Is "meaning" the answer to bad spelling?

A reply to Melvyn Ramsden's Rescuing Spelling

The are two sides to this book. On the surface it is a simple text book explaining how teachers should teach English spelling to children. Given that he bases his approach on English as it has been constructed it is likely that there is something of value in what he has to say. On the other hand the subtext is a starry eyed celebration of English spellings 'rich tapestry' and an attack on the idea of Spelling reform. If you have already read this book you might challenge me on the last for he doesn't once mention spelling reform but be patient I will attempt to justify that later.

Ramsden's basic theme is that the teaching of spelling is in a mess because it has been forgotten that English spelling is based on ensuring that words of the same meaning have the same spelling. Hence there are whole families of words that have the same root and the differing meanings produced by adding prefixes and suffixes in a regular way. If the pronunciation of a word changes over time the spelling must stay fixed for otherwise its affinity to the other members of its family will be disguised. Hence machine will be spelt with a 'ch' rather than a 'sh' because this keeps the link in meaning with mechanic. The secret of spelling, when uncertain of a difficult word, is to recall a similar meaning word and spell it in the same way.

Ramsden gives the example of a class that was able to suss the spelling of celebration, in which the second is pronounced as a short [i], by using the related word celebrity in which the [e] sound is quite distinct. Looking at English spelling in this way explains a lot of the double consonants at the beginning of many English words. Why has offer two 'f's? Simply recall that that there is whole family of words with 'fer' such as differ, transfer. Clearly 'fer' is a root and 'offer' is simply the prefix 'of' plus 'fer'. Blowing the dust from my Latin dictionary that I have not touched since school many years ago I find "fero, ferre: to bear, bring, carry".

Ah yes Latin. In a way Ramsden's argument is simply the traditional justification for teaching Latin - that it is an excellent way to teach English spelling. Teaching Latin however is a lost cause but English is so full of Latin that it is possible to teach children the Latin they need by simply opening their eyes to the archaeological remains that litter modern English. And, to be fair, this goes beyond the Latin heritage. One of the examples that Ramsden uses (that of 'attach' and 'detach') is actually originally of Germanic origin.

But is meaning really such a solid rock to build a spelling system on? The family of meanings I gave earlier of 'offer', 'transfer' etc includes 'suffer'. There is far from any obvious connection between the meaning of 'offer' and 'suffer'. 'Suffer' is made up of the prefix 'suf', which means under, plus carry. That is 'under carry' and that's not too far from endure. Logical if you know but obvious? And meanings change just as does pronunciation. One of Ramsden's examples is the family round the root 'aster'. Without even mentioning Latin it is quickly obvious that a family that includes asteroid, asterisk, astronaut must have something to do with stars but why is disaster in there? Disaster breaks down to bad star and apparently disaster originally meant a bad horoscope reading. Gradually the meaning shifted to mean the resulting catastrophe rather than the bad star that predicted it. Once one has discovered a connection it makes it far more easy to remember a difficult spelling but this still makes learning spelling a laborious process given the large number of words in a person's active vocabulary.

Further, Ramsden's model of spelling being based invariant roots and a (fairly) simple system for adding affixes has plenty of exceptions itself. One of the aberrations that has been blamed on Dr Johnson is the 'p' that has crept in the word receipt that has a similar sound to conceit which has no 'p'. If we follow Ramsden and see it as part of a family of words such as 'reception', 'concept', 'contraception' and 'accept' based on 'cept' then the 'p' is quite logical but then 'receipt' then should be spelled 'recept'. For Ramsden's method to be reliable method of predicting spelling the rule that roots are invariant must have no exceptions. Given we have exceptions, we are back to the same confusing array of exception lists that we have with phonetic spelling rules. It is also no help to say that adding an ending like 'able' follows consistent rules if there is no reliable way of telling if in fact we should be adding 'ible'.

Finally we come to what Ramsden describes as laws, that is to say rules with no exceptions. Hence words never end in a 'v' but must have an 'e'. Sadly for Ramsden this law already been broken now that a word 'spiv' has been around long enough to shake of its label as slang. More important this 'law" has no logical basis in either meaning or phonetics. It was simply a convention brought over by Norman scribes. Similarly the "law" that no English word can have 'u' followed by 'v' is because in old gothic writing 'uv' was a confusing row of upstrokes. This may be an 'interesting' explanation of why we spell 'love' in the way we do rather than as 'luv' but it hardly inspires confidence in the logic of the English language.

'Interesting' is a word that Ramsden is a little over fond. Any of the illogicalities of English spelling (such as the fact that one the two 'laws' of English spelling is designed to compensate for a script that no one would ever use today) is interesting. When we hit a feature of English spelling that is not merely illogical but insane then Ramsden has to resort to "enjoyable". I have the image of Ramsden's school lessons as like evangelical prayer meetings (which I suppose is certainly an improvement on some of the tedious lessons I was subjected to as a child). The bottom line is that leaning English spelling is long and laborious and, what's more, it doesn't have to be this way. Other languages have spelling systems that are simple and easy. To describe English spelling as beautiful because it is riddled with exceptions, anachronisms and bungled attempts at etymology is propaganda.

Ramsden may well defend this as necessary propaganda. If teachers are enthusiastic about English spelling then this may rub off on the pupils tho Ramsden's enthusiasm is so overdone that I suspect some may react as if to a double glazing salesman. And I don't think that this is the real reason. Ramsden has all the fervor of one who has a strong emotional commitment to an idea yet has inner doubts. Ramsden it seems to me has not simply written a book on how to teach spelling. It is also a polemic against spelling reform.

Ramsden as I said doesn't mention spelling reform. He indeed goes to great pains to avoid mentioning spelling reform. I assume this is on the principle of 'teaching sin' (I am thinking of the way that Medieval priests, when denouncing deviant sexual practices, would never specify what those practices were in case their flock went "Sheesh, never thot of that - lets try it!"). To an extent it is implicit in the whole book. If what makes English spelling wonderful is the way that meaning is reflected in the spelling then to make spelling conform to the way English is spoken would destroy this. But Ramsden does include a section that can only be an attack on spelling reform, provided you look at the arguments he actually uses rather than what he says he is arguing against,. To tell the reader about the existence of advocates of spelling reform might inspire readers to look deeper but nonetheless Ramsden seems to feel the need to ensure that the reader is supplied with a ready list of counter arguments should they at a later date stumble on the idea of spelling reform.

Early on there is a section "Beware of Phonetics!" He writes "Let's suppose English spelling is phonetic (it isn't, but we'll assume for the moment that it is). We immediately encounter some fundamental problems." After that you might expect to find statements such as "If English spelling was phonetic you would expect letters never to be silent but in fact every letter will in at least one word have no effect on how the word is pronounced." What he actually writes is something quite different.

The first point he makes is that English has many more sounds than letters of the Alphabet. Indeed English has well over 40 - mainly because their are good deal more vowels than the five vowel letters. To make English a phonetic language, he says, would require a much larger Alphabet and this is, of course, impractical. What he is really gunning for is not the idea that spelling is phonetic but that it should be reformed by having a letter for every sound. Very few spelling reform proposals would try this but the one that has is the most famous. Bernard Shaw left a large sum for the cause of spelling reform and the money was spent on designing a new alphabet that looks something like a runic script. As such it did the cause of spelling reform a great disservice in associating it with a clearly impractical proposal. But Ramsden immediately supplies the solution. That is to use a combination of letters to express the extra sounds. Hence we use 'sh' and 'ch' to express sounds that English has not got the spare letters for.

A quick digression about couple of the terms used in phonetics. The basic sounds are called phonemes. For example 'meet' has three phonemes because in this word represents only one sound despite being written as two letters. A grapheme is letter group of letters used to represent phoneme. Hence 'ee' is the grapheme that represents the phoneme of the vowel sound in meet. Basically the phoneme is what you get when you break down the sound of words into the smallest building blocks that are capable of conveying meaning and a grapheme is the letters we use to describe that sound on paper.

Back to the point. The reason why English spelling is not phonetic (strictly speaking "phonemic" for those who are more linguistically minded) is not because it has more phonemes (sounds) than letters. The problem is quite the reverse. To express the 40 to 50 phonemes it uses a far larger number of graphemes (letter and letter combinations). The same sound that is represented by the grapheme 'ee' in meet also is represented by the grapheme 'ea' in heat. Given that English has far too many graphemes you might have thot that that there would be no need for a grapheme to do two jobs but we know that this is not true. Hence the grapheme 'ch' in machine has to be drafted in to cover a different phoneme in church.

Clearly it is not a problem for advocates of spelling reform to find adequate graphemes to represent the full range of English phonemes. Indeed the task of a full reform proposal would be to brutally cull the current excess number of graphemes so that we are left with one grapheme for every phoneme.

Ramsden's next objection to spelling reform is that it is impossible to cover all dialects of English. This is a more serious objection. Scottish has a distinct phoneme for the grapheme 'ch' in loch. I along with most English speakers will pronounce it like lock. Do we have a special grapheme for a sound only used by a minority? And the high prestige RP of southern England (formerly known as BBC English) is also quite deviant in lacking [r]'s where most English speakers do. This is a real problem because when the idea of making the language say-write and write-say what they really have in mind is "If only I could write as I say." Spelling reform is not quite so appealing when the proposal is that English should be written as other people speak English.

For the immediate future this is a false problem. The experience of spelling reforms of other countries is that a limited reform that removes some of the glaring inconsistencies is far more likely than one producing a fully phonemic system. Given that the current spelling is so divergent from all forms of spoken English then it is reasonably easy to draw up a proposal of English spelling that will leave everyone better off.

A successful reform of English spelling would create a precedent and hopefully make a further reform easier at a later date. Such a second reform would have to take into account the problem of dialects. But spelling mistakes as a result of pronunciation differing from the spelling is not a great problem. Children from Scottish rural areas who pronounce bone and home as /ben/ and /hem/ seem to handle it OK provided they have this drawn to their attention (P Trudgill, On Dialect p195). This is probably due to the fact they are at least aware of the alternative pronunciation even tho they do not speak it themselves. The politics of such a change might well be more tricky given that already some Scottish nationalists wish to develop Scottish as a separate language, so would be reformers would be well advised to take into account Scottish pronunciation.

His final problem is the way words pronunciation changes as a result of different endings. When you add an 's' to 'prints' you actually get /prins/ so it sounds like prince. Again plurals are often pronounced with a final [z] rather than a final [s]. Given that people often make these changes without being aware they are doing so, it would be confusing to insist on a change of spelling. In these cases I'm fully in agreement with Ramsden that meaning should take precedence over pronunciation. Further no one in the right mind would try and reflect in spelling the way words run each other in connected speech. When we speak often words are placed together that produce awkward combinations so we quite unthinkingly change the pronunciation slightly to ease the flow but when searching for the spelling we naturally think of how a word sounds when 'stand alone' and the spelling should reflect that.

But in all this Ramsden is arguing not against spelling reform but against spelling reform in a particular direction. The pattern of meaning that Ramsden sees in English spelling is not the result of some natural evolution but the result of a successful Englsh spelling reform but a reform in the reverse direction. During the 15th and 16th century English spelling fell into the hands of a group of reformers who were determined to make English spelling conform to the Greek and Latin origin of the words. Often they got it wrong. Anchor is spelt the way it is because they, wrongly, believed it was related to the Greek word anchorite. Island is also the result of mistaken etymology and was formerly spelt iland. (Reading, Writing and Dyslexia: Andrew Ellis p6)

Clearly it was a mistake. We know this because in countries that have logical spelling there is no need to teach spelling. Dyslexia is almost unknown. This is because children who might be overwhelmed by a system as complicated as English are quite able to handle a spelling system which is simple and logical. If we keep English spelling as it is then it is plausible that Ramsden's approach may well prove promising but it is still making do when the real solution to children failing at spelling is changing the system itself. As Ramsden admits, even if children are taught in the way he considers best they require long periods being taught spelling.

The real solution is a reformed sound based spelling system.