I am one who agrees with the idea of changing just a few spellings. English spelling is indeed difficult for beginners, but the present users who are used to those spellings will never allow major changes. Spelling reform proposals have been made many times over the past several centuries (going back to at least the 1400s), but the people who use English have voted for sentiment and tradition over logic. That, I feel, is a reality that we need to start with if we want to see any spellings simplified.
In spite of the fact that English users generally resist changes to spelling, some change has occurred in the past couple of centuries. There are the well-known examples of American English spelling "-our" words with "-or," and "-re" with "-er." Americans also usually write "-ize" of course, and there are a few other changes -- I might also mention "draft" and "plow." So, at least one sizable group of English speakers accepted changes, as long as these changes were not too much. One of Noah Webster's dictionaries came out in 1806, and another was published in 1828. The earlier version had spellings such as "hart," "munth," "reezon," and "ruf." But there was resistance to those, and ones like them, so Webster "restored" these to "heart," etc. in the 1820s dictionary (which is the main one that people usually refer to). So, people would accept some changes, but not others.
As well, Commonwealth countries have seen "publick" go to "public," and spellings like "jail" and "encyclopedia" appear more and more frequently in print.
In 1898, the American National Education Association began promoting a list of twelve simpler spellings: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog, and decalog.
An interesting item to note is that "program" and "catalog" are now the preferred, most commonly used spellings in American English. (And "program" is used for the computer sense in other countries as well.) Further, "Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate" dictionary lists "tho," "altho," "thru," "prolog," and "pedagog" as acceptable variant spellings.
All of the changes involve removing silent letters which occur at the end of a root word. Just three types of changes are made here: removing a silent "-ue," a silent "-me," or removing a silent "gh" coupled with cutting a silent vowel. This plan covers just those words. It might "imply" a few more words -- if you decide to change all "-logue" to "-log" when the "o" is short, then you can add "dialog," "monolog" and about four other words -- but it doesn't really hint of deeper changes which might seem like too much to people.
I have read about a number of spelling reform plans. (One good concise history of spelling reform, altho biased against it, is in David Grambs' "Death By Spelling.") And I think that most achieve no success at all because they propose way too much at once, and just about everyone goes "Whoa!" and backs off. On the other hand, these people will accept a few simpler forms, if done gradually, and if the new spellings still "look like English."
So, I favor the idea of some spelling reform, but I only think that it's possible and practical if we do just a little, and do so gradually. We will never be able to correct all the "less than phonetic" aspects of English spelling. But actually, English has many spelling patterns which are quite reliable even tho they're not strictly phonetic. For instance, "-tion" at the end of a word almost always has the same pronunciation. ("Cation" is one real exception. And there's a common word that most of us use every day. :-) ) And look at it another way. Suppose I told you that I had a word that was pronounced [goe-BAY-shun]. How do you think it would be spelled? The answer follows in a few lines.
Another example is "qu." Many reformers want to junk "that totally redundant `q.' " But, while maybe "q" is redundant, "qu-" is a very reliable spelling. It's almost always pronounced "kw." And, going the other way, if a word has a "kw" sound in it, it is almost always spelled with a "qu."
[goe-BAY-shun], as you might have expected, is spelled "gobation."
Another reason that we could never have phonetic spelling, beside the fact that hardly anyone would allow such major changes, has been pointed out by others in this thread, and that is simply: Pronunciation of some words varies between dialects. No one will stand for allowing "someone else's" dialect to be used as the standard for a "phonetic" spelling. And even if this did occur, no matter what you came up with, a "phonetic" spelling system would only be truly phonetic for one group of speakers, while the remaining speakers would still have words where the pronunciation and spelling didn't match exactly.
I would definitely hold onto things like "-tion" and "qu."
I would change the "no-rime-or-reason" "-ough" spellings, and I would agree to changes such as redoing "precede" as "preceed," "separate" as "seperate," modifying "seize" to "sieze" or "seeze," and making other changes to tricky spellings which don't follow patterns used in a lot of other words.
I have some examples of "thru" (and "drive-thru," "see-thru," and "pass-thru"), "laff," and "donut" appearing in print (in the text of newspaper or magazine articles), and have seen other spellings such as "dialog," "esthetics," and "alright" in print. So, maybe promoting a few of these forms (which at least as few writers and editors are already using) might make some progress.
By Cornell Kimball