Where did we go wrong? English speech has shrunk from elegant hand-written correspondence to the mutated text in which words are spelt in the phonetic rather than classical sense. Who is to blame? Advanced technology, short attention spans, tiny keyboards, too little time, fear of being branded a square fuddyduddy, or simply a case of “I couldn’t care less” among the writers? Take your pick. There’s another factor: some members of the new generation who grew up on abbreviated texting have reached an age where they have begun to teach English. What would they impart to their students? Perhaps the larger lesson that the world is illogical, inconsistent and incomprehensible.
Inconsistencies in spelling are most acutely a problem for children learning to read and write English as a foreign language. A study in 1925 found that children in Puerto Rico learning to read in Spanish were a year ahead in content of reading, compared to children in New York City learning to read in English. This probably affected writing even more, with dyslexics having it really tough.
The problem was recognised as early as 1908, when the Simplified Spelling Society was formed with the aim of raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and to promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform. Now called the English Spelling Society, it publishes leaflets, journals, books and bulletins to this end.
Masha Bell, recognised as a respectable spelling reformer in the 2000s, explains that learning to read and write English is exceptionally difficult because it has 185 spellings for 44 sounds. She remains against changing any of the main English spelling patterns and advocates merely a reduction of the irregular spellings, which most impede progress in learning to read and write, such as redundant ‘–e’ endings (such as ‘have’, ‘imagine’, ‘delicate’), which undermine their use as a long vowel marker (‘gave’, ‘define’, ‘inflate’), and inconsistent use of doubled consonants for indicating short, stressed vowels (‘rabbit’ – ‘habit’, ‘muddy’ – ‘study’). Such societies and experts may be our best bet for bridging the gap between purists and those for whom ‘N.E. thing’ goes.