Set Your Speling Free

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Tired of big words and small keypads on your wireless device? Try the new, improved Freespeling!

This is what Richard L. Wade wants you to do. Wade is founder of, a website dedicated to reforming spelling by spelling words fonetikly ("phonetically," in real English.) The problem with modern English, say reformists like Wade, is that it is essentially written the same as it was in 1775 when the first dictionary appeared; while the way it is pronounced has changed. Just consider the dialects in the United States alone: Appalachian, Texan, Wisconsonian, New Yorker, Bostonian (and then there's The Kennedy, not quite Bostonian, not quite New Yorker, not quite English) and the distinctive pronunciations of the immigrant populations. Then there is the English of the rest of the world which is ever more varied.

Wade believes that despite such differing dialects, there are some phonetic spellings which would be applicable to all but the most mangled forms of English. Words like "phone" could be "fone," and words like "height" could be "hite" or "hyte." But, unlike other groups who wants to impose the change, Wade's wants to put it to vote on Starting this spring, the site will have a list of 15 words and their alternative Freespelings to vote on each month. (This month's words are: Height, accident, chaos, accommodate, foreigner, knowledge, friend, necessary, business, February, unconscious, view, forty, sincerely, and because.) At the end of an unspecified period (Wade seems to be pressing for 2005) the 250th anniversary of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, he intends to release an online compilation dictionary of these words and their new spellings.

Wade's idea isn't to reform the entire language, but rather to have "Freespelings coexist with Standard Spelling." Eventually, Wade said in a recent e-mail, the Freespelings would be "absorbed into Standard Spelling and gradually axepted by evryone like doughnut...donut; gaol...jail." (It is interesting to note that in the e-mail he himself spelled inconsistently, using both "people" and "peepul.")

The use of simplified spellings, as they are called when not used with reference to a trademark, has been tried before. Noah Webster did it in his American Dictionary of the English Language. He dropped the u's in "honour" and "humour" and "colour." He also advocated some simplified spelling, like "wimmen" for "women." The Chicago Tribune newspaper also adopted simplified spellings in 1934 but stopped in 1975. But what is it about today that is bringing simplified spelling back into the public dialogue? It could just be the timing. And the way that changes in language are now directly linked to technology.

With minute screens on wireless devices and limited textual content, Short Message Service (SMS) devices and their infinitesimal keypads, the call for augmented linguistics is growing. Most cell phones and some PDAs are now equipped with SMS abilities, and words like "fone" and "akomodate" are more applicable in the small space than their longer versions. Already instant messaging on PCs has spawned numerous abbreviations like BRB (be right back), LOL (laugh out loud or lots of laughs), and GTG (Got to Go).

The Internet and other far-reaching technology are also helping along efforts says Wade."The time is now ripe - with mobile cell fones and the internet...any one who writes English can take part in the World Vote on from anywhere on the net and have their input counted in modernizing the writing of English.[SIC]" There is no denying that Wade is taking advantage of the technology. There is truly no better time in the history of the planet to create a consensus of the sort he is suggesting. But do we really need it? What does it solve? And, is it even possible?

Aside from the simple languid fermentation of the language, Wade thinks the current spelling system discriminates. "[B]ecause of its spelling, English is the hardest European language to learn to read and rite. In the USA maybe 44 million. "Illiterates" get the worst jobs, if a job at all. They have the lowest incomes and the lowest expectations because they are discriminated against [SIC]." Further, he establishes a vast theory about why this is: "Class used to be the barrier to keep the socially mobile in their place. Now spelling is a useful tool. It is in the interest of those at the Top (the Educated, the Cultured) to keep the writing of the language complex - to maintain their status and control." He calls this, "A discrimination educated and cultured people not only accept but practise and promote!"

Simplifying spelling may make it easier to learn English as a second language. But will it solve the problem of illiteracy, which is linked as much to other aspects of education -- such as early habit- forming-- as it is to phonetics?

Hit any chat room on the Internet and you will find trimmed word forms: contractions without apostrophes like dont and cant; and phonetic spellings galore for hard words, either due to poor spelling or hurry, keyboard missteps, bad proofreading (or lack there of).

Allan Campbell, a New Zealand member of the Simplified Spelling Society, agrees with Wade. He also spoke to the gap between those who are "Cultured, and literate" and those who are not. "Spelling change is for the learner, not for the competent." He also pointed to the need to make "learning to read and write easier and quicker for all... to make literacy available to the greatest possible number."

Campbell also pointed out that, "other languages update their spellings from time to time. English hasn't done so in a major way since Samuel Johnson published his 1755 dictionary [Dictionary of the English Language]," and that "even then he was not much concerned about matching spelling with pronunciation."

The frightening (or relieving) fact is that the online and wireless media might be changing that. It has become a colloquial environment for most and people tend to write exactly how they speak. It is seen, unlike mailed letters of ol', to be informal and undeserving of close grammatical scrutiny. Hit any chat room on the Internet and you will find trimmed word forms: contractions without apostrophes like dont and cant; and phonetic spellings galore for hard words, either due to poor spelling or hurry, or keyboard missteps, bad proofreading (or lack there of). When I am online I don't proofread what I type, nor do I bother to consult Webster's for spellings.

But is this a legitimate reason to start recording a new, reformed type of English?

David, 16, says that simplified spelling is "not English," but some, "weird phonetics trip." He complains too that it is an indolent way to go about doing things, "we're lazy enough as it is, soon we'll be grunting words."

When I headed into some teen chatrooms and spoke with some people over IM about the issue, I heard some similar arguments, but even they contradicted themselves. I asked Sarah, 16, "Do you think, if we changed to this "free spel(l)" system that it would improve literacy, and aid non-English speakers in learning the language? She replied (exact quotation), "no cause they would be expremely illiterate and we would ever be able to read wht they r sayin"

Language has always ebbed and flowed. English has evolved---from Latin and Greek and Germanic. It has been fused with other languages----French finds its way into many of our legal proceedings, and Spanish into our food, Hebrew into our religion. English is a box of Legos, with pieces of varying sizes being added all the time to varying extends. It is not enforced.

Some say its more an issue of how fast change occurs. At first glance, it can appear that advocates of Freespeling are envisioning an automatic change from "Dear Mrs. Riggles, How is your son?" to "Deer Miz. Rigels, how iz u'r sun?" That is just not so says Campbell, "We [the Simplified Spelling Society] are suggesting a gradual and logical change of the spelling of the language that will allow compatibility between the old and the new. He adds, " we should not impose on our children and their children the problems spelling has caused previous and present generations." Wade, even though the online polls for changing the language are up now at his site, agrees, "people should freespel those words they find most difficult or perhaps illogical the way they want to BUT for the comprehension and cumfort of their readers and only a few per page."

And this is probably the most important thing, aside from need, that we can know about simplifying spelling: It cannot be done overnight or even o'er a decade. To become part of the languge a word has to be used and adopted by many people. New terms like "Ground Zero" and "September 11th," which weren't so much words as phrases or dates before, are now a certifiable part of our lexicon. "Hyte" may never eliminate "height." To become a word as the dictionary defines it, it must be used and understood by many people. Words are units of communication and "hyte" isn't yet one used to communicate. But, if enough people type it into their pagers and PDAs, cell phones and PCs and put it on a memo or two (thousand) "hyte" may find itself in Webster's between "hysterical" (extremely funny) and HZ (abbr. for hertz).

Ry Rivard, 16, lives in West Virginia.


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