Spelwel: A Simplified Spelling Scheme

© by G. P. Jelliss, revised 2 and 12 December 2020

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 (2 December 2020) of several modifications attempted over the years. (The previous modifications were made on 15 February 2013 and 22 November 2014.)

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. Though the idea that any language can be split up into component sounds (phonemes) may be questioned, since exactly where one sound ends and another begins is not always entirely clear, and there are regional differences.

These schemes either use many special symbols, more than the usual 26 letters, that are not readily obtainable even on word processors, or they make use of digraphs such as ch, th, ph, oe, oo, that represent sounds that are clearly not produced by separately voicing the two letters of which they are formed. The Shaw Alphabet, designed by Kingsley Read in 1958, uses 40 special letters, resembling short-hand or some Indian scripts. The International Phonetic Alphabet, initially created in 1886, uses 107 letters and 56 other marks to represent all the languages of the world.

Searches on the internet reveal many alternative schemes for reformed English spelling, as shown in the extended list of Links at the end of this page, dating back as far as Benjamin Franklin in 1768. The Pronunciation Keys in The Collins English Dictionary (1995 edition) and in The Chambers Dictonary (1993) agree on using a total of 49 symbols for different sounds, based on the IPA. Some of these are special letters, some combinations of letters and some have accent marks attached to them. Since we only have 26 letters in our alphabet it is clear that if we are not to introduce new letters or accents we must either use some letters to modify the sound of others, in combination, or allow some letters multiple values. Some ambiguity must be accepted in any system that uses only a limited number of letters, unlike the IPA, where the most minor distinctions may be made.

Everyone who reads, writes or speaks 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. The aim of the exercise outlined here is to devise a reasonably phonetic scheme that uses only the existing 26 letters of the alphabet, or fewer, without introducing extra letters, nor using accent marks which are traditionally not favoured in English. The sounds assigned to the letters may be different from present, but we also want to retain at least a reasonable proportion of existing spellings where possible, and to spell words briefly but clearly. There need not be an exact correspondence between letters and sounds, but it should be possible to tell which sound a letter represents from the context. For instance it may be different at the end of a word or when preceded or followed by certain other letters.

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 revisions have been a compromise between these. For publicity purposes I'm now calling the system Spelwel.

Usually the sounds are divided into 'vowels' which are made by the breath and vocal cords modified by the shape of the open mouth, according to the relative positions of palate, tongue and lips, and 'consonants' whose sounds depend on contacts or constrictions in the mouth, though there are some sounds that may be considered 'semi-vowels' or 'semi-consonants'.

The Consonants

Among the present 26 letters there are 17 that consistently represent a consonantal sound that is simple, not a combination of others, namely: b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, w, y, z. It seems sensible to retain these as they are. The letter k is retained in this list because of its consistency, even though most words with this sound are in fact spelt with c (or ck), whereas the letter c has a number of different sounds (as in 'case', 'cease', 'chase' etc).

In current spelling the q usually occurs followed by u (as in 'quip') which has the sound of kw, while x represents the compound sound ks (as in 'lax') or gz (as in 'exact'). It is proposed, as in the original article, that the unvoiced and voiced values of 'th' (as in 'thin' and 'then') be represented by x and q respectively. A mnemonic is that x has a cross-piece like t, and q resembles the voiced consonant d. [In the 2014 revision it was proposed to use y instead of q, mainly so that the two 'th' sounds, as x and y, would then be adjacent in the alphabet. This meant j taking on the duties of y, which proved unattractive.]

In the original article the letter j retained its current sound and c was used for 'ch' while new letters (s and z with strike through) were proposed for the 'sh' and 'ge' sounds. It is now proposed that c and j be used for these. It is arguable that the consonantal sound of y (as in 'yet') also appears invisibly in words like 'chew' and 'tune' preceded by a t sound, and in words like 'duty' and 'joke' preceded by a d sound (equivalent to the current 'j' sound). Thus on this scheme 'church' becomes tyurtc and 'judge' becomes dyudj.

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 non-rhotic speakers it reduces to something like an indefinite vowel. (This is so in my own speech, which is a Londonish somewhere between Received Pronunciation and Estuary English.) However, it is arguable that the r should be retained in places where rhotic speakers pronounce it, even if it has become inaudible in non-rhotic speech, because this would make our spelling more widely acceptable.

The Shaw and IPA alphabets use a separate letter for the 'ng' sound, but in my view the modified n sound is a natural 'allophone' of n when it is followed by g or k. Whether the g is reduced to a minimal sound, like a glotttal stop, or has a distinct hard g sound I now consider a matter of dialect, and these differences can simply be regarded as variants of g. I don't think it is necessary to double the g as in 'fingger'. If so should one double the g in 'distinguish' or 'singular'?

On this scheme we thus recognise 21 basic consonants, which can be arranged in three groups of seven, namely seven 'unvoiced' sounds: p, f, t, x, s, k, c, and seven corresponding 'voiced' sounds b, v, d, q, z, g, j, and seven 'tensed' sounds m, n, l, r, w, y, h, though there doesn't seem to be any obvious correspondence of these with the other two groups. Three of these r, w, y are sometimes called 'semi-vowels' since they are related to vowel sounds. We show below a selection of current ways of spelling these sounds.

Table of Consonants (21)

bbombard, rabbit
cship, fish, fissure, fission, fiche, motion, sure, fuchsia, (tc) watch, lurch
ddread, rudder, junk, gem
ffife, ruffle, rough, phosphorus, sapphire
ggo, big, rugged, ghost, guide, (ng) ring, finger, distinguish
hmishap, Callaghan, who, (hh) loch, (hw) whale
jazure, vision, leisure, equation, rouge, range, (dj) lodge, duke
kcat, kink, quit, account, scheme, block, acquit, khaki, trekking, excel, choir
lholy, holly
mmum, climb, autumn, summer, exempt
nany, sign, knot, mnemonic, funny, pneumatic, finger, ink, ring
pprop, diphtheria, supper, dreamt
qthe, then, bathe
rred, arrow, rhombus, wrap, antirrhinum
scell, sell, ascetic, hiss, castle, asthma, sword
ttort, doubt, indict, thyme, otter, yacht, eight, (ty) chew, tune
vof, verse, stephen, revved, verve
wsuite, wit, choir, when, one
xthin, phthalate
yyet, pew, hue, cognac, (dy) duke, jam, (ty) tune, chew
zxylophone, is, zeal, czar, tsar, buzzer, please

There are of course many other ways of compounding consonants. Those shown are just some that occur frequently in alternative forms. Most initial consonants can be folllowed by y, l and r (e.g. pew, plea, press). The s in particular can be folowed by many other consonants (e.e. skill, sleep, small, snail, spire, step, swim), and form triples (sprain, split, street).

The Vowels

How many basic vowels are there in English? Since we have used 21 letters for the consonants we only have the 5 usual suspects a, e, i, o, u left for the vowels. We have to use these or combinations of them with the semi-vowels r, w, y, for all vowel sounds.

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', 'serial', but all the vowels provide examples, as in 'the', 'evil', 'random', 'helium', or just juxtaposition as in 'chasm'. Some of this however could be considered careless speech, and 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'. It is proposed to share the duty between a and r, retaining existing spellings where possible, such as in the case of the indefinite article, a, and the terminal r as in the above examples.

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. The use of u for the 'up' sound is also supported by all those words beginning with 'un' or 'under'.

However there is another short vowel sound also usually represented by u (as in 'put' 'full' or 'good'). In some dialects the sounds of u in 'cut' and 'put' are not in fact distinguished, and there are few words in which substitution of one sound for the other results in a different meaning: 'buck', 'book', 'luck', 'look', 'tuck', 'took', 'ruck', 'rook', 'cud', 'could', 'putt' and 'put' are the most common. My conclusion is to allow this ambiguity and use u for both sounds.

Table of Simple Vowels (5)

aadd, arrow, cat, plait, carry, a, abed, sofa, the
eany, peg, ferry, bury, said, says, threat, heifer, leopard, friend, yeah
ivillage, pretty, it, women, minute, myth, sieve, build, irritate, iridium, Illyria
owas, want, ox, log, because, all, gone, John, cough, yacht, forage, laurel
uup, son, does, blood, love, rough, put, pull, wood, would, chas'm, helium

In the original article extended vowel sounds were shown as vowel followed by semi-vowel r, w, y. In the 2013 revision the idea of showing longer sounds by doubling the vowels was explored, but this encounters the problem that 'ee' is not distinguishable from 'ei' / 'ey' (as in 'rein' or 'they') and 'oo' is not distinguishable from 'oa' / 'or' (representing the sounds in 'faught' and 'fort'). This can be avoided by allowing only a, i, u (corresponding to r, y, w) to be extensions. When another vowel follows (possibly in the next word) the semi-vowel naturally appears. At ends of words the shorter form can usually be used without ambiguity. The fact that all the vowel sounds, except y, are shown by letters without risers or descenders is an attractive point in my view. The table shows a selection of current ways of spelling these sounds.

Table of Lengthened Vowels (12)

aa / arask, aunt, baa, bah, calm, dance, fast, path, are, bar, clerk, heart, hart, father
au / awout, bout, down, gaucho, house, bough, cow, our, hour, sour, tower
ai / ayaye, eye, I, my, aisle, die, eider, guide, high, height, byre, biro, fire, mite, by, buy, bye, buyer
ea / erair, bare, bear, e'er, mare, mayor, prayer, scarce, their, there
ei / eyale, mate, break, eight, rain, rein, reign, station, brae, day, nee, they, chaos
ia / irbeer, bier, emir, hear, here, pier, peer, rear, ria, aria
ii / iyseize, eve, thief, these, sikh, seek, any, be, tee, tea, being, see, flea, seize, emil, alley, many, neon
oa / orquart, caught, awe, broad, hall, haul, water, boar, court, door, for, four, warn, wall, awl, floor, bore
oi / oyboy, buoy, coil, foil, oil, Freudian, lawyer, voyeur
ou / owpost, mauve, sew, broach, doe, mote, doh, folk, brooch, soul, low, bureau, rowed, dough, bone, beau, go, road
ua / urher, burr, err, bird, burn, earth, fir, fur, first, herd, heard, journal, word, were, adieu
uu / uwfood, moon, truth, blue, chew, do, flew, grew, to, too, two, true, tour, ewer, doing, roue, mooing, truest

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. The combinations eu, iu, uy don't appear to be useful.

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 wiq a hevi hart qat ai teik up mai pen tu rait qiiz qa laast wurdz in witc ai cal evur rikord qa singyuular gifts bai witc mai frend Mr Curlok Holmz woz distingwicd. In an inkohirent, and, az ai diipli fiil, an entairli inadekwut facon, ai hav endevud tu giv sum akaunt ov mai streenj ekspiriyensez in hiz kumpani from qa tyaans witc furst broat uz tugequr at qa piriod ov qa "Studi in Skarlet" up tu qa taim ov hiz inturfirens in qa matur ov qa "Neival Triiti" - an inturfirens witc had qi unkwestyonabal efekt ov preventing a siirius inturnaconal komplikeicon. It woz mai intencon tu hav stopt qer, and tu hav sed nuxing ov qat event witc haz kriyeited a void in mai laif witc qa laps ov tu yirz haz dun lital tu fil."

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is a favourite test-piece for showing and comparing spelling reforms. Another example is available at this link: C. G. Boeree. Three other links were to Saundspel but are now unavailable due to closure of Yahoo Groups.

Forskor and seven yiirz agou aur faaqurz broat forx on qis kontinent a nyuw neicon konsiivd in liburti, and dedikeited tu qa propozican qat oal men ar kriyeited iikwal. Nau wi ar engeidjd in a greit sivil wor testing wequr qat neicon, sou konsiivd and sou dedikeited, kan long endyuur. Wi ar met on a greit batalfiild ov qat wor. Wi hav kum tu dedikeit ei porcon ov qat fiild az ei fainal resting-pleis for qouz hu hir geiv qer laivz qat qat neicon mait liv. It iz oaltugequr fiting and propur qat wi shud du qis. But in ei lardjur sens, wi kanot dedikeit, wi kanot konsekreit, wi kanot halou qis graund. Qa breiv men, living and ded, hu strugald hir hav konsekreited it far abuv aur puur pawur tu ad or ditrakt. Qa wurld wil lital nout nor long rimembur wot wi sei hir, but it kan nevur forget wot qei did hir. It iz for uz qa living raaqur tu bi hir dedikeited tu qi unfinict wurk witc qei hu foat hir hav qus far sou noubli advaanst. It iz raaqur for uz tu bi hir dedikeited tu qa greit taask rimeining bifor uz - qat from qiiz onurd ded wi teik inkriist diivoucon - qat wi hir haili rizolv qat qiiz ded cal not hav daid in vein, qat qis neicon undur God cal hav ei nyuw burx ov friidom, and qat guvurnment ov qa piipal, bai qa piipal, for qa piipal cal not peric from qi urx.

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.

Wuns ai lukt intu qa fyuutyur, far az eniwun kud si,
And ai soa qa tyiif forkaastur, ded az eniwun kud bi.
Ded and damd and shut in Heidiiz az a layur from hiz burx
Wiq ei rekord ov unriizon seldom paraleld on urx.
Az ai wotct, hi reizd him solemli, qat inkandesent yuux
From qa koulz qat hi prefurd tu q'advaantidjez ov truux.
Qen hi kaast hiz aiz abaut him, qen abuv him, and hi rout,
On a slab ov xin asbestos, wot ai ventyur hir tu kwout.
For ai red it in qa rouz-lait ov qat evurlaasting glow:
"Klaudi, veiriabal windz, shawurz, kuulur, snow".

The Beautiful Princess Story

This is a widely used spelling test piece. However once again the link previously given to other examples has been closed down.

Wuns upon a taim, qa byuutiful doatur ov a greit madyican wonted mor purlz tu put amung hur trejurz. "Luk xru qa sentur ov qa muun wen it iz blu", sed hur muqur in aansur tu hur kwestyan. "Yu mait faind yor hart's dizair". Qa prinses laaft, bikoz ci dauted qiiz wurdz. Insted, shi yuuzd hur imadyineican, and muuvd intu qi foutografi biznes, and tuk piktyurz ov qa muun in kulur. "Ai pursiiv moust surtenli qat it iz oalmoust houlli wait", ci xort. Ci oalsou faund qat ci kuud meik inuf muni in eit munxs tu bai hurself tu luvli hyuudj nyu dyuwelz tu.

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 ....

Mutc az qi impurfekcon ov qi alfabet wil admit ov, qa prezent bad speling iz ounli bad bikoz kontrari tu qa prezent bad ruulz: Undur qa nyu ruulz it wud bi guud - qa difikulti ov lurning tu spel wel in qi ould wey iz sou greit, qat fyu atein it; xauzandz and xauzandz raiting on tu ould eidj, wiqaut evur biying eibal tu akwair it. 'Tiz bisaidz a difikulti kontinyuwali inkriising; az qi saund gradyuwali veiriiz mor and mor from qi speling, and tu forenurz ...


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

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

Omniglot entries
Reformed Alphabet by Benjamin Franklin 1768.
International Phonetic Alphabet summary chart
Visible Speech by Alexander Melville Bell 1867.

Should we simplify spelling? BBC article with link to a brief glossary
Regularizing the English Spelling System
Englspel by R. Harmsen
Staendardspel Philip Johnson-Smith
Phonetics by C. G. Boeree
English simplified spelling by C. G. Boeree
Spelling Simplified Review of a book for teachers
Children of the Code: Theodore Roosevelt (1906) 300 revised spellings.
English Spelling Reform Facebook page
HowJSay: English Pronouncing Dictionary
Restored Latinate Spelling
Phonemes according to this there are 44 phonemes in English
Archaic English Spellings
Optimnem Blog Simplified Spelling is a Bad Eyedihr
J.C.Wells: accents and spelling reform
Simplified spelling society
Spelling Society: Why English Spelling Should be Updated
English Spelling Society Blog
Phonemes according to the British Council there are 43 phonemes in English
Ted Power Phonetics
Wyrdplay Alan Beale
Spelling Reform Files