Simplified spelling schemes of years past proved to be hard sell.
COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK
The Worcester Evening Gazette had been dependably Republican ever since it was founded in 1866, but on Aug. 27, 1905, it loudly declared a rupture with President Theodore Roosevelt.
"The Gazette will be printed in English" was the head on the lead editorial. It began: "The Gazette will continue to be printed in the English language, not in `Karnegi,' `Ruzvelt,' `Choctaw' nor `Chinese.'
"Perhaps we are behind the times. We expect to remain old-fashioned. We confess a weakness for the ancient tongue and for the ideals and faith of our forefathers."
The reason for this outburst was the announcement in Washington that Mr. Roosevelt was directing key government agencies to henceforth use the simplified spelling that had been recommended by a committee headed by Andrew Carnegie. "Through" was to be spelled "throu." "Cat" was to be spelled "Kat." A news item said that even octogenarian bureaucrats would have to master "the clipt style prest into use to take the place of the accurst system now in such thoro use."
The Carnegie Committee report recommended that 300 words be respelled in government documents. The Gazette was contemptuous of the idea. "For hundreds of years, the poet and the scholar, the orator and the patriot, have got on excellently with the language which the philanthropic Mr. Carnegie, the pedantic Prof. Matthews and the impulsive Mr. Roosevelt would emasculate on short notice."
Mr. Carnegie eventually donated $250,000 to the Simplified Spelling Board. He was convinced that standardized spelling would make English easier to learn and more effective and precise in use. He was not the first to undertake simplified spelling.
In 1876, the American Philological Association began promoting new spelling for 11 words. Three years later the British Spelling Reform Association (with the support of Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson) listed 3,500 words in need of spelling repair. In 1898, the American National Education Association began promoting the following list: "tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program (instead of programme), prolog, catalog, pedagog and decalog."
Efforts to systematize English spelling have been around for generations. Noah Webster himself, eager to promote an American style of English, proposed a number of changes, including dropping the "u" in certain endings. Thus, "harbor" instead of "harbour," "color" instead of "colour," etc. Those changes have been pretty much accepted by American dictionaries, but Mr. Webster's campaign to drop the "e" in endings (determin, definit, infinit) made no headway.
George Bernard Shaw supported simplified spelling and a whole new alphabet, but the resulting concoction had 24 vowels and never caught on. English is deficient in vowels and makes do with various vowel combinations that complicate the spelling of some words.
In the 1870s, the Chicago Tribune began using reformed spellings. Its owner and publisher, Joseph Medill, was a member of the Spelling Reform Association. Fifty years later, his grandson, Robert H. McCormick, carried on the crusade. In a series of 1941 editorials, published over a period of several weeks, the Tribune listed a total of 80 respelled words including: "catalog," "agast," "burocrat," "ameba," "harth," "sherif," "staf," "iland," "jaz," "tarif," "missil," "subpena," "autograf," "telegraf," "sofomore" and "altho." In general, the "ph" was replaced by f," the "ue" ending after "g" was dropped, and the pesky "ough" oddity was replaced with orthographic alternatives.
The Tribune persisted for years with its campaign and presumably Chicago readers got used to it. But by the 1960s, the newspaper began to weary of it all, and more and more words reappeared in their original, quirky forms. "Frate," "sodder" and "clew" were among those that reappeared in their old/new guise. Today the paper pretty much conforms to standard English. The newest assault on traditional English can be found in teenage text messages ("Dad wil U lt me tak ur car 4 a sPn"). Whether that kind of thing will have any lasting effect is hard to judge.
Reforming English spelling seems to make a lot of sense. English orthography is a mess, thanks to its origins and accretions over the centuries. With a base of old German, an infusion of French in the generations after the Norman Conquest in 1066, an undercurrent of Latin as traditionally used by the church and the legal profession, and additions from other languages including Spanish, Italian, American Indian, among many others, English is a melange that defies grammar and spelling. It is one of the simplest languages to learn and one of the most complex to master. But it has become the lingua franca for billions of people, either as a first or second language and changing its orthography, no matter how logical, runs up against a thousand years of tradition.
As The Gazette put it back there in 1906, "The English language may be gnarled, but it is rugged and it is the only speech of importance which ever conquered its people's conquerors. Enriched from hundreds of sources and carried around the world by the progress of civilization, the tongue we write and speak has been formed by the centuries."
But English is not a static construct. From the start it has incorporated new words into its lexicon. Shakespeare coined hundreds. Change has always shaped English, and will continue to do so. But it is a slow process not much influenced by logic, theories and directives, even if they come from presidents.
Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2008|
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