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Tom Pfeifer's Blog

The Case for Fonetik (Phonetic) Spelling

Oct. 17, 2018


I was three weeks into my first job as a reporter

at a daily newspaper when I ran into Wayne Lee,

my editor and publisher, in the bathroom.


“How do you like working here?” Wayne asked,

his eyes studying me through the mirror while

he washed his hands.


“I like it,” I replied. “I think I’m getting some

really good stories.”


Wayne turned from the sink, wiped his hands

on some paper towels, and looked me straight

in the eye with his no-nonsense Texas glare.


“Well,” he drawled, “if I were a younger man

and as ornery as I used to be, I’d tell you you’d

have a hard time working for me with my foot up your butt! Did you ever hear of a G-D dictionary?”


I had, of course, heard of such a book, but until then rarely consulted one. Until then, I spelled words as they sounded.


Big mistake.


Wouldn’t it be great if “two,” “to,” and “too” were spelled “tu”?


A sentence would then read:


“The tu of us went tu the store tu.”


Is there any ambiguity to the three meanings of “tu” in that sentence?


“Tu” is the phonetic spelling of “two,” “to,” and “too.” Spelling “tu”—and other words—phonetically would have three distinct advantages:


  1.  It would end the debate over whether reading should be taught phonetically or via whole language. Whole language teaching stems from the indisputable fact that American English is not a phonetic language and students can only learn through the memorization of words.
  2. It would allow non-English speakers to learn English and assimilate into our culture quicker.
  3. It would make America stand apart from other English-speaking countries as superior in language.


It also would have saved me from Wayne in the bathroom.


Phonetic spelling is something everyone can get behind. Supporters and critics of public education would find phonetic reforms pleasing. Believers in liberal immigration policies would support anything to make it easier for the foreign-born to succeed. And, America First proponents would love a superior American English.


Bonus: It’s not a new concept. In fact, it has its roots in the American Revolution. Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin proposed such a spelling reform at the dawn of our nation. They had some success. “Plough” is now most often spelled “plow” and “draught” is now most often spelled “draft,” except when speaking of beer—the beverage of choice in colonial America.


But most of their spelling reforms fell by the wayside. Perhaps it’s time to revisit them.


The argument for such reforms can be found in Webster’s Dissertation on the English Language, published in 1789. It’s in his Appendix that we find Webster’s cumbersomely titled “Essay on the Necessity, Advantages, and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation.” (Conciseness was not a hallmark of the Revolutionary period.)


To my first point (phonetic vs. whole language education), Webster wrote:


“The simplicity of [phonetic spelling] would facilitate the learning of the language. It is now the work of years for children to learn to spell; and after all, the business is rarely accomplished. A few men, who are bred to some business that requires constant exercise in writing, finally learn to spell most words without hesitation; but most people remain, all their lives, imperfect masters of spelling, and liable to make mistakes, whenever they take up a pen to write a short note. Nay, many people, even of education and fashion, never attempt to write a letter, without frequently consulting a dictionary.” (Hear that, Wayne?)


To my second point (ease for the foreign-born), Webster noted:


“Besides this advantage, foreigners would be able to acquire the pronunciation of English, which is now so difficult and embarrassing, that they are either wholly discouraged on the first attempt, or obliged, after many years labor, to rest contented with an imperfect knowledge of the subject.”


I am blessed to have many friends for which English is their second, third, or even seventh language. No matter how long they have been in the States, our language still stumps them.


To my third point (superior English), Webster wrote:


“[A] national language is a band of national union. Every engine should be employed to render the people of this country national; to call their attachments home to their own country; and to inspire them with the pride of national character.”


Or, Make America Great Again!


To accomplish these three goals, Webster proposed three reforms:


  1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters. “Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend.”
  2. “A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak, grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel.”
  3. The third reform included adding stokes and points to distinguish sounds. “Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel, in this manner, ̇a or ė, or ̇i, might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the diphthong ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke."


Webster’s third reform was in bowing to Franklin, who wanted to eliminate some letters and create new ones, something even Webster knew would never be accepted.


That phonetics also wasn’t accepted at the dawn of our nation shouldn’t keep us from doing so today. After all, it took two centuries for the systematic social security net Webster created in Hartford, Connecticut, to catch on in the United States.


To make America great again, to help assimilate our immigrants, and most importantly to save a budding journalist from a bathroom chewing out, the time for phonetics is now.


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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.​​