Other Advocates of Reform
(see also: Code Reform (ATTEMPTS) History)


Alexander Melville Bell

Alexander Melville Bell created an alternate alphabet which he called ‘visible speech‘. His work involved and influenced his son Alexander Graham Bell and contributed to the development of the telephone:



Isaac Asimov

From: The Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 1999 by John. J. Reily Referring to: A Question of Spelling,” in The Roving Mind, by Isaac Asimov, (Prometheus Books 1983), page 340

In 1982, Asimov published two essays touching on spelling reform. In the later of the two, A Question of Spelling, he followed Feynman in linking the deficiencies of English spelling with the problems of education. The particular occasion for the essay, he says, was a mail solicitation from an organization calling itself the ‘Reading Reform Foundation’. The letter recited the usual complaints about the high level of functional illiteracy in the United States. However, Asimov was not much persuaded by the Foundation’s argument that the key to alleviating the problem is better teaching methods He was particularly unimpressed with the letter’s claim that 87% of all English words are spelled phonetically. That left 13% that were not phonetically spelled, and those were likely to be the most commonly-used words in the language.

…. Asimov jumps right in and makes a stab at some suggested respellings. Consider “through,” “coo,” “do,” “true,” “knew” and “queue,” he asks. Why not just spell them “throo,” “koo,” “doo,” “troo,” nyoo” and “kyoo”? These respellings would in fact fit within some familiar reform proposals, though perhaps few reform advocates would go along with his assertion that the obvious respelling of “night” should be “nite.” Then there is a larger problem.

Noting that the plural of “man” is “men,” but that young children will naturally assume that “mans” is the plural, he goes on to assert that the children are right. Thus, along with his advocacy of spelling reform, he includes an argument for a completely regularized grammar, though he does not elaborate on it as fully. The suggestion, “Why not reform grammar, too?” is a common retort made by people who have just been introduced to the idea of spelling reform. Why some people confuse these things is a mystery to people who don’t confuse them. In any case, Asimov’s essay is the first instance I have ever seen of someone who equated spelling and grammar and who also proposed to reform them both. [5]

Asimov does acknowledge that a great deal of trouble would be occasioned by implementing the reforms he proposes. However, he give three reasons for why it would be worthwhile for everyone to take the trouble:

(1) However much trouble the reforms would be to us, they would make the lives of our  
children and grandchildren immeasurably easier. This is the sort of sacrifice that parents
should be willing to make for their children.

(2) The reforms, once in place, would promote literacy. This would boost worker productivity and assist in enhancing national prosperity.

(3) Earth is in need of a common second language, and English is the most widespread current candidate. Removing the idiosyncrasies of English would promote its spread, which would promote international understanding and world peace.


First Published In: May-83, American Way (American Airlines)
Collections: 1986 The Dangers of Intelligence

The rate of illiteracy in the world is decreasing as the percentage of adults who cannot read is going down — but only slowly. It is not going down as fast as the world population is going up. In 1970, for instance, it was estimated that there were 760 million adult human beings in the world who could not write and who could not read what others wrote. That was about 21 percent of the total population of the world By 1980 only 18.5 percent of the total population of the world was illiterate but the population had gone up so much that the actual number of illiterates was 814 million. In ten years, in other words, the number of illiterates had increased by 54 million, a number equal to the population of France!

Does it matter? It certainly does. Ever since writing was invented, about five thousand years ago, it has been the essential method for recording and transmitting information, and to a large extent people who cannot read or write are information-blind. To be sure, there is always speech itself. but the spoken word is far more limited than the written word. Until recently, it was impossible to store speech as such, and it has always been very difficult to recall the spoken word accurately. Nowadays, when we can store the written word in recordings of one form or another it remains less convenient to retrieve it and to work with it in the form of sounds alone. Inevitably in order to make use of sounds, however cleverly recorded, we convert them into writing.

There have been improvements in the technology of writing (the printing press, the typewriter, the word processor) but these inventions have only improved the manner in which speech is coded into marks on a suitable surface. We now have quicker and easier and more efficient ways of writing, but what is finally produced remains writing. And someone who can’t read the written code as formed by hand can’t read it when it is printed, typewritten, or placed on a television screen either.

In addition to the total illiterates there is an equal number who while not technically illiterate can read and write only very slowly and can handle only the simplest words. They are “functionally illiterate” in that they cannot write with sufficient ease to work in a technological society.  They can perform only what is called unskilled labor, and even then, they must be instructed with particular care, since one can’t depend on them to pick up guidance from labels, street signs, store posters, or any of the many other casual information bearing items that saturate our world and that we assume everyone can make use of.

At least one out of three adults In the world can’t function usefully in a technological society. This badly limits the developing nations particularly, where the illiteracy rate is highest. It makes it that much more difficult for them to take advantage of modern technology in order to build a better life for themselves. Nor are the industrial nations entirely free of this limitation. While the total illiteracy rate in the United States is very low there are millions of adult Americans who are functionally illiterate just the same, and who as a result are condemned to the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Their inabilities also exert a downward drag on the economy as a whole. What can we do about it?

About 1400 B.C. the Phoenicians invented the first alphabet and writing was enormously simplified. All other alphabets, how­ ever strange they may seem are thought to be modifications of this great original, and of all the modifications, the Roman alphabet ‑‑ the one in which this essay appears ‑ is the mostly widespread and the most used. Might it not help the world generally if all of it used an alphabet? (China, notably, uses ideographs instead.) Might it not in fact be helpful if the whole world used the same alphabet ‑ the Roman? (The Soviet Union notably, uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead.) To be sure, the Roman alphabet is not perfectly adapted to every language, not even to English Thus, the letters c, q, and r are superfluous since c does nothing that k and s can’t do, and q could be replaced by k and x by ks or z. And meanwhile there are no single letters that represent the common English consonantal sounds of sh, ch and th.

How useful it might be, then, were a world committee of scholars to get together and devise a world alphabet. It would not necessarily be one that would suit every language perfectly, since that might require far more than the traditional twenty‑six letters, but it might at least make it possible to record every language with reasonable fidelity. In that case everyone in the world, when learning to read and write, could make a beginning with the same alphabet. Once a person had learned to read and write well any one language he would also be able to pronounce words in any other language at sight, even if he did not understand them.

Richard Feynman

From: The Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 1999 by John. J. Reily 

From: “This Unscientific Age,” one of the John Danz Lectures that Dr. Feynman delivered at the University of Washington in April, 1963.

“Now let me get to a lower level still in this question. And that is, all the time you hear the question, `Why can’t Johnny read?’ And the answer is, because of the spelling.”

After making a few allusions to the history and theory of alphabetic writing, Dr. Feynman observes that “things have gotten out of whack in the English language,” which leads him to ask, “[w]hy can’t we change the spelling?” In what may be taken as an expression of exasperation with his colleagues in the liberal arts, he declares: “If the professors of English will complain to me that the students who come to the universities, after all those years of study, still cannot spell `friend,’ I say to them that something’s the matter with the way you spell `friend.'”

So obvious does Dr. Feynman find the need for improvements in English spelling that he has trouble seeing what arguments could be raised against such a project: “[I]t can be argued ….. that [language reform is] a question of style and beauty in the language, and that to make new words and new parts of speech might destroy that. But [the professors of English] cannot argue that respelling the words would have anything to do with the style. There’s no form of art form or literary form, with the sole exception of crossword puzzles, in which the spelling makes a bit of difference to the style. And even crossword puzzles can be made with a different spelling.”

This brings us to the question of how a reform might be accomplished: “And if it’s not the English professors that do it, and if we give them two years and nothing happens — and please don’t invent three ways of doing it, just one way, that everybody [can get] used to — if we wait these two or three years and nothing happens, then we’ll ask the philologists and the linguists and so on because they know how to do it. Did you know that they can write any language with an alphabet so that you can read how it sounds in another language when you hear it? [sic] That’s really something. So they ought to be able to do it in English alone.”

George Bernard Shaw

From: George Bernard Shaw (http://www.shavian.f9.co.uk/about.html)  

It was Shaw’s opinion that language (or the social inferences made from a person’s use of language) was partly to blame for keeping the lower classes in the social, professional and educational gutter. He believed that the seemingly arbitrary relationship between the Roman alphabet’s letters and the English language’s sounds contributed to this. “Consequently,” he wrote in the preface to Pygmalion, “no man can teach himself what [the English language] should sound like from reading it; and it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”

English, then, is written in a dead, unsuitable alphabet, using spellings which often represent dead sounds. The playwright, critic, socialist and polymath George Bernard Shaw knew this, and wanted to do something about it. He did all his writing in the phonetically-based Pitman’s Shorthand, and recognized the benefits that a phonetic alphabet could offer. He gave instructions in his will that for the first 21 years after his death, the earnings from the royalties of all his works should be spent on the creation and promotion of a phonetic alphabet, using 40 or more letters, each of which represented one sound — and one sound only — of the English language.

It is, however, for his plays that Shaw is largely remembered. While hugely entertaining, full of exuberant and witty dialogue, they are also didactic, packed with ideas and social messages. This is not the place to list them all, but among the most famous are Mrs Warren’s Profession (1898), Man and Superman (1902), Androcles and the Lion (1912), Saint Joan (1923) and Pygmalion (1913) (which was also made into the enormously successful musical and film My Fair Lady).


John Steinbeck

From the first words of the introduction to the book:
 The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by  John Steinbeck:

Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. An adult is rarely successful in the undertaking — the reduction of experience to a set of symbols. For a thousand thousand years these humans have existed and they have only learned this trick – this magic – in the final ten thousand of the thousand thousand.

I don’t know how usual my experience is, but I have seen in my children the appalled agony of trying to learn to read. They, at least, have my experience. I remember that words–written or printed — were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.

Steinbeck goes on to credit the old spelling of words, as he found them in the 500 year old works of Morte d’Arthur,  the last medieval English work of the Arthurian legend, for enabling him to break through into reading. Evidently, the sound spelling correspondences of middle English made the written language cohere and enabled him to read. As he put it:

“I stared at the black book with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened… I loved the old spelling of the words…Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book.”

– On a personal note –  Early in the research phase for the COTC project and while in the process of understanding my daughter’s strugglewith reading, we encountered this book. We were garage sale hopping, among other things, looking for books she might enjoy. She found the book and brought it to me. She had seen Disney’s King Arthur story and brought it to me as book we might read together. I had never heard of the book. I liked Steinbeck and the Arthur story but never knew he had written a version of it. I think I will always remember the stunning experience of standing in the driveway of that garage sale and reading the words he wrote in the introduction to this book.


 From: Writing Systems of the World: (http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/writsoc.htm)

There have been major or minor reforms in the writing systems of every major language in the world except English, within the past hundred years. These include Afrikaans, Albanian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Filipino, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Greenlandic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Irish, Itlaian, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Niugini Tok Pisin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese Mandarin, Turkish and Vietnamese.

… if literacy is not to be restricted to an elite, an efficient writing system must be able to respond to needs for change…

Alphabets for English  A Personal View by Steve Bett

The reason that other European countries have a closer correspondence between pronunciation and spelling is because they have had one or more spelling reforms in the past 300 years. English has had some spelling reforms in the period from the Norman Conquest (1066) to the publication of Samuel Johnson’s influential Dictionary in 1754. These included the introduction of etymological, Latin, and French spellings and conventions.

Few of the reforms were designed to make the English writing system simpler and more alphabetical or phonemic. The reforms were primarily “based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning.” The exceptions include assigning fixed phonetic values to u and v (ca 1630) and changing the spelling of bytte to bit. According to Crystal, social tolerance of variant spelling came to an end around 1650 as 18th century notions of correctness began to emerge. By 1780, poor spelling became stigmatized.

Boswell credited Johnson’s 1775 dictionary with conferring stability on the language. While this may be true, Johnson primarily endorsed what had already been accepted by the influential writers of his day. He did make a number of choices favoring one spelling over another but these judgments were not colored by any attempt to move spelling in the direction of phonemic regularity. While he favored morphemic regularity, he saw no reason to align spelling with pronunciation. He usually represented the plural as [s] although the sound was often a /z/. He consistenly represted the past tense as [ed] although the sound was often /t/. He replaced the medial [y] with [i].

Johnson reasoned that maintaining phonemic alignment was next to impossible because language continually changed. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Swift, Johnson felt it was folly to imagine that a dictionary could embalm language and preserve its words and phrases from mutability

By 1800 one type of diversity had been effectively abolished but the diversity of ways to spell a particular sound has remained. We can no longer use a [y] for the /ai/ in “diversity” but we can still use this letter to represent the “long I” or /ai/ in other words such as “fly”. English spelling was standardized (at the word level) but it was never regularized.

The dissatisfaction with English orthography has a long history. The earliest proposal for a more phonemic writing system was probably advanced by Orm in 1180. Orm developed an orthography that doubled consonants after a short vowel. Orm’s writing is a principle source of information on the pronunciation of early middle English. John Hart proposed a radical phonetic reform of English in 1569. In 1580, William Bullokar proposed an alphabet of 37 letters. In 1793, William Thornton wrote,

Ingli.5 ot tu kontein a’ singl di.stinkt mark or kera’tr a.z th repra’senta’tiv ‘v iich si.mple saund wich iz po.si.bl for th huma’n vois ‘n breth tu u’tr. No’ mark shu.d repra’sent tu or thri distinkt saunds nor shu.d eni si.mpl saund bi repra’sentd b’y tu or thri difr’nt kera’ktrz (Thornton used his own notation not CKS)

Since 1100, more than 70 phonemic notational systems have been proposed for English. Had any one of them been adopted, they would have provided a more consistent writing system and simplified the spelling of English words. Phonemic transcriptions substitute sound spellings for the archaic and etymological spellings found in the English writing system. e.g.,

GYM/jim   DEBT/det   MOVE/mu:v   SIGHT/syt   ROUGH/ruf   ALTHOUGH/o:ltho’

From: Nicholas Fabian’s Type Design, Typography and Graphic  Images (http://web.idirect.com/~nfhome/homepage.htm)

Alternate alphabets.

In the middle of the eighteen century, the illustrious Benjamin Franklin designed an alternate phonetic alphabet in which each letter represented only one sound and each sound was represented by only one letter. In concert with Franklin’s new alphabet, Noah Webster, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, initiated a system of simplified spelling which is responsible for many of the differences between American and English spelling of words today.

Another historical curiosity is the Mormon Deseret Alphabet devised in the 1850s by George D. Wyatt, who was one of Pitman’s phonography students in England. In 1837 Wyatt converted to Mormonism, therefore it is not surprising that he was put in charge of the new Deseret Alphabet which had its origin in the shorthand system developed by Sir Isaac Pitman. After two years of revisions, the final version of the alphabet had 38 characters and each represented a unique sound in the English language.

Alexander Melville Bell’s (1819-1905) Visible Speech alphabet was another contender to replace the existing Latin alphabet with a phonetic one, one which better illustrates the sounds used in the English language. The essence of his great genius was that the alphabet he created became independent of any specific language. The characters function was to accurately illlustrate predetermined sounds, in any language. Which of course included the vocalization of sign language for the deaf. (Melville Bell was Alexander Graham Bell’s father and a highly acclaimed teacher of the deaf, as was Alexander in the early 1870s).

Henry Sweet’s (1813-1898?) Organic Alphabet was another attempt to create a flexible phonetic alphabet. Sweet was a nineteenth century phonetician who modified Bell’s Visible Speech concept to form his own less rigid Organic Alphabet. The current International Phonetic Alphabet was also based on Sweet’s Organic Alphabet and today it contains enough exotic characters, accents and modifiers to satisfy even the most fanatical linguistic research scholar.

From: Teaching Reading – a History by Robert McCole Wilson (http://www.socsci.kun.nl/ped/whp/histeduc/wilson/wilson10.html#r1)

While a few people, such as Sir Thomas Smith (1568) and John Hart (1570) understood the problem could be alleviated by a truly English alphabet (for Smith 34 letters after redundant ones had been eliminated), teachers were bewildered or angered when their pupils who had clearly learned their letters could not read. Some tried to alleviate the dull and exhausting work of learning letters and syllables by using games, others felt more of the same would improve reading and spelling. A supplementary problem was that the idea of readiness for learning was not yet accepted. We read of children as young as three being forced into long recitations of their letters in many combinations.

From the: HISTORY OF SPELLING REFORM by Cornell Kimball

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the U.S. in 1906, and had a list of 300-plus spellings. One of the founding members wasAndrew Carnegie, who donated more than $250,000 over the next several years. The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in the U.K. in 1908, as a “sister” organization. (Some more on the Simplified Spelling Society, which is still operating, a number of paragraphs down.)

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt also promoted simpler spellings. Initially, he ordered the Government Printing Office to use the Simplified Spelling Board’s 300 or so proposed spellings. This order was issued on August 27, 1906 (while the U.S. Congress was in recess). There was resistance from the Government Printing Office and others who were to carry it out, and when Congress readjourned that fall, they set to revoke Roosevelt’s order. From Ken Ives’ documentation (his source for this is “Our Times,” Volume 3, by Mark Sullivan, Scribner, 1937), we find:

Congress … voted, 142 to 24, that “no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents … unless same shall conform to the orthography … in … generally accepted dictionaries.”

Writer George Bernard Shaw also expressed support for changing English spelling. In his will, Shaw provided for a “contest” to design a new, “phonetic” (meaning based on the speech of England’s late King George V) alphabet for English. The contest was held during 1958. The alphabet chosen, which is referred to as the “Shavian” alphabet, has 48 characters, which are different looking from Roman letters; the designer’s name is Kingsley Read.

One item to note is that Charles Darwin and Lord Tennyson gave support to the British Spelling Reform Association founded in 1879.

From: Teaching Reading – a History Part 2 by Robert McCole Wilson

As the cause was seen by many as the non-phonetic nature of much of the English language, a new call for spelling reform went out. Among other solutions, Sir James Pitman, grandson of Sir Isaac, and his followers prepared what was to be called the Initial Teaching Alphabet or i.t.a. of 45 letters, to be first used in 1961. Again great claims were made for its effectiveness and that no problems were encountered in transferring to normal spelling. It was, for a while, used in places both in the U.K and North America.