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The Anomalies and Perversities of English Spelling

Sep 10, 2012

The late summer and fall of 1906 was an odd time for anyone perusing a document emanating from the White House. Words such as lookt, tho, rime, and discust must have led to frequent double takes from perplexed readers, and our modern spellchecking applications continue to scream out against their use (except for rime which is similar to hoarfrost). The problem is that we are more comfortable with these words when they appear as looked, though, rhyme, and discussed. The confusion of 1906 originated in suggestions from the Simplified Spelling Board and an order signed by President Roosevelt.

English language spelling reform has a long history but few notable success stories. A new effort was founded in 1906 when industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the Simplified Spelling Board (SSB). Shortly thereafter, the SSB released a list of 300 simplified spellings that they hoped would begin the process of abolishing the “anomalies and perversities of English spelling.” Many of their suggestions were already widely used in the United States, and from a 2012 vantage point reflect the differences between American and British English. The SSB supported the removal of “u” in words such as color/colour and favored “er” over “re” in words like theater/theatre. They also supported the removal of digraphs, where two characters represent one sound (anemia/anaemia), and more consistent use of “z” to represent the zee sound, as in criticize/criticise and vizor/visor. One of their oddest suggestions, which would have truly altered the spelling landscape had it caught on with the public, was the substitution of “t” for words ending in “ed” as in dipt/dipped and kist/kissed.

The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book

The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book, 1906. From the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Roosevelt’s support for spelling reform culminated with an order to the Government Printing Office to use the SSB’s simplified spellings in all executive documents. Congress, the Supreme Court, and the press were not receptive to the change. In between mocking the new spellings, Congress voted to overturn the order and Roosevelt was forced to concede defeat. The SSB, still funded by Carnegie, survived this rejection and continued to operate. Their suggested reforms multiplied, often in favor of more drastic changes such as laf/laugh, buro/bureau, and alfabet/alphabet. However, Carnegie was dissatisfied with his investment’s results and left no money for the SSB in his will. Without this support the SSB disbanded in 1920.

 Letter from Andrew Carnegie to Theodore Roosevelt

Letter from Andrew Carnegie to Theodore Roosevelt, March 1, 1912, showing Carnegie's continued use of simplified spelling. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Sources:

Roosevelt, Theodore, and Charles Markis. The Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2010.

Paine, Henry G. Handbook of Simplified Spelling. New York: Simplified Spelling Board, 1920.

Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Sep 10, 2012 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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