myrrh s– sit
city mass scissors castle answer coalesce
finesse schism raspberry sword
psalm isthmus next waltz t–tot totter
two jumped thyme debt yacht indict
veldt might phthisis receipt waltz pizza v–value revving of
halves nephew Grosvenor w–win queen one when memoir
bivouac penguin y–yes sleighing onion cue z – zoo buzz as
scissors czar Windsor business
ch–chill match question cello righteous
gh– lough Hugh loch
sh–shall chalet ocean fission sugar station
th – eighth Matthew thick, and th as in them
zh – vision baize rouge jabot
who – whistle
ng – sing uncle blanket handkerchief tongue
The wild shores of vowels
Vowel spellings are made from the accidents of history.
Here are the most common spellings for the vowel sounds,
with the less common and rather weird.
a – A cat guarantees to have salmon and meringue to harangue
e– Red heads. I said I guess it’s nonsense that many friends pay
with cheques on Wednesdays to bury leopards.
i – Pink pigs live in the city. Pretty busy women build with
rhythm on bicycles.
o – Hot dog was gone. John got lots of honours and laurels
because of his knowledge of how to cough on yachts.
u – Fun run. Some won. Mothers and uncles with young blood
have thoroughly tough tongues.
A – Cake play baby. Praise great trains. They reign at the ballet
matine«es with veils and bouquets. Eight straight dahlias in
E – We be real chiefs. Please meet police. Freeze cheese. Receive
receipt. The people believe in the key to the league.
I– I like my pie right. The guide on the island eyed the diamond in
the aisle by the choir. But why sign to either with dye?
O– No gold boat show. The rogue of a chauffeur at the depot
holds a mauve brooch on his shoulder. Folk know, though, his
beau is a ghost in Cologne.
U– Emu music uses new clues. You view Hugh’s beautiful ewe.
There’s a deuce of a feud over the juice in lieu of an impugned
ar – Fast cars class for bananas. Half the guard at the heart of the
bazaar laughed at the sergeant’s aunt in bourgeois khaki.
er – Her girl learns fur work. The journalist’s answers to the
amateur nurse were worse than the colonel’s circles of myrrh.
air – Where fair bears care. The mayor’s parents spared their
or – Poor sports stores’ wars. George bore four swords on board
his horse, of course.
aw – Raw ball talk ought to be taught in autumn. The cause of the
awe was broad.
ow – Brown mouse sounds. Sauerkraut on the bough.
oy – Boys boil with the noise of gargoyles on the lifebuoy.
oo – Blue moons truly do a lulu. Choose fruit soup or lose
two shoes en route to the manoeuvres.
oo – A wolf could pull woolly worsted.
Double-dealing curiosities – Say quickly:
Halve valve, have cave, chase phase, caste haste, shall mall,
plait bait, said paid, head bead, sweat pleat, loot foot, fear
pear, sew stew, cease tease, deaf leaf, skied tied, give live,
sneak break, toe shoe, crouch touch, sour tour, tough cough,
choose noose, wool stool, good brood, broad toad, both
broth, post cost, gone lone, lose pose, grow brow, some
dome, rush bush, bull lull, put rut.
Psychologists Mark Seidenberg & J L McClelland had a
lot of fun with this list.
Words with two spellings for the same sound:
k– character, clock, cook, kicked, expect
s– science, surface, scissors, special, silence, sincerely, sixty,
Words with two sounds for the same spelling:
c– bicycle, practice, catch, circus, electricity, capacious
g– garage, gigantic
o– chocolate, robot
qu – quinquereme
s– suppose, surprise, disease
t– station, trait
Back to front spelling
<wh> spells the sound /hw/ in which what why when
whip and wheedle. <wh> spells the sound /h/ in who
whole whore whortleberry. <wh) spells the sound /w/ as
in wharf and whoa.
‘When two vowels go out walking, the first vowel does
the talking’ – except when it does not, as in aisle, break,
pseudo, chief, oedema, persuade.
Infernal spelling – a list of demons
Spelling demons inhabit lists in a pandemonium of their
own under schoolroom floors. The average demon has
2.4 tricks, so if you escape one, others can still trap you.
Here are 80 of the 120 worst spelling demons from a list set
for students at a secretarial college. All have surplus letters,
some are tricked out with double-consonant hazards, some
have obscure sounds hard to spell, and some just mislead
with letters you don’t expect.
accommodate assassin acknowledge acquire aggravate
appropriate ballerina because building business conscious
correspondence colleagues commemorate commission committee
compatible comparative connoisseur corroborate courteous
disappoint desperate disastrous dissatisfied donkey especially
The ironic college list of
exception efficient embarrass equipped erroneous essential
fascinate feasible February foreign fulfilled friends gauge guile
guardian height illiterate illuminate immigrant incidentally
indispensable irrelevant irreparable irresistible immediately
liaison manoeuvre medicine Mediterranean miniature minutes
mortgage movable negotiable necessary occasion occasional
occurrence parallel paralleled parliament penicillin scholastic
seize science scissors separate unconscious unparalleled usually
valuable view Wednesday
flipside is that six other words in the
demons are demonic because they are
unexpectedly regular, when you have learned to expect the
worst: bachelor, exercise, harass, inoculate and omitted.
(Little Jessica wrote ‘I like to serf ’, crossed it out and
wrote ‘I like to surghe’. The common expectation that
correct spelling will be terrible is a frequent cause of bad
I before E after tea – if you want to know
Every literate person should know the reasons for what
they must rote-learn or continually check. Why all these
fiddly bits that sort out the pukka from the uneddicate? In
spelling One-Upmanship, unaided rote-memory was once
needed to spell -ible or -able, -ent or -nt, -ie or -ei, -ce or -se,
-efy or -ify – a burden of Sisyphus to push uphill. Now we
have the bondage of Ixion, tied to the wheel that is labelled
spell-checker, our extra-cerebral electronic memories. Why
so many fusses?.
One well-known rule is I BEFORE E EXCEPT AFTER C –
except for prima facie, specie, superficies, and a score of
words like caffeine, casein, codeine, forfeit, protein, seize,
weir, and weird. This C-rule applies to derivatives of the
Latin capio. Ancient Romans had no problems with this.
IE can be pronounced as in diet, sieve, friend, adieu and
view, but chiefly it is pronounced as in chief. EI can be
pronounced as in foreign, veil, receipt, either, their, but
usually it is pronounced EE as in deceive.
This ie-ei spelling business has been an intrusion that
changed words like beleven, theef, preest, cheef, greef,
feeld, feend, yeeld, peece, and ceelen into believe, thief,
priest, chief, grief, field, fiend, yield, piece, and ceiling. (The
French original was ciel.)
For ABLE/IBLE, Fowler says: ‘Words ending in -able
generally owe their form to the Latin termination -ABILIS or
the Old French -ABLE, or both, and words in -IBLE to the
Latin IBILIS. The suffix -ABLE is also added to words of
distinctly French or English origin and as a living element to
English roots.’ Would you like fries with that? Fowler’s
English Usage took eight columns to explain when to use ABLE and when to use IBLE, and the exceptions. Even
before you have read all the eight columns, you will agree
with Fowler’s conclusion that ‘the current conception of BLE is elastic’.
For -ANT/ENT, there is a simple rule with a swag of
exceptions. -ANT ends nouns, -ENT ends adjectives –
except when they don’t.
For -CEED/CEDE. ‘The curious thing is that a division so
little reasonable should be so religiously observed.’ Fowler
again. ‘Verbs in -CEDE -CEED are so many . . . and the
causes of the difference are so far from obvious, that
mistakes are frequent.’ The ‘CEED’ words violate the claim
that our ‘optimum spelling’ shares visual appearances for
related words, because exceptions include exceed – excess,
proceed – procedure, succeed – succession.
The old solution to the -ISE /IZE spelling dilemma was to
take IZE as normal and then learn several dozen exceptions.
The modern solution is that each country or journal decides
on its own house style for -ISE or IZE. Set your spell-checker
according to your country or your journal. The Oxford
Guide to the English Language offers this assistance: ‘The
choice applies only to the verbal suffix of Greek origin
added to nouns and adjectives with the sense of make into,
treat with, or act in the way of (that which is indicated by
the stem word.’
-OR/ER ‘These two suffixes are from Latin (through
French) and Old English respectively, but’ (guess what’s
coming) ‘their origin is not a sure guide to their
distribution’. (The Oxford Guide)
SILENT E. You may think, ‘I know what silent E does.’
Yes, you think it is the magic silent letter that changes the
sound of the vowel before it. You add silent Eto mat, met,
nit, not, nut and you have mate, mete/meat or meet, but
then, surprise, it is night rather than nite, and newt rather
than nute. And then our little helper silent E has nine more
jobs, and because there are so many, they trip over each
If you want to know about what else silent E can do: Silent
E distinguishes nouns like dense and please from plural or
verb endings like dens and pleas. Silent E as in ice and rage
changes the sounds of c and g, in contrast to
scenic and rag. Silent E distinguishes words like ore and
caste from words that sound the same, like or and cast, and
Silent E as in definite, minute and primate, can show Latin
or French origin. When Latin-origin words are spelled as in
deficit and explicit, those in the know will know that those
words came into English more recently. If that helps.
Silent E as in eclipse and arabesque can show the syllable
before it is stressed, according to some linguists, but others
are unsure. Silent E as in give, have, nerve and freeze
prevents real English words ending with V or Z, so you can
recognise foreign words like kibbutz and fez. Or rev? Silent
E, for no reason that I can find out, as in come. Perhaps from
an antique inflection now unspoken? Silent E as in table
apple and centre could have been spelled as in label, chapel
and enter. Or axolotl.
To those nine silent E uses, add non-silent E, as in
apostrophe, karate, curare, epitome, anemone and simile.
And not-silent E can sound like ay if it comes from French,
as in cafe« and fiance« .
Here are a few things that the learned Fowler had to say
about doubled consonants, in words that can hardly be
Doubled consonants cause a large proportion of the
tears shed over spelling. Little relief can be given. The
words in which sound is no guide to whether there is
one consonant or two are not a score or so . . . but
thousands. Nothing but a complete spelling book will
serve the turn of a really weak speller . . . If a list were
made of the many thousands of words whose spelling
cannot be safely inferred from their sound, the
doubtful point in perhaps nine-tenths of them would
be whether some single consonantal sound was
represented by one, one doubled, or two different
consonants as in comic, embarrass or science. For
anyone who knows no language but English, the basic
function of doubled consonants is to distinguish the
pronunciation of vowels as in holy and holly, but the
interference of the other causes is so incalculable and so
frequent that he soon finds it hopeless to reply upon
the principle in doubtful cases.
Origins for these conventions may be traced back
‘sometimes to factors in word formation philologically
explicable or inexplicable’.
Spelling is twice as hazardous when there are double
chances for making doubling mistakes – as in unparalleled,
accommodate or disappoint (dissap-disapp-dissappdisap ...)
SPELLING THE SOUND S. The too-many-cooks rule has
won in trying to solve the problem of showing when a word
ending in S is not a plural or a verb. So we have spellings
such as mortice tortoise horse house these and cheese, plus
princess (distinguished from princes), seize (seas and sees),
freeze (frees), size (sighs), praise (prays), fence (fens), tease
(teas) and daze (days). Do-nothing spellings, as in cactus,
lens, caucus, locus, sinus, corpus, iris, alias and fracas
suggest all these other unpredictable stratagems may not be
needed after all. New words rarely bother about fancy S
Philip Smith collected eight uses for final -SS alone. Here
. Stress on a final syllable, as in harass, duress,
morass . Feminine – peeress, waitress . Short vowel – boss,
lass, dress, glass, class, less,
dross . Classical suffix – congress, ingress, progress .
Distinguishing words that sound the same –
canvas/ canvass . More than one
function at once – princess/princes,
Or perhaps none of these, as in carcass, fortress and
The Oxford Guide to the English Language has 35 pages
on teensy spelling issues like these. Then a further ten pages
of double-columns on ‘Difficult and confusable spellings
not covered in previous entries’. What a lot of interesting
fun! How different from the logic of mathematics! The
exploration of whys and hows and their exceptions could
take anyone off drugs. But is it real Culture?
Homonophobia – the fear of words that sound the
A convict is locked in a cell with only a chair.
How does he escape?
He rubs his hands until they are sore.
He uses the saw to cut the chair in half.
Two halves make a whole.
He climbs through the hole.
He shouts himself hoarse.
He gets on the horse and gallops away.
Only if you want to know
. Homophones are words that sound the same, like might, mite.
. Homographs are written the same, like bow, bow.
. Homonyms are written and sounded the same, but have
. Heterophonic homographs are spelled the same but not
sounded the same, as in lead/lead.
. Heterographic homophones are not spelled the same, but
sound the same, as in pain, pane.
Spell-checkers as well as people continually mix up the
spellings of its and it’s, and there, their, they’re because they
sound the same. All learners are confused at first. Many
never learn. Should we worry?
Back in 1768, nearly 250 years ago, Benjamin Franklin
wrote a letter to a lady who was putting up the usual
arguments that people still write to newspapers today
against removing difficulties from English spelling. His
answer still holds good. In talking we are not confused by
words that sound the same, because the sense of the
sentence gives us the meaning, and this happens in reading
More homophones are spelled the same than are spelled
differently. Hardly anyone knows this, because when we
read we never notice there could be alternative meanings,
unless the context actively promotes puns or confusion, as
in subeditor’s witticisms and jokes like ‘The truck had a
I bet you never noticed that in the last three paragraphs
there were 16 words that sound the same as other words
and are spelled the same – spell checkers sound letter
putting arguments papers still holds sense sentence hardly
one notice promotes and like – while there were 14 words
that sound the same as other words but have different
spellings – all we rote letter in to write not too one knows
read there and be. Psychologists like to have different
spellings for homophones, because it gives them a
fascinating occupation researching how people try to cope
English has more homofones than most other alfabetic
writing systems, although the French have a phrase ‘si six
cents six scies scient six cents six cypre`s’, which has eight
/si/ sounding words in it. The Chinese try to distinguish
their thousands of one-syllable homofones by five tones in
speech, different characters in writing, and making
compound words. But the one syllable HSI, for example,
can be written in 116 characters, and Chao tells of a story in
classical Chinese made up entirely of 37 characters for HSI
pronounced in only one tone, about a man named Hsi who
plays with a rhinoceros in a creek, and it attacks him.
Here are some classic English homofoneries:
A hansom buoy flu down the rode to meat a suite fare
made. He was a cole-mynah and she was a cellar of
muscles. His hew was pail, butt he grue boulder and side,
‘Owe, deer won, aye knead ewe sew! Eye can knot weight
until hour bridle our when wee prey at the alter. The belles
will peel. Then we wood sale strait aweigh in grate stile
four a cruse two sea awl the pieceful aisles and eyelets over
the see. Pleas let us steel aweigh!’
This one is easier:
Notice for a fancy dress party
The class can send a letter with a present for everybody
who takes part to make sure there will be fair shares. It
might even be just as well to step round the side with a
change of dress in case there may be a light fall of hail on
the way back.
Deliberate confusions to try to read aloud quickly:
Does do not buck but a buck does.
My jaw was number after a number of injections.
They were not content with the content of the memo.
The dump will refuse refuse.
The minute was minute and took a minute.
The row of rowers had a row.
The wind made us wind up the window.
The wound was wound with a bandage.
Can a sow sow, or a sewer sew a sewer?
It was not their object to object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
The soldiers desert in the desert.
Those present will present a present to him presently.
The dove dove down.
An Internet favourite with many versions is ‘Remember
A computer was something on TV
in a science fiction show of note
A window was something to clean
and ram was the cousin of a goat
Meg was the name of my girlfriend
and gig was a job for the nights
Now they all mean different things
and that really mega bytes
An application was for employment
A program was a TV show
A cursor used profanity
A keyboard was a piano
Memory you lost with age
A CD was a bank account
and if you had a 3’’ floppy
you hoped nobody found out
Compress you did to the garbage
not something you did to a file
and if you unzipped anything in public
you’d be in jail for awhile
Log on was adding wood to the fire
Hard drive was a long trip on the road
A mouse pad was where a mouse lived
and a backup jammed up your commode
Cut you did with a knife
Paste you did with glue
A web was a spider’s home
and a virus was the flu
I’ll stick to my pad and paper
and the memory in my head
Nobody’s killed in a computer crash
but it makes them wish they were dead.
W W Skeat, who edited the Etymological Dictionary,
became the world authority on homophones. He knew so
much about them that they helped to drive him to be a
founder of the English Simplified Spelling Society.
‘Spell’ is itself a homographic homophone, with a magic
Half the words you read
Cheer up. One hundred words make up about half of all
you read. If you can read them, you can read half of almost
anything. Tell learners that, and their job seems easier.
Anyone can check this, with a blue pencil on any piece of
print. Even beginners who can read only one word, the, can
make an impressive blue mess if they mark every time it
Only 31 of 100 words are tricky spellings: all almost
always among as come some could should would half have
give know of off one only once other pull push put to do
was what want who why and the ending tion.
How dictionaries spell and how they change
‘It’s in the dictionary!’ your Scrabble opponent cries,
flourishing the dictionary page that allows oxtail on a triple
word score. Only two weeks ago, you had an even higher
score for oxtail on a triple, but the dictionary on the table
then said, ‘Nyah, Ox-tail has a hyphen’. There are three
useful things to know about dictionaries.
Play Scrabble with more than one dictionary – it gives
you more chances.
Dictionaries are undemocratic. Two independent surveys
have shown that 56% of the literate population spell
accommodate differently from the dictionary. Should the
Actually, change does happen slowly in dictionaries. We
had a relative who had met the Queen occasionally, and
who thought everyone was de trop and uneducated if they
didn’t continue to spell develop as develope. We asked if he
had asked the Queen how she spelled the word, and he said
he might in the future, but he never did.
Change can happen because dictionaries allow several
thousand words to be spelled more than one way and
gradually some spellings drop off. Even Dr Johnson
allowed choices such as choose or chuse, cloak or cloke and
fewel or fuel in his Dictionary of 1755, when he could not
make his own decision. Gradually, over a hundred years or
so, the more unhelpful spellings lose public support, and
the more foreign spellings become more Englished. Around
4% of words have alternative spellings and 0.4% have three
or more alternatives. Rare, exotic and dialect words are
most likely to have many spellings, because they may be
from a different writing system, or may have sprouted
unchecked in the spoken language before they were written
To add a frisson to your own writing, here are some
spellings that dictionaries have dropped gradually and you
can still find in old novels. These spellings could be the
equivalent of name-dropping to those of you who have
never met the Queen even once: prophane gulph shewn
synonimes subtilty stile croud chymists desarts surprize
expence gothick chace excentrick cotemporaries pionier and
sope. And develope.
The Chomsky story
This section is for the literary folk who believe that English
spelling is ‘optimal’ for a deep psycholinguistic reason
about representing underlying phonology, deep structure
and word relationships, because Professor Noam Chomsky
said so. Chomsky himself has written
. . . after the cognitive dissonance that occured in the last semester, I feel
that before we continue our study of the Chomskian deep structure of the
English language and its optimal representation in English spelling – we
must first sweep a few horrible facts out of the way ...
that he does not oppose spelling change or think that
English spelling cannot be improved, and he has objected to
the sweeping generalisations that have been made from his
work. As a champion of the oppressed, Chomsky would be
on the side of making spelling more user-friendly for
everyone if it could be done.
Some people still repeat an argument that runs: if English
spelling were easier for learners, we could not tell that
words were related if their sound changed – for example, in
nation – national, medical – medicine. A check of
vocabulary, however, shows that this possible advantage
holds mainly for words of classical origin that have fairly
predictable spellings anyway. Only 16 word sets with
irregular spellings, such as heal – health, meaning – meant
and reading – read, follow the principle. On the other hand,
improving the spelling could improve the visible
relationship of sets such as fiery – fire, favour – favorite,
four – forty, high – height, jelly – gelid, labour – laboring,
speak – speech, stable – stability and strategy – stratagem.
Dozens of words look similar enough to be recognisably
related, although they differ in both spelling and
pronunciation – such as began – begin, best – better, blood
– bleed – bled, came – come, broken – break, spoken –
speak, bring – brought, sing – sang, teach – taught, catch –
caught, buy – bought, fly – flies – flight – flew.
Is English spelling irregular?
Eighty per cent of English words follow spelling rules – but
you can’t predict which words do and which don’t, because
there are so many different possibilities. Godfrey Dewey
counted 547 spellings for around 44 English speech sounds;
A J Ellis found 658; Hanna et al’s computer at Stanford
found 377 spellings for 52 sounds.
The rules for Italian spelling can be set out on half a page.
Now that’s regularity.
When you’re a married man, Samivel, you’ll understand a
good many things as you dont understand now; but vether
it’s worth while going through so much to learn so little, as
the charity-boy said when he got to the end of the alphabet,
is a matter o’ taste.’
Mr Weller to son Sam, in Charles Dickens’
3 Sealed sexion
For Mature Adults Only
Warning: This Sexion contains LANGUAGE and IDEAS.
Unprintable spelling. Could not be printed. Laptop
dancing. Better left to your imagination. Spelling
Upper-class ladies used to dress to the nines in voluminous
clothes, partly so they could not get anywhere fast, partly
because dressing and undressing gave them something to
do all day, but mainly to impress. ‘Conspicuous
Consumption’, cluttering in order to show off, applies to
English spelling too. Today, lovely ladies strip to draw
attention. Spelling can be stripped too.
The 16-word spelling test
For anyone who thinks they are a good speller.
Some or all of these words may be incorrectly spelled. Write
them out correctly.
acomodate .... . exessiv .... . miniture . . . . . professr remembrd . .... .
unparaleld . . . . disapoint . . . . . gardian mischivus ......psycology .....
sovren ....... disiplin iliterat ........ocasion ....... recomend ..... tecnicly
Why are these words so hard to spell? Because the missing
letters are not needed to show meaning or pronunciation, so
there are no clues to work out or remember what is missing
and where it should go.
If you want to know how other people scored
Primary teachers at an in-service course on spelling
averaged 14.8 correct. Second came 30 psychologists at an
international conference on dyslexia – but the only word
they could all spell was psychology. Of 50 reading experts
at an international conference on Reading at Reading, 12
could spell perfectly, but the scores went down to 8. Next
were 45 psychologists at an international conference on
Intelligence, then 7 lawyers concerned with delinquency. A
third of 30 trainee secondary teachers spelled all words
correctly, and 8 of 75 undergraduates. A hundred secondary
school students averaged 6.9, and 25 overseas students
preparing for university courses that year averaged 4.3.
Aboriginal students from the outback preparing for
university studies found the test too hard.
Fifty young overseas musicians at an International Youth
Orchestra festival at Aberdeen were more likely to read
faster, pronounce correctly and understand better, when
surplus letters were deleted from one version of two
parallel tests. Other experiments find that good readers
often do not notice and poor readers may benefit when
‘surplus’ letters are omitted, clear proof that the suspect
letters really are surplus.
Spelling has been streamlining gradually for hundreds of
years. Dr Johnson himself streamlined spellings sometimes,
but we go further. Dr Johnson’s Dictionary included
energetick exotick fabrick phlegmatick publick critick
gothick teutonick domestick characteristicks authour
superiour translatour errour oeconomy subtile and
Around 6% of everyday words have more letters than
they need to show meaning or pronunciation, and which
may even mislead. But stripping can be taken too far. This
lampoon that cut spelling to the b-r-b-s was ppetratd in The
Times, on 23 September 2003:
‘Gbygk rls OK
Wy typos wont mtr in tomws wld
Inst of langg we h jgn, inst of pncpls, slgns, and
inst of genu ides, trva’.
Spelling is stripd in many places in this book. How often
have you noticed or been afrontit, as the Scots say? It does
save ink, paper, time and hassle, which the Scots were
rather canny aboot.
Spam mail on the Internet, which conveys odd ideas about
the obsessions of modern culture, often also reveals that
education has failed spammers in literacy as well as morals:
IMPROVE YUOR CARREER
RIASE YOUR STATUE
But in chatrooms and on blogs, everyone is free to
practise their own commonsense in spelling.
Many spellings look too beautiful to change. If you list your
ten most beautiful spellings, you are quite likely to include
beautiful and gorgeous. Change the spelling and the words
dont look bootifool any more. Here is a collection of
The beautiful princess
Once upon a time, the beautiful daughter of a great
magician wanted more pearls to put among her
treasures. ‘Look through the centre of the moon when
it is blue,’ said her mother in answer to her question.
‘You might find your heart’s desire.’ The princess
laughed, because she doubted these words. Instead,
she used her imagination, and moved into the
photography business, and took pictures of the moon
in colour. ‘I perceive most certainly that it is almost
wholly white,’ she thought. She also found that she
could make enough money in eight months to buy
herself two lovely huge new jewels too.
Try writing that story in a spelling that is more beautiful,
or without spelling traps. These may not be the same.
Do you like your spellings curly and curious, or sleek and
slick? The old familiar spellings from your first fairy stories
or space comics? BAM! VROOM! Supercalligistic . . . or a bit
of chAnj with D lAtSt SMS? Or, suppose you were the
Master of Spelling?
We dont mind the spelling
TOO but not
WOS, BY but
Imagine TOO spelled TUI like SUIT, NOT spelled NHAT
like WHAT and LIVE spelled LIEVE like
The Victorian well-off classes loved reading dialect
spelling in novels with the common people saying REELY
WOT WOS YOO HOO WEN SEZ and WY. The irony is that
now most of us are common, and say REELY WOT WOS
YOO HOO WEN and WY ourselves. We wonder, exactly
how did those top Victorian readers themselves pronounce
WAS WHAT WHO YOU or SAYS?
Spelling on Mars and Venus
The secret life of Hyphens
Unions in spelling mean Hyphens, lawful and unlawful.
The biology of it is that first, there are two words. The two
words go together so often that they become linked by
hyphen, the courtship stage. The union is consummated
when they become one word. So, cow boy becomes cow-boy
becomes cowboy and trade off becomes trade-off and then
Sometimes the biological analogy is a caterpillar, legged
up with hyphens. Never-to-be-forgotten, fair-tomiddling
The evolutionary process now is survival of the quick and
hasty. Streamlining was born into print as a word already
united around 1870. Around 1760, Tobias Smollett spelled
every body, mean while, and no body as two words. He
hyphenated up-lifted, night-mare, sixpence, hi-way, smallpox, May-fair and sweet-heart. Smollett’s only combination
that has not turned into a single word now is Fair-sex.
Orwell’s Newspeak mates words without any hyphens as
courting preliminaries. The mutations mean whatever the
official view wants them to mean. What is needed is
common sense ? common-sense ? commonsense.
If you go dashing around, take care. Who is the anti-trade
unionist? What was the silk stocking-tax? A superfluous
hair-remover is not needed. A hyphen might have helped
the headline ‘PEACE MEETING RIOT’.
The spelling adventures of Don Quixote
Taking up the challenge of the impossible
I dont know why people bother climbing Everest, or sail
round the world alone, or quest for gold medals, running
millisecs faster. These have all been done. The Guinness
Book of Records has had enough pie-eaters. They could
thrill to a greater challenge. Try to do something that
everybody still says cannot be done. What still cannot be
done? Make English spelling userfrendly to suit everyone,
with the combination of visual clues to meaning for readers,
links to the spoken language for learners, more
predictability for writers, closer to international vocabulary
shared across the world, and yet barely disturbing for
present readers and maintaining access to our heritage in
Here is the opening chapter of The Adventures of Don
Quixote as this famously eccentric Spanish knight might
have written it himself, in quest of this ‘impossible’. It
changes 1.96% of letters in text, and cuts out 4.9%. Eightythree per cent of words have no letter changes. Unlike
present spelling’s hundreds of rules and thousands of
exceptions, eight principles make this spelling predictable
spelling without traps. It can be used in three versions. One
is for everyday readers, the second, shown here, also for
readers, includes accents as a guide to pronunciation for
lerners, including lerners of English, and the third, for
beginners and spellers, starts with the basic alfabetic
prinsipl which is then modified by the other prinsipls, and
does not include the single-pronunciation alturnativ vowel
spellings that are no problem for readers but the heck for
The Life and Achevements of
Don Quixote de la Mancha
vilaj in La Mancha in Spain, ther livd not long
ago one of those o`ld-fasiond jentlmen, who ar never
without a lanse on a stand, an o`ld shield, a thin hors
and a grayhound. He ate beef mor than mutton, with
minsd meat on mo`st nights, lentils on Frı`days, and a
pijon on Sundays. He had a plush coat, velvet briches,
with velvet slippers, for holidays, and a su` te of the
best homespun cloth for wurking-days. His family was
a houske`per something over forty, a nese not twenty,
and a man that servd in the house and in the field. The
master himself was nearly fifty years o`ld, with a
helthy and strong complexion, lean-bodyd and thinfased, an erly rizer, and a luver of hunting. Some say
his surname was Quixada, ‘lantern-jaws’, tho this dus
not matter much to us, as long as we ke`pe strictly to
the tru` th in every point of this history.
When our jentlman had nothing to du (which was almo`st all
the year round), he pasd his time re`ding books about Knight-
errantry, which he did with such delight, that at last he left off his
cuntry sports, and e`ven the cair of his estate. He so`ld land to
purchas mor books. Nothing ple`sed him mor than the wurks of
the famus Feliciano de Sylva; for his brilliant prose, and intricat
expressions seemd to him so meny perls, espesialy the luvspeeches and chalenjes in an extraordinary stı`le, ‘The sublime
hevens, which with yur divinity divı`nely fortifı` u with the stars,
and fix u the desurver of the desert . . .
Rapsodys like this stra`njely puzld the poor jentlman’s
understanding. He rakd his brain to unravel thair me`ning, which
Aristotle himself could never hav found, tho he wer raizd from
the ded to du so. The Knight often desı`red to put pen to paper,
and finish the unfinishabl book himself, but he had mor important
(From Chapter 1, from the Spanish by
If you would like to know the prinsipls to help lerners and
THE FIRST BREAKTHROUGH is KEEP unchanged 31 of the most
common worst-spelled words – all almost always among as come
some could should would half know of off one only once other
full pull put push to was what want who why, plus -sion, -zion
and -tion rather than -shun. Recognise ai ea ie ee igh oa ew ir as 8
alternativ vowel spellings with only one pronunciation each, for
reading, but not needing to be lernd for writing. The rest of the
100 most common words have predictable spellings, and together
they make up around half of everything you read, so half the
problem is solved with no change. ‘Magic E’ as in hope, mate,
wine remains an option to show ‘long’ vowels AEIOU in final
silabls or distinguish nouns ending in S.
BREAKTHRU 2 spells the ‘long vowels’ AEIOU by marking
with a diacritic accent a e i o u ‘short vowel’ spellings – when this
is needed, mainly just for lerners. This tactic shows how to say the
words and helps reading for meaning with word relationships as
in na` tion/national, rese`d/resession defı`n/definition, compo`
z/compozition, redu` s/reduction. Accents would apply to under
6% of words, of which 4% are familiar spellings such as `old, mo`
st and tru` th. Skilled readers would need accents on less than 1%
THE THIRD KEY is that lerners begin with the alfabetical
principle that letters represent sounds. That is then modified with
morphemic prinsipls to show meaning thru the spelling,
including consistent spellings for vowels at the end of words, and
-s endings for plurals and verbs.
That is the jist of it. Remaining gidelines can be deduced
from the Cervantes exampl. Only reserch, not argument,
can demonstrate what value these principles may offer
towards a solution to impruve English spelling.
If you want to know This passage from Don Quixote
illustrates visible links with international vocabulary, in this
case, the original Spanish (in brackets without diacritics.)
How could u expect me not tu be consurnd at what
that antiqa`ted lejisla`ter (antiguo legislador) thay caul
the public wil say when it sees me now com out with a
ta`l as dri as a rush, barin of invention (invencio« n),
devoid of stı`l(estilo), poor (pobre) in conseption
(conceptos) and laking in all erudition (erudicio« n),
without qota`tions (acotaciones) in the marjins (ma«
rgenes)orno`tes (anotaciones) at the finish (fin); wheras
I see other wurks, never mı`nd how fabu`lus and
profa`n(fabulosos y profanos), so ful of sentenses
(sentencias) from the ho`l hurd of filosofers (filo« sofos)
who ar admı`rd (admiran) and get thair authers a
reputa`tion for erudition and eloqens (eruditos ye
This problem that troubled the author, Miguel Cervantes,
1547–1616, is still with us.
International English spelling and the world
What most people do not know about other writing systems
Here is a list of other languages that have already made
writing system improvements – some with a lot of fuss and
some with none, some with minor changes and others with
complete revolutions. But they can do it! (Why can’t the
English?) This list is incomplete.
Brazilian Portuguese 1912, 1943
Chinese 1956, 1958, 1973
Czech early 1950s,
Danish 1948, 1997/1
Dutch Netherlands 1815, 1883, 1934, 1946, 1954
Finnish 16-18th century
French 1740, 1835, 1878, 2003
German 1901, 1996
Hebrew 1860, 1900, 1930s, 1948
Indonesian 1872, 1972
Korean 1443, 1945
Russian 1917, 1928
Spanish 1915, 1959
In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately spelling script decree
In 1270 AD the far-seeing Kublai Khan commissioned a
Tibetan lama called Phagspa to design an alphabet, and it
was used for all imperial edicts and seals while he lived.
Not many people know about this. A pity that Coleridge
was interrupted before he could include it in his poem.
4 Pun and games
Mosquitoes stinging for their supper
A sleeping bag is a knapsack.
He was really a salamander but nobody newt.
A myth is a female moth.
To be inhibited is to be tied up in nots.
In a rowboat, the choice was either oar.
Time flies. You can’t – they fly too fast.
For most puns the spelling hardly matters. Relatively few
depend on spelling to be funny. Sub-editors sometimes give
the impression that punning headlines is what they are
there for. They report a scarf-tying demonstration with
THIS IS KNOT TOO DIFFICULT and headline zoomorphic
football teams: SWANNING OUT and TIGERS FOR
Ben Jonson refused to pun on the subject of the king,
because the king was not a subject. Shakespeare is the
greatest punster of all time. His work, including the
tragedies, has even been put in chronological order
according to the number and type of puns and quibbles,
with a total of ten hundred and sixty two.
The Washington Post runs a Style Invitational annual
competition for readers to take any word from the
dictionary, change one letter, and make a new definition.
This is creative punning in spelling, as in:
Bozone: The substance surrounding stupid people,
which stops bright ideas from penetrating.
Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
Beelzebug: Satan in the form of a mosquito that
gets into your bedroom at three in the morning
and cannot be cast out.
There’s a spell in punning.
Synchronised Spelling as an Olympic Sport
The website of the Hammer, Canadian Satirical News,
Stories and Hard-Hitting Headline followed the Athens
Olympics of 2004 with a report of how a Canadian team
won gold for Canada in the mixed Synchronised Spelling
48–65 kilogram division, with a flawless group spelling of
‘pusillanimous’. ‘Clear, crisp spelling, with impeccable
cadence and punchy enunciation’, said a CBC spelling
commentator. One emotional team member called it the
greatest moment of her life: ‘All of the years of practice,
dedication and mysterious needles that the doctor told me
were totally harmless have finally paid off . . . Oops. I think
I’ve said too much’. Commentators were surprised to see
the Japanese win the semi-final, since none of them spoke
English, but the Norwegian team was disqualified when
one of them was caught with a dictionary down his shorts.
However, the Japanese team stumbled on the word ‘truck’,
and the Canadians won. ‘After years of ridicule, spelling
enthusiasts are hopeful the gold medal win will finally
bring some respect to their sport. Is it really any sillier than
A different sort of spelling ABZ
A Spelling Bee can sting. It is odd to have a spelling system
so bad that only a few contestants can win. A spelling ABZ
however is a tresure hunt about what you know about
spelling, not about odd spellings. The winner of a trick can
ask everyone any spelling question. If nobody knows, it’s
up to the judges to find out. The element of chance is that
some questions are easy and some are hard.
How many letters in the alfabet?
How many speech sounds in the English language?
is, needed to distinguish words)
How many spelling patterns in English spelling
these basic sounds?
Are any letters always sounded the same way?
Are any sounds always spelled the same?
How many letters can be silent? (For example, e is
What sound has the greatest number of possible
What letter has the greatest number of possible ways
pronounce it? (Not counting when it is part of a letter
combination like ‘th’)
What consonant sound has the most possible
How many sounds can be spelled with ough?
Did you know that most other languages in the world,
even French, have improved their writing systems in
past hundred years?
Name five languages with major changes in their
systems in the past 150 years.
Name five languages making minor spelling changes
past 150 years.
How many reasons can you think of why English
can never be changed?
When did the English start saying that their spelling
needed spelling reform?
Name three English dictionary-makers who tried to
reforms of English spelling.
Name a historical celebrity who wanted English
to be reformed.
How many ‘contradictory facts’ must children accept
Name as many principles of education as you can
are contradicted when children are taught present
Do we learn about the history of our words from their
How do people in other countries learn about the
of the words in their language?
26 letters in the alphabet.
Around 44 speech sounds (fonemes). Consonants are: h l m
n r w y hw ng and voiced-unvoiced pairs b-p, d-t, v-f, th-th,
z-s, g-k, j-ch, zh-sh. The 19 vowels, including fused
diphthongs (merging sounds): a e i o u ae ee ie oe ue ah er
airawow oyoo(boot), oo (look) plus the most common vowel,
slurred ‘shwa’ as in proper, dependant.
3 A J Ellis worked out 658 ways of
spelling 44 speech sounds. 4 No.
Even k and m are sometimes
silent as in knot and
mnemonic. 5 No. 6 All 26 letters can be silent. 7 The
unstressed obscure vowel ‘schwa’ has 66 possible spel
lings. Next come sounds as in I and A, with 51 possible
spellings each. (Sound as in A can be spelled as in baby
made maelstrom champagne dahlia maim raise campaign
straight trait halfpenny gaol gaoled plague plaguing gauged
gauging may played mayor re they great fete feted matine«e
veil dossier Seine reign reigned eight weighed ballet
conveyed eyre applique bouquet.)
8 Letters a, e, o can all be pronounced in ten ways, as in man
about many stomach was making tamtam part fall Isaac egg
open fern sergeant feted femme pretty be azalea have on orb
atom reason women woman mother over do choir.
The sound s has 25 spellings as in: sit hiss kissed scene
coalesce schism case dishonest raspberry thistle isthmus
Mrs sword cell ace Gloucester Worcester psalm worsted
boatswain waltz next except exhibition pizzicato.
Ough can be pronounced at least 7 ways, as in cough dough
through thought doughty enough thorough.
Well, you know now.
Languages making sweeping changes in their writing
systems in the past 150 years include Indonesian, Turkish,
Korean, Chinese, Russian, Malaysian, Vietnamese.
Languages making smaller changes in the past 150 years
include Dutch, Israeli, Greek, French, German, Spanish
The medieval monk Orme was the first to write about
English spelling reform.
Great lexicographers who tried to promote spelling reforms
include Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, James Murray and
H W Fowler.
Hundreds of eminent persons seeking English spelling
improvement include Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Charles
Dickens, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt and Isaac
Sir James Murray of The Oxford English Dictionary said
there were 20,000.
The challenge is to name principles of education which are
Do you? Only a few ever do.
They look them up in a dictionary.
GHOTI on the menu
Bernard Shaw claimed that fish could be spelled ghoti – gh
as in enough, o as in women and ti as in notion. Spelling
lawyers pointed out that no English word can begin with gh
or end with only part of -tion. Shaw then gibed at their
legalities. Here is a complete menu.
GM as in phlegm
EAU – beauchamp
MP – comptroller
EAU as in beauty
STH as in
isthmus WO as
in two PPE as
C – cell IA –
special C HM –
drachm UO –
liquor GN – reign
ST – thistle PH –
shepherd OO –
blood BD –
bdellium SC –
GH – hiccough
EIGH – height
QUE – cheque A –
was PH –
– debris SI –
Spelling as a joke
Comic strips like to have spelling as a target.
‘Now Catherine, spell Kangaroo.’ ‘Cangaru.’
‘That’s not how the dictionary spells it.’
‘You didnt ask me how the dictionary spells it.’
Worker: I couldn’t work yesterday, I had diarrhoea.
Boss: You could have sent me a note.
Worker: But I couldn’t spell it.
NUBBIN: A child writes: ‘There! I’ve spelled it right . . .
now, if I can just figger out how to pronounce it.’
HAGAR’s little boy writes: ‘During the Dark Ages all
learning disapered disipired disapirred dizappeared died
NANCY at school: ‘Nancy, write the word Psalm.’ She
writes Salm. ‘Wrong. It starts with a P.’ Nancy: ‘It
psertainly pseems like a psilly way to pspell.’
CAF: ‘I can’t understand why he can’t spell!’ says a mother
in a supermarket with cartons labelled Wite-Brite, Sno-Boy,
Supa Lo & Lite and Woppa-Stoppa.
A caveman cartoon shows a librarian: ‘Just remember ‘‘i’’
before ‘‘e’’ except after ‘‘c’’, except when sounded like
‘‘a’’ as in neighbourhood and weight, except for eight
exceptions, weird, height, foreign, leisure, neither, seize,
forfeit and either.’ Caveman decides, ‘I tink I’ll just
memorise the dictionary.’
FOR BETTER OR WORSE shows Elizabeth in school,
disconcerted by class responses to a series of spelling
lessons such as, ‘We all have the EAR sound in our
minds, but what happens when we add ‘‘w’’ to the word
EAR? It now becomes WEAR.’
LINUS to CHARLIE BROWN: ‘My dad and I got into a big
theological argument last night. He was looking at my
report card, and wondering why I was the only one in my
class who didn’t get an ‘‘A’’ in spelling. I said, ‘‘Isn’t it
wonderful how each of us on this earth was created just a
little bit different?’’ That’s when we got into the
It hasn’t only been English. A Danish cartoon of 1919
showed a Bolshevik soldier at a street barricade in Oslo,
Soldier: ‘How is the revolution
coming along in Oslo, comrade?’
Norwegian: ‘We’re still fighting
over how to spell it.’
Dan Quayle, former US Vice-President, was asked on TV
about his image as a bumbler who couldn’t spell, because
he once wrote Potatoe. He said, ‘I tell you what. I’ll let all
the perfect spellers support Al Gore and those who have
trouble spelling can support me.’
Typewriter is the longest word using the letters on only
one row of the keyboard.
Palindromes read the same left to right and right to left,
as in Adam to Eve, ‘Madam I’m Adam’. The longest
palindrome was composed for a New Statesman
competition by Joyce Johnson in 1967, with 126 words and
467 letters. It purports to be a headmaster’s notes and
begins Test on Erasmus and ends Sums are set.
The sentence used for typing practice, ‘THE QUICK
BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG’, uses every
letter in the English alphabet.
The names of the continents all end with the letter with
which they start.
Stay around mailing lists on the Internet and more
spelling trivia will accumulate like fluff in a pocket, along
with those unbelievable assertions such as, ‘The average
human eats 8 spiders in their lifetime at night’.
5 The Psych of Pspelling
This is a first venture into PsychoSpelling outside academia.
How children want to spell
Dictionaries record how the best people spell. How would
everyone like to spell?
Alison, aged 5
Small children often invent their own spelling before
they get round to lerning ours.
. MGet GLUS G: I might get glasses.
. THIS SI WER MI DADAA WRX B CWIYIT: This is where
my daddy works. Be quiet.
. SKRAMLX: Scrambled eggs. Typed on a typewriter in
1910 by Edward Rondthaler, the inventor of
photolettering, when he was 5 years old.
. ME FFRTVR IS THEOSN: My favorite view is the ocean,
by Andrew aged 5.
. TOM WENT TO THE EPOT. THE PLAN MAD A FOSD
LADIG: Tom went to the airport. The plane made a
. A small boy’s version of Puff the Magic Dragon:
Pof The Majeck Jraon Lefd Bie The Se And Frolet In Te
Otm Mese In A Land Cod On A Led Letol Jace Paepoh
Love Tat Rasol Paf And Bort Hem Faz And Sele Wos
And Los Of Fanse Saf Ho Paf The Majeck Jragnlefd Bie
The Se And Frolet In Te Otm Mest In A Land Cod On
These young writers have got an idea of spelling. It’s just
not the same idea as the dictionary. They like single letters
for vowels and they condense words. They do not always
hear sounds the way the books say, so train = CHRAN, and
dragon = JRAON. GONA is a verb.
Children can come up with dozens of ways to misspell a
word, but usually one way is the most popular. Margaret
Peters collected several hundred ways that children
misspell scissors but she found that sisers was more popular
than all the others put together. It is close to the old
medieval spelling sisours.
Here is a collage of the most popular spellings by 90 Year
5 children who were told they could spell a dictated story
however they would like to spell, if they were the Master of
Wuns upon a tim the butiful dauter of a grate
magishan wonted mor perls to puut amung her tresers.
‘Luk thru the senter of the moon wen it is blue’ sed her
muther in anser to her qestion. ‘Yu mite find yor hart’s
desier.’ The prinsess laft becos she douted thees werds.
Insted, she yoused her imaginashin and muved into
the fotoggrafy buisness and tuk pichers of the moon in
Here are the same children’s worst misspellings when
asked to spell the same dictation correctly:
Inc apud a tie de beaty dooer ov a gret muzian wunted
mo plls two pitt amog he teashs. Lok furv tha cernta ov
the mon wen it is ble sad he moter in anwser to her
geschon. Yu mayt faynd uor htres dirsie. The pinsec
lufed becase she dawit dees wuds. In sede she uzt her
mange mashen and mofed intwo the furtogerfig
becunase and tok pitass of the mon in calar.
Some of the worst spellers spelled more sensibly when they
could spell as they liked than when they tried to spell the
same words correctly.
How people spelled when they could spell as they
The Anglo-Saxons and Chaucer probably spelled as they
spoke. Standardised spelling began with printing, to
comunicate across dialects the length of Britain. Well-read
writers were more likely to spell according to the print they
read even if it was not like their own local speech, and used
their own phonetics only for less familiar words. Then came
the dictionaries with ‘right spelling’.
Chaucer’s spellings were not all quaint, but he switched
around – ‘in age was dwelling dale this of which I my tale
day that she last simple two’ (spelled tweye a few lines
further on), ‘three large sheep sooty many sauce no morsel.’
The discerning reader may recognise that these spellings
come from the opening lines of the Nonne Preestes Tale
about Chaunticleer the cock.
Thomas Cartwright in 1590 spelled with inflexions now
dropped off, but preferred brevity: – agast al badg becom
befor blody blud bord brest brused carkas chuk chuse
clense cok com cours crokin delite dich drery erly faining
frends ful garding gon groning handl ...
Spellings of words often stayed the same when suffixes
were added: dayly defyance doen (done) fyry gloryouslye
layd manyfold prayses rejoyce slayn theyr tryall wisedom.
The same word could be spelled in different ways on the
same page: assined – assynde; beauty – beiuty; buisnes
– busines; dreem – dremes; hainous – haynouse; obay –
obey; physition – phisition; publique – publike; shuld –
shoulde; solemne – solempne. And sheepeheardes –
shepheards – sheepheard, all within six lines.
Spellings that we may be better off without included
comptrouled eccho idyotes imbezelled ougly (ugly) oyle
quyete roiallye saugh (saw) shoen (shone) sprinnckled
stincking syxe wemens wikkedness wommanwyse yow. I
think I like best bussiness, ougly, sprinnckled, stincking
and wommanwyse. Roiallye has an antique glamour to it.
The Queen in a hat can look royal, but never roiall.
How people want to spell
‘Do you spell it with a V or a W?’ inquired the judge.
‘That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my
Lord,’ replied Sam.
(Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers)
Pointers to how people want to spell are found on Internet
bulletin boards, emails and teenagers’ chatrooms, in
TXTMSGs, and in the spelling mistakes that are obstinately
perpetrated however much punishment awaits. Richard
Wade of Oxford has a website at www.freespeling.com,
where everyone can record how they would like to spell.
My research at parties, conferences, and Ideal Home
Exhibitions finds that people have two ideas about how
they want to spell – one is fantasy and the other is reality.
Fantasy is longing to be free to spell ‘sensibly’. Reality is the
desire to be socially acceptable.
A large number of research grants have been spent on the
study of spelling mistakes. Dr Phillip Smith’s research on
people’s ideas of spelling concluded that ‘the knowledge of
spelling possessed by highly literate adults is likely to be a
heterogeneous collection of generalisations’. In Victorian
times, up to a third of primary schooling was taken up with
spelling, but this dedication was acknowledged to be not
always successful. I have a newspaper cutting complaining
about the terribly low level of school leavers’ spelling in
Ballarat – when it was still sometimes spelled Ballararat –
Recently I found an old black-bound family book with the
title Family Worship: a series of prayers with remarks on
passages of sacred Scripture by clergymen of the
Church of Scotland. Inside, facing the flyleaf, is a list of
family birth-dates, beginning with Great-Grandfather Peter
Keil, born 21st March 1818, and stopping at my
grandfather’s birth in 1854. The inside cover is inscribed
‘Peter Keils Book’ and around the edge of the page is
written at different angles in an antique hand the words
‘correspondence’ ‘suffocated suffocated’ ‘lonly lonely’,
‘lovlier lovelier’, ‘rely reely’, ‘hury ceas case’, ‘heaps heper’
and other attempts to spell that have faded into illegibility.
The pages of this holy book were used to call down help in
spelling by the familiar and often desperate tactic to ‘see if it
‘They can’t spell to save themselves’
Phillip Adams once filled a six-column page of the
Melbourne Age, 3 August 1977, with 383 different ways that
Presbyterians identified themselves in the Australian
Federal Census. As Adams pointed out, only one of the 383
spellings was correct. Here are 80 examples. In later
censuses, Australians have been spared the mortification of
trying to spell their religious denominations.
Acid opinions and spelling rage
‘Two centuries of dismay, vituperation and ridicule’
‘The centuries-long parade of the wit and wisdom of those who
have attempted to disentangle the complex orthographic structure
‘[Pooh] respects Owl, because you can’t help respecting
anyone who can spell Tuesday, even if he doesn’t spell it
right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when
spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count’.
‘I hope I never meet a man so narrow that he can spell a
word in only one way.’
(Reportedly Andrew Jackson)
Here’s what some noted dictionary-makers and wordsmiths
have said about English spelling:
Dr Samuel Johnson, in the preface to his Dictionary of
1755: ‘Every language has . . . its improprieties and
absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to
Jacob Grimm, etymologist, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1785–
1863): ‘Did not a whimsical, antiquated orthography stand
in the way, the universality of [English as a world language]
would be still more evident’.
Sir James Murray, first compiler of The Oxford English
Dictionary, wrote of ‘the waste of national resources
incurred in the attempt to make child after child commit to
memory the 20,000 contradictory facts of English spelling’.
In Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English
Language. ‘Neither the Anglo-Saxon orthography nor the
Old French was distinguished for its regularity. But when
the two were thrown together, the result was a mass of
confusion and anomaly hardly paralleled, except, perhaps,
in the spelling of the native Irish. It is not creditable to the
English name, nor accordant with the practical spirit of the
English people.’ ‘English orthography poorly fulfils the
original and proper office of orthography, to indicate
pronunciation; nor does it better fulfil the improper office,
which some would assert for it, for a guide to etymology.’
Noah Webster, the original compiler, campaigned for
simpler spelling for a long time, before largely giving up.
H W Fowler, in Modern English Usage, 1926, complained
of ‘the notorious difficulty of English spelling, and the
growing impatience caused by it. English had better be
treated in the English way . . . amended in detail, here a
little and there a little as absurdities become intolerable, till
a result is attained that shall neither overburden schoolboys
nor stultify intelligence nor outrage the scholar. In this book
some modest attempts are made at cleaning up the more
Richard Venezky, doyen of experts on American English
spelling: ‘Everyone . . . has to admit that of all languages of
culture English has the most antiquated, inconsistent and
illogical spelling. Educators, philologists, and spelling
reformers have from the darkest periods of the Middle Ages
joined in the assault on the ‘‘antiquated’’, ‘‘inconsistent,’’
and ‘‘illogical’’ spelling with which the English speaking
world is burdened’. He then tried to justify it.
Psychologists and educators:
‘English spelling is a continuous attempt at compro
(Dr Uta Frith, psychologist)
‘Unlike the orthographies of other major languages,
modern English spelling preserves clear evidence of
nearly 1,300 years of sound change, scribal tampering,
partial reforms and foreign intrusion. There is an under
lying pattern to this orthography . . . but there is also a
substantial marginal mess which can only in part be
organised into subpatterns.’
(D W Massaro, psycholinguist)
‘It is unplanned, phonographically highly inconsistent,
and historically, pragmatically and geographically fluid.’
(Christopher Upward, linguist)
‘I cannot accept the view that English has a good
spelling no matter how close it comes to the latest
fashion of analysis proposed by any particular school of
(Edgar Gregersen, linguistic anthropologist)
The Working Paper of the Committee for Linguistics in
Education (Stubbs 1986) described the English spelling
system as organized ‘in sometimes non-obvious ways’.
Personalise your spelling
Anyone can personalise their spelling, because your name is
your own. You can spell your daughter’s name Leissa.
Then, when she is 21 she can be sure the personalised
number plates on her birthday car will not be LISA385,
although the practical costs of a remarkable spelling are
often overlooked until you try to explain your name over
the telephone to an overseas call centre.
Locals like their home towns to have a personalised
spelling that foreigners cannot pronounce correctly. This
makes it easy to spot the incomers and treat them as they
deserve. The English are famous for this – Salisbury,
Worcester – you name it and you are likely to be wrong.
Barchester Towers? Try Buster Taws. Australians scorn the
Pom who says GEELong, and Wagga Wagga instead of
‘woggawogga’. The spelling of street names can have
obscure origins. Waimarie Drive, for example, is not
Australian aboriginal; the folklore is that two pioneer ladies
in the district thought they had named their home Via
Maria. Others think it is Maori for water. But would you
prefer your street to have an unspellable name or just a
People tiptoe to avoid offence with surnames. Even Smith
can be Smyth, Smythe or Shmith. P G Wodehouse – the
innocent are told the pronunciation is Woodhouse –
invented a character who spelled himself Psmith, and this
was very funny. A few years ago the Aberdeen telephone
book listed eight McGonagalls, spelled seven different
ways. One is the spelling for the world’s famous worst poet.
Now multicultural telephone directories are a fund of
unique spellings from Aashish to Zzymons.
A surprisingly recent problem is how to write to someone
whose name might be spelled Mackay, Mckay, Mackie,
Mckie, M’Cay . . . when it can be pronounced as arbitrarily
as Makigh, Mak-ay, Makee or Macky. They were once all
one clan, a job lot, and spelled themselves anyhow. A
pioneer relative spelled his name variously as MacDonald,
McDonald and Macdonald in the same letter.
The Victorians spelled their plain names even plainer,
with Geo, Thos, Jno, Chas and Wm. Parents today express
the uniqueness of their child in names like Willyum or
Dezzyray. If you are a really serious personality, you can
become an acronym – FDR, GBS, RLS, HRH ...
The spelling ethic
Lord Chesterfield, 1694–1773, a top snob, turned spelling
correctness into one-upmanship. ‘Orthography in the true
sense of the word is so absolutely necessary for a
gentleman’. He warned his son that ‘one false spelling may
fix a ridicule upon him for the rest of his life’. The poor lad
disappointed him orthographically as in other ways.
‘Bad’ originally meant criminal or moral offences. Today
people have bad consciences for not sticking to a diet. In
between, people have felt bad about being bad spellers.
Etiquette in the 1800s considered that ignorance of correct
spelling was ‘a mark of ill-breeding, defective education or
natural stupidity’. Perfect spelling enshrined virtues that the
Victorians held dear:
The heritage of civilisation (Etymology)
Pragmatism (Whatever is, is right)
According to the Victorians, ‘Slipshod spelling arises
from slipshod thinking, which arises from slipshod moral
ideals.’ ‘Spelling is pride. Spelling is social acceptance.
Spelling is discipline. Spelling isn’t an isolate’.
‘A boy that is good will learn his book well,
and if he can’t read, will strive for to spell.’
A sense of inferiority lies at the edge of consciousness for
almost all literate English-speakers, because even if you can
do everything else quite well enough, only one in ten
thousand can ever, ever spell well enough.
Spelling and society
Five hundred years ago, a Korean King, Sejong the Great,
‘took pity on the common people and wished they could
express their thoughts in writing’. Only the powerful
mandarins could read their difficult Chinese script. As was
to be expected, the embassy he sent abroad to find a better
writing system could not find anything they thought good
enough for Koreans, so they invented their own. It fits the
Korean language well, and is like three writing systems in
one. Letters are cleverly arranged into syllables which block
into words. But as soon as King Sejong died, the mandarins
banned his new Great Letters, on the very grounds that they
enabled the common people to read and write. Only the
Korean court ladies, barred from education, kept using
‘Hangul’ to write each other letters and stories.
Four hundred years on, Hangul became a symbol of
nationalism against foreign conquerors. Westerners liked it
too because it was so easy. You can learn to read in the
Korean writing system in less than a day. I did.
As soon as Korea was freed after World War II, Hangul
was made the national writing system. Korea was still semimedieval and poverty-stricken. The capital city of 4 million
people still had mud houses with thatched roofs and fourwatt lighting, and daily lines of ox-carts took the sewage to
the fields. But now South Korea has leapt into almost
universal literacy, and, with a little help from its friends, has
become a front rank industrial democracy. Koreans
celebrate Spelling Day on 9 October and have even made
public holidays of it, because they are so joyful and proud
to have such an easy writing system.
Language has two uses. To bring people together, and to
keep them out. You can use a writing system to comunicate
with other people, or you can make sure everyone can’t use
it. This has been the case throughout recorded history. One
story tells it all.
English spelling might look like this if it was written like Korean.
6 It’s Thyme U Gnu
‘Simplified spelling brought about sunspots, the San
Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression,
which we never would have had if spelling had been left all
alone.’ Mark Twain, speech to Associated Press, 1906.
The aim of the Royal Spanish Academy of Language, 1714
(Tje Real Academia Espan˜ ola de la Lengua): To purify, fix
and give splendour to the language and its spelling.
‘Not in my time, O Lord.’ An understandable response to
Here we offer laughs – not toil, sweat or tears. Be spell
Spelling for fun
Spelling is a good field for fun – jokes and puns, limericks,
cartoons, shaggy dog stories, one-upmanship and inverse
snobbery, anarchism and pedantry, antiquarianism and
originality, curiosity and surprise, games and paradox,
nonsense and satire, and going over the top.
It is hard to credit, but there are serious conferences on
Humor, and some academics seriously claim that sex and
violence are the only sources of humour. What about
spelling? Can spelling be sexy, lubricious or lustful? We can
try. Can spelling crimes be committed? Perhaps yes.
Spelling is a road everyone must travel to be literate, but it
has a bar that only some can pass. The less fit and able, the
harder they find the barrier.
Go off and invent your own English spelling, if you like.
You can do it in an afternoon. Many do. Correspond with
your friends, writing English in Tolkien’s Middle Erth
spelling, if you are at school. Write a letter to The Times, if
you are English. But by now, you will never confuse our
treasury of the English language with how it is spelled.
Spelling is only the pen for writing it. Spelling is a only a
tool to comunicate. Like any human tool, it can be improved
by human engineering.
Spelling for comunication
After a hundred years of research on what is wrong with
those who fail the task, it is time for research to improve the
task, so that fewer fail it.
You know now that English is about the only modern
language in the world that has not made some major or
minor reform of its writing system in the past 150 years. If
you want to know why English reform has still not
succeeded, basically the answer is that it has been making
the wrong assumptions and looking in the wrong
directions. Like all the people who tried to fly by waving
their wings instead of studying aerodynamics.
The first known attempt at reforming English spelling
was by a medieval monk called Orme, hundreds of years
ago. Much later, the 19th century was a peak period for
ideas of spelling reform because so many other reforms
were being made – slaves were being freed, education made
free, voting extended, and the world changed by science.
The linguists, philologists, phoneticists and other eminent
scholars who founded English and American simplified
spelling societies understandably assumed that improving
English spelling would be a pushover. Thousands of the
great and good, with dictionary-makers in the lead,
petitioned from universities, the professions and the arts.
Simplified Spelling Society members and office-holders
included H G Wells, Andrew Carnegie, Sir Charles Darwin,
Gilbert Murray, Sir James Murray, the publisher Israel
Gollancz, and an Archbishop of Canterbury. The American
reform campaigners have included Benjamin Franklin,
Mark Twain and several Deweys. American spelling differs
now from English by a few hundred words, partly due to
Noah Webster, and partly because President Theodore
Roosevelt ordered a list of 500 re-spellings, and some of
them stuck. Among the revolutionary social reforms in
Britain immediately after World War 2 was a Parlamentary
Bill for spelling reform in 1949. It was defeated by three
votes. A second Bill in 1953 was sidestepped by the initial
teaching alphabet experiment. Not many people know
One reason for failure to reform has been the social
function of difficult spelling as an advantage for the
privileged, which has counterbalanced the need for mass
A second reason has been that almost everyone assumes
that any improved spelling must be ‘spelling as you speak’
– but schemes on these lines simply won’t work in a world
full of English dialects. Ridicule follows, and jokes by subeditors. Educated people may fear having to relearn the
whole pitiable process.
However, breakthroughs are possible when spelling is
understood as representing the English language, which is
more than just its speech sounds, and when reformers look
at modern research about what users and learners really
need from a writing system.
A third reason is that spelling is like spit. The
psychologist Gordon Allport has pointed out that
everybody can tolerate their own spit, but is revolted by
everyone else’s. Until you become familiar with a spelling
change, it can seem spittable.
Yet it would be possible to keep English spelling looking
pretty much as it is, by applying the 8 morphological and
phonemic principles briefly revealed in the Sealed Sexion of
Chapter 3. They make possible spelling-without-traps for
reading, spelling-withouttraps for reading aloud with an
accent guide for learners, and spelling-without-traps for
writing and initial learning that does not bother about the
Today the English language belongs to the world, not just
to the English. The rest of the world has a claim for an
international standardised English spelling. It cannot be
owned by the small elite who sorrow over those who cannot
spell accommodation or broccoli. If they want dificult
initiations and exclusiveness, they can keep their
antiquarian delights for themselves. The difficulties of its
writing system risk the English language losing out as the
efective lingua franca of the world, with reports that its use
is declining by 15% per year. Reserch and Development
makes rapid and well-funded progress in all other
tecnologies of comunication. It is time for grants for human
engineering in spelling, and for an International English
Spelling Commission – rather than yet another Spelling Bee.
What would not publishers and writers do to extend their
reading markets beyond present readers, or test the waters
to do so, if they realised it was as posibl as radio
comunication from Mars?
‘To argue that what has not occurred will not occur at all is to
argue disbelief in the dignity of mankind.’
Bell, Masha, 2004. Understanding English Spelling.
Cambridge, UK: Pegasus. 280 pp, including 158 tables of
Chomsky, Carol, 1970. Reading, writing and phonology.
Harvard Educational Review, 40.:287–309. The classic
case for English spelling being ‘the best possible’ and
optimal for English, but Carol’s anecdotal evidence does
not hold up.
Cook, Vivian, 2004. Acomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary:
or why can’t anybody spell? London: Profile Books.
Coulmas, Florian, 1996. Encyclopedia of Writing Systems.
Oxford: Basic Blackwell.
Crystal, David, 1995. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the
English Language. Cambridge University Press.
Frith, Uta (ed), 1980. Cognitive Processes in Spelling.
London: Academic Press.
John, Andrew & Blake, Stephen (compilers), 2001. The
Total TXTMSG Dictionary: Over 6,300 of the Most
Important E-Acronyms, E-Abbreviations and Definitions
for Mobiles, E-Mail And PDAs. London: HarperCollins.
Johnson, Samuel, 1755. Preface to A Dictionary of the
English Language: In Which the Words are Deduced
from their Originals. London: Knapton.
Perfetti, C, Rieben, L & Fayol, M, 1997. Learning to Spell:
research, theory and practice across languages, NJ:
Pitman, Sir James & St. John, John, 1969. Alphabets and
Reading. London: Pitman.
Scragg, Donald G, 1974. A History of English Spelling.
Manchester University Press.
Smith, Philip, 1980. In defence of conservatism in English
orthography. Visible Language. XIV 2.122–36.
Stanovich, K E, 2000. Progress in Understanding Reading.
London: Guilford Press
Taylor, Insup & Olson, David R (eds), 1996. Scripts and
Literacy: Reading and Learning to Read Alphabets,
Syllabaries and Characters. Dordrecht, Netherlands:
Toffler, A, 1970. Future Shock. London: The Bodley Head.
To put the reader in a suitable frame of mind.
Upward, Christopher, 1996. Cut Spelling. London:
Simplified Spelling Society. A good analysis of spelling.
Upward also strips surplus letters from words as far as it
can go, or further.
Venezky, Richard L, 1999. The American Way of Spelling.
NY: The Guilford Press.
Webster, Noah, 1789. Dissertation on the English
Yule, Valerie, 1986. The design of spelling to match needs
and abilities, Harvard Educational Review, 56: 278–297.
Yule, Valerie, 1991. Orthography and reading: spelling and
society. Doctoral thesis, Monash University.
Yule, Valerie, 1994. Problems of research in the design of
English spelling, Visible Language, 28.1.26–47.
Yule, Valerie, 2002. Spelling for the next 2000 years.
Internet sources for further information on spelling and
writing systems of the world include http://