The Politics of
‘Simplified spelling brought about sunspots, the San Francisco earthcquake and the recent business depression, which we never would have had if spelling had been left all alone.’
Mark Twain, speech to Associated Press in support of reform, Sept 18. 1906.
The live issue of the politics of literacy includes questions of the social and political purposes of universal literacy, its feasibility, and its cost/benefits.
The politics of spelling is not considered in English speaking countries. Yet reform of the writing system has been one of the first concerns of almost every modern national revolution – from the French to the Russian and Chinese; and of almost every revolutionary modernisation or nationalist surge - as in Turkey, Korea, Israel, Indonesia and Malaysia, Norway, and Finland. Reconstruction after wars has spurred modernisations in countries such as the Netherlands, Greece, and Japan, and other countries that have improved their writing systems this century include Spain and Portugal in co-operation with their Latin American collaterals, Germany, Taiwan, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Phillipines, Niugini (wantok,) Sweden, Thailand, Vietnam, Dutch South Africa (Afrikaans), Greenland, and recently France again.1 Hundreds of new writing systems have also been invented this century for previously unwritten languages, aiming at efficiency with the benefit of experience. It is ironic that most of their linguistic inventors have been American or British. 2
English is now the only major language in that has had no update of its writing system within the last hundred years, and it can only be compared with some Arabic and Indian scripts for the obduracy and arguments with which moves for improvement are rejected. What is going on?
Ignorance about English spelling is almost universal – quite apart from inability to spell it. New initiatives in Australian education remain restricted as long as Australians are unaware that spelling is not only a key for reading and writing, but an indicator of how the whole society ticks. We must understand how the past can suffocate or enlighten the future.
The nature of the writing system is related to the values, power relations, and tensions within a society. It has major social and economic consequences. The development of Western capitalism, science and ways of thinking would have been impossible without the accessible alphabetic script and linear number systems. Literacy also involves internalising the social values of the literate community. Spelling is one way to restrict to an elite the initiation into the heritage and the living world of print.
A difficult script helps to preserve power in a static society when only a few can master it. Old China had a sense of heavenly self-sufficiency and an economic base in peasant agriculture. For thousands of years the Chinese script carried on a traditional Chinese civilisation that was antagonistic to change and did not care for trade. It was a matter of conscious pride that the difficult writing system was, like the virtues, a life-time’s work to acquire. The key to government office was skill in the mastery of Chinese literacy, demonstrated in strenuous annual competitions. In Korea the medieval mandarins openly recognised their vested interest in the difficult Chinese-origin writing system. A benevolent Emperor had sponsored the design of a new Korean syllabo-alphabet, hangul, hoping that his ‘Great Letters’ would make it possible for the common people to read and write. And this was the explicit reason that the mandarins gave for banning it as soon as he was dead. Only the court-ladies, barred from masculine education, maintained hangul for their own private use - and it was Korean nationalism, the growth of commerce, and the needs of Westerners, that brought this remarkable script back four hundred years later.3
Trading nations from the Phoenicians and the Rus onwards, have preferred, and needed, some form of alphabetic or syllabic writing for their business operations.4 In the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, the male citizens were expected to be literate, as part of their citizenship, and both the Greek and Roman writing systems were simple and regular enough for boys to be taught by literate slaves, although the masses, the hoi polloi and slaves, were in general unlettered. The Roman Empire was held together and organised by the written word, which was deliberately plain enough for the armies and civil administrations to operate in their extending territories. When Pax Romana collapsed, literacy was continued by the clerics scattered over that Empire, still in Latin - but lacking public literacy, the spoken forms quickly became unstable, and became the Romance languages and dog-Latins.
In many cultures, such as ancient Egypt and some medieval societies, the writing system has been so holy and complex that it could only be learnt and read by the priestly caste and scholars, who supported and were supported by an illiterate aristocracy. An early and continuing purpose for writing systems has been the transmission of religious knowledge - often the more mysterious the script the better, for the status of the guardians of the spiritual mysteries. Sacred scriptures are often written in scripts that are regarded as sacred as their message. The namehieroglyphics significantly means sacred writing. Magic and the writing system were also linked in Northern Europe, as seen in how we still have double meanings for the words spell and rune (the name of Norse writing). Language and orthography may be carefully preserved as an essential manifestation of the sanctity of a religion - holiness made tangible and visible. So, antique Arabic script is retained untouched for the Qur’an, and ancient Hebrew for the Jewish Scriptures, similar to the importance of Latin in Catholic history, and the language of the King James Bible for English Protestants. Older Boers felt it was profanation when the Holy Dutch Bible was translated into the vernacular Afrikaans spelling that they actually used themselves. There is a deep psychological connection between a sign and what it signifies. The roman script for Catholic Croats and cyrillic for Orthodox Serbs is a continuing visible symbol to divide members of the same ethnicity. Indeed, writing systems can be similar to organized religions in their function and significance in society, to the degree that when all else in a society is changing, a spelling system- the letter, as it were - is still clung to when the spirit has gone.
The politics of English spelling
King Alfred, like Charlemagne, sought to unify his multilingual tribes by encouraging literacy in the dominant vernacular language. He called for written English to be so simple and close to speech, that anyone could learn to read. However, spelling problems had already set in, and history went on to make them worse.
Originally, Anglo-Saxon characters matched Anglo-Saxon speech, but the Latin alphabet reintroduced with Christianity in the 6th century had no letters for several English consonants, such as th, sh, ch,wh, zh, ng, and only five letters for the twenty English vowel sounds. The resulting expedients still trouble English spelling. 5
After the Norman conquest of 1066, with Norman-French and Latin the official languages, the ‘English’ language was left to the illiterate Saxon underdogs. One good result was that, without the stabilisation of writing, many complex inflexions of early English rubbed away. English returned as a written form partly through Saxon upward mobility, as conqueror and conquered merged, and partly through the Black Death, according to John of Trevisa, writing in 1385 - since it killed off most of the teachers still able to teach the nearly obsolete Norman-French language.
With the inventions of printing and cheap paper, literacy was no longer confined to the clerical classes. Floodgates were opened for popular reading and writing. The prime motivation for literacy in Northern Europe was to read the newly accessible Word of God – and Martin Luther reformed German spelling as well as religion, to increase its accessibility. Medieval manuscript copying by hand had been erratic in maintaining spelling conformity, and introduced many anomalies, but printing now stabilised the spelling system. However, one consequence was that English spelling did not follow the continuing Great Vowel Shift in the spoken language, but still represents many old vowels and dropped sounds such as final <e> inflexions.
Personal handwriting tended to spelling economy, as surviving records show, but public print did not, because the solution to the problem of standardisation was etymology. Some degree of spelling uniformity was now needed – but what standard was reliable? There were thriving dialects and ‘vulgar’ vernaculars, and the whole English language had an immense flowering from the 15th to the 18th century , with the Renaissance, and the discovery of New Worlds of geography and the mind.
Faced with all this lively, chaotic and continually changing English language, scholars and printers decided to turn to the derivation of words to supply the needed prestigious standard for a national spelling. Early voices asking for a speech-based spelling were unheard. Since so much new and old vocabulary was of classical origin, the ‘etymological principle’ allowed more consensus on spelling. But it meant that English spelling in writing did not truly represent the spoken language – and derivations could also be mistaken.
By the late 18th century, nouveau riche commercial classes were seeking to join the landed aristocracy socially. They admired but lacked the nobility’s perceived advantages of birth and supposedly civilising education. Snobbery prevailed – both to keep them out, and to make them want to get in. Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son 1737-57 gave classic contemporary advice on how to be seen to be a gentleman. Surface behaviors, such as manners and spelling, performed like password and screening tests for social acceptance.
A correct and complex orthography that required considerable education, intelligence or persistence to acquire, and where solecisms could be immediately detected, was an excellent screening device. The aspiring middle classes possessed persistence and intelligence as well as high motivation to be socially accepted. They too, therefore, valued the acquisition of correct spelling, as a sign showing they were fit for ‘good society’
The high-status field of scholarship also emphasised knowledge and correctness in spelling. A scholar was a ‘Man of Letters’. Mastery of the letters was his first achievement. This respect for the alphabet is still seen in the university degree of D. Litt. Doctor of Letters is the accolade for the highest scholarship in the land, even above divine Philosophy (Ph.D).
Eighteenth-century gentlemen and scholars also valued the complexity and elaboration of English orthography for its own sake. The 19th century sociologist Thorstein Veblen 6 has described English spelling as a notorious example of his concept of ‘Conspicuous Consumption’, which characterises upper classes throughout history, who show off their status in public by displays of extravagance, from sumptuous garb to prestige cars. In the eighteenth century ‘Age of Manners’, ‘conspicuous consumption’ included baroque garments and rituals of behaviour, and love of ornament. The Englishman of education and leisure took personal pleasure in elegance and correctness in manners, however tedious. The French, German and Russian courts were more frightful in rituals and dress, but the English had their spelling. And- as often happens after a golden age of high culture - after the Renaissance, the Age of Reason and the Revival of Learning, the inheritors, lacking their genius and excitement, tended to turn to pedantry and to value form over content. 7
In the 19th century the value of correct spelling became still more strongly entrenched. In Victorian times Victorian values of respectability, discipline, conformity and hard work called for perfect adherence to spelling conventions The middle classes were firmly in power, with a creed of meritocratic social promotion. Correct spelling was regarded as an infallible indicator of merit. Spelling proficiency was supposed to have provided a kind of minimum qualification for entry into the middle class. Looked at the other way, however, it meant that a difficult spelling system acts as a classbarrier. It ensures that a certain proportion of the population remains illiterate and can never aspire to more than menial jobs. .
The Industrial Revolution required a literate management and skilled tradesmen who were also demonstrably diligent, intelligent and highly motivated to achieve. Businesses needed intelligent and enterprising employees, as well as a laboring class who need only read instructions.
A complex and difficult spelling was an admirable screening device for employment too.
The Victorian moral majority with its high moral and even missionary aspirations for education sought to remove poverty by encouraging ‘self-improvement’ so that everyone would move up the ladder through literacy and learning. They believed that anyone who tried hard enough could learn to read and spell. It would be pandering to indolence to make spelling easier Learning spelling itself was of value as a moral discipline. ‘Slipshod spelling arose from slipshod thinking, which arose from slipshod moral ideals’.
When the struggle for manhood suffrage succeeded, the perceived need to then‘educate our masters’ resulted in the 1870 Education Act, enshrining the promise of universal literacy. Learning spelling could now take a third or more of the primary school curriculum. The Spelling Bee became a uniquely Anglo-American form of entertainment and torture for old and young. It was a sign of educational heroism to master difficult spelling, and relatively few thought that the spelling need not be difficult in the first place.
The 19th century Victorian arguments for preserving English spelling unchanged were in terms of Victorian values -
Etymology (the Heritage of Civilisation),
Practical Impossibility to change (Pragmatism),
Aesthetics (Beauty ), and
However, the nineteenth century was an age of great reforms as well as of great iniquities to attack. Many eminent Victorians sought to reform English spelling, impelled by other Victorian values - for rationality, and for belief in the perfectability of ‘man’ as well as of his spelling.
Optimistic spelling reform campaigns attracted both support and ridicule for a hundred years. At times reform appeared distinctly possible. Noah Webster was a spelling reformer before his lexicography was revised by commercial considerations. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s authorisation of 300 re-spellings lasted from August to December 1906 before Congress forced him to rescind. Their combined legacy was a few dozen ‘American’ spellings - the original reasons for separate British and American editions of books. In Britain, in 1923 proposals of the Simplified Spelling Society were backed by a petition signed by 15,000 people ‘prominent in public life and affairs’, supported by four major teacher unions and including 800 University scholars, 125 Members of Parliament, 22 bishops, and 49 publishers. The proposals were rejected single-handed by the President of the Board of Education, and in 1933, again a single bureaucrat refused to consider renewed proposals. 8
After the destruction of the second World War, the social catalyst of reconstruction included changes in the writing systems of many countries. And in Britain, with Parliamentary and press debate from August 1945 onward, a Simplified Spelling Bill to permit moderate reforms reached the Third Reading in the Commons successfully, but, for political reasons, it was withdrawn on the promise of a Ministry of Education investigation into the best system.9 The outcome was the Initial Teaching Alphabet experiment - but it meant that the political moment passed to galvanise public support for spelling change. Spelling improvement has been excluded from the prescripts of later U.K. Reports on literacy (Bullock, 1975) and language (Kingman, 1989) In Australia Dr Everingham was a short-term Federal Minister of Helth, a Victorian teacher’s union journal used the Australian Harry Lindgren’s contribution to spelling reform proposals (‘spell the short sound /e/ with <e> as in bet), and a teachers’ union national conference in the 1970s passed a short-lived resolution recommending its use in schools.
Most of the working classes possibly never benefited from compulsory literacy more than was sufficient to read instructions, tabloids and small-printed ‘penny dreadfuls’. Many remained illiterate or nearly so – the struggle in spelling being more than sufficient for defeat in reading. Today the middle classes’ disciplined dedication to the arduous task of learning to read may be falling away, and the spirit of the culture is not less dedicated to learning. Whether Anglo-American literacy problems are perennial, improving, or deteriorating, social factors, including the fascination and immediacy of electronic media, contribute to reducing motivation for literacy. The ‘educated public’ may now be less fully literate – as appears notably in changes in circulation and layouts of ‘quality’ periodicals – print larger, articles shorter, errors more numerous, pictures and paper glossier. Copy editors and computer spelling checkers arenow essential for a high proportion of authors. That is, now that personal spelling efficiency is not a necessary passport at the Top, social inequity in literacy is confirmed by lack of electronic access. Learned journals have transferred their ‘immediate screening device’of correct spelling to screening by compliance with the minutiae of individual house styles and how to set out the references.
Current Anglo-American attitudes to spelling are apathetic - interested in neither Victorian perfectionism nor technological restructuring - perhaps (?) related to fading Anglo-American enterprise leadership and initiating spirit. Japanese and Chinese now apply the same disciplined industry to acquire their difficult (though recently much improved) orthographies as that spurring 19th century Anglo-Americans to master their spelling books- while also using phonic-based initial spellings as introductions for learners. Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam move rapidly into advanced 20th century despite great initial handicaps, but plus the advantages of their improved writing systems.
Official attempts to arouse enthusiasm for literacy among the unlettered Australian populace in International Literacy Year 1990 often emphasised relaxed, even passive, short-term satisfactions, dropping the old arguments of‘knowledge is power’, ‘heritage of print’ and ‘it’s good for learning discipline’. The theme words for beginning readers in the government-funded A.B.C. Literacy Tape for ILY were:
‘I dream a lot. I dream about people and about reading.
I think it would be great to read, you know, to read something, a book or even about something that was in th e newspaper. ’
This is the conscientisation approach of Paulo Freire,10 but turned dilettante. Such words contrast with the political conscientisation of literacy in revolutionary Latin America and the stirring, if illusionary, first words of the Bolshevik Russian reader of 1917-1921 :
‘We are not slaves. Slaves we are not!’
Spelling and social class. Spelling reform has been promoted by educated idealists, generally in professions giving them expertise and experience in spelling or public affairs. However, educationalists within the’ establishment’ have tended to respect the status quo that they teach, although with notable exceptions dating from Bullokar (1580) and Mulcaster (1582) .
Curiously, unlike overseas radicals and revolutionaries, British and American Leftist political movements have ignored English spelling as a source of oppression of the masses. Yet ‘any spelling that takes several years to master perforce plays into whatever class struggle exists’ (Gregersen)11 and socially disadvantaged learners have been shown to benefit from simple, clearly structured literacy teaching - which would be more feasible with a consistent spelling system.
Anglo-American political indifference may be due to the anti-intellectualism of both moderate and hard left sections of their labor movements and among the working classes generally. Unions campaign for more expenditure on education and for the Right to Read (e.g. Victoria in the 1970s) but at the same time Learning is not perceived as the ladder to advancement and key to the millennium, as it is still in many other countries. On the contrary, schooling is often suspected as the capitalist enemy’s means of training ‘factory fodder’. The education system itself has been called a pernicious form of screening designed to ensure masses will fail and fill the lower jobs,. Far from the middle-class perspective that literacy offers a fair chance for upward mobility, large sections of the poor have regarded it as an imposition on them by a middle-class serving its own interests. This belief has not been without some justification 12.
Nevertheless, a social group seeking an identity distinct from its perceived exploiters could assert that emphasis in its writing - as in Australian aboriginal’sKoori Kolej and their musical, Bran Nue Day. These are spellings of defiance, and conceivably the germ of a demotic koori script. Kooris, less bound to white traditions of writing, already have their own examples of phonemic spelling for their own aboriginal languages - written down usually by whites.
Writing systems have political functions. Governments may recognise but not admit a dilemma. A semi-literate or even illiterate society may be gullible and governable because it is dependant upon authority for its information. But a literate society, efficient, instructable and a source of managers and expertise, may also be dangerously independent-minded and unruly through its access to books. Books, far more than broadcast media, can give everyone the liberty to ‘know, to utter and to understand’ (Milton, Areopagitica). Power goes with access to print.
Spelling change and information technology. When machines demand, tradition will not hold out for long. At first it had seemed that the early computers might require a simplified English spelling, to make possible speech/printcomputer transliteration. However they have an non-human capacity for one-trial learning of input data, and are currently a force to stabilise spelling, as spelling checkers. Nevertheless, developments in cybernetics and computer science may alter the intellectual climate and hence attitudes to spelling. 14. Even one-word-one-symbol may prove to have greater potential than is now apparent. Computers offer research techniques and modelling for how spelling could be improved, enhancing the practical potential for both research and implementation of spelling change.
Simple algorithms can implement spelling change in anything that is printed or reprinted, allowing inexpensive transition in publishing. Research can show how humans adapt to change – in a century of constant changes.
Philosophies of reading and spelling are dated by their relation to prevailing cultures. In a social climate in which readers must be able to read every word accurately and understand the writer’s intentions without distortion, spelling will be expected to be strictly orthodox. In a different climate, permissiveness can led easily into uncaring. Current reading theory emphasises guessing, and advises against decoding from the letters in words. For those who seek a visible sign of stability, orthodox spelling remains as probably the last traditional value in a society in which the more spiritual values have been forsaken and the less tangible idols have toppled.
‘Spelling is pride. Spelling is social acceptance.
Spelling is discipline. Spelling isn’t an isolate’
But spelling is also information technology – a tool for the communication of information, subject to human engineering principles like any other tool. It cannot be expected to be the embodiment of an unchanging culture, subject to preservation orders - or identified with the language itself that after all, it is only a means to represent – or saddled with the purposes of a dictionary.
Australians today are vociferously keen to remove all symbolism that proclaims their colonial dependance on another country. They could well start their new republic off with an updated International English spelling, compatible with the present, but more suited to the needs of the global community that uses English. By shedding the worst features of English spelling, such as its clutter, they would dispose of genuinely tyrannical remnants of an English history that they have already thrown out of Australian schools. Spelling is not an isolate.
2. select bibliography FOR POLITICS OF SPELLING BOOK CHAPTERS 1995.
This includes some publications for further reading on English spelling, its politics, and international writing systems, that were not included in chapter end-notes.
Bailey, R. W. & Görlach (Eds.), English as a world language, Cambridge, C.U.P., 1984.
Coulmas, Florian. The writing systems of the world. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Brown, Bob. A typology, list & bibliography of English spelling reforms. London:Simplified Spelling Society, 1991. (lst edition, incomplete.)
Chao, Y. R. Language and symbolic systems. London: C.U.P., 1968.
Chu-Chang, Mae & Rodriguez, Victor (Eds.) Asian and Pacific American perspectives in bilingual education: comparative research. NY: Teachers College Press., 1983.
Fishman, Joshua (Ed.). Advances in the creation and revision of writing systems. The Hague: Mouton,1977.
Fishman, J. A., R. L. Cooper & A. W. Conrad (Eds.). The spread of English: the sociology of English as an additional language. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House, 1977.
Follick, Mont. The case for spelling reform. London: Pitman & Sons, 1956. (Includes a little-known account of spelling reform in U.K. 1900-1953.)
Freire, Paulo. Literacy, reading, the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
Johnson, Samuel. Preface to A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals. London. Knapton. 1755.
Kavanagh, J. F. & Venezky, R. L. (Eds.). Orthography, reading and dyslexia.Baltimore: University Park Press. 1980.
McArthur, Tom (Ed.). The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford, O.U.P. 1993. Pitman, James & St. John, John. Alphabets and reading. London: Pitman, 1969.
Scragg, D. G. A history of English spelling. Manchester University Press, 1974.
Stevenson, H. W., Stigler, J. W., Lucker, G. W., Lee, S-Y, Hsu, Ch-Ch, & Kitamara, S. ‘Reading disabilities: the case of Chinese, Japanese and English’. Child Development, vol 53, 1164-1181, 1982, with a follow-up by Stevenson on ‘Orthography and reading disabilities’ in Journal of Reading Disabilities, vol 17, 296-301, 1984.
Taylor, I. & Taylor, M. The psychology of reading. NY: Academic Press. 1983. (One of the few non-specialist books to take an international perspective.)
Tzeng, O. J. L. & Singer, H. (Eds.) Perception of print: reading research in experimental psychology. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 1981.
Wagner, D. (Ed.) The future of literacy in a changing world. Oxford: Pergamon, 1987.
Yule, Valerie. ‘The design of spelling to match needs and abilities’, Harvard Educational Review, vol. 65, no.3, 278-297, 1986.
Yule, Valerie. Orthography and reading; spelling and society. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Monash University, 1991