American English Spelling


During the last two decades much important work has been done on the study of English orthography, enough that Michael Stubbs can say in his Language and Literacy that we now understand the English spelling system and that it is morphophonemic—that is, it relates "orthographic units not only to phonemes, but also to morphemes, and therefore to grammatical and semantic units" (43). Stubbs alludes here to the morphophonemically based work of Richard Venezky, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, Carol Chomsky, and K. H. Albrow. These people, and others—such as Robert Oswalt in his short but insightful study—use different versions of morphophonemic theory to find order where for four hundred years critics could see only confusion and whimsy.

In this book I argue that orthography, like morphology or syntax or phonology, is an autonomous and self-governing system, both self-regulating and self-reorganizing. Orthography is not autonomous in the sense of being utterly independent, for it and the other systems interdepend in complex ways. Their interdependent autonomy can be suggested through a metaphor: Morphology, phonology, syntax, and orthography are like poles of force in a complex magnetic system. Their interdependence is like the designs etched into iron filings sprinkled on a sheet above them. The poles are autonomous centers, but their fields of effect so interdepend that at their peripheries it is impossible to tell when you have moved from the field of influence of one clearly into the field of influence of another. Orthography, then, my argument goes, is one autonomous but interdependent system within the larger system of systems that makes up American English. This book describes that autonomy and interdependence, though its major concern is with that systematicity.

Some opening disclaimers are in order. The title, American English Spelling , is meant to be taken .literally. This is a study of English as it is spelled in America. There is no attempt to speak in an orderly way of spelling in any of the other English-speaking areas. The reasons have little to do with the way in which words are actually spelled, for the differences between American and, say, British English spelling are quite modest. Perhaps the largest among these differences has to do with the British tendency to twin final consonants in unstressed syllables while American English is more insistent that the syllable receive at least secondary stress (see 9.1)—as in medallist, usually qualified as "chiefly British," versus medalist. Beyond that, there are the old stand-bys: the British predilection for -our where American English more regularly has -or (see Aronoff 1978); the word-final re versus er difference. A short visit to New Zealand led to the following list of British spellings that seemed odd to American eyes: tonnes, tyre, programme, cheque, honour, centre, jewellery, nett (weight), enquiries —a modest list at worst. The major reason for restricting this study to American English is the marked difference in pronunciation that is found in the other varieties of English, especially in the pronunciation of the vowels. Trying to write sound-to-spelling correspondences for the range of American pronunciations is trying at times; to add, say, British to it would render the job much more difficult.

The subtitle, An Informal Description, is meant to suggest that this book is not the kind of modern linguistic science that speaks in algorithmic, formal terms. It is offered, rather, as humanistic scholarship. I take some solace in a work like On Explaining Language Change, in which Roger Lass argues convincingly for a view of language and language study based on complementarity. Lass warns us of the potential for delusion in a relentless insistence on deductive formalism. He has helped me feel somewhat less quaint and anachronistic in claiming to study language in the spirit of humanistic scholarship rather than scientific formalism.

I do not deal with proper names in any sustained or orderly way, owing to the fact that each proper name can be pretty much a rule unto itself. This is not to say that proper names are not orthographically interesting and important. Far from it. More than one good and useful book could be written using proper names to demonstrate, among other things, the way the orthographic system has changed across the centuries.

Nor do I attempt to analyze the spelling of schwa or any of the partially reduced vowels, such as unstressed short i or the barred i recognized in some linguistic analyses. Since any vowel letter and nearly any vowel digraph and trigraph can spell schwa, to try to do reduced vowels justice would have added too much to what is already a lengthy book. A description of the orthography of reduced vowels will have to wait. There is, however, one exception to the omission of unstressed vowel spellings in the following chapters: the first of a pair of vowels in hiatus—a pair that is discussed as the V.V pattern (see 4.2.1) and in which the first vowel is treated as long, even when unstressed, as in the case of the first e in create or the i in hiatus.

Unlike Richard Venezky's Structure of English Orthography, and, for that matter, nearly all works in orthography, this one does not deal with spelling-to-sound correspondences. It deals instead with sound-to-spelling correspondences. It examines the problem from the standpoint not of the reader but rather of the writer—or at least the speller. Readers start with letters for which they must find the sounds, while spellers start with sounds for which they must find the letters. This book is an example, I believe, of what Z. Saljapina and V. Sevoroskin had in mind at the end of their review of Venezky's work when they commented on the potential usefulness of a study of English orthography that, unlike Venezky's analytic study, was synthetic.

And finally, this book does not say anything directly to the huge problems of teaching and learning English orthography, in either the reading or the spelling classroom. This silence is somewhat ironic in that my original interest in English spelling grew out of the problems of teaching remedial spelling to college-age students, a project in which I am still much involved. The one thing that I would say about the role of orthography in the classroom is that probably it is better for the teacher to know more rather than less. If we can begin to understand the English orthographic system better, then we should be better able to understand the relationship between that system and the manifold problems of teaching people to read and write our language. Then we should be able to do a better job in the classroom.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, consisting of chapters 1 and 2, presents the approach to orthographic analysis upon which the entire description is based. Chapter 1 sets out a theoretical basis for viewing American English spelling as systematic. Chapter 2 describes the analysis, or explication, of written words into their elements, particles, and processes.

The second section, consisting of chapters 3-7, describes orthographic tactics and tactical rules. Chapter 3 describes the constraints placed on the distribution and sequencing of English vowels and consonants in written words. Chapters 4-7 describe the important tactical strings of vowel and consonant letters. Chapter 4 sets out the major and some of the minor string patterns. Chapter 5 describes the shortening effects of certain suffixes on preceding strings that would normally be expected to contain long vowels. Chapter 6 describes the behavior of one of the two most important strings—VCV, or vowel-consonant-vowel-in disyllables, including the shortening produced by stress frontshifting in words adopted from French. And chapter 7 describes the shortening of VCV strings in the third or fourth syllable from the end of words, especially in Romance adoptions and adaptations.

The third section, consisting of chapters 8-10, describes three major procedural rules that affect the way elements combine: the final e deletion rule (chapter 8), the final consonant twinning rule (chapter 9), and the assimilation rules for the final consonant in certain prefixes (chapter 10).

The fourth section is the largest, consisting of chapters 11-33. It describes in some detail the major and minor correspondences between the sounds of American English and their spellings. Chapter 11 discusses the analysis of English sounds and the development of the English alphabet. Chapters 12-17 describe the short vowels; chapters 18-23, the long vowels. Chapters 24 and 25 describe the complex vowels—that is, the diphthongs and vowels colored by a following /r/ sound. Chapters 26-33 describe the eight groups of consonants recognized in this analysis: the front stops, the velar stops, the two groups of simple fricatives, the palatalized fricatives, the nasals, the liquids, and the semivowels.

Chapters 12-33 refer repeatedly to the frequency of ccurrence of certain sound-to-spelling correspondences. The source for these figures is the computer study Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences as Cues to Spelling Improvement, by Hanna et aI. (1966). Their phonemic analysis has been criticized (by Ney 1974, for instance), and a number of changes have been made to bring it into line with the analysis of English sounds used in this study. But the work of Hanna et al. remains very useful if we remember that the percentages they offer represent an abstract scaling of the occurrence of the variant correspondences. Their figures say nothing about the frequencies the readers and writers of English actually encounter in the written language. Their figures are based on about 14,000 high-frequency word types. In actual written discourse, word types occur as tokens with widely differing frequencies. For instance, in the American Heritage Word Frequency Book, which speaks not only in terms of types but also in terms of tokens actually encountered in print, the 100 most common word types cited represent nearly 50 percent of the 5,088,721 word tokens in its tally. Hanna et al. do not describe written English as it is experienced. Still, their figures are useful for comparing and arbitrarily scaling the different correspondences. {Godfrey Dewey's Relative Frequency of English Spellings does contain a frequency count that is based on the occurrence of spellings in word tokens rather than word types [1970, 28-47].)



In any work of this kind the two great dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Webster's Third New International (W3), are the major sources. The debt owed them can never be adequately reflected in the documentation. The next most important source for this study, especially in its historical discussion, is the work of Otto Jespersen. Sounds and Spellings, the first part of his Modern English Grammar, remains after all these years a remarkable work. Much of importance has been done in the history of English speech sounds since Jespersen's day—for instance, by A. A. Prins (1972) and E. J. Dobson (1957). And yet Jespersen's description remains reliable in its outlines and in the great majority of its details. Further, the organization of Jespersen's Sounds and Spellings makes it particularly useful to orthographers. Jespersen's name occurs more often than any other in the documentation of this study, and yet it could well have occurred much more often than it does, so valuable has his work been.

The first sustained work on this book was made possible by a sabbatical year granted to me by Central Washington University; For that I thank Central, its Professional Leave Committee, and the taxpayers of the state of Washington.

I thank Eric Halpern, Humanities Editor at The Johns Hopkins University Press, for his support and advice. To Penny Moudrianakis, whose copyediting skill and good spirit made both this book and its writing much happier enterprises, Ευχαριστω παρα πολ υ.

And I thank my wife, Carol, who finally convinced me that a sabbatical leave was something to pursue, and once it was granted, that to do such work one should be well away from home and its interruptions and in a place lovely to the soul. Thus, much of the first draft of this book was written in Hawaii, Rarotonga, and Tahiti, and for the memories of those places one also must give thanks.

D. W. Cummings

Central Washington University


Cummings, D. W.
American English Spelling: An Informal Description, pp. xxv-xxix, vii-xxiv, 539-555. © 1988 [Copyright Holder]. Reproduced with permission of The Johns Hopkins
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