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Spelling Reform in English. And the Plain Language Movement. The First English Spelling Reformer: Orm’s Orrmulum (ca. 1175-1200). Long (20,000 lines!) poem, versified homilies on stories in the four Gospels, relating to the life of Christ and the acts of the Apostles

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Spelling Reform in English

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spelling reform in english

Spelling Reform in English

And the Plain Language Movement

the first english spelling reformer orm s orrmulum ca 1175 1200
The First English Spelling Reformer: Orm’s Orrmulum (ca. 1175-1200)
  • Long (20,000 lines!) poem, versified homilies on stories in the four Gospels, relating to the life of Christ and the acts of the Apostles
  • Orm attempts to represent the way the words were meant to be pronounced by creating a new orthography
  • Doubled consonants show that preceding vowel was short
  • Numerous Scandinavian words in the text, reflecting his own dialect (Orm = Old Norse ‘serpent’) in Lincolnshire (Midlands - lots of Scandinavian settlement)
  • þegg ‘they’; skill ‘knowledge’; till ‘until, towards’
orrmulum ll 1 12
Nu broþerr Wallterr, broþerr min

Affterr þe flæshess kinde, flesh’s; nature

Annd broþerr min i Crisstenndom

Þurrh fulluhht, annd þurrh trowwþe, baptism; belief

Annd broþerr min i Godess hus

Ʒet o þe þridde wise, third; reason

Þurrh þatt witt hafenn takenn ba we; both

An reʒhellboc to follʒhenn - rule-book; follow

Unnderr kanunnkess had annd lif, canons’ order

Swa summ Sannt Awwstin sette - just as St. Augustine established

Icc hafe don swasumm þu badd, just as you asked

Annd forþedd te þin wille. furthered for you

Orrmulum, ll. 1-12
Ormmulum had no bearing on modern spelling reform, but recognized principles of all reformers: consistent matching of sound/symbol (one symbol to represent one and only one sound)
  • Spelling reform flourished shortly after printing: Sir Thomas Smith, De recta et emendata linguae Anglicae scriptione (1568) (‘The proper and corrected writing of the English language’)
  • Smith proposed ð for [ð], þ for [θ], marks on short vowels (â)
william bullokar s reformed spelling 1580
William Bullokar’s reformed spelling (1580)
  • Bullokar very hard on silent e and double letters:


I shotte at a butte and hitte the pinne, and fell flatte upon the bottome of a tubbe.


I shot at a but, and hit the pin, and fel flat upon the botom of a tub.

one objection to spelling reform
One objection to spelling reform:

It conceals the origin of English words

  • debt < Lat. debitum
  • reign < Lat. regnum
  • doubt < Lat. dubitum

Bullokar didn’t care - objected to etymological spellings

Noah Webster’s Reformed Spelling: see Heather McIlvaine’s PowerPoint for March 30
  • 1840s: The Phonetic Journal printed the Bible and many classic works in reformed spelling (aroused lots of public interest)
  • 1870: English Philological Society took up the question (producers of the OED)
  • 1876: American Philological Association suggested 11 simplified spellings: ar, catalog, definit, gard, giv, hav, infinit, liv, tho, thru, wisht
  • 1898: National Educational Association formally adopted 12 simplified spellings: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog, decalog
1906: Simplified Spelling Board (US) founded - proposed more than 300 spellings - Andrew Carnegie donated over $250,000
  • 1906: US President Theodore Roosevelt promoted simpler spellings - ordered the Government Printing Office to use the Simplified Spelling Board's 300 new spellings (while Congress was in recess)
  • The Government Printing Office resisted, Congress revoked Roosevelt's order: "no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents ... unless same shall conform to the orthography ... in ... generally accepted dictionaries.”
  • simplified spellings were used only in written items coming from the White House (even then only 12 words were used)
  • Sources:

Kenneth H. Ives, Written Dialects n Spelling Reforms, History n Alternatives (Chicago: Progressive Publisher, 1979) - Ives uses [n] for ‘and’ and [ħ] for ‘the’ throughout - beware!


1908: Simplified Spelling Society (UK) founded in the UK
  • http://www.spellingsociety.org/
  • Its aims and objectives
  • Reasons for English spelling to be reformed
  • An introduction to cut spelling
  • An essay in 'Nue Speling'
the plain language movement also known as clear language or plain english
The Plain Language Movement (also known as Clear Language or Plain English)

• origins: consumer activism of 60s and 70s

• an attempt to simplify the language used in legal documents, labor contracts, instructions, forms, business contracts, etc.

• gathering strength since late 70s - adopted by governments, banks, legal institutions

• main characteristics:

simple words instead of complicated

avoiding repetition

using active voice

short sentences

close to speech (end sentence with a preposition, use ‘you’ rather than ‘clients, employees, customers’)


Name of Tenant Business

The said Lessee covenants, promises and agrees that it will not carry on or suffer to be carried on any business in the herein designated premises under a name or style other than the name of the said Lessee as designated herein nor call or suffer the herein demised premises or any business carried on therein to be called by any name other than such name, without the written consent of the lessor first had and obtained.

Plain Language:

You must not carry on business or let business be carried on in the leased premises by any name other than your own (as described in this lease), without first getting our written consent.

objections to plain language
Objections to Plain Language
  • Drains language of its richness and complexity (reply: used for pragmatic, not literary language)
  • Legal and technical language must necessarily be complex - otherwise, it’s imprecise - predict a flood of court cases over plain language (hasn’t in fact happened)