Readers reply: what would happen if we changed our spellings to match phonetics? (2023)

What would happen if we changed our spellings to match phonetics? Mikal Richerdsun, Bryton

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Hoo nose. sparklesthewonderhen

Standardisation would be a headache, as people with different accents would presumably adopt different spellings. For example, the word “car” could be spelled “kar”, “kah”, “kaw” “kyar” (and so on) according to regional variation and preference. Mobilepope

As I get older, I do ask what the point of the letter C is. K covers the hard sound while S takes care of the soft. It’s the single letter we could excise from the alphabet and not lose anything. mechanicalcat

Church. SailingCat11

True, I stand corrected. mechanicalcat

Korrekt that corrected to korrekted. wildskel

English was written phonetically in past centuries. We have its legacy today in, for example, “was” – which people used to pronounce “wass”, or “knight” which was spoken as something like “k-nikt”. But pronunciation changes, as in the charmingly named Great Vowel Shift. I like seeing the way that wonky English spelling shows the history of words. Janchan

Whose phonetics? South-east England, the Midlands, south-west England, Wales (which part?), Scotland (which part?), Northern Ireland … the list goes on. There’s no “correct” way of speaking English! elderbrother

When I pronounced “bath” as “barth”, my (northern) class asked: “How do you say ‘fat cat’, miss?” “Obese feline.” ethelfrida

Consonants wouldn’t present too much of a problem, but there would be a serious problem with vowels and diphthongs. The Roman alphabet contains only five vowels; however, spoken English has 12, so presumably you would need a new alphabet – along the lines of the International Phonetic Alphabet – in order to write them. There’s a similar problem with diphthongs as they often combine vowel sounds which we can’t write. A language like Spanish, which is a “say what you read” language, doesn’t have this problem as spoken Spanish has only five vowels and three diphthongs. montesdeoca

What would happen is that children would learn to write and read much faster, freeing up time to learn other things at school. We would have much lower rates of illiteracy and dyslexics would find life much easier (though still difficult). But it won’t be done because there is no language authority for English, and too many people have invested too much time in learning the current system so they value their spelling skills highly. Not to mention how much they would hate being deprived of the opportunities to judge others based on something as stupid as whether they can spell “properly”. Sepa

A novel concept: introduce phonetic spelling, and illiteracy would fall, children would learn to speak and write more quickly – um. Well, we’re not going to find out if there’s any truth in any of that, because it isn’t going to happen. It would be colossally expensive (anyone wanting to enjoy the literature of the past would have to have the works translated if all they knew was phonetic spelling) – and it would also take far more time and study than most English speakers are prepared to devote to learning their language. wightpaint

As a dyslexic I can say with authority that phonetics make reading or writing nearly impossible! Accent, dialect and varied pronunciation are the bane of my life. Mybeagle

I remember in 1971 having to give my address to a policeman in Liverpool. I spelled it Drimnagh. He spelled it dramnrgh. When I corrected him he told me to learn how to speak English. I’m from Dublin. Marygoal

The self-esteem of struggling writers at primary schools would rocket, the quality of their writing would not be undermined by poor spelling, Sats results would improve dramatically and life for young children trying to learn how to spell (while also learning how to form letters, talk properly and compose great works of literary genius) would be so much simpler. Bring it on! chloewaters

It would take an immense amount of time, effort and money for very few advantages. Writing does not have to reflect spoken language. Chinese doesn’t and Arabic numerals, for example, are understood globally. However, imagine how sign language speakers would react to a spelling reform that does not even reflect their language. It might help a few adult language learners. Children would probably learn to read and write just as easily as they do now. alexito

Why simplify at all? The disruption of changing “would” to “wud” would be far greater for native users than any advantages it would bring for a few foreign learners.

We tried. ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) in the 1970s. Disaster. Current obsession with phonics – equally disastrous. A child-centred approach in a print-rich environment, allowing children to learn and develop at their own pace, with access to a wide variety of teaching strategies and support for parental involvement at home – the vast majority of children will be successful in their own time. Sadly, that approach doesn’t fit any more, either with the current Tory ideology that every school must teach exactly the same thing in the same way to the same year group regardless, or with the pitiful amounts of money to which state schools have access. HelenofYork

I was in the first wave of ITA in 1965. Many of us in the class had real difficulty moving to “standard” English spelling. I remember big posters on the classroom wall, especially one of a blæk cæt. TonyandMargaret2

I learned ITA at my first primary school in the UK (1972). It wasn’t reading that was the problem (it’s fairly easy to read misspelled words), it was the writing. Not only did I find it difficult to misspell words (I think that “was” had to be spelled “woz”), it was difficult to write the joined-up vowels (æ etc). I was only five and already struggling with holding a pencil to form ordinary letters. ITA was a dreadful method of teaching literacy. MiaSchu

I would go into Old English, where some of the letters look so much more interesting, and then I would spell all the important-seeming words with a capital letter, and get rid of hyphens and make one word out of two or three that make sense together. I would feel free and joyous to write any words in however many different ways that come to mind, like people used to in the middle ages; replace all Ks with Cs, all Ss with Zs (more attractive-looking letters); try to use all letters as they sound – and generally have a lot of fun! HanneAnn

The US made a start on somewhat more phonetic spellings (initiated by Benjamin Franklin, picked up by Noah Webster), but didn’t follow through. Many US spellings are clearly an improvement (color, -ize, program); even things that right-thinking people deprecate as barbarous actually make good sense (nite, lite, thru). pol098

There are at least two solutions that spring to mind: Esperanto and Interlingua. I believe German, with its wonderfully regular spelling, was going to be the international language of science at one point, but that was unfortunately curtailed when a certain Austrian gentleman with all sorts of chips on his shoulder took over and now we have English. FrogmellaMousetrap

A while ago I asked a relative who has a degree in linguistics about this whole strange English spelling business. She said a major reason is that when English takes a word from another language, we usually keep the original spelling. The result is that some of our words are spelled as per French rules, some as per German rules, some as per Italian rules etc. No wonder it is inconsistent! Mark_MK

We do now, but often didn’t in the past. Eg, naranja in Spanish (the “j” pronounced like the “ch” in “loch”), became centuries ago (presumably) “a naranje”, which then became “an orange”. If the Italian dish had been imported a few centuries earlier, we’d all be eating peetser. pol098

A naranje would have become an orange because the pronunciation changed, ever so slightly, and the spelling reflected this (which it doesn’t do any more). Aprons used to be naprons, umpires used to be numpires; the mysterious “apple-pie bed” beloved of school stories would have been a nappe plié bed. jno50Well, the main thing that would happen is that it would completely cock up my Wordle stats. HaveYouFedTheFish

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