back to article Academic wants to 'free up' English spelling

Linguistic traditionalists look away now: John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London, is proposing English adopts a phonetic approach to spelling in order to relieve kids of the "burden" of learning to write our beloved mother tongue as God intended. Wells will outline his proposals to the the …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Cheap publicity whore

    What an utter, utter cock. Can there be any method more sleazy for an allegedly educated person to generate some cheap publicity for himself than this bucket of fetid dog crap? While we're at it, perhaps we should just scrap schools and merely teach kids how to smash their skulls into a big iron spike. That's about as intelligent as this rotting turd of an idea. Fucking moron.

  2. JoePritchard

    For 'free up' read 'dumb down'...

    This country is becoming a laughing stock in the world.

    I assume that this is another ploy to make our ill-educated young people more suited to become Sector 7g Drones. Just give 'em enough education to perform.

    I for one will welcome our better educated overlords...wherever they come from.

    Mine's the coat with the King James Bible in one pocket and the works of Shakespeare in the other.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    The Modern Approach

    If it's too difficult to learn, dumb it down a level that everyone feels comfortable with. That way every person can be equally thick; there are no losers this way, only non-winners.

  4. E_Nigma

    I Want the Credit for This!

    My friends and I have done this a long time ago, we call it "English by Vuk Karadzic" (after the guy who reformed our spelling in a similar fashion in the nineteenth century) end it luks lajk dis. Moust konvinient, izn't it? :D

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hooray for idiots who promote illiteracy

    Children have been learning to spell their contemporary English words correctly for centuries, why are modern kids so incapable of doing the same? I couldn't think of anything worse than allowing "txt spk" into the modern lexicon.

  6. Alan Fisher

    Nothing new here

    They've been trying this for years (back in the 80's even) and it never happened then either.....maybe we should concentrate on teaching our children properly rather than dumbing down even further.....if kids can't spell, whose fault is it at the end of the day?

    Could it be that those countries cited also happen to have excellent educational systems?

    I reely fink day we shud lern to spel rite or weel be in trubbel later, innit?

  7. Tony Green

    A point people advocating this always forget... that people in different parts of the country pronounce words differently to each other. So whose pronunciation are we going to choose to base the phonetic spelling on?

    Even a simple word like "book" for example. Would we use "buk" to reflect a lot of pronunciation in the south east, or "bewk" to be phonetic for Scousers?

    Phonetic spelling only works in countries with little regional variations in pronunciation. It's never going to work in Britain.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Let me be the first

    to go and grab my Pitchfork, and my *Torch!!

    Grammar Nazis UNITE Heil Grammatik!!!

    Runter mit diesen Bastard Hundesohn!!

    *The Flame for obvious reasions

    P.s. Besides just how fecken hard is it to hit "F7" or Right-Click -> Spell Check in FireFox?

    Letters and or Book reports (like when I was a wee lad?), surly those died out with the Phonogram.

  9. Steve


    Could it be?

    Best keep this news away from Miniluv.

  10. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)


    Pry my apostrophe's from my cold dead hand's, Prof.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    Mark Twain (someone had to do it)

    A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling

    For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later.

    Year 2 might reform w spelling, so that which and one would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish y replasing it with i and Iear 4 might fiks the g/j anomali wonse and for all.

    Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

    Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli.

    Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

    Mark Twain

    Now if your BBC newscasters would just pronounce your 'th's as th instead of v, e.g. wiv, bovver, ovver, etc, and enunciate the w instead of lispily half swallowing it then all would be well with the world.

  12. Iain Purdie
    Thumb Down

    Good greef

    Wot a fukwit.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    How did University College London allow a moron to become Professor of Phonetics? People such as Wells are in the privileged position of influencing UK educational standards. He should be arguing for higher standards, not dumbing-down writing to the lowest common denominator.

    Paris, because clearly her writing "style" is the standard to which all children should aspire.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    what a wonderful idea

    Our education system is in tatters... our schools are failing our children, our society is failing our children, our health service is failing our society, our children are a bunch of over pampered overweight overindulged undereducated technologically spoilt numbskulls ... so lets reduce our rich and vibrant language to fkg txt msgs tht cn B Ndastood by th grwng nmbr ov semilit... semilll... cemiliterat... semylitr... o fk it I dnae ken th wrd.

  15. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    A pedant writes

    Haven't we been through all this before?

    Using correct spelling and grammar has nothing to do with education and everything to do with clarity of concept and meaning. English is a complex language capable of incredible subtlety and shades of meaning; unfortunately because of its history of acquiring loan words from other languages (and originally being a mish-mash of Germanic, Norse, and Latin roots) this means that the spelling or grammar is sometimes not strictly logical. It also means however, in the absence of markers used by other languages such as case and gender, that there is little redundancy in the language. Simplified spelling reduces this redundancy further... not a good idea, if the writer is attempting to get a complex idea across.

    It's a language that can encompass the richness of Dickens, the detail of Darwin, and yet still be understood by the mouth-breathers brought up on the eight or nine hundred words to be found in the red-top papers. Attempt to reform it at your peril.



  16. AC
    Paris Hilton

    hope I'm the first ...

    "Text messaging, email and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English"

    HAHAHAHAHAHA, shor fing buddee.

    next he ll fansee dropping grammer rulez 2 so that onlee TEH important wurdz r used, for example.

    Go jump off high bridge.

    Next it'll be tenses that we don't need either.

    I are on internets yesterday and I are talk with my friends.

    Paris because this plan is in line with her perceived IQ

  17. Mike Hall

    I can't disagree, unfortunately.

    Language changes over time. Go back a couple of hundred years and many spellings are completely different to those we accept as correct today. There is no reason to believe that today's spellings are more correct than those Shakespeare used. Similarly, they are no more correct than those that will be used two hundred years from now. Let the language move on.

  18. Ted Treen


    And then we appoint Jade Goody to his job, 'cos she's better qualified.....?

    Eyel get mi kote - as any fule kno

  19. Mike

    Wat ay dik hed

    Right, didn't the schools try this before? Then found that once the pupils could spell fo-net-ick-al-ee, they then had to reeducate them to be able to cope with the rest of the english-writing world?

    Do I spot some vested interest here? Maybe Mr Phoenetics University bod smells the possibility of getting the lucrative option of re-writing the dictionary?

    The english language has survived millennia of additions, invasions and conquests, adapting and evolving gradually whilst becoming one of the most commonplace languages in the world (again thanks to invasions and conquests)

    Now some upstart suddenly wants to trash the language and replace it with his own? Well he can write it if he wishes, but as far as I'm concerned, his dictionary can gather dust on the shelf next to the Klingon dictionary and Jedi bible.

    Alien, cos I can't understand what the professor just wrote down...

  20. Pete James

    I thnk thr4 I am

    What a brilliant introduction to education. Something that isn't particularly hard to learn should be just thrown away and the language abused in any way seen fit by exactly the age group that needs to realise the importance of structure. sometimes I think these ideas are created so that the smug intelligentia on the left keep their supporters as thick as possible and so enjoy their hypocritical, privileged positions.

    Not that it matters anyway, seeing at the woefully poor grasp of English displayed by some children.

  21. EvilGav


    How else can we continue to extol the virtues of a superior intellect by simple grammar nazi-ism in forums such as this ??

    I don't see any other country simplifying their language due to the inadequacies of their education system. More to the point, what happens in the sciences, where a simlpe mis-spelling could spell (sic) doom for an experiment ??

    Here's an idea, stop the stupid method of teaching children to read phonetically at all (modern phonics, i think it's called) and instead teach them to read properly from day one. Worked for me and the many generations before, is our education system such a shambles that they now find it too difficult ??

  22. Exarsere


    The very idea that we should reduce the complexity of our language for the intellectually inferior is preposterous. Some people will always be one step below, incapable of some levels of understanding. We take this step back, then in 50 years when people are even less linguistically inclined we will take another, changing words entirely just because people are too lazy to learn or teach correct English. Even Americans can handle spelling and punctuation more complicated that the above suggestions.

    Altering a feature of a culture and society for the ignorant and the stupid is not progress. We should raise the standard to force those far below it to improve their game. Incorrect spelling, grammar and syntax should not be tolerated. Where it is lacking, it needs to be addressed.

  23. Anonymous Coward

    Plus ca change...

    How does this differ from the 'phonetic spelling' pushed in schools in the mid-seventies? The problem there, as with this misguided piece of rubbish, is that parents cannot understand the 'new' method and cannot get involved with their children's schooling - which suffers as a result.

    The English language will evolve, but slowly; major changes are doomed to failure. Just look how long it's taken (taking) to introduce the metric system. I learned no imperial measures at school (1975 onwards) but we still use miles and only relatively recently have got rid of avoirdupois weights.

  24. Andy H

    Not a good idea

    The problem with changing the way English is spelt is, once leant most people don't read the actual word, only the shape.

    This can be proven by those emails that go round every now and again, with the middle letters of the word of the email mixed up, but as long as you keep the first and last letters the same the brain can guess the word from it's shape and the context used.

    So if people start changing the length and lopping off letters off words it becomes difficult for existing English readers to read fluently and they will have to relearn the shapes of the words.

    & as 4 tx spk U snd lik a ttl twt whn red bck.

  25. Aron A Aardvark
    Thumb Up

    Run for the hills

    The English language fundamentalists are predictably appalled by this proposal. However, the English language has never needed formal change; it just happens.

    Frankly, the sooner the god-awful 'manoeuvre' disappears the better. And let's adopt the American spelling of 'center' while we're at it.. I for one do not pronouce 'centre' in its French form i..e. 'son-tray'. 'Centred' doesn't even look correct in my book. (All the reversed '-re' endings on such words come from a Victorian Francophile fad.)

    However, txt spk is the mark of the 'tard. Let us pray this bastardized twat talk never becomes the norm.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Save the double-entendre!

    Oh get knotted, why does everything have to be made easier and easier? Some things are worth taking the time to learn properly, even if they appear overly complicated at first.

    Currently going through the fun of teaching my little ones how to read. The only niggles that I have come across are the variations of sound, the schools teach kids by phonetics, simple example being a word like "bath", which our northern friends have phonetically right, strong "a" sound but we southerners pronounce "barth", or "Y" sounds different in a word as opposed the end of most words where it sounds like "i". Heavens above, you simply have spend time with them, reading lots until it clicks. If a 5 year old can apply some basic syntactic rules, I sure the rest of us can manage.

    I appreciate some foreign languages don't have the ambiguity that English has, but it's that very ambiguity that ensures we have great "institutions" like the double entendre!

  27. Paul

    Or perhaps...

    both sides could take a deep breath and relax a little?

    One thing though, some American spellings are closer to "old" English than ours are.

  28. Ash
    Thumb Down

    First Surveillance...

    ... Then ID Cards...

    ... Now NewSpeak.


  29. Anonymous Coward

    Professor John Wells...

    ...obviously doesn't practice what he preaches. Should be "Jon Iuels" surely?

  30. Kevin Whitefoot


    I have always written organize not organise. Ize is not just American it is perfectly ordinary Oxford English. See The ise version is a variant beloved of newspaper style manuals because their hacks can't be relied upon to remember that some words don't descend from Greek.

  31. TeeCee Gold badge

    @Tony Green

    I thought the scouse for "book" was: "Fing wit werds in, like".

  32. Slik Fandango
    Thumb Down

    Never ever ever!

    Fine spelling on texts in that way - but as mentioned already - regional dialects?? No one would understand anyone!!

    BTW - I just read of a case on the BBC News site where a guy was convicted of murder - conclusive evidence was given by his texting - quite interesting to read all the texts...

    Recently I looked at the sites where messages were left for the young girl murdered in the Shropshire fire. All text speak... where's the emotion?

    Maybe I'm just too old?

  33. Steve Evans

    Typical (tipecal?)

    The continued downfall of civilisation continues.

    For years the mathematics exams have been getting easier as the teachers fail to compete for attention with TV and games consoles. It was only a matter of time before some idiot decided to make the language easier.

    Can we quickly form an academy Anglais, shoot this idiot, and then dissolve the academy again please.

  34. Anonymous Coward

    "Dumbing down"?

    Look, people. Every other country in the world has allowed their spelling to change to match pronunciation, slowly, carefully over many years.

    The only reason that proposals such as this look so radical is that this reform has to make up for 200 years of refusal to allow the natural progression of languages.

    "love" and "prove" are so spelt for a reason: in Shakespeare's time, they rhymed. (Willie's scripts were written to be spoken, not to be read, so anything in a rhyming position we *know* rhymed.) But they have changed and now are pronounced differently. Any "smart" language would reflect this.

    Really. The Egyptians, the Chinese and the Sumerians invented pictographs to encode meaning thus write their languages. The Indic people and the Semitic peoples refined this to make syllabaries that encoded the sound system to better write their languages. The Europeans went one further and invented alphabets to encode the full phonetic description of a language as accurately as possible. The current orthography of English misses the point of the alphabet entirely. We are reducing our language to something no more sophisticated than ancient hieroglyphics.

    So who is the one that proposes "dumbing down", the man who proposes an academic, phonetic script or the man who seeks to preserve a prehistoric pictographic way of writing?

  35. Matthew

    It's illogical: live with it!

    English regularly has some nutter proposing this kind of change; and they always fade into the sunset with everyone ignoring their misguided rants. Take time to read Bill Bryson's excellent book, 'Mother Tongue', which lists several previous proponents of such changes...

    The facts are that English retains numerous illogical constructions but they are so entrenched that to propose change represents the worst option. Would the prof also suggest abolishing the words 'children' and 'oxen' on the basis that they use the archaic '-en' plural rather than tack an 's' on the end?

    Where these arguments always fall down is that they need universal acceptance. The millions of people for whom English is a second language frequently demonstrate a better understanding than native speakers: a clear indictment of poor education rather than issues with the language. Even when there are national standards bodies, such as in France, the language's evolution continues in its own direction. I don't recall 'le weekend' and 'le jumbo jet' being approved...

    P.S. I'm with Sarah Bee on the apostrophe issue.

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An answer he'll understand

    Phuq oph!

  37. Liam


    this is a brilliant idea

    why also not teach kids that 2+2 is anything they want

    if kids are too thick to learn to spell why not make it so they dont bother doing maths either?

    tell you what - just let them do music, art, acting and media and sack everything else off? since that is what 90% of kids seem to do at degree now (i.e. pointless degrees that millions of people have already and cant find work)

    all this and many scandenavian kids can read and write 4 or 5 languages better than most english kids can write English. and we wonder why we have the most stupid kids in europe.

    just watching things like match of the day you realise how many people still dont understand the simple principle of tense.

    i never understood the problems with apostrophes - whats the big deal? its not rocket science is it? it helps the reader get a better idea of what is meant.

    as mentioned above phonetic simply wont work in places with strong accents such as newcastle, various parts of yorkshire, birmingham & liverpool

    i, myself, come from lincoln. thats about smack bang in the middle of the country - to the right hand side. in my opinion its got the least noticable accent of anywhere ive been in the UK (most major towns and loads of little ones) - i dont pronounce the silly way the southerners do (grass isnt pronounced grarse) but dont have a northern accent either - its very neutral. phonetics would work ok round here but so many regions completely make their own pronunciation up

    maybe if we had a decent education system we would be ok - in sweden they dont start school until 7 but by the age of about 10 they can speak several languages and are probably more intelligent than most english 12-13 year olds. how the hell does that work? in 3 years they learn more than english kids can in double that!

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Sarah Bee

    I agree with the sentiment and appreciate the irony.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good idea

    One problem, we have letters with more than one sound associated with them and others which only provide sounds already provided by other letters ('c') so can we expect a whole new alphabet before this goes through?

    Here's a better idea. Let's all move to speaking Lojban as the native language of the UK.

  40. This post has been deleted by its author

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    It gets my vote

    It's a shame to see progressive thinking knocked down in this way, after all, if people with nothing to say don't have an easy way to criticizes people who do then what will become of the academic and class structure. Perhaps you lot would rather we went back to using Latin so criticism of the church would once again be outside the reach of the masses.

    Still discrimination against dyslexia seems to be rather popular amongst insecure people who need at least one way to feel that they are better then everyone else. It's what you say not how you say it that's important and all your diatribe is telling me is that you have nothing to say.

    P.S. E_Nigma

    Over the summer I saw a wax work of Vuk Karadzic and his wooden leg, a true academic revolutionary if ever their was.

  42. Anonymous Coward

    I do hope Sarah Bee was joking

    In other news: As other posters have pointed out, there is a precendent for this, and in the field of linguistics, "descriptive" rather than "proscriptive" grammars have been in vogue for some time now.

    However, simply because something is hard doesn't mean it should just be abandoned. It's where the rule is obsolete, or simply holding back the development of an entire nation that it should be changed.

    Example of the first instance: the French dropping the little cedilla that used to hang off the botom of the "c" in (e.g.) "francais". Whilst it upset some purists, it wasn't necessary, and in fact the use of the cedilla was confusing and inconsistent within the language. It also required different keyboards, character sets etc. Why not trim it, especially as language evolves over time. An example of the second instance: the (mainland) Chinese adopting a simplified character set in the mid 20th Centruy, rather than the full form (as used in HK and Taiwan), in an attempt to get the peasantry literate*, and to drive forward education outside a small, predominantly urban populace, bringing forward higher standards of living for all.

    The silly sod in the article is simply advocating making shit easier so, like, fings are simple, innit.

    He's right in one way: Ignoring the literacy problem isn't going to make it go away, but I'm not convinced his way forward is a good one.

    Orwell had it right- a full rich language allows people to express their thoughts an ideas with grades of subtlety and nuance, and also with economy. Take away those tools and our ability to reason atrophies with our vocabularies.

    Also: I watched "Idiocracy" at the weekend, which seems a pretty accurate view of what lies ahead for us all....

    *or: to prevent the peasantry reading anything published prior to the Cultural Revolution. Take your pick.

  43. Wyrmhole
    Thumb Down

    Flawed thinking

    I live in a country whose native language is spelled phonetically. One can easily observe this "feature" of the language doesn't prevent bad writing and lousy spelling as a result of poor education.

  44. David Harper

    What next, simplified maths?

    What can we expect once this truly half-witted idea has been adopted?

    How about Simplified Maths, in which we only teach the little darlings to count up to 10, because that's how many fingers they have and anything larger will only confuse the poor things ...

  45. Soruk
    Dead Vulture

    @Sarah Bee

    Your apostrophe's what?

  46. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: It gets my vote

    >>Over the summer I saw a wax work of Vuk Karadzic and his wooden leg, a true academic revolutionary if ever their was.

    That is the single greatest sentence ever committed to a Reg thread. It works on so many levels.

  47. faibistes

    Dyslexia (there are few chinese dyslexics)

    Quoting wikipedia:

    "Some studies have concluded that speakers of languages whose orthography has a highly consistent correspondence between letter and sound (e.g., Italian) suffer less from the effects of dyslexia than speakers of languages where the letter-sound correspondence is less consistent (e.g. English and French).

    In one of these studies, reported in Seymour et al., the word-reading accuracy of first-grade children of different European languages was measured. English children had an accuracy of just 40%, whereas among children of most other European languages accuracy was about 95%, with French and Danish children somewhere in the middle at about 75%; Danish and French are known to have an irregular pronunciation."

  48. Anonymous Coward

    A turkey voting for Christmas

    Amidst all the vitriol, nobody else seems to have noticed that this guy is the president of the Spelling Society, which, if his ideas were put into practice, would presumably cease to exist.

    As he gave this speech at their centenary dinner I am fairly surprised that he got out alive.

  49. Christoph

    Throw away the past

    Once everyone only knows the new spellings, they won't be able to read anything published before the change.

    It will be like trying to read Chaucer in the original - only specialists will bother.

    So we will chuck away all those accumulated centuries of culture.

    Oh, and we won't be able to read what English speakers in other, more sane, countries write.

    Yes! A perfect NuLab plan!

  50. E_Nigma

    @Mike Hall

    It is true that many words were spelled differently a few centuries ago, but that was partly because the spelling for them had not been standardized. At Shakespeare's time (since you already mentioned him), several different spellings were used for a number of words, including the Bards own last name. So it was the spelling of individual words that changed over time as it was standardized, not the entire spelling system. Still, does the proposal make sense in a way? Yes. Would it really make things better? Probably as much as DVORAK layout improved our typing speed and ease compared to QWERTY, which is why it became so popular over the 72 years it's been around. ;-)


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