Far too many Ls for a start. An' />

If Allan Campbell is serious about simplifying English spelling he's going to have to do something about his name.

Far too many Ls for a start. And what's the point of the P? Or the E? And since C can be pronounced in two ways, how about a K instead?

Which leaves us with Alan Kambl, a Christchurch man so passionate about reforming our messy spelling system that he flew to Washington DC this week to make his point outside the pinnacle of spelling - the US Scripps National Spelling Bee.

On stage, Hamilton's Charlotte Roose, 12, understandably mis-spelled erythrophobia as arithrophobia and Florida-based New Zealander Sam Lawson, 14, lucked out on pompadour, spelling it pompador.

On the footpath outside, Campbell, 75, and about a dozen international spelling enthusiasts held a restrained protest, not against the spelling bee, which was made famous by the documentary Spellbound, but against the inconsistencies in the English language.

Such as why we insist on using a silent B at the end of dumb.

"Any spelling system that has a B on the end of dumb has to be dumb itself," says Campbell, who has been interested in spelling since 1947 as a proof-reader on the Otago Daily Times.

"I'm a good speller and I found that I often had to go to the dictionary to find words that I should know - was it [spelt] EA or was it EE? - I couldn't remember."

Fifty years later he joined the UK-based Simplified Spelling Society and later became convener of the New Zealand branch, Spell 4 Literacy.

"It was then that I found out that changing spelling, far from being just a fanciful wish that didn't really have any significance in the real world, did have significance in the real world, because [conventional spelling] held back children and foreigners learning to read and write in English.

"Our spelling needs to be updated to suit our rules. One of the beauties of the English language is the richness that it gets from all the words that it takes from all different languages. This is one of the glories of it.

"But the trouble is when they come into our language they tend to stay as they were in their original language, which has different rules to ours. We don't anglicise them.

"We need to make our words fit our own rules so that a child can learn the rules and then, if they come across a strange word, they just think of the rule and they know what it is."

Campbell has lobbied New Zealand governments for an inquiry into the place of spelling in the teaching of reading and writing.

He says New Zealand could approach other English-speaking countries and international English-speaking organisations and suggest a panel of language experts be appointed to simplify spelling.

"So far we've been fobbed off a bit."

Linguistics experts Professor Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy and Professor Laurie Bauer doubt the simplified spelling movement will succeed.

Bauer, from Victoria University, says there's a strong case to be made for spelling reform, but it would be expensive and complicated.

"It would be like the constitution of the EU - you'd have to go around and get approval from everywhere. Think of how much it would cost just to reprint the Bible in a new spelling."

Reform would also be politically difficult. Whose version of English would we take as our baseline? The Queen's English? American English? Southland English?

That choice is part of the reason that moves to reform English spelling haven't gained traction, says Carstairs-McCarthy, of Canterbury University.

"The problem lies not just in American versus British [pronunciation], versus New Zealand or Australian, but there are huge variations within America and Britain," he says.

"There are many Americans for whom pin and pen sound exactly the same. There are many Americans for whom horse and hoarse are pronounced differently, so would we want to have a spelling system which differentiated those?

"There are people in England for whom wait and weight are pronounced differently.

"So it gets very hard to solve political questions about whose pronunciation is going to be the norm to be reflected in the spelling system."

Bauer says he would love to be on an international panel to reform English spelling, if only to do a bit of tinkering - get rid of the inconsistent OUGH, homophones such as knight and night, and silent consonants such as the K in knee.

"Anything that we could do which would make really good sense would probably be relatively minor but we're unlikely to have the political will or the money to sit down and really sort it out, which is probably a shame," says Bauer.

"It's a nice idea, and if it had been done gradually over the centuries we probably wouldn't feel terribly uptight about it. Because it hasn't been, it would cause major disruption and the question is: is it economically and politically feasible?"

Carstairs-McCarthy says English began to get complicated after the Norman conquest of England, which introduced French words into the vocabulary while preserving the French spelling.

There was no consistent system of English spelling until the late 18th and 19th centuries. Before that people pretty much did as they pleased. Printers would take letters out of words or put extra letters in so they'd fit across a page. And William Shakespeare famously spelt his name several different ways.

Campbell has pondered simplifying the spelling of his name, but says he's had it too long now.

"Possibly if I'd been as interested in my early years as I am now, I may have, and started a new dynasty."

He takes small steps, such as writing fone for phone in his press release this week.

"Our current spelling is not a sacred cow," he says. "Spelling is a tool for reading and writing and it should fit that category. It should be efficient for the job it's meant to do. Dysfunctional is the word I often use.

"All we can do here is work at arousing interest, arousing an appreciation of the problems our spelling causes."

Grat bks in short

Simplified Spelling - how the classics would read

(Spellings taken from the Dictionry Of Cut Spelngs, published by the Simplified Spelling Society)

In th beginng, God created th hevns and th erth. - The Bible.

Last nyt I dremt I went to Manderley again. - Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

It is a truth universly aknolejd that a yung man in posession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. - Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

In my yungr and mor vulnrbl years my fathr gave me som advice that I've been turnng over in my mind evr since. - Th Grat Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A squat grey bildng of only thirty-four stories. Over th main entrnce th words, Centrl Londn Hachry and Conditionng Centr, and, in a shield, th World State's moto, Comunity, Identity, Stability. - Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

No one wud hav beleved in th last years of th nineteenth century that this world was being wachd keenly and closely by inteljnces grater than man's and yet as mortl as his own; that as men busid themselvs about their varius concerns they wer scrutinized and studid, perhaps almost as naroly as a man with a microscope myt scrutinize th transient creaturs that swarm and multiply in a drop of watr. - Th War of th Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Scarlett O'Hara was not butiful, but men seldm realized it wen caut by her charm as th Tarleton twins wer. - Gon with th Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Wethr I shal turn out to be th hero of my own life, or wethr th station wil be held by anybody els, these pages wil sho. - David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

It was a dark and stormy nyt; the rain fel in torents exept at ocasionl intrvls, wen it was chekd by a violent gust of wind wich swept up the streets (for it is in Londn that our sene lies), ratlng along th housetops, and fiercely ajitatng th scanty flame of th lamps that strugld against th darkness. - Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

It was th best of times, it was th worst of times, it was th aje of wisdm, it was th age of foolishness, it was th epoc of belef, it was the epoc of incredulity, it was the season of Lyt, it was th seasn of Darkness, it was th spring of hope, it was th winter of despair. - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

What's wrong with our spelling?

GH has different pronunciations: laugh, through, aghast, gingham, longhand, Edinburgh; and OUGH is pronounced several different ways: "The dough-faced ploughboy coughed and hiccoughed his rough way through Scarborough."

Some words have different pronunciations for different meanings: bow, close, does, lead, live, minute, read, use, wind, wound.

Words that sound identical are spelt differently, as in there/their, here/hear, two/too/to, allowed/aloud, see/sea, by/bye/buy, weather/whether/wether, colonel/kernel.

Silent letters clutter up the LANGUAGE: numB, musCle, hanDkerchief, Hour, busIness, Knee, coLonel, damN, Pneumonic, husTle

The same R-sounding ending has different spellings in burglar, teacher, actor, glamour, acre, murmur, injure, martyr

The use of double consonants is inconsistent, as in gallery and galaxy, dilemma and lemon, gimmick and criminal, common and comic, plodder and model, sorry and forest.

The EE sound can be spelt by several combination of vowels: seem, team, convene, sardine, protein, fiend; people, he, key, ski; debris, quay.

The Sh-sound is spelt differently, as in shop, station, vicious and session.