The history of English spelling reform

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

Reform efforts began in earnest in the 16th century with Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith, who reconstructed ancient Greek pronunciation and then applied themselves to English; Smith published a 34-letter alphabet to better map onto its sounds.

Momentum continued in a different direction with John Hart, who found English ‘learned hard and evil to read’, full of confusion, disorder, ‘vices and corruptions’. In his ambitious Orthographie (1569) – one of three books he wrote on the topic – he set out a bold form of spelling based on speech sounds and aimed at correcting the ‘many abuses’ of English writing.

I divide spelling reform efforts into three conventional categories: standardising (rearranging existing letters), supplementing (adding new letters), and supplanting (using an entirely new alphabet). A more detailed typology can be found in Table 3 at the end of this paper (PDF) by Susana Doval Suárez.

Icelandic Codex Wormianus inc first grammatical treatise

Codex Wormianus, an Icelandic manuscript containing the 12thC ‘First Grammatical Treatise’

A few names were dropped from the article at the editing stage, and are reproduced here as a supplement:

Next came William Bullokar, who in 1580 published his Book at large, for the Amendment of Orthographie of English speech. His system is described in Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars as ‘complicated without being comprehensive’ – something that could be said of many such proposals. . . .

Alexander Gill’s grammar Logonomia Anglica (1619) proposed a phonetic spelling system that would resurrect the old letters ð and þ to disambiguate the ‘th’ digraph. Charles Butler, another schoolmaster but better known as a beekeeper, made a similar pitch in his English Grammar of 1633, while in 1662 James Howell’s New English Grammar again took aim at English’s superfluity of letters. None had lasting effect. . . .

The following century [18th], Scottish schoolmaster and phonologist James Elphinston spent many years advocating for spelling reform and published several books on the topic, including A Minniature ov Inglish Orthoggraphy.

I hope you enjoy the article. For more background on the circumflex side of things, there’s a reliably informed discussion at Language Hat if you want to dig in a bit.

3 Responses to The history of English spelling reform

  1. Hi. I have a 14-page document with details of attempts to reform English spelling from 1875 up until 2000. Please let me know if you’d like me to send it to you.
    Cornell Kimball

  2. kokinablog says:

    I am enjoying great grammar keep up

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