• English spelling is notorious in (literary) language learning for being chaotic. It would be better for reading and writing learners if the spelling were reformed to a more phonetic spelling like Italian or Finnish.
  • other language spellings have had success with spelling reform. Chinese writing was 'simplified' in the PRC and was adopted universally in the PRC (mainland China) but notoriously not in ROC (Taiwan). Turkish converted from the vowel-less Arabic script to the vowelled Roman alphabet.
  • there have been some unsuccessful reforms, for example German in the 1990's, which attempted to change some small handful of word spellings, which were used in newspapers and schools but just didn't catch on.

My question is why haven't any attempts at spelling reform worked out for English?

  • Because it's a Communist plot. – Hot Licks Dec 25 '14 at 15:40
  • Tsk! This is a dupe and you know it. – tchrist Dec 25 '14 at 15:48
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    @tchrist I'm going for a hat. Thanks for your vote! – Mitch Dec 25 '14 at 15:52
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    @Mitch Yeah. I don't really know why you've attracted downvotes on this. – starsplusplus Dec 25 '14 at 19:40
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    @JohnLawler Claro. ¡Viva la Revolución! o más bien venir la revolución. – Mitch Dec 25 '14 at 19:49

Yes, it's the history of the language, its complexity, etc. And the Initial Teaching Alphabet failed over here, too. But, above all, the English character was historically too individualistic - or should I simply say belligerent? - to conform. I'm not sure how prescriptive Johnson's Dictionary was for the eighteenth century; but a regularisation of spelling was, of course, one consequence of universal elementary education in the later nineteenth century. The full answer would take (and has taken) several books.

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In the late 1960's in the US, an educational experiment was implemented in many elementary schools. It was hypothesized that spelling English phonetically would speed up the reading and comprehension progress of young students. (I guess they were hoping that the "simplified" version would expand and continue on its own.)

It was a colossal failure. By fifth grade, the kids in our neighborhood who were in the program were about two years behind, and the parents were screaming bloody murder. (You'd think they would have learned their lesson with "Esperanto".)

(Sorry, I don't remember what the program was called.)

I guess you can't implement something like that because it's hard to pick a starting place. (Also, people generally don't like having things shoved down their throats.) Interestingly, the texting craze has begun the process in a way that will probably become permanent within a few generations. (Guess all the old books will be useless - can't wait to see the Bible.)

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  • Other countries have done massive spelling reforms ... Korea, Germany, and Turkey have even switched the alphabet used. The old books (1) are all still readable by many people and (2) many get reprinted in new editions. – Peter Shor Dec 25 '14 at 17:41
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    The Initial Teaching Alphabet was indeed a colossal failure in American schools, but every linguist knew it was bound to be as soon as they saw it. This is what comes of having micromanaged curricula designed by people with odd ideas about how children learn, and executed by people with no idea at all about how and why to do it. If you want to see something you could give to any American first-grader -- if you can get their attention -- try real English phonemics instead of a Rubegoldbergian monstrosity. – John Lawler Dec 25 '14 at 17:51

There are a number of barriers in the development and implementation of a reformed orthography for English: (from Wikipedia)

  • Public resistance to spelling reform has been consistently strong, at least since the early 19th century, when spelling was codified by the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).

  • English vocabulary is mostly a melding of Germanic, French, Latin and Greek words, which have very different phonemes and approaches to spelling. Some reform proposals tend to favor one approach over the other, resulting in a large percentage of words that must change spelling to fit the new scheme.

  • Some inflections are pronounced differently in different words. For example, plural -s and possessive -'s are both pronounced differently in cat(')s (/s/) and dog(')s (/z/). The handling of this particular difficulty distinguishes morphemic proposals, which tend to spell such inflectional endings the same, from phonemic proposals that spell the endings according to their pronunciation.

  • English is the only one of the top ten major languages that lacks a worldwide regulatory body with the power to promulgate spelling changes.

  • The spellings of some words – such as tongue and stomach – are so unindicative of their pronunciation that changing the spelling would noticeably change the shape of the word. Likewise, the irregular spelling of very common words such as is, are, have, done and of makes it difficult to fix them without introducing a noticeable change to the appearance of English text. This would create acceptance issues.

  • Spelling reform may make pre-reform writings harder to understand and read in their original form, often necessitating transcription and republication. Today, few people choose to read old literature in the original spellings as most of it has been republished in modern spellings.[28]

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A 'why' question is very difficult to answer definitively, especially when there are many social and political issues to consider.

But there is one reason that seems to separate success from not.

A single authority makes a reform easier to enforce. Since English is spoken in many different Nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc) not under some common educational or literary authority and there are already different spelling standards, it is very difficult to decide what exactly to reform to and difficult to enforce.

The PRC government (likewise Turkish) had control over the educational and journalistic systems in those countries at those times (and tellingly not in Taiwan or Germany respectively).

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