In 1916 Legros & Grant published their classic printers handbook Typographical Printing-Surfaces. In a small section in the middle of the book they advocate spelling reform for a different reason than most.

There have been many calls for spelling reform for the English language. The problem is that there are roughly 45 sounds in the language, but only 26 letters. The usual complaint is that causes spelling to be more difficult than necessary: traveler or traveller? embarass or embarrass? gauge or guage? untill or until? weird or wierd?

It is called a regular orthography when there is a 1:1 relationship between the sounds in a language and the letters to represent those sounds. Having more sounds in a language than letters to represent those sounds is called an irregular orthography. All alphabetic writing systems fall somewhere on this continuum. English is known for having an irregular orthography while Spanish is known for having a very regular orthography. Some researchers have proposed that dyslexia is more prevalent in countries that have irregular orthographies than countries that have regular orthographies. Reducing dyslexia seems an even better reason to call for spelling reform.

Legros & Grant provided a third reason. They pointed out that using two letters to represent a single sound is inefficient both for the amount of paper used and in the amount of time for compositors to create a page. Compositors are the people who manually creates pages of text to be printed by arranging all the metal slugs of lead that each carried a letter. L&G proposed creating two new ligatures: th and ng. They calculated that by creating these ligatures, which are associated with unique sounds in English, that they could save 3-4% in compositors time and in the amount of printing. They calculated the annual savings at 350,000£ (inflation adjusted that is over 6 million pounds).

Legros & Grant’s proposal for spelling reform is particularly elegant because it provides an easy transition path with relatively little re-learning. The ligatures are not completely new letters, but modifications of existing letters. Both th and the th ligature could comfortably exist during a transition period. Unfortunately we’ve missed the chance to save compositors’ time.

Cheers, Kevin Larson


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