Classifying Spelling Systems

A Spelling System Typology

I propose to classify spelling systems into one of four categories, based on the way they approach the relationship between pronunciation, traditional spelling and reformed spelling. 

  1. Strictly phonemic systems.  These systems are based on a strict rule of one and only one symbol for each English sound.  Since there are only 26 letters in the Latin alphabet, but over 40 sounds in the English language, strictly phonemic systems have only a few alternatives.  They can use the Latin alphabet by adding diacritics or by treating case as significant, they can augment the Latin alphabet with additional symbols, or they can use an entirely new alphabet.  All these approaches have been tried.  Most of these systems look rather strange, and are hard to read without study.
  2. Phonemic systems.  These systems are basically sound-based,  but are less strict.  These systems may take into account grammatical and etymological information, and may blur the sound to symbol mapping by representing some sounds by symbol sequences (digraphs or trigraphs) or by using different representations of sounds depending on where they fall in a word.  For instance, a strictly phonemic system must spell the words "cats" and "dogs" with different final symbols, since the last sound of "dogs" is that of the letter "z", not the letter "s", while a system that is not so strict can look more familiar by ending all plurals with "s".   While these systems are generally not so odd-looking as strictly phonemic systems, they still do not usually look much like traditional spelling.
  3. Hybrid systems.  These systems are blends of phonemic systems and respelling systems.  In these systems, the spelling of a word is influenced by its traditional spelling as well as its pronunciation, usually to make it look more familiar.  For instance, a phonemic system might spell the words "camel", "rabbit" and "maggot" as "kamul", "rabut" and "magut", since the final vowel sound in all these words is the same (at least, many Americans think so).  A hybrid system might instead spell these words as "kamel", "rabit" and "magot" to make them easier to recognize.  These systems are generally considerably easier for the literate to read than phonemic systems, but they may be more difficult to write, especially for those unfamiliar with traditional English spelling, such as students of English.
  4. Respelling systems.  These are systems based on traditional spelling.  Unlike the other kinds of systems, they don't have rules telling you how to spell a word based on its pronunciation.  Instead, they have rules telling you whether the spelling of a word is acceptable or not and, if not, describing how to respell it.  For instance, a respelling system might well accept the words "crew", "true", "kangaroo" and "snafu", but reject the words "shoe", "through" and "caribou" as illogical (which they are), replacing them with "shue", "thru" and "carriboo" respectively.  These systems are the easiest systems to read without study, but at the same time they do little to make English easier to write.  Most spelling reformers regard these systems as simply first steps on the road to reform, but possibly of value because they are easier to sell to the public than more radical approaches.

Other Distinguishing Features

The typology above is not the only way of classifying spelling systems.  There are two other valuable ways in which spelling systems can be differentiated, as illustrated in the examples below.

One is simply whether the standard 26 letter alphabet is used, or whether the alphabet is extended with extra symbols or diacritics.  Proponents of diacritics claim that they allow reformed spellings to be closer to existing spellings (rádìó instead of raedeeoe, for instance) and that they allow variant pronunciations to have similar spellings (as, for instance, with American mínòrity versus British minörity).   Opponents of diacritics counter that they are hard to read, especially for dyslexics (can you see the differences between finish and fínít?), and that they introduce many problems in E-mail due to lack of support from English-language keyboards and software.

Another important distinguishing feature of spelling systems has to do with how they handle the differences between varieties of English, notably American and British English.  Some systems are aimed exclusively at one variety, some allow for variant spellings for difficult words (such as misel versus misiel for "missile"), and others attempt to make compromises between the varieties (for example, using an spelling of secretery based on the American pronunciation, but basing misiel on the British pronunciation).  Note that, because there are significant differences in British and American pronunciation, a phonemic orthography simply cannot always use the same spelling for both dialects.

Some Examples

Here are some examples of spelling systems of each of these kinds.  I provide a transcription of the text below in each system as an example. 

That quick beige fox jumped into the air over each thin dog while taking the loot. Look out, I shout, for he's foiled you again.

This sentence is a good example, as it contains most of the sounds of the English language (at least for Americans).

In the case of systems which I did not invent, the given transcription is my best interpretation of the documented rules for the system.  Corrections of errors in these transcriptions will be gratefully received.

I had better note, for the record, that I'm a speaker of American English.  For systems which can be used with both British and American English, the American form is shown unless otherwise mentioned.

MCM, a system of my own, is a strictly phonemic system.  It extends the Latin alphabet by treating the lower-case and upper-case letters as different.  I find it useful for spelling words in a way that exactly indicates their pronunciation, without resorting to IPA, which relies on characters not found on keyboards, or SAMPA, which some find difficult to interpret.  Here is the example in MCM: 

.Dat kwik bEJ fAks jumpt intU D3 er ovR IC Tin dOg hwYl tEkiG D3 lUt. .lVk Wt, .Y XWt, fOr hIz fQld yU 3gen.

MCM is for American English only.

Unifon is an augmented alphabet developed by John Malone for writing English phonemically.  Because of the similarity of the new Unifon letters to existing Latin letters, Unifon is easy to read with just a little practice.  Here is the example in Unifon:

Unifon was designed for American English.

Other strictly phonemic systems you might find of interest are ENgliS and NQaLF.

Lojikl Inglish, a system developed by Rollo Reid, is phonemic, but not strictly phonemic.  It uses digraphs (two-letter combinations) to represent some sounds, and in a few cases allows the spelling of sounds to vary according to position in the word.  Lojikl Inglish is somewhat unusual in having  both a British and an American version, as well as a "universal" version that compromises between the two.  Here is the example in American Lojikl Inglish:

That qik baezh fox jumpt in t th air oevr eech thin dog whiel taeking th loot. Luuk out, I shout, fr hee'z foild yoo agen.

The system SREA2, invented by Bruce Mills, is another example of a phonemic system.  Unlike Lojikl Inglish, it uses diacritics and unusual letters.  It represents a compromise between American and British English, but is closer to British.  Here is the example in SREA2:

Dhat kwik bāzh foks jumpt intu dhe eør ōvør ēch thin dog whīl tākiŋ dhe lüt. Lûk aut, I shaut, for hē'z föild ū øgen.

Gus Hasselquist's system Inglish2 is an unusual system which resembles traditional spelling to a greater extent than most phonemic systems.  But despite the use of "magic e" and other features not often found in such systems, I classify it as phonemic because it is not necessary to know the traditional spelling of a word to determine its Inglish2 spelling.  Here is the example in Inglish2:

That quik baze fox jumpd intu the air over eech thin dog while taking the loot.  Look out, I shout, for he's foild yu agin.

Inglish2 was developed for American English.

Other phonemic systems you may find interesting are Portul and Bobdot.

My system WMM is a hybrid system.  Though most sounds are written predictably, unstressed short vowels are spelled as they are in traditional spelling, which gives the results a more familiar look than most of the systems above.  WMM is unusual because it uses both vowel digraphs (combinations of two letters) and diacritics.  Here is the example in WMM:

Dhat kwik baijh foks jumpd intu dhe air oaver eech thin dôg whiel taikiñ dhe luet. Lûk àut, Í shàut, for xé'z fôild eú agèn.

WMM is compatible with both British and American English, with some words spelled differently. 

ALC SoundSpel is another hybrid system, championed by the American Literacy Council.  As with WMM, the schwa sound (the ending vowel of "circus" or "rivet") is spelled the same as in traditional spelling.  Here is the example in SoundSpel:

That qik baezh fox jumpt into the air oever eech thin daug whiel taeking the loot. Luuk out, I shout, for he's foild U agen.

SoundSpel was designed for use with American English.

Other hybrid systems you may find interesting are Folksrite and Arbdash.

The system WRE (Wijk's Regularized English), invented by Axel Wijk, is an example of a respelling system.  This very clever system attempts to correct the most illogical and inconsistent aspects of traditional spelling, while changing as few words as possible.  Regularized English was designed with both British and American English in mind, giving some words more than one accepted spelling.  Here is the example in WRE:

That quick beige fox jumpt into the air over each thin dog while taking the loote. Look out, I shout, for he'z foild yoo agen.

As you can see, it is hardly changed from traditional spelling.

Another respelling system is SRS, invented by Bob Boden.  SRS uses diacritics to indicate how vowels are pronounced.  This allows it to avoid respelling many words while indicating pronunciation more precisely than WRE.  SRS was designed for use with American English.  Here is the example in SRS:

That quick bázh fox jumpt intu the err óver each thin dôg whíle táking the lút. Leuk out, I shout, for he'z foild yu ugen.

Other respelling systems you may find interesting are DRE and RITE.

For more information on these and other spelling systems, please look here.

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