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If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

A history of spelling and writing in English



In August of 1965, a young boy beginning his first day of education, put his hand up in his class when he noticed the teacher write the word ‘police’. But it was not written the way he had been taught by his mother: as far as he was concerned, this particular spelling was completely wrong. It went something like this:


(I think. Well, come on! I was only five, for goodness sake!)

It was raising my arm that got me switched from a class that would otherwise have inflicted the Initial Teaching Alphabet on me, an orthographic system of lower case lettering from the Roman alphabet, but with additional phonemic symbols to represent diagraphs (two letters used to write or make one distinct sound) making a total of 42 letters (two short of 44 phonemes, the same number of characters that make up the Phonetic alphabet). It was invented by Sir James Pitman, grandson of Sir Issac Pitman (the inventor of shorthand), who was a keen enthusiast in trying to overhaul the way English is written and pronounced. 

ITA was one of many such attempts by several reformers over the centuries in an attempt to clarify the way we use the English language. But why should we change it? Indeed, why should we even consider changing the way we write letters and even how to spell our words?


To understand why some individuals want to change the way we spell words in the English language, we have to understand why English orthography is the way it is.

A basic ITA chart (public domain)



After the Romans withdrew some four centuries later, England was again invaded, this time by the Germanic-speaking Saxons, Angles, and Jutes from Western Europe. Thanks to their influence and languages, by the fifth century an early form of English appeared, although in its written form it consisted of Runic inscriptions (or more accurately, Runic script). The oldest known piece of writing that we do know of is a carving that was found on a roe-deer’s ankle-bone in Norfolk, England. It appears to read as raïhan (meaning roe-deer); what we don’t know is whether this represents English or another Germanic dialect that existed at the time. It is, however, an example of Runic script from which the earliest English was written, and was an alphabet based on simple lines that could easily be carved into wood or bone. Where this script comes from we’re not sure, but it does appear to be modelled on the Latin or Greek alphabet, but what we do know is that runes were used in a number of Germanic languages abroad and so was brought to England from mainland Europe.

In its early days, Britain was made up of a number of Celtic-speaking peoples spread across the land that we know today as England, Wales and Scotland, that was, up until the Roman Invasion of England in 50BC, after which Latin became the official language.

Anglo-Saxon runes

Runic inscriptions are considered important to language historians as they provided evidence on how words were pronounced, the fact that words and sentences were written in a circle (early English at that time was not fixed to lines written from left to right), the shape of the letters, their order and the range (the old English alphabet consisting or runes was known as the ‘futhorc’, named after the first few letters of the alphabet.


But the runes were not the only writing system at this time. There was a lettering system known as the ‘ogham’ script, which like the futhorc, was made up of angled lines. However, it was not related to Greek or Latin and were often read from bottom to top, and is not considered a part of the development of English writing.



The writing system that was most widespread before the Anglo-Saxon invasions was Latin. It was used for many centuries as the main language of writing texts, particularly in religion, science and legal documents. The church would effectively control the skills of writing and perhaps, not surprisingly, Latin script would win over runic, the first books in English using Latin.

After Christian missionaries from Rome arrived in the sixth century and in turn brought with them over 400 words to the language, it was the Vikings that then invaded the east of England, and they added close to 2000 additional words to the slowly emerging language that would eventually become what we know as Old English.

Unfortunately very little written evidence is available to us as regards the Old English and subsequent Middle English periods, but it does exist in the form of very decorative and artistic manuscripts that were produced by scribes (a person who wrote copies of things such as letters or documents) who were housed in various monasteries around the country. What documents do exist today reveal that even in this time, there were differences in the spelling of the same word. This is perhaps because the scribes had to write down what they were hearing and interpret the many different accents as they understood, and this resulted in the different spellings and grammar construction, pretty though the very artistic pieces of text were!

Combined with the way people spoke at the time and the region they came from, Old English Spelling was still largely based on the principles of Latin, and in that time it was a more phonemic language.


The next big change was in the eleventh century during the Norman Conquest. Latin, and particularly French, displaced English as the language of literacy, and subsequently absorbed many French words such as double, couple, route  – along with further Latin – to its vocabulary. The north, largely unaffected by the conquest, retained its Scandinavian influences, and consequently further spelling variants occurred.

By the twelfth century scribes were now starting to set up their own scriptoriums thanks to the demands of business, along with academic documents that had to be drawn up. However, they were still writing in the various dialects that were scattered around the country.


When William Caxton set about printing the first book in 1473, a translation into English from French, he decided that the printed word, its spelling and pronunciation, would be based upon the dialect of London and the south east, a decision that virtually established the future direction of English orthography.

Subsequently in the eighteenth century Doctor Samuel Johnson attempted to write a definitive English dictionary, favouring past language influences such as French and Latin. It was to prove influential. As a result, most of the spelling in that time is now pretty much the spelling that we have today – a language that had developed and enriched by subsequent invaders. All these, according to the English Spelling Society, along with the arrival of printing by Caxton, resulted in a language whose spelling system, is ‘more complicated than most’. Clearly, it can be argued that English orthography is one of the least successful applications of the Roman alphabet.



The first attempts at some kind of English language reform – although in this case this was brought about because of concerns about falling literacy – go back to King Alfred in the ninth century. He had a document (originally produced some 300 years earlier by Pope Gregory the Great) translated into Old English from Latin, and in turn appealed to bishops to ‘assist in the renewal of learning by translating more works in the vernacular’. During the invasions from Scandinavia, many of the Northumbrian monasteries - where a great deal of the written literature at the time had been produced - were destroyed.

During the 16th century various books appeared attempting to explain the workings of the language, but the first to address spelling – as well as including vocabulary and grammar, was Bullokar’s Bref Grammar for English.  As John Hart, an author on books on spelling observed in 1569, the language at that time had around 45 phonemes and an insufficient number of letters. Numerous suggestions had been made to replace the alphabet over the centuries, including an international competition producing an alphabet using a completely new orthography back in 1962, but to this day the Roman alphabet has proved difficult to displace.

Many of the reformers have instead put forward suggestions to change the spelling rather than the alphabet, mainly concentrating on making it more phonetic. As already mentioned, there are well over 40 different phonemes, the figure varying depending on the dialect. This would prove to be a massive problem to overcome, and is a problem that still lingers today – it is still used by some as an argument to retain the current orthography. One argument in favour of a change in spelling is that it might well introduce a form of dialect levelling, but there are many who would object to the idea of having their regional dialect shaped into something that already reflects another particular region of the country.

In 1644, in his spelling book English Primrose, Richard Hodges suggested a rather extreme use of diacritics: an excessive placing of dots and dashes above and below the letters, resulting in a rather messy looking page and almost impossible to proof properly. As it became clear that such an approach would be ineffective, others would try to extend the alphabet further by introducing new, or bringing in some old English letters.

Another enthusiastic reformer of spelling was scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin, who came up with an extended alphabet in 1779. However, many of his suggested letters looked very similar: it would have created many problems as regards reading. But this did not stop Noah Webster’s language reforms who, like Franklin, was keen for the emerging United States of America to truly establish its own identity. Fresh from becoming an independent state, in 1789 Webster put forward far-reaching proposals to create linguistic uniformity – in this case, using the existing Roman alphabet, but making much of the spelling reflect the pronunciation. He was determined to do away with the various influences that had affected English spelling since the Viking invasions. Although much of what he put forward was implemented, there were many other radical examples such as giv, bilt, relm, and speek. Fortunately, these remained only as ideas; cultural divisions ensured that Webster’s dream of linguistic unification would not be totally fulfilled.


Sir Issac Pitman, inventor of a shorthand writing system based on phonological principles which enabled spoken language to be written quickly, turned his attention to a new kind of orthography in which much research into many other alphabets was conducted. Working with phonetician Alexander Ellis, he subsequently published his ideas in the form of popular journals. In turn, by the twentieth century there was sufficient interest in changing English spelling, and Sir James Pitman, (the son of Sir Issac), who was also a member of the Simplified Spelling Society, put forward a private member’s bill in parliament to reform English spelling, which was only narrowly defeated. But the Simplified Spelling Bill, a much watered-down proposal, was passed in 1953. This introduced, for many, the infamous Initial Teaching Alphabet, a system that was supposed to assist children, who were beginning school, in learning to read and spell the language, after which they would then be able to easily switch to ‘ordinary’ or normal English. According to the Simplified Spelling Society, those children taught with i.t.a. received higher scores than those taught normal spelling. However, not everyone agreed: several, including my older sister, would have considerable problems making the switch later in life, claiming that it had a lasting effect on their normal spelling ability.

Today, debate still rages to the benefits of a system introduced to schools in the sixties, with the alphabet still having its supporters, particularly in the USA, where it is still being taught in some establishments. I was fortunate in being taught to read and write English before I started my primary school education, but even now I can clearly recall at seven years of age the difficulties other children had in my class with the transition. Plus, of course, it did not address one problem – the pronunciations were based on Received Pronunciation – anyone used to hearing words ‘pronounced with a Scots accent was completely lost’.

But one form that has been successful – albeit the kind that can be used with any language using the Roman alphabet – is the International Phonetic Alphabet. Based on research by Pitman and Ellis, it has now become the lingua franca for transcribing pronunciations and is used extensively in dictionaries and increasingly in English language learning.



There are those that argue if the language kept to phonemes, as it did with Old English, spelling would still be undergoing constant development and change even now. The problem is that to change the way we spell would mean to somehow uniting speakers of the English language – and here, depending on your source, we are talking several hundreds of millions – into using one common means of pronunciation. But which one?

In their piece The Structure of Modern English Orthography, Graddol, Cheshire and Swann point out that psychologists have observed readers recognizing words by their orthographic shape, and then immediately understanding the word by its shape and forming a mental image of its pronunciation. Basically, regardless of whether one speaks English with a Welsh or Birmingham accent or dialect, the words remain instantly recognizable to the reader regardless of where he or she comes from, and this remains an insurmountable problem reformers continue to face. (Even now, I have taught my boys to read English using a method that focuses only on word recognition rather than using phonics. It certainly helped me.) For sure, unlike Latin or French before it, English now has the considerable advantage of being available in countless publications, newspapers, and makes up 80% of published websites around the world.

As English continues to expand across the globe, it will become virtually impossible to reform spelling. Plus, of course, there remains a significant proportion of the population who would not want to change it.

But strangely enough, there might still be hope for the reformists, even though it's perhaps not in the form they would expect.


Text messaging is still a comparatively recent phenomenon, and much of the abbreviated language remains understood only by a small circle of people, being particularly popular among the younger age groups. We get phrases such as LUV U, OMG, IMHO, C U L8TR 4 MTNG THS AFTRN, and so on. It remains to be seen as to whether any of their abbreviated spellings make their way into the OED.


Ah, I completely forgot… EMOJIS, anyone?

Home  Features  A Brief History of English  

BBC English: The rise and fall and plummy accents

English Spelling: A history

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