Noah Webster’s spelling reforms turned “centre” into “center” and “labour” into “labor”. Some people are pushing for wider adoption of simpler versions of English spellings.

Are you okay/ok with spelling shortcuts? If not, ur 100s of years 2 l8.

The complexity of English spellings has been bothering people for nearly as long as English has been written down. They argue that inconsistent spellings make English unnecessarily hard to learn. The English Spelling Society, a UK organisation pushing for easier spellings, even argues that there’s a link between difficult spelling and higher crime, with illiteracy pushing people into a life of illegality. While that argument might be a stretch, it’s clear that non-traditional spelling does create a bad impression.

A simpler spelling timeline

Compared to the UK variants, US spellings are easier for non-native speakers to learn, being shorter and slightly more phonetic. These US spellings are a legacy of dictionary pioneer Noah Webster’s movement for simplified spelling. This movement sought to cleanse English of double and silent letters, as well as other inefficiencies related to orthography (the system of writing and spelling words).

There was a practical as well as a political element to this. Not only would learners find it easier to master simplified spellings, Webster reasoned, but humbler spellings were actually more democratic, and would help differentiate the Americans from their recent colonial masters across the pond.

English is far from the only language where spelling reformers have been partly motivated by political considerations. After World War Two, the Romanian vowel ‘â’ was officially changed to ‘î’ to emphasise Romanian’s similarity to Russian and other Slavic languages, although ‘â’ returned as the Soviet influence waned. Earlier than that, “Romania” took precedence over “Rumania” and “Roumania” to stress the country’s idealised connection to ancient Rome.

In the US, Webster wasn’t the first or last to propose radical reform of English spellings. Fans of simplified spelling across the centuries have included prominent figures like Benjamin Franklin, who advocated for an “alfabet” without the letter “X”, and Theodore Roosevelt, who was mocked for attempting to adopt recommended changes like turning “phoenix” into “fenix”. 

His ideas led to the proliferation in the US of “labor” over “labour” and “center” over “centre”, even if not all his ideas have become the “fashon”

But Webster was influential where most were largely ignored. His ideas led to the proliferation in the US of “labor” over “labour” and “center” over “centre”, even if not all his ideas have become the “fashon”. For one thing, English is such an irregular language that it’s impossible to iron out all the kinks. No form of English is written out completely phonetically, as anybody with a tough cough (tuf cawf?) will know. Any new spelling rules would need plenty of exceptions.

Overall, English’s erratic spellings bear witness to the many words it has absorbed from other languages. Like the wealth of accents among English speakers, this feature both enriches the language and poses a challenge to standardised simplified spellings. Thus there’s never been a critical mass of linguists or the general public supporting massive spelling reform.

English spellings and dyslexia

One group that might be helped by simpler spellings is people with dyslexia. In linguistic terms, English is opaque, meaning that there’s little correlation and consistency between its spoken and written forms. What you read and what you say can seem very different. Finnish and Spanish, in contrast, are more transparent. So “kids learn to read English slower than kids who learned transparent languages like Spanish, Italian, Czech, German”, says Liory Fern-Pollak, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London.

As dyslexia has a neurological basis, an affected person would have dyslexia regardless of whether they were born in Finland or England. But Fern-Pollak explains that it would be easier to diagnose them in England, as they grapple with the idiosyncratic spellings of English.

Kids learn to read English slower than kids who learned transparent languages like Spanish, Italian, Czech, German - Fern-Pollak

Thus, she believes, it would be “tremendously helpful” for children with dyslexia to begin reading with more phonetic spellings, to ease them into standard English spellings. This happens in certain other languages. Hebrew, for instance, has diacritical marks like dashes for certain letters, acting as vowels even though standard Hebrew is written without vowels. So children learn to read with the marks, which are gradually taken away as they get older. A similar system, like stabilisers for children learning to ride a bike, might help certain English learners.

English in the internet age

Webster’s ideas are perhaps newly relevant, as the language of IT and the internet increasingly influences how English is written. Globally, Google returns more results for US spellings. In computing, “program”is generally accepted over “programme”. Shorter words are more versatile in text messages and social media posts, and search engine optimisation often favours US spellings. The Googlelisation (or “Googlization”) of the internet is one reason that Thai learners, for instance, prefer American spellings.

The Googlelisation of the internet is one reason that Thai learners, for instance, prefer American spellings

But the internet is also exposing people to a large variety of spellings. So “people are representing their spoken dialects more through spelling in spaces like Twitter and Instagram”, says Lauren Squires, a linguist at Ohio State University. She believes that “people are becoming more comfortable with spelling variation”, even though there’s a strong and enduring idea that only one spelling can be correct.

In the early days of the internet, there were neo-Websterian attempts to rationalise English spellings as part of “netspeak”. This gave the world “LOL” and some phonetic respellings, e.g. “luv u” and “cuz”, though abbreviations like “hi school” haven’t endured. (Of course, some of this predated online culture. Prince, that orthographic pioneer, insisted in 1984 that Nothing Compares 2 U.)

While English is too irregular to simplify its spellings as much as some proponents would like, one aspect of written English possibly being cut down by online communication is punctuation.

Full stops are now endangered in many brief instant messages, where the appearance of a full stop can give the impression of coldness or insincerity. This is partly related to line breaks in instant messages making full stops unnecessary.

As well, apostrophes may just fade away in some parts of written English as an unnecessary and time-consuming artefact. In more informal texts, they might go the way of the Oxford comma: some people using them only where needed to avoid confusion (e.g. his sister’s money vs. his sisters’ money).

And that will/that’ll/thatll be ok.

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