Is English cluttered? Simplified Spelling supporters think so

Living in Washington, D.C., I have seen a decade-full of protests. They’re such regular occurrences here that I don’t really notice what people are protesting any longer. I’ll walk or drive-by the gathering crowd, oblivious to their message, and continue on my way. Except this weekend, a very small crowd of people protesting in front of a hotel, instead of on the National Mall or in front of the White House, caught my attention.

Late last week and into the weekend was the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was held at The Grand Hyatt in downtown D.C., and the competition drew hundreds of spellers, their families, media crews, and (much to my surprise) protesters. The demonstrators gathered in front of the hotel were adamant supporters of phonetic spelling, what they call Simplified Spelling. From a Washington Post article covering the protests:

The protesters believe English is mired by too many spellings for identical sounds and too many sounds for identical spellings. If they got their way, “you” would become “yoo,” “believe” would become “beleev” and “said” would become “sed.”

The cost of clinging to traditional spellings, they say, is millions of illiterate English speakers who struggle to read signs or get good jobs, and billions of dollars in lost productivity.

The campaign for simple spelling, which activists say started more than 100 years ago, is experiencing a revival with kids who have taken wholeheartedly to phonetic spelling in electronic messages.

I’ve never thought about non-phonetically spelled words in English as a distraction, so I don’t personally consider them clutter. However, I find it delightful that there is a group of people on a mission to rid the English language of what they believe is spelling clutter. Check out the video of the protests on the Washington Post website to learn more about the mission of supporters of Simplified Spelling. (And please, don’t worry, I have no intentions of adopting Simplified Spelling practices on Unclutterer. I can’t imagine how much my productivity would tank trying to phonetically spell an entire vocabulary of words.)

71 Comments for “Is English cluttered? Simplified Spelling supporters think so”

  1. posted by TanyaZ on

    “Most people wander through life blissfully unaware of this, but when you know, for instance, that the root of the word “amateur” is the (dead) latin word ‘amo’, meaning ‘to love’ you become aware that the ‘amateur’ does not mean unprofessional, but something done for love.

    I can only speak for myself here, but that knowledge deeply affects my use and appreciation of the word. ”

    So, if it was spelled AMOTER, it would somehow irrepratbly damage the root of this word and change its history? What you are holding on to is the French “eu”, which has nothing to do with the Latin root of the word. Just pointing out that your argument does not really apply. I know it because I grew up in a country with a phonetic spelling (Russia), and all latin/greek/turkish roots are still present in the words. Oh, and there are no spelling bees. There is not even a verb for “spell”.

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  3. posted by DJ on

    So they want to dumb everyone down to the level of people who are unable to learn? No, thanks.

  4. posted by gypsy packer on

    Lexicography and orthography are historical treasure boxes, but like any buried treasure, you have to make the effort to dig it out.

    The lazy and unadventurous among us want to simplify the language, to win races without running, to whip the Indians in American spelling bees without putting in the practice hours. Part of this is pure xenophobia, and the remainder, sullen ignorance.

    Spellcheckers were made for such as these. A trophy or plaque from a bee will not get you hired, but it makes word processing easier and life more interesting.

  5. posted by Sue on

    Great. Let’s change the entire language so every existing book, magazine, etc becomes useless clutter.

    Besides, if anyone is paying attention to what’s coming out of the “Text Generation”, this may already be happening.

  6. posted by TanyaZ on

    So, are you saying that phonetic languages like Russian have been stripped of historical significance? Riiiiight.

    It is also a myth that everyone will be able to write/type orthographically correct if the language goes phonetic. Even in phonetic languages most people have awful orphography. Just look up превед, which is a way for people to can spell to make fun of those who can’t.
    Translation: no, you will still get a chance to feel superior to other people.

    What is true that it is a lot easier for kids to learn how to read and write if the language is phonetic.

  7. posted by Lisa on

    Sherri – are you referencing the accent portrayed in Fargo (Coen Brothers) or have you been to Fargo and spoken with people living there? It has been my experience that that accent is rare. Please move to Russia immediately. We’ll miss you. Ya betcha. ;)

  8. posted by WilliamB on

    Wow, this post led to a lot of rants. A few points:
    1. Simplifed Spelling has nothing to do with changing English vocabulary. Using that argument, especially using Orwell, is a strawman argument and irrelevant to a discussion of spelling.
    2. Also? if you want to persuade others, please use facts that actually support your argument. You’re not going to convince many people to the correctness of your stance if your supporting statements actually undermine your argument.

    Without offering an opinion on whether English spelling *should* be changed, I do offer the opinion that English spelling is particularly messy. The letter “c” is thoroughly redundant, as is “q.” “Y” and “x” are confusing, and Latin letters don’t properly accommodate many of the consonants of Old English, such as “th” for which OE had a single letter.

    The messiness does complicate matters. OTOH, changing spelling would also be complicated and messy. I do not have an opinion on whether the cost would outweigh the benefit.

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  10. posted by ninakk on

    What a passionate thread! I don’t have a clear opinion on this one and also don’t know whether even should have one or not, considering my background of having another mother tongue entirely. English has been an interesting ride, both challenging and enjoyable, and I still like expanding my vocabulary so that I can put into words precisely what I mean and not anything that is merely “almost there”. Now I get to practice it daily as I’m married to an American and I’m not complaining, because I know I have a lot to learn still.

    I take pride in mastering especially my mother tongue as well as is humanly possible and think it’s a continuous learning process throughout life. I wish parents would realize in greater extent the importance of pointing out the difference between written and spoken language. It is acceptable for languages to evolve slowly, but in my humble opinion it would be completely ridiculous to force a major change out of the blue. Who says it would be necessary? Why would it be wrong to keep the language alive and kicking in its current state? Wouldn’t it be more about changing something just for the sake of change in this case? I lean toward a yes on my last question.

  11. posted by Jude on

    Sorry, guys. To good spellers, English spelling is logical. It tells you a lot about the origin of the word. All that would be lost with simplified spelling. Take the words to, two, and too. In Spanish, those words are a, dos, and demasiado. Yet English Language Learners frequently misspell to, two, and too even though their language uses such different words. I like instantly knowing which form of two someone is referring to in writing. I also like “big words” because a word like “loquacious” is much more specific than the simple “talkative.”

  12. posted by Michael on

    Bah, English spelling is too easy! The Chinese have the right idea — make even less correspondence between writing and speaking, so children *really* have to put a lot of work to memorizing words. Better yet, have multiple written forms, like the Japanese, and require tests in each. And forget spelling bees, if we make the language complicated enough, we can have dictionary lookup bees.

    So instead of reforming spelling to make it easier, lazy Americans, you need to make it more difficult to catch up to the hard-working Chinese and Japanese. (Tongue firmly in cheek.)

    A previous writer mentioned George Bernard Shaw and the word ghoti (fish). As an interesting side note, he left a sum of money in his will to come up with a phonetic alphabet (see ), which even funded a book, Androcles and the Lion. If there is going to be comprehensive English spelling reform in some far-off future, we might as well go with a script designed with one sound/one symbol (or in the case of Shavian, one sound/one symbol, plus a few diphthongs and words/one symbol).

    Finally, an interesting Explainer article on “spelling bee” equivalents in other countries:

  13. posted by Cassie on

    I was going to mention how China adopted simplified characters to increase literacy. I think it’s stupid – why? First of all, a country telling their constituents that they’re too dumb to learn a language that other people can learn? What are you teaching them? English is not a difficult language to learn (reading/writing) – speaking is a bit different because people may have trouble pronouncing words if they come from a different language background. But spelling is not that difficult (and I say this with parents aren’t native English speakers). Use a dictionary (or Microsoft Word) if you don’t know how to spell something.

    The second thing, more related to the simplified characters in China – with the traditional (un-simplified) characters, the various strokes and parts of the character give us clues on how the word is pronounced and what the word means. Chinese is unlike English (and other alphabet languages) – you can’t just “sound out” a word. With simplified characters, a lot of the characters lost their “clues” – if you don’t know what a word is, good luck trying to figure it out. In Taiwan and Hong Kong (who still use traditional characters), sure – people do simplify some characters when they write. It’s kind of like using short-hand or abbreviation, but they still recognize the original character.

    Sorry, I went off on a tangent!

  14. posted by Dave on

    This has been done many, many times before, to mixed results. It’s part of the reason why Americans spell colour as “color”

  15. posted by GraceY on

    Simplified English Spelling? Sure, that’s the kind of brilliant idea that Comminist China had originally, to make Simplified Chinese for those poor, illiterate people who could learn written Chinese in a blink of second. The idea meant well, but guess what? Now the new generations after year 1956 (See Wikipedia have most difficult time understand Traditional Chinese ( <– I call it "Real Chinese".) They are the sad generations who's illiterate from any traditional written scripts hanging in the Palace Museum. I have talked to an associate professor who's originally from Germany, who has been spending lots of time in both China and Taiwan every year, said that she feel Chinese language in mainland China has not been used as naturally and lively as they've been used in Taiwan, mostly because this language barrier created by cultural revolution and Mao wanted people to cut themselves away from the past, therefore spoken and written language in China seems very utilitarian and rigid.

    To those people who wants to simplify English spelling, here's a good read to you ( and I quote at the end of his article: "In researching Spellbound (his book), I discovered some very good news, both for the English spelling system itself and for our culture: despite the apparent illogicality of most English spellings, there is in fact often an abundance of method in the madness.

    What do I mean by this? I mean that while English spelling may not seem very logical, or very consistent, or very rational as a system, it wonderfully preserves the heritage of the evolution of the English language, the Anglo-Saxon culture, and even the evolution of English spelling itself. I ended up convinced that the English spelling system was a truly wonderful thing, no matter how strange it may seem, and that if we were to deprive ourselves of it by radically streamlining, simplifying and making more systematic the way we write English, we would suffer an immense cultural and historical deprivation and would no longer be anything as like as grounded as we could be."

  16. posted by Gillian on

    We tried this in the UK. It didn’t work:

    You already have ‘simplified spelling’ in the US, hence ‘philo’ rather than ‘filo’, or ‘fetus’ rather than ‘foetus’. However, the problem with phonetic spelling is it doesn’t take into account variations in accent. When I studied phonetics during my degree I struggled because I have a northern rather than Standard English/RP accent, hence I pronounced certain words completely differently to the examples given in my textbooks. If I had difficulty as an undergraduate linguist, how hard would it be for speakers of other languages learning English, or children in different parts of the country learning to read?

  17. posted by Rattanji on

    I think some changes need to be made. Why ‘ch’ sounds /ch/ in child, /k/ in chemical and ‘sh’ in champagne? Why ‘que’ sounds /k/ in antique, ‘gue’ sounds /g/ in brogue and ‘d’ sounds /j/ in gradual? Why ‘l’ is silent in balm but not in film? When such questions are asked, I remain silent.
    I have written 59 articles in Some of them are about pronunciation of English words.
    I remember a quotes:
    1. Introducing ‘Lite’ – The new way to spell ‘Light’, but with twenty percent fewer letters. — Jerry Seinfeld
    2. Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets. — Eddy Peters

  18. posted by WilliamB on

    Rattanji – I love the quote but I’ve always heard the following version attributed to James D. Nicholl. “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”

    My computer can’t open the original source but here’s the Wikipedia page on James with a link to an older source:

    To save me hours of searching online to see who really said it (because credit for such a great quote should go where credit is due), can you direct me to sourcing for Eddy Peters?

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  20. posted by What on

    I agree with most of the posters on here, these protesters are trying to dumb us all down to their level. I’m curious how many of them had poorly spelled signs.

    And for the record, phonetic learning does not help children learn how to read better. It makes it harder when they have to read a book they’ve never seen before. Don’t dare tell me it’s better when I’ve seen my niece in tears because she can’t figure out how to read a new book.

  21. posted by Gilrean on

    I would vote against it. My language has gone through multiple thought through, well meaning and “forced simplifications” in spelling and grammar. The result now is a completely illogical difficult language that is even harder to learn for foreigners and a language which is less interesting.

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