New Spelling System in Spanish

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Wed Nov 10 19:21:43 UTC 2010

How come languages with very phonetic spelling systems, such as
Portuguese, German and Spanish have recently undergone spelling
reforms (Portuguese in 2008-2009, German in 1996 and since then, and
Spanish now), whereas languages with much less phonetic spelling
systems, such as English and French, are much more resistant to
spelling reform? I know that English spelling is more phonetic than is
often claimed but, still, it takes American kids longer to learn to
spell their language properly than it takes German kids to learn to
spell theirs. My 10-year-old daughter, for example, rarely makes
spelling mistakes in German or Spanish, but often in English, though
her English is better than her German and Spanish (her native language
and the language she's been schooled in is French and she makes more
spelling mistakes in French than in German.) French spelling is
notoriously difficult, much more so than English spelling, because of
the grammatical information it incorporates. It's the reason why the
French have spelling bees not just for kids but for college-educated
adults (most famously the dictée de Pivot). I wish the French would
reform their spelling system. I work for the Swiss government and
always have to reread everything I write in French two or three times
before hitting the send button; I feel much more confident writing
German or Italian because German and Italian orthography is much

Then again, there are good arguments against reforming the spelling of
English and French: historical, financial and also linguistic and
phonetic (whose pronunciation should be privileged?). Nor am I sure
that the recent German spelling reform made things easier for people.
And the mainland Chinese simplification of their characters was not
only an act of state-sponsored vandalism, but it didn't make it easier
for Chinese people to learn to write their own language.


Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
paulfrank at
paulfrank at

On Tue, Nov 9, 2010 at 7:56 PM, Federico Escobar
<federicoescobarcordoba at> wrote:

> If anyone is interested in tracking how speakers react to massive changes in
> the rules that are understood to govern normative language, then I would
> eagerly suggest following up on what's happening with Spanish these days.
> There are 22 Spanish-language Academies, one per Spanish-speaking country
> --including the US and the Philippines--, and all of them tend to huddle
> around the Royal Academy in Spain. These Academies are putting together a "New
> Orthography", which has proposed to overhaul many aspects of the spelling
> rules used in Spanish. Some letters will officially change their names, some
> accent marks will officially be dropped, some traditional spellings will
> officially be changed.
> Of course, I've emphasized the "official" part in this process because many
> people are resisting these changes fiercely, in a Roe v. Wade climate that
> turns the decisions taken by the Academies into something akin to a Supreme
> Court ruling. And that is precisely what has been very interesting. Across
> the board, newspapers reporting on the changes rank that story as their most
> read item. People have written scores of angry comments on the Internet,
> arguing, say, that they're not prepared to give in to the Academies and
> rename letters they've always called by another name. (Some have timidly
> said they'll just have to learn the new names in order to forge a
> transnational language.) I've been getting incensed emails from people who
> are normally oblivious to anything language-related. And so on.
> Some people have suggested these are all publicity stunts used by the
> Academies to promote the "New Orthography", which of course people are going
> to flock to the stores to buy just in time for Christmas. In case someone is
> interested, here is one of the widely circulated stories, published by the
> most renowned newspaper of the Spanish-speaking world:

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