Your Title Text



September 21, 2004 Radio Program

About Spelling Dearest and Spelling Reform

CBC Radio 1

FM Radio

Program: The Current

Interviewer: Anna Maria Tremonti


Guests: Niall McLeod Waldman, author of Spelling Dearest

Jack Bovill, former language-school owner

Vivian Cook, teacher of linguistics at the University of Newcastle

Katherine Barber, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary

Click the button below for the CBC webpage and interview (The Current, part 3):

 Spelling Dearest. CBC Interview



January 6, 2005 Newspaper Article

About Spelling Dearest

The San Diego Union-Tribune

Columnist: Angus Lind


Other printings of this article: Las Vagas Tribune, Jan 14, 2005;

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Dec 25, 2004;

The Seattle Times, Dec 19, 2004;

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), Dec 10, 2004.


 Spelling Dearest. Times-Picayune Article.



April 1, 2005 Newspaper Article

About English Spelling and Spelling Dearest

Peterborough This Week

Reporter: Lauren Gilchrist


 Spelling Dearest. Peterborough This Week Article



April 14, 2005 Letter To The Editor

About English Spelling and Dr. Samuel Johnson

Cayman Net News

Author: Niall McLeod Waldman


(Also printed in The Toronto Star, April 13, 2005)


 Spelling Dearest. Peterborough This Week Article





Cover cartoon for SPELLING DEAREST, History Of English Spelling






Sample Interview / Frequently Asked Questions...

Why the title Spelling Dearest?

Our children are being beaten up by a crazy spelling system that appears to them to be loved by millions. The similarity to Joan Crawford beating her children in Mommy Dearest was unavoidable.


What do you mean our kids are being beaten up by a crazy spelling system?

They are being beaten up because they are constantly bombarded by unpredictable silent letters, double consonants that defy explanation, endless varieties of vowel combinations, demon words that fit no heavenly or earthly pattern, and rules that are notoriously unreliable. Our kids are forced to attempt to learn a system that is illogical, inconsistent, and — worst of all — needlessly complicated. They are not being physically beaten up, but many of them do end up with well-concealed scars on their psyches. Over and above the inferiority and the feeling of failure that this spelling system breeds, at least one study has shown that using a system as irrational as ours may arrest the development of logical thinking. That's not just being beating up; it's child abuse in my opinion.

Are bad spellers the only ones being beaten up by the English-spelling system?

No, even good spellers are suffering. At school they are forced to spend countless hours per week on a system they will probably never fully master. Only about five percent of the population ever becomes completely proficient at English spelling. The rest of us develop coping skills and character.


What is Spelling Dearest about?

It's about the meandering and often unguided history of English spelling, and how the lack of common-sense controls has affected our spelling today. It's about the mistakes, missed opportunities, and misjudgments that were made by the key people involved. The book also touches upon how a complicated spelling system such as ours creates functional illiterates. In a nutshell, it's about looking down on a system that up until now has looked down on us.


Does English spelling create functional illiterates?

Most definitely. Literacy organizations have been screaming this from the rooftops for decades. Germany and Finland have simple spelling systems, and they have about half the number of functional illiterates as English-speaking countries. Common sense tells us if we have a writing system that requires a high degree of code-breaking skills to decipher, then a good portion of the population (who do not have these advanced skills) will have trouble understanding it. A confusing spelling system may seem relatively harmless in isolation but it's what happens behind the scenes — it's what happens behind the eyes of that innocent child who's trying to make sense of it — where the real damage occurs. Complex spelling is only the bullet holes in our writing system; functional illiterates and stunted logical thinkers are the exit wounds.


How does learning to read in English compare to learning to read in other languages?

It takes about 4 months, 2 hours a day to teach a Russian child how to read and write Russian. It takes 5 years longer than that to teach an English-speaking child to read and write English to the same level. Thankfully for us, nuclear weaponry, strategic military planning, and international espionage proved a little harder for the Russians to master; otherwise they'd have won the Cold War with all that free time they had on their hands.


The Dictionary of Simplified American Spelling says this about learning to read in English: "Written Spanish helps one learn Spanish. Written English only confuses the learner." I can't put it any better than that.


Why did you write a book about the history of English spelling?

To answer my children's questions: "Daddy, why is spelling so difficult? Daddy, where do difficult spellings come from? Daddy, why are there 19 ways to spell the sh-sound?" You have to know the whole history to come close to answering these questions. No one incident, or one short sentence, can explain all the ridiculousness inherent in this system. To understand a country you have to understand the history behind that country. Likewise, to understand a spelling system like ours, you have to know about the decisions that were made and the wars that were waged. Not to mention the post-traumatic stress syndrome and collateral damage that have resulted from these decisions and wars. That's where Spelling Dearest comes in.


Where do difficult spellings come from?

For specifics, you have to read the book. Generally, they come from every conceivable place on the planet. They come from dank and dingy corners of complex and confused minds. They come from anywhere and everywhere imaginable, and some places you'd never dream of. If nothing else, the English spelling system is creative in its complexity. Creativity is commendable for surrealistic paintings and blank-verse poetry, but a sprinkling of down-home logic would be more appropriate for a spelling system.


It's interesting to hear you say that the English-spelling system is creative. Bad spellers are usually contemptuously called creative.

That's true. In reality, though, bad spellers are normally being more logical than the system they are working with. They are generally trying to simplify things or follow a pattern that should be there already. It's ironic; our spelling system is the ridicule of the non-English-speaking world, yet we ridicule the ones amongst us who are attempting to make it less ridiculous! How absurd is that?

You said English spelling is the ridicule of the non- English-speaking world. Is this true?

Oh my God, yes. English spelling is by far the worst alphabetical spelling system in the world. Perfectly normal people who learn English as a second language think they have suddenly developed dyslexia when they first try to read in English. All the letters seem to be rearranged in places they shouldn't be. Our spelling is so illogical that new learners can't even find some of the words they are looking for in the dictionary. They think it ludicrous that we have special bad-speller's dictionaries that tell us the correct spellings so we can then look up the meanings in the real dictionaries. The English spelling system should be ridiculed. It's an embarrassment to us all. It is the alcoholic, butt-scratching brother of the otherwise universally admired English language.


How complex is English spelling compared to the spelling of other languages?

Extremely. In Finland, Germany, Spain, and many other countries, they don't even have spelling books in school because their spelling systems are so easy to learn, yet in English-speaking counties we still teach spelling at university! If you rounded up a bunch of Finnish people and told them they were going to be tested on their Finnish-spelling ability, they would laugh. It is almost impossible to spell a word wrongly in that language once you learn the simple spelling of each sound. Round up a bunch of English-speaking people, take away their computer spell-checkers and their Franklin electronic dictionaries, and tell them they are going to be tested on their English-spelling ability, and they will quickly have an urgent meeting to go to. That meeting, by the way, will have a secretary — sworn to secrecy — who deciphers the minutes.


What is the purpose of  Spelling Dearest?

Firstly to inform. This is an intriguing subject that is largely untapped. There are literally hundreds of books on the history of the English Language, yet only a few on the history of English spelling. Spelling Dearest fills an important general-knowledge gap. It bridges the void between the limited information provided by the main-stream English language books and the in-depth academic details offered by the university publications.


The second purpose of Spelling Dearest is to entertain. It takes a playful approach to presenting information, rather than a sterile delivery of hard facts. The idea is to deliver this important subject matter to as large an audience as possible, while at the same time providing fresh particulars and interpretations for the more academic-minded.


The third purpose of the book is to arm people against ridicule. Now when a person makes a spelling mistake, all he or she has to do is pull out a copy of Spelling Dearest and say: "Here, read this, then come back and tell me that my mistake was worse than any of the mistakes or misjudgments that were made on the long and rocky road that got us into this mess in the first place."



Aren't you letting people off the hook by allowing them to blame the history and the system for the mistakes they make?




Not at all. I agree that too many people today blame other people and factors for their mistakes. Someone fights their way through the flames emitting from a cup of coffee to burn their lips, and nowadays that's not their fault. In reality, though, spelling mistakes are the one thing that people still blame themselves for. They do this because they don't realize how complex and illogical our spelling system is. A spelling error is the one situation where other elements do play a large part in the mistake. It's important that poor spellers, good spellers, educators, and the people who can change things know this. For people to take total responsibility for every spelling mistake they make is the biggest spelling mistake they will ever make.


What makes Spelling Dearest unique?



The book focuses on the people more than the events. It lays a great deal of the blame for our system's complexity at the feet of the important individuals who missed the opportunity to fix it. The character and personality of these famous individuals, in relation to their choice of spelling, is always an issue.


In addition to the main text, many historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and works by William Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift, are used to illustrate the spelling at different times in the history. Similarly, illustrative charts give examples of how specific words were spelled throughout the centuries.


Spelling Dearest also has one pen and ink caricature for the major historical personality in every chapter of the book. These caricatures allow readers who have been adversely affected by English spelling to sketch horns and missing teeth on their least favorite personality. Hell has no fury like a bad speller scorned! Sketching materials not included.


Tell me one of the "dirty little secrets" about English Spelling.



In 16th century England, lawyers and their clerks added extra letters to words because they were paid by the length of their documents. No one knows for sure whether adding these surplus letters has affected the spelling we have today, but it certainly contributed to the tumultuous spelling in the 16th century. These individuals also spaced lines ridiculously far apart and created huge margins to elongate their manuscripts, so there's little doubt about what they were up to. Lucky for them they weren't paid by the shortness of their integrity or they'd have gone bankrupt! And the legal profession wonders why it gets the reputation for being money-grabbing!


What is the absolute worst thing that has happened to our spelling system?

The worst thing that has ever happened to our spelling system is something that has never actually happened. Our spelling system has never had a Language Academy to control it. A Language Academy is an institution that has the supreme authority to say: this is the way it will be, this is what we will do with new or foreign words, this is the law according to logic. The French and Italian Academies have made the languages they control much easier to read and spell since their inception. Our spelling, on the other hand, has been generally controlled by a bunch of relatively uncontrolled tradespeople such as monks, scribes, and printers. If we had a Language Academy with ultimate authority, a rigid backbone, and a desire for improvement, we would have 50% fewer functional illiterates; less stressful students and teachers; no spelling books; no phonetic re-spellings in dictionaries; and — best of all — no more spelling bees on prime-time television. If I want to watch someone sweat over the spelling of a word, I can watch teenagers filling out job application forms at Home Depot stores.

Now that you mentioned them, what do you think of spelling bees?

Don't ask me about spelling bees. Ask someone from Finland — where they have an extremely simple spelling system — what they think of spelling bees. They will look puzzled no matter how you try to explain them. To Finns, competing in a spelling bee would be like competing in a breathing contest — everybody in Finland who has a pulse can do it, with world-class precision!


One thing I will say about spelling bees, though, is they show how difficult English spelling is to master; all but the very last person standing makes a mistake. And the people who fail in the competition are the very best that the English-speaking world has to offer. Bad spellers love spelling bees because good spellers get to mess up in front of millions of people. That, I suspect, is why they're so popular on prime-time television.

When was the worst period in English spelling's history?

That has got to be the 16th century. That century is by far the biggest chapter in Spelling Dearest. So much went on then to scramble even further all the egg on the chin of the English language. In the 16th century we had good scribes with a stabilizing spelling system that was very un-phonetic; we had bad scribes with unstable spelling systems that were even more un-phonetic; we had good and bad printers with stable and unstable spelling systems that were very un-phonetic; we had multiple scribes and typesetters with their individual spelling styles working on the same books; we had scribes and typesetters copying the irregular spelling of the manuscripts they were duplicating; we had great freedom in the spelling of vowel sounds; we had few or no rules for anyone to follow; we had variant spellings for many of the words that were reasonably stable; we had words entering English from over 50 languages; we had foreign influence on English spelling; we had the Great Vowel Shift and a few other specialized absurdities such as justification, elongated Latinization, and false etymology. We also, incidentally, had the first English book calling for spelling reform — and no wonder. A person would have to be deaf, dumb, and have their eyes poked out by a fondue skewer to miss that something was wrong in the 16th century. Apparently, there were many people like that, though, because the 16th century was not followed by a period of simplicity; it was followed by a period of stability. Instead of ridding ourselves of the obvious dysfunction of the 16th century, we cemented 16th-century spelling in place and have barely changed a thing since then. It could be said that the Old-English period was English-spelling's traumatic birth, and Middle English was its troubled childhood. If this is true, the 16th century has got to go down in history as its pimply, uncoordinated adolescence. An adolescence that it's never been allowed to recover from.


When was the best period in English-spelling's history?

Just before English spelling started. If it wasn't for plagues and the scarcity of underarm deodorants, most bad spellers could have lived quite happily then.


Why write a book about English spelling now?







It is especially important for people to know that English spelling is in dire need of a simplification overhaul, now more than ever, because we are in transition from an industrialized society to an information society. In order for people to participate in this new society, they need to be literate. A simplified spelling system would allow another 10% of our society to become literate enough to read newspapers, magazines, and web pages. In this information age, we need a simpler way to give people the information they need to compete and survive! It's only an information age for the people who can read; the others are still back in the dark ages — the mis-information age.


In this new age, everyone, including children, has to learn faster. Eliminating the need to spend increasing amounts of time on a needlessly complex spelling system would free up much-needed time to spend on more important subjects. One of the reasons our children are having so much trouble with the three R's at school is they are spending too much time on the one S.


In this so-called paperless society (which is generating more paper than ever) a simplified spelling system will save 5 to 10% of the amount of paper that is used because of the reduction in the amount of letters in words. Shorter words, thinner books, brighter minds — what more could we ask for.


Why is spelling emphasized so much at school?

Got me! I suppose you have to learn it because there's a social stigma attached to being a poor speller. Additionally, there's a perception that the better you are at spelling the smarter you are, so it appears to be an important subject to focus on. Some would say, however, that the only thing being a good speller makes you better at is spelling. It doesn't make you a better writer, a better poet, a more creative person with words. It doesn't make you understand the essence of our language better. Shakespeare would have been the exact same creative genius he was whether he was a good or bad speller. He was just lucky enough to have lived in a day when he was judged by the meaning of his words, rather than the placement of the letters within those words. In Shakespeare's day, most people's spelling was erratic; therefore, when he spelled words many different ways no one even noticed. If Shakespeare was in my class at school, however, once the teacher had deducted points for spelling errors he'd have been labeled a dunce at poetry and prose alike. The teacher would have had to borrow points from his next subject for him to come out even in English class.


Who are some of the famous people who have been in favor of simplifying English spelling?



President Theodore Roosevelt. During his presidency, he ordered the government printers to use 300 simplified spellings on all government documents. Not surprisingly, a vigorous political debate ensued. In the end, the president was forced to back down when the House of Representatives banned the new spellings from federal documents. That government fiasco should be called, "Last-Chance-Gate", because we'll never again have as good a chance as that to simplify English spelling.


Charles Darwin: Darwin was a man that could recognize a mutation when he saw one, so it's not surprising he was open to the notion of spelling reform. Darwin was no doubt convinced that our spelling system was a product of un-natural selection. Spelling Dearest provides the evidence to back up this theory.


Brigham Young: This Mormon leader had 57 children. Obviously, he was looking for streamlined ways to teach them so they could go out and earn their keep as quickly as possible. Simplified spelling must have appealed to him for that reason.


Wasn't Sir Winston Churchill against spelling reform?

Yes he was. He opposed a spelling reform bill in British parliament in 1949. He felt that changing the appearance of words would "mess up the language of Shakespeare". If the learned gentleman for the opposition had done a bit of historical research, though, he would have found that at the time of Shakespeare, English spelling had many different spellings for the same words. Shakespeare himself varied his spelling with his usual creative flair. If Mr. Churchill had understood the detrimental effect that needlessly complex spelling has on literacy, he would have realized that un-reformed spelling ruins the language of Shakespeare because it prevents an extra 10% of the population from being literate enough to read it!


If English spelling is so terrible why do so many people appear to be against simplifying it?

Complacency? Acceptance of the status quo? Better the hell on earth you know than the Garden of Eden lurking scarily around the corner? Who knows? They might even be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome; they've been abused by English spelling for so long that they have come to empathize with their abuser!


What do you say to people who say English spelling is easy to learn?

If it's so easy to learn, why do so many people have trouble learning it? If it's so easy to learn, why do even the best of us use spell-checkers? If it's so easy to learn, why are spell-checkers wrong so often? According to one estimate, over 50% of the adult population have trouble spelling. That in itself proves it's not easy to learn.


Who are some famous bad spellers?

President Kennedy: Jacky O said JFK was a bad speller. She was an editor, though, so everyone's spelling probably looked bad to her. Also, when you have world affairs and nuclear war to worry about, as JFK did, the artificial importance of needlessly complex spelling takes its rightful place at the bottom of your priority list.


Vice President Dan Quayle: Vice President Quayle, AKA, Mr. Potato-head, is definitely the poster-child for the spelling impaired. Telling a schoolchild to spell potato with an e at the end was one of the foremost spelling gaffes of all time. Millions of bad spellers throughout the English-speaking world learned how not to spell potato after that. Dan, on the other hand, is still trying to figure out what all the kafuffle was about.


What would you say if I told you I found a spelling error in your book?

I'd say, that will give the critics something to talk about. I'd also say, I'm not surprised. Having a spelling error in this book only proves how deceptive English spelling is. The book has been reviewed by professors and professional editors. If there's a spelling error after that, good on the squirrelly little chameleon for sneaking through.


I read somewhere you took 10 years to research and write the book, why so long?

One year to write and 9 years to correct the spelling. Kidding! It's a big subject — 1,400 years of history. I worked four years full time in University libraries, then six years of nights, weekends, and vacations. I doubt there's one fact or opinion about this subject that I haven't found experts polarized on both sides of the issue. I would often find five different well-respected authors saying five different well-respected things; therefore, I had to read everything available on the subject, all the way back to the surviving manuscripts of the times in question, in order to determine who was right. Often, as with many topics on any subject, the issues were seldom black or white; they were shades of black and blue fighting it out somewhere in the middle. For straight facts, of course, there is a right or wrong answer, but even then, to come to that determination was time-consuming.

Do you have a life, outside the history of English spelling?

I do now that the research and writing is over. I must admit, though, when I finally did raise my head from my desk, I was surprised to find my kids had grown and I had a grandchild — I wondered who'd been scribbling on my manuscript!



Press To

Website Builder