Spelling reform

Many languages have undergone spelling reform, where a deliberate, often officially sanctioned or mandated, change to spelling takes place. Proposals for such reform are also common.

There are a number of reasons driving such reforms: Easing the task of children or immigrants becoming literate; making the language more useful for international communications—even aesthetic or political reasons.

Opposition to reforms is often based upon concern that old literature will become inaccessible, the presumed suppression of regional accents, or simple conservatism based upon concern over unforeseen consequences. Reform efforts are further hampered by habit and a lack of a central authority to set new spelling standards.

Spelling reform may also be associated with wider discussion of what the official script should be, language planning and language reform.

Arguments for reform

In languages written with alphabetic or syllabary scripts there is theoretically a close match of the script or spelling with the spoken sound. However, even if they match at one time and place for some speakers, over time they often do not match well for the majority; one sound may be represented by various letters and one letter pronounced in various ways. In cases where spelling is used to highlight grammatical features these too may become inconsistent.

People with non-standard spelling often suffer prejudice, since the mastery of standard spelling is often thought to go hand in hand with the level of formal education or intelligence. Some educators argue that literation is easier in languages that make use of consistent spelling systems—like Finnish, Polish, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish—than in languages which use anachronistic or complicated spellings—like French or English.

Proposed spelling reforms range from modest attempts to eliminate particular irregularities (such as SR1) through more far-reaching reforms (such as Cut Spelling) to attempts to introduce a full phonemic orthography, like the Shavian alphabet or its revised version, Quikscript, the latest DevaGreek alphabet, the Latinization of Turkish or hangul in Korea.

Stated reasons for these reforms include making the language more useful for international communications and easier to learn for immigrants and children. Opposition to reforms is often based upon concern that old literature will become inaccessible, the presumed suppression of regional accents, or simple conservatism based upon concern over unforeseen consequences. Reform efforts are further hampered by habit and a lack of a central authority to set new spelling standards.

Superfluity of graphemes (letters) is often an issue in spelling reform, which prompts the "Economic Argument"—significant cost savings in the production materials over time—as promulgated by George Bernard Shaw, although it requires a rare, altruistic farsightedness to fully appreciate it, and, especially in the modern context, acquires an environmentalist aspect, thus turning into the Environmentalist Argument.

The idea of phonemic spelling has also been criticized, on the grounds that it would hide morphological similarities between words that happen to have quite different pronunciations. This line of argument is based on the idea that when people read, they do not in reality try to work out the sequence of sounds composing each word, but instead either recognise words as a whole, or as a sequence of small number of semantically significant units (for example morphology might be read as morph+ology, rather than as a sequence of a larger number of phonemes). In a system of phonetic spelling, these semantic units become less distinct, as various allomorphs can be pronounced differently in different contexts. For example, in English spelling, most past participles are spelled with an -ed on the end, even though this can have several pronunciations (compare kissed and interrupted). This argument has been used in controversies over orthography among peoples of the former Soviet Union whose languages have been switched from the Latin alphabet to the Cyrillic alphabet and back again, notably Moldovan where the switch to a Latin alphabet was accompanied by a move to phonemic spelling. According to critics this severed etymological links between related words, thus destroying what they considered as subtleties of the languages (Moldovan is a variation of Romanian, a Romance language written using Cyrillic for four centuries before it switched to the Latin alphabet in the late nineteenth century).

One of the concerns in introducing a spelling reform is how to reflect different pronunciations, often linked to regions or classes. If the reform tries to be absolutely phonemic according to some model dialect, some speakers will find collisions with their usage.


English spelling contains many irregularities due to a number of factors. The large number of words assimilated from other languages is one of them; an even greater cause is the fact that English began to be widely written and printed during the Middle English period. While English spelling was relatively systematic during the Middle English period, the shift to modern English involved undergoing a Great Vowel Shift and many other changes in phonology. The older, etymological spellings have been retained despite major shifts in phonology.

Modern English has anywhere from 14 to 22 separate vowel and diphthong phonemes, depending on dialect, and 26 or 27 consonants. A simple phoneme-letter representation of this language with the 26 letters of the English alphabet is impossible and multi-letter graphemes are a part of most spelling reform proposals (they are part of current English spelling as well, for example the first two phonemes of "sheep", /ʃiːp/ are represented by the digraphs , /ʃ/ and , /i/) respectively. Diacritical marks have also formed part of spelling reform proposals.

Practicalities of devising a phonemically based system are also the target of criticism. For example, phoneme distribution differs between English English and American English; furthermore, while English Received Pronunciation features about 20 vowels, some second language varieties of English have 10 or even fewer. A phonemic system would therefore not be universal.

A number of proposals have been made to reform English spelling. Some were proposed by Noah Webster early in the 19th century. He was in part concerned to distinguish American from British usage. Some, but by no means all, of his suggestions resulted in the differences between American and British spelling.

Other languages


In 1990, a substantial reform ordered by the French prime minister changed the spelling of about 2000 words as well as some grammar rules. With much delay, the new recommended orthography received official support in France, Belgium and Quebec in 2004, but it has not been widely adopted. Some major French-language dictionaries have incorporated some of the changes.


Even though German spelling has already been much more consistent than English or French spelling, German speaking countries signed an agreement for spelling reforms in 1996, planned to be gradually introduced beginning in 1998 and fully used in 2005.

The so-called Rechtschreibreform is still subject to dispute, and polls consistently show a majority against the new rules. In Summer of 2004, several newspapers and magazines returned to the old rules.

It was not the first reform of the German spelling. There was an earlier reform in 1901. In 1944 another was due to be introduced, but ultimately came to nothing because of the war situation.


The classical, medieval, and early modern polytonic orthography contained a number of archaisms inherited from Ancient Greek, which have been dispensed with or simplified in the modern monotonic orthography. See also Katharevousa.


Dutch has undergone a series of major spelling reforms beginning in 1804 - with varying levels of official sanction and popular acceptance across the areas in which varieties of the Dutch language is spoken.

The Dutch Language Union founded in 1980 by the Netherlands and Belgium, is now the source of official reforms, and in 1995 issued the "Green Booklet" reform. Although in Belgium the official spelling reform was generally accepted without protest, in the Netherlands there was a popular backlash and the release of the White Booklet. Currently these two spellings are both in use in the Netherlands - the 'green' one by schools and officials, and the 'white' one by papers, magazines and television stations.


Related article: Differences between Malay and Indonesian: Orthography
Indonesian underwent spelling reforms in 1947 and 1972, after which its spelling was more consistent with the form of the language spoken in Malaysia (i.e. Malay).

oe u
tj c
dj j
j y
The first of these changes (oe to u) occurred around the time of independence in 1947; all of the others were a part of an officially-mandated spelling reform in 1972. Some of the old spellings, which were more closely derived from the Dutch language, still survive in proper names.


The original Japanese kana syllabaries were a purely phonetic representation used for writing the Japanese language when they were invented around 800 AD as a simplification of Chinese-derived kanji characters. However, the syllabaries were not completely codified and alternate letterforms, or hentaigana, existed for many sounds until standardization in 1900. In addition, due to linguistic drift the pronunciation of many Japanese words changed, mostly in a systematic way, from the classical Japanese language as spoken when the kana syllabaries were invented. Despite this, words continued to be spelled in kana as they were in classical Japanese, reflecting the classic rather than the modern pronunciation, until a Cabinet order in 1946 officially adopted spelling reform, making the spelling of words purely phonetic and dropping characters that represented sounds no longer used in the language.


Related article: Norwegian language struggle
Before Norway became independent in 1905, the Norwegian language was written in Danish with minor characteristic regionalisms and idioms. After independence, there were spelling reforms in 1907, 1917, 1938, 1941 and 1981, reflecting the tug-of-war between the spelling style preferred by traditionalists or reformers depending on social class, urbanization, ideology, education and dialect.


The original medieval spelling of Portuguese was mostly phonetic, but, from the Renaissance on, many authors who admired classical culture began to use an etymological orthography. In the early 20th century, however, spelling reforms in Portugal and Brazil reverted the orthography to phonetic principles. Subsequent reforms have aimed mainly at three objectives, with variable success: to eliminate the few traces of redundant etymological spelling that remained, to reduce the number of words marked with diacritics, and to bring the Brazilian spelling standard and the European-African spelling standard closer to each other.


Over the time, there were a number of changes in spelling. They were mostly related with elimination of letters of the Cyrillic alphabet rendered obsolete by changes in phonetics.

When Peter I introduced his "civil script" in 1708, based on more western-looking letter shapes, spelling was simplified as well.

The most recent major reform of Russian spelling was carried out shortly after the Russian Revolution. The Russian orthography was simplified by eliminating four obsolete letters and the archaic usage of the letter yer (hard sign) at the ends of words, which had originally been a vowel with a sound similar to schwa, but had become silent by the 20th century.

Spanish spelling

There have been several initiatives to reform the spelling of Spanish: Andrés Bello succeeded in making his proposal official in several South American countries, but they later returned to the RAE standard.

Another initiative, the Ortografía Fonética Rasional Ispanoamericana, remained a curiosity. Juan Ramón Jiménez proposed changing -ge- and -gi to -je- and ji, but this is applied only in editions of his works or his wife's. Gabriel García Márquez raised the issue of reform during a congress at Zacatecas, and drew attention to the issue, but no resultant changes. The Academies, however, change several tidbits from time to time. See also Spanish orthography.


During the 20th century, the Communist Party of China developed the Hanyu Pinyin orthography and promulgated it as the official writing system of mainland China. Since the pinyin became the international standard for Chinese romanization in 1982, other romanizations (including the Wade-Giles system, Gwoyeu Romatzyh developed by Yuen Ren Chao, and Latinxua Sin Wenz) are rarely used.

Further languages

See also Differences between standard Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.

See also


  1. István Fodor and Clause Hagège (eds): La Réforme des langues. Histoire et avenir. Language reform. History and future. Sprachreform. Geschichte und Zukunft. Buske, Hamburg 1983–1989
  2. Edite Estrela: A Questão Ortográfica: Reforma e Acordos da Língua Portuguesa. Editorial Notícias, Lisbon 1993

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