Spelwel: A Simplified Spelling Scheme

© by G. P. Jelliss, revised 15 February 2013

Sections on this page. — IntroductionThe ConsonantsThe VowelsTest PiecesStatisticsLinks


The earliest form of this article appeared in The Games and Puzzles Journal 1997 (vol. 2, issue 15, pages 256-7) under the heading of "Professor Cranium's Simplified Spelling", and that issue is now available as a PDF download. The account that follows is the latest of several modifications attempted over the years.

The original article came about in part from my reading of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (Cambridge University Press 1987) and The Oxford Companion to the English Language (abridged edition) by Tom McArthur (Oxford University Press 1996), which include descriptions, somewhat incomplete, of various schemes that have been proposed for spelling reform of English, such as the Shaw Alphabet, designed by Kingsley Read in the 1950s, which uses 40 letters of special design, resembling short-hand or some Indian scripts. Subsequent study, particularly with the help of the internet, has revealed to me many other alternative schemes, as shown in the extended list of Links at the end of this page.

Everyone who writes English will be aware that the same sounds can often be written in quite different ways that reflect the history of the word rather than its pronunciation. Since there are reckoned to be 35 to 47 component sounds (phonemes) in English, consisting of 13 to 21 vowels and 22 to 26 consonants, and we only have 26 letters in our alphabet it is clear that we must either introduce some new letters, or use combinations of letters, or allow letters multiple values. Some ambiguity must be accepted in any system that uses only a limited number of letters, unlike the International Phonetic Alphabet, where the most minor distinctions may be made.

The aim of my approach has always been to devise a reasonably phonetic scheme that uses only the existing 26 letters of the alphabet, or fewer, although the sounds assigned to them may be different from present, and also to retain at least some existing spellings where possible, and to spell words briefly but clearly. These aims. as I have found, are however mutually incompatible! One approach is to try to decide what are the elementary sounds that make up the language and to assign letters to them. Another approach is to begin with the existing alphabet and try to find an optimal assignment of the letters. The latest revision is a compromise between these. For publicity purposes I'm now calling the system Spelwel.

The Consonants

We have 26 letters available on standard keyboards. Among these there are 17 letters whose assignment to a particular consonantal sound is largely consistent. These are b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, y, z. So it would seem that their assignments do not need to be altered. However, for reasons explained below I prefer to reassign the y to another use. The letters c, j, q and x in our present spelling are not needed, since their work can be taken over by other letters. This allows us to reassign them to other duties.

The problem of how to represent the various related sounds represented in current spelling by sh as in 'fish', ti as in 'nation', ch as in 'church', tch as in 'match', ge as in 'rouge', j and dge as in 'judge' and so on, is the one on which I have vacillated the most. I have now concluded that the most economical scheme is to use the j as a modifier in the combinations sj, zj, tj, dj, where it can have the value of 'y' as in 'sure', 'azure', 'tune', 'dues' and an 'aspirated y' sound when at the end of a word, being voiced when following a voiced consonant. The semi-consonants j, r, w, are discussed further in the section on vowels below.

This use of j for the 'y' sound releases the letter y for another use. It is proposed that x and y be used for the two sounds of the digraph th, x for the unvoiced sound as in 'thin' and y for the voiced sound as in 'then'.

The sound of n in the combination ng is represented by a new letter in the Shaw alphabet and the IPA, but in my view this sound is not a separate elementary consonant but just an allophone of n that occurs naturally when followed by g or k, and that the degree to which the g is sounded is a matter of choice or accent.

Table of Consonants (19)

bb, bbbombard, rabbit
dd, dd, j, c, gdread, rudder, junk, sandwich, range
ff, ff, gh, ph, pphfife, ruffle, rough, phosphorus, sapphire
gg, gg, gh, gurugged, ghost, guide
hh, gh, whmishap, Callaghan, who
jy, h, e, i, j, -, g-, c, s, chyet, ship, pew, nation, djinn, hue, cognac, crescendo, fissure, fetch
kc, k, q, cc, ch, ck, cq, kh, kk, xcat, kink, quit, account, scheme, block, acquit, khaki, trekking, excel
ll, llholy, holly
mm, mb, mn, mm, mpmum, climb, autumn, summer, exempt
nn, gn, kn, mn, nn, pnany, sign, knot, mnemonic, funny, pneumatic
pp, ph, pp, -prop, diphtheria, supper, dreamt
rr, rr, rh, wr, rrhred, arrow, rhombus, wrap, antirrhinum
sc, s, sc, ss, st, sth, sw, t, chscell, sell, ascetic, hiss, castle, asthma, sword, motion, fuchsia
tt, bt, ct, th, tt, cht, ght, ctort, doubt, indict, thyme, otter, yacht, eight, chew
vf, v, ph, vvof, verse, stephen, revved
wu, w, ho wh, _suite, wit, choir, when, one
xth, phththin, phthalate
yth, thethen, bathe
zx, s, z, cz, t, ts, zz, gxylophone, is, vision, zeal, czar, equation, tsar, buzzer, rouge

The Vowels

We are left with 7 letters to assign to the 20 or so vowel sounds. Namely a, e, i, o, u, plus c, q. An examination of all common words of up to three letters (conveniently listed in Chambers Words for Scrabble players) shows that a, e, i, o, u in these are assigned to the short vowel sounds in 'cat', 'pet', 'sit', 'top', 'hut', there being 50 to 80 words with these spellings. (The next most common sounds occurring only at most about 35 times.) So on the principle of retaining current spellings where possible it would seem sensible to retain these values. However I choose to go against this reasoning in the case if u, using it instead for the sound in 'put' or 'good' and using c (being a sideways u) for the somewhat anomalous sound in 'hut'.

The sound represented by r in traditional spellings varies according to the regional accent of the speaker. For "rhotic" speakers it is a consonantal r with a clear roll, for "nonrhotic" speakers it reduces to something like an indefinite vowel. (This is so in my own speech, which is a form of "Londonish", somewhere between Received Pronunciation and Estuary English.) An indefinite vowel sound is common in English, particularly in unemphatic speech, but we have no one letter for it. The letter a is the one most often used, as in such words as 'abed', 'rota', 'mania', but all the vowels provide examples, as in 'the', 'evil', 'random', 'helium', or just a juxtaposition as in 'chasm'. Although personally I would like to hold out for any of these words to be pronounced with the vowel with which they are written. The r when following another vowel at the end of a word often takes this value, as in 'fair', 'four', 'fur', 'fear', 'hour'. One advantage of having a separate letter for the indefinite vowel is that it enables distinctions to be made between words like 'caw'/'core', 'caught'/'court', 'faught'/'fort', although trying to do so may be a lost cause. It is proposed that the letter q be used for this purpose.

Table of Vowels (7)

aa, aicat, plait
ea, e, u, ai, ay, ea, ei, eo, ie, eahany, ferry, bury, said, says, threat, heifer, leopard, friend, yeah
ia, e, i, o, u, y, ie, uivillage, pretty, it, women, minute, myth, sieve, build
oa, o, au, al, o-e, oh, ou, achwas, ox, because, all, gone, John, cough, yacht
uu, oo, oulput, good, could
cu, o, oe, o-e, oo, ouup, son, does, love, blood, rough
qa, e, i, o, u, -sofa, the, evil, kingdom, helium, chasm

The semi-consonantal sounds represented by j, w, r, can be regarded as shortened and tensed versions of the vowel sounds represented by i, u, q. In the original article I proposed using the combinations ij, uw, qr for the lengthened or strengthened vowel sounds in 'bee', 'blue' and 'her', on the grounds that when another vowel follows the semi-consonantal sound inevitably appears, as in bijing (being), suwing (sueing), stqring (stirring). However I now prefer to show these strong vowels by the doubled letters ii, uu, qq, with the j, w, r appearing only when the semi-consonant sound is fully present. Some leeway can often be allowed as to whether the short or long spelling is used, since the sound length or strength can vary according to emphasis or accent.

Table of Doubled Vowels

aaa, aa, a_e, ah, al, au, ar, er, are, earpath, baa, dance, bah, calm, aunt, bar, clerk, are, heart
eea, ae, a_e, ai, ay, ea, ee, ei, ey, eighchaos, brae, mate, raid, day, break, nee, rein, they, weigh
iie, ee, ea, ei, i, ie, ybe, see, flea, seize, emil, thief, any
ooa, al, au, aw, awe, augh, ar, oa, or, oar, ohr, oor, ore, ourwater, wall, haul, awl, awe, caught, quart, broad, for, boar, Bohr, floor, bore, court
uuew, o, oo, ou, ueflew, do, moon, tour, true
qqer, eu, ir, or, ur, ear, ere, err, our, urrher, adieu, fir, word, fur, earth, were, err, journal, burr

In previous versions it was also proposed to allow j, w, r to be used singly to represent ii, uu, qq to provide shorter spellings, but this now seems an unnecessary embellishment. The anomalous vowel c in 'hut' does not seem to have a lengthened form distinct from qq.

Some Combined Vowels

auau, ou, ow, oughgaucho, out, cow, bough
ouo, au, ew, oa, oe, o_e, oh, ol, oo, ou, ow, eau, owe, oughpost, mauve, sew, broach, doe, mote, doh, folk, brooch, soul, low, bureau, rowed, dough
aiI, y, ai, ei, ie, i_e, ui, uy, ye, aye, eye, igh, eighI, by, aisle, eider, die, mite, guide, buy, bye, aye, eye, high, height
oieu, oi, oy, uoyFreudian, coil, boy, buoy

The choice of ai for the 'eye' sound suffers from the fact that in current spelling 'ai' or 'ay' tends to be pronounced as in 'tail' or 'bay'. In my original article I used 'uy'. Some dictionaries maintain that the vowel in 'low' is more like 'eu' than 'ou', but personally I find this an oddly mannered pronunciation, but no doubt others may find my London accent odd.

Some Longer Combinations

airire, yre / uyer, yerfire, byre / buyer, tryer
eerar, air, ayr, are, ear, eer, eir, ere, ayer / ayor, ayerair, scarce, fare, pear, e'er, their, there, prayer / mayor, player
iirir, ear, eer, ere, ier / iaemir, rear, peer, here, pier / ria
oirawyer / oyeurlawyer / voyeur
aurour, hour / owerour, hour / tower
ouro'er / owero'er / lower
uuroor, our, ure / oer, ewerpoor, dour, endure / doer, fewer

In these spellings the r may be replaced by q or qq or qr as appropriate, depending on the length and whether the r has its consonantal value. In 'endure' and 'fewer' of course there is also an unstated j, so the full spelling would be endjuur, fjuwq.

Test Pieces

I give here the simplified spelling version of some test passages, all of which, apart from the first, have been used as examples by other spelling reformers. Links are provided to sites where other versions of these passages can be seen for comparison. Other examples appear in the Anthology of Well Known Verse.

Conan Doyle

Here is the first part of the opening paragraph to "The Adventure of the Final Problem" by Arthur Conan Doyle, from "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes".

Original Text:
"It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes was distinguished. In an incoherent, and, as I deeply feel, an entirely adequate fashion, I have endeavoured to give some account of my strange experiences in his company from the chance which first brought us together at the period of the "Study in Scarlet," up to the time of his interference in the matter of the "Naval Treaty"--an interference which had the unquestionable effect of preventing a serious international complication. It was my intention to have stopped there, and to have said nothing of that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill."

"It iz wiy q hevii hart yat ai teik cp mai pen tuu rait yiiz yq laast wqqdz in witj ai sjal evq rikood yq singjular gifts bai witj mai frend Mr. Sjqqlok Houmz woz distingwisjd. In an inkouhiirent, and, az ai diiplii fiil, an entairlii inadekwqt fasjon, ai hav endevqd tuu giv scm qkaunt ov mai streendj ekspirijensez in hiz kcmpanii from jq tjaans witj fqqst broot cz tugeyq at yq piirijod ov yq "Stcdii in Skarlet" up tuu yq taim ov hiz intqqfiirens in yq matqq ov yq "Neevql Triitii" - an intqqfiirens witj had yii unkwestjonqbql efekt ov preventing q siiriics intqqnasjonql komplikeesjqn. It woz mai intensjon tuu hav stopt yeer, and tuu hav sed ncxing ov yat event witj haz krijeeted q void in mai laif witj yq laps ov tuu jiirz haz dcn litql tuu fil."

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is a favourite test-piece for showing and comparing spelling reforms. A number of other examples are available at these links: C. G. Boeree, Various, Bob Boden, Apostro'spel.

Forskor and seven jiirz qgou aur faayqqz broot forx on yis kontinent q njuu neesjon, konsiivd in libqqtii, and dedikeeted tuu yq propozisjon yat ool men ar krijeeted iikwql. Nau wii ar engeedjd in q greet sivil wor, testing weyqq yat neesjon, or eni neesjon sou konsiivd and sou dedikeeted, kan long endjuur. Wii ar met on q greet batqlfiild ov yat wor. Wii hav kcm tuu dedikeet q porsjon ov yat fiild az q fainql resting-plees for youz huu hiir geev yeer laivz yat yat neesjon mait liv. It iz ooltugeyqq fiting and propqq yat wii shud duu yis. Bct in ee lardjqq sens, wii kanot dedikeet, wii kanot konsekreet, wii kanot halou yis graund. Yq breev men, living and ded, huu strcgqld hiir hav konsekreeted it far qbcv aur puur pawqr tuu ad or diitrakt. Yq wqqld wil litql nout nor long riimembqr wot wii see hiir, bct it kan nevqq forget wot yee did hiir. It iz for uz yq living raayqr tuu bii hiir dedikeeted tuu yii unfinisjt wqqk witj yee huu foot hiir hav yus far sou noublii advaanst. It iz raajqr for cz tiu bii hiir dedikeeted tuu yq greet taask riimeening biifor cz - yat from yiiz onqqd ded wii teek inkriist diivousjon - yat wii hiir hailii riizolv yat yiiz ded sjal not hav daid in veen, yat yis neesjon undqr God sjal hav ee njuu bqrx ov friidom, and yat gcvqrnment ov yq piipql, bai yq piipql, for yq piipql sjal not perisj from yii qrx.

Ambrose Bierce

This amusing poem, said to be taken from recollections of the entry under 'Weather' in Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary was used by John Reilly on his Altscript site where he gave versions in Truespel, Fonetic, and Cut Spelng, but the site unfortunately no longer exists. All I have found is this PoemPunch.com which gives the original version (slightly different).

Wcns ai lukt intuu yq fjuutjqr, far az eniwcn kud sii,
And ai soo yq tjiif forkaastqr, ded az eniwcn kud bii.
Ded and damd and shct in Heediiz az q lajqr from hiz bqrx
Wiy q rekord ov cnriizon seldom paraleld on qrx.
Az ai wotjt, hii reezd him solemlii, yat inkandesent juux
From yq koulz yat hii prefqqd tuu j'advantidjez ov truux.
Yen hii kaast hiz aiz qbaut him, yen qbcv him, and hii rout,
On q slab ov xin asbestos, wot ai ventjuur hiir tuu kwout.
For ai red it in yq rouz-lait ov yat evqqlaasting glou:
"Klaudii, veerijqbql windz, shawqrz, kuulqr, snou."

The Beautiful Princess Story

This is a widely used spelling test piece. See here for Other examples.

Wcns cpon q taim, yii bjuutiful dootqr ov q greet madjisjqn wonted mor pqqlz tuu put qmcng hqq trezjurz. "Luk xruu yq sentqr ov yq muun wen it iz bluu," sed hqq mcyqr in aansqq tuu hqq kwestjqn. "Juu mait faind jor hart's diizair." Yq prinses laaft, biikoz shii dauted yiiz wqqds. Insted, shii juuzd hqr imadjineesjqn, and muuvd intuu yq foutografii biznes, and tuk piktjuurz ov yq muun in kclqr. "Ai pqqsiiv moust sqqtenlii yat it iz oolmoust houllii wait," sjii xoot. Sjii oolsou faund yat sjii kud meik iincf mcni in eit mcnxs tuu bai hqqself tuu lcvlii hjuudj njuu djuwelz tuu.

Benjamin Franklin

I learnt in 2008 that Benjamin Franklin published a spelling reform proposal 240 years before, in 1768. He removed the letters c, j, q, w, x, y and introduced six new letters for th, dh, ng, sh, short u, and short o. But why not just re-use the old letters for the new sounds? The following is a transliteration of the passage shown on the Omniglot site doing just this; j=sh/zh, x=th, q=dh, y=u (as in hut), w=ng, c=o (as in hot).

Franklin Alphabet
Mytj az qi imperfekjyn cv qer alfabet uil admit cv; qer prezent bad speliw iz only bad bikcz kontreri to qi prezent bad ruls: yndyr qi nu ruls it uuld bi gud -- qi difikylti cv lyrniw to spel uel in qi old ue iz so gret, qat fiu atein it; xcuzands and xcuzands ryitiw cn to old edj, uiqcut ever biiw ebil to akuyir it. 'Tiz, bisyidz e difikylti kcntinuali inkriisiw; az qi scynd graduali veriz mor and mor from qi speliw: and to fcrenyrs ....

Mctj az yii impqqfeksjqn ov yii alfqbet wil admit ov, yq prezent bad speling iz ounlii bad biikoz kontrarii tu yq prezent bad ruulz: cndqq yq njuu ruulz it wud bii gud - yq difikcltii ov lqqning tuu spel wel in yii ould wee iz sou greet, yat fjuu ateen it; xauzqndz and xauzqndz raiting on tuu ould eedj, wiyaut evqq bijing eebql tuu qkwair it. 'Tiz bisaidz q difikcltii kontinjuwqlii inkriising; az yii saund gradjuwqlii veeriiz mor and mor from yii speling and tuu forenqqz ...


Some Statistics

In the course of devising the above scheme I made some studies of the frequency of occurrence of sounds in English, and give a summary of the results here, just for their possible interest.

By looking through a small dictionary (The Little Oxford Dictionary was to hand) and noting the initial sounds and the approximate number of pages devoted to them I arrived at the following ranking of initial consonant sound by frequency: s (inc. soft c, ps) 16.2%, k (inc. hard c, q) 10.5%, p 9.5%, t 7.3%, r (inc. wr) 6.7%, d 6.3%, b 6.3%, f (inc. ph) 5.7%, m 5.4%, w 4.4%, l 4.1%, h 4.0%, g 2.7%, n (inc. kn) 2.1%, v 2.3%, j (inc. soft g) 1.8%, ch 1.4%, sh 1.4%, th 1.1%, y 0.4%, z (inc. x) 0.4%.

By similarly looking through The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary I was able to assess the frequency of occurrence of final consonants as follows: n 16.4%, t 15.9%, s 14.6% (inc. x), l 11.0%, d 9.1%, k 8.1%, m 6.6%, z 4.4%, g 4.1% (inc. ng), p 1.9%, v 1.8%, sh 1.8% (inc. ch), zh 1.5% (inc. j), f 1.3%, b 0.5%, th 1.01% (vowel endings with r, w, y not counted).

A similar count of lines in The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary gave the following results for the vowel sounds in final syllables: (a, indefinite vowel before consonant) 20.3%, (i, sit) 18.4%, (a, er, in final position = indefinite vowel if unstressed) 13.4%, (y, final = i or ee) 11.9%, (a, rein) 4.5%, (o, hoe) 3.9%, (i, die) 3.5%, (ee, see) 3.2%, (a, cat) 3.1%, (or, law) 2.7%, (e, pet) 2.6%, (ar, par) 2.4%, (o, top) 2.3%, (u, blue, cue) 1.9%, (oi, boy) 1.1%, (err) 1.0%, (u, hut) 0.9%, (u, put) 0.7%, (au, cow) 0.6%, (ear) 0.6%, (air) 0.4%, (oor, poor) 0.3%, (ire) 0.2%, (our) 0.1%.


Links to other Sites

Updated January 2013. Some sites previously listed here have totally vanished into the ether. Others I have been able to trace to new addresses. The links are listed in alphabetical order of their URLs. Right-click to open in a new window or tab.

Wikipedia entries
Cut spelling
International Phonetic Alphabet
English Dialects
NATO Phonetic Alphabet for radio and telephonic communications
Phonemes according to this there are 35 to 47 phonemes in English
Shavian alphabet

Saundspel Yahoo Group
Faster Spelling
OZnet The Beautiful Princess Story
Should we simplify spelling? BBC article with link to a brief glossary
Englspel by R. Harmsen
Phonetics by C. G. Boeree
English simplified spelling by C. G. Boeree
Edward Rondthaler History of Efforts to Simplify English Spelling
English Spelling Reform
Spelling Simplified Review of a book for teachers
Children of the Code: Theodore Roosevelt (1906) 300 revised spellings.
HowJSay: English Pronouncing Dictionary
Usenet IPA/ASCII Transcription Evan Kirschenbaum
Phonemes according to this there are 44 phonemes in English
International Phonetic Association 2005 edition of the IP Alphabet
Reformed Alphabet by Benjamin Franklin 1768.
International Phonetic Alphabet summary chart
Visible Speech by Alexander Melville Bell 1867.
Optimnem Blog Simplified Spelling is a Bad Eyedihr
Ugh-free spelling
J.C.Wells: accents and spelling reform
Simplified spelling society
Shaw Alphabet
Spelling Dearest
Spelling Society: Why English Spelling Should be Updated
Phonemes according to the British Council there are 43 phonemes in English
Ted Power Phonetics
Spelling Reform Files