As below.

Benjamin Barrett


From: [] On Behalf Of
Steve Bett
Sent: Tuesday, July 12, 2005 10:31 PM
Subject: Generalizations about English spelling

Please comment on these generalizations.
Does everyone agree with them or are there some that you take issue with.
They were written by Prof. Chris Upward (Aston U., UK). Upward was a major
contributor to The Oxford Companion to the English Language (Tom McArthur,

1. Alphabets provide the simplest way to write most languages.

SB: syllabaries are strong contenders when there are less than 5 vowels.
ref:, keyword: syllabary

I would change this to be "five or less vowels" and add that other
conditions apply (syllabic structure, etc.) Japanese has five vowels and
uses syllabaries (actually, moraic orthography); Hawaiian, also having five
vowels, seems like it would work.

2. The alphabet works by the principle that letters represent speech sounds.

SB: Most writing systems contain more than just sound signs.
They also include a few meaning signs (semagrams, word-signs,

The wording is again problematic. I think Upward's point is valid: The
principle is that each letter represents a sound. The alphabet, though,
deviates from that somewhat. Perhaps what he means is "should work". Also,
"speech sounds" is pretty vague, though perhaps intentionally so.

5. Spelling systems need modernizing periodically to restore the
sound-spelling match.

SB: One of the arguments that Samuel Johnson gave for not matching spelling
to speech was that speech changed to quickly. Had Johnson provided a
dictionary pronunciation key it would be easy to see how much English has
changed since 1755.

6. By not systematically modernizing over nearly 1,000 years, English
spelling has lost touch with the alphabetic principle of spelling matching

SB: Written English emerged from Middle Ages as a combined adaption of two
vry distinc spelling systems: those of OE and Norman French. Added to these
dispareate elements were imports from other languages: Scandanavian, then
Latin, Renaissance Greek, followed by elements from other languages around
the world. This mix made the phonographic basis of writing in English (the
link between its sounds and its written symbols) less immediately apparent
and militated against the possibility of assimilating all of the ingredients
into a consistent whole. The resulting diversity were increased by the
effects of changes in pronunciation, esp. the Great Vowel Shift in the 15c,
in response to which there were few changes in spelling.

Standardization is an important feature of the English alphabet. I
personally cannot understand the speech of native English speakers in many
parts of the world, but the standardized orthography allows us to

9. To improve literacy, English needs to modernise its spelling, as other
languages do.

I'd like to see some examples, here. Does Upward intend to modernize
"modernise", for example, to "modernize"? With the exception of the "silent
'e'", vowels can't easily be touched because of all the dialects in the
world. Is Upward suggesting we write "probably" as "probly" or "remember" as
"member" when pronounced that way?

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