Tuesday, February 23, 2016


RHYS BOWEN: As if I don’t have enough to do with writing two books a year, I spend my spare moments inventing and daydreaming up new things. Spelling for one. I’ve always been a bad speller. So
Don’t u think its abowt tIm wE simplEfI inglish so that forinurs can rEd it EzilE?
This is my idea for a phonetic universal spelling in which every word is written as it sounds (ritn as it sowns) with capital letters representing the long form of a vowel EzE and lower case the short form. Litl.
Well, during my research it turned out that my thinking is not new. In a week from today my sixteenth Molly book, TIME OF FOG AND FIRE is published.
It takes place in 1906 so part of my research is to find out what else might have happened that year. And this was one thing that surprised me:
In 1906, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt tried to get the government to simplify the spelling of 300 common English words. However, this didn't go over well with Congress or the public.

Simplified Spelling Was Andrew Carnegie's Idea
In 1906, Andrew Carnegie was convinced that English could be a universal language used around the world, if only English was easier to read and to write. In an attempt to tackle this problem, Carnegie decided to fund a group of intellectuals to discuss this issue. The result was the Simplified Spelling Board.

The Simplified Spelling Board
The Simplified Spelling Board was founded on March 11, 1906 in New York. Included among the Board's original 26 members were such notables as author Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), library organizer Melvil Dewey, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, publisher Henry Holt, and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage. Brander Matthews, professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, was made chairman of the Board.

Complicated English Words
The Board examined the history of the English language and found that written English had changed over the centuries, sometimes for the better but also sometimes for the worse. The Board wanted to make written English phonetic again, as it was long ago, before silent letters such as "e" (as in "axe"), "h" (as in "ghost"), "w" (as in "answer"), and "b" (as in "debt") crept in. However, silent letters were not the only aspect of spelling that bothered these gentlemen.
There were other commonly used words that were just more complex than they needed to be. For instance, the word "bureau" could much more easily be spelled if it was written as "buro." The word "enough" would be spelled more phonetically as "enuf," just as "though" could be simplified to "tho." And, of course, why have a "ph" combination in "phantasy" when it could much more easily be spelled "fantasy."
Lastly, the Board recognized that there were a number of words for which there already were several options for spelling, usually one simple and the other complicated. Many of these examples are currently known as differences between American and British English, including "honor" instead of "honour," "center" instead of "centre," and "plow" instead of "plough." Additional words also had multiple choices for spelling such as "rime" rather than "rhyme" and "blest" rather than "blessed."

The Plan
So as not to overwhelm the country with an entire new way of spelling at once, the Board recognized that some of these changes should be made over time. To focus their push for adaptation of new spelling rules, the Board created a list of 300 words whose spelling could be changed immediately.
The idea of simplified spelling caught on quickly, with even some schools beginning to implement the 300-word list within months of it being created. As the excitement grew around simplified spelling, one person in particular became a huge fan of the concept - President Teddy Roosevelt.

President Teddy Roosevelt Loves the Idea
Unbeknownst to the Simplified Spelling Board, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to the United States Government Printing Office on August 27, 1906. In this letter, Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to use the new spellings of the 300 words detailed in the Simplified Spelling Board's circular in all documents emanating from the executive department.
President Roosevelt's public acceptance of simplified spelling caused a wave of reaction. Although there was public support in a few quarters, most of it was negative. Many newspapers began to ridicule the movement and lambasted the President in political cartoons. Congress was especially offended at the change, most likely because they had not been consulted. On December 13, 1906, the House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that it would use the spelling found in most dictionaries and not the new, simplified spelling in all official documents. With public sentiment against him, Roosevelt decided to rescind his order to the Government Printing Office.
The efforts of the Simplified Spelling Board continued for several more years, but the popularity of the idea had waned after Roosevelt's failed attempt at government support. However, when browsing the list of 300 words, one cannot help but notice how many of the "new" spellings are in current use today.

RHYS: So what do you think? Now that English is truly the universal language, isn’t it about time we adopted a simple and universal spelling?


Joan Emerson said...

This makes me chuckle, Rhys . . . I was not aware of the 1906 efforts to simplify English spelling [although that probably wasn't a bad idea].
When my youngest daughter was in elementary school, "inventive spelling" was the educational thing of the moment. Needless to say, she never learned to spell correctly and is still terrible at spelling.

It is interesting to see how some spellings have changed and how the educational pendulum swings back and forth on these sorts of questions. Still, I'm not at all sure that replacing phonics with inventive spelling served any purpose other than to create a passel of children who had no idea how to spell and, by extension, struggled whenever they needed to look up words in the dictionary.

Gram said...

Isn't all this texting nothing but simplified spelling??? I think it's happening as we speak.

Edith Maxwell said...

Interesting. I had no idea!

I don't even like writing "donut" for "doughnut" so I'm not the right person to ask about change.

Reine said...

Rhys I love this topic. Fascinating!

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin expected that the English we speak would evolve (due to our physical distance as well as other separations such as political, philosophical, and theological) to become a separate language to that spoken in GB?

In order to create a clear sense of differentness and make the revolution go better and become lasting, he resolved to complete our linguistic-distancing process faster by introducing new words and spellings that would encourage a more complete identity change.

While that apparently did not work as expected, the colonials' ceasing to call themselves "English" made a lasting difference on how U. S. Americans of English descent, came to see themselves. Most of English descent, who have been here for longer than they know, generally describe themselves as American, while other groups will continue for many generations to call themselves as French (with many lines beginning here in the 1500s), Irish, Polish, etc. Even in my family, which is very varied, I've noticed we tend to "choose sides." My Irish aunts expect me to identify as Irish. I pretend for them. :-)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, so fascinating! I do a lot of my email and text by voice, and usually the voice to text spells correctly! I agree, I always hesitate when I contemplate using a word like "tonite" save space on Twitter. But maybe I am too set in my ways.
It's so intriguing to think about why words like "enough " evolved to their spelling. Go, Rhys! Change the world!

Deb Romano said...

I've noticed that some people are using "text speak" even in business communications. I don't know that universal spelling would go over well, as so many people are already using their own versions of spelling. Seems to me that universal spelling would just make things more confusing!

I'll be old-fashioned and stick with what I learned in school!

Hallie Ephron said...

I'm remembering the story about how George Bernard Shaw proposed that the English might as well spell fish "ghoti" with all our spelling quirks (gh from the way it sounds in tough, o from women, and ti from nation).

The French are traditionally much more rigorous (what's anal in French?) about their language. As Gram says, we're already evolved. And really it's all about context. Just like it's ok not to know how to use a fish knife in a pub, it's ok to simplify spelling in a tweet.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Rhys, I can't spell either! But I do try....English is so gorgeous. Did you hear that the French are simplifying their language? Thousands of changes and dropping the little hat pronunciation thingie.


Mary Sutton said...

Me, I'm pretty good at spelling. And while I'm much younger than most of you, I also am too set in my ways to change.

English evolves over time anyway.

Karen in Ohio said...

What!? If it was easy, everyone would be able to do it.


Rhys said...

I've always thought it must be nightmarish to have to explain through, cough, enough, bough, though to English learners. No sense at all!

Julia said...

Susan, the circumflex is going? Goodness. There goes ten years of French down the drain.

Actually, I've always thought idiosyncratic spelling was the price we paid to have the most adaptable language on the planet. We started with the mingling of British tribal languages with the tongues of Northern European Teutonic tribes, then stirred in a half-measure of Norman French, then seasoned it by borrowing words from virtually every language group English-speakers have encountered. If you think about it, it's a miracle our spelling is as consistent as it is.

Lisa Alber said...

That's fascinating, Rhys. Remember Esperanto? That was supposed to be the up-and-coming universal language way about around that time (or a little before). Makes me wonder if Carnegie was partially competing against Esperanto -- no, the universal language must derive from English because we Americans, after all, have manifest destiny!

I took one linguistics class in college. I love languages, how hard could it be? Hah! The joke was on me for wanting an easy elective class. :-)

Stephanie Barron said...

I'm going to spend the day mourning the circumflex.
What I loved about it when studying French is that it was a visual marker of a word's evolution--it stands, most often, for the elision of the letter "s" from the evolved French word. Thus, the French word pate (and I can't get either an accent ague or a circumflex in here) evolved from the word "paste." Which is what it is! Liver paste! I think I love eccentric spellings because they are cues to a word's roots--its history through time--and thus, its parent culture.

Karen in Ohio said...

My suspicion about the circumflex vanishing is related to keyboards, both real and virtual. On trips to Europe, and later to South America, finding an English keyboard at Internet cafes was one of the most frustrating parts of my trips. Trying to send the simplest email home using a French or Spanish--or God help me, a German--keyboard was a nightmare. None of the keys are in the same places, and touch typing turned into gobbledygook.

Now with everyone using smartphones, it's probably not as necessary, but so few people use punctuation properly when they text or email from a phone. Tiny screens are probably not the most conducive ways to use the various vowel forms used in traditional French and other languages.

If this is true, it flies in the face of hundreds of years of French language purity, doesn't it? They resisted adding slang terms for so long, and tried very hard to keep Americanisms out of their formal lexicon. So this is practically a revolution for them.

Denise Ann said...

So interesting! I am a terrible speller, and will never figure out whether to use "ance" or "ence" for words. I do crossword puzzles competitively, and the spelling issue gets in the way of my time because I often have to wait for a "cross" to help me finish up.

My mother taught first grade, and she had to follow a curriculum, which at one time included ITA (initial teaching alphabet). It was similar to the way Rhys wrote at the beginning of today's post.

I also had a friend from Australia who taught "words in color" and I think the colors related to long and short vowels.

I have taught and tutored many children with learning difficulties, and the English language is such a challenge. And then there are the British/American difference.

I worked at a camp for children with dyslexia and we had tutors from England and Ireland. I remember one day hearing a tutor explain to a child, "This is a word you will just have to learn because it doesn't follow the rules . . . G-A-O-L."

Deborah Crombie said...

I agree with Julia, here. I love English in all its illogical glory. Let everybody else have their regular verbs and consistent spelling! The hodgepodge-ness of English makes it fascinating (you can invent words like that!) And I love the fact that it is always evolving. How many other languages regularly add new words, other than Americanisms?

Having written the first drafts (draughts?) of the last couple of books in Scrivener, which does not have spellcheck, I realized I'd become very lazy and dependent on auto-correct. My spelling has since improved, but it worries me that we're raising a generation of non-spellers. Rhys's Simplified English my evolve on its own...

Susan C Shea said...

I can't claim any high ground. I adopted "donut" and "tho" but balk at "tonite" and other shortenings. However, that's not the same as your simplified English, is it? dOnut and 2nIt? Ever onward!!!

Reine said...

Great and fabulous discussion! The post by Rhys and all the comments remind me of my best and worst of school memories. This all reminds me of why I decided long ago to go back to school for an entirely new degree that would maybe glue my mind back together and slap me silly for originally choosing a career in tutoring English reading and writing to college students -- who I adore, each and every one still -- and find something new to do. I made a lovely second career specialty of helping medical students succeed. All apparently turned to the study of medicine, because they would not have to write essays and were shocked to learn they would be expected to write other things such as lab reports and journal articles. This, combined with similarly shocked divinity students--substitute sermons and exegeses for lab reports and journal articles (although we have expectations for doing a few of those, too--made for a great career specialty that no one else seemed to want. All I had to do was cry with them and point out that editors are their friends. So much fun!

FChurch said...

I red-inked a philosophy major's paper once to such a degree that I think he fainted. My point was not to be intimidating or 'correct,' but to show him how the use of punctuation and grammar and spelling would clarify and communicate his thoughts, which were novel and worth examining. I will take English as it is, with all its glorious idiosyncrasies!

Ann in Rochester said...

Der Rees Bon, r u kidng? Luv, An Masn in Roshestr

Kathy Reel said...

Rhys, what a fascinating bit of information you've presented to us. I knew nothing of the Simplified Spelling Board or movement, and I'm surprised that I've not come across it before, with so many impressive board members and Carnegie's support. You've peaked my interest, and I looked this topic up in Wikipedia, where it states that the board published a handbook in 1920, The Handbook of Simplified Spelling. The rules for the spelling changes are listed in that article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_Spelling_Board#The_first_300_words I'm going to look for the 300 words next.

I've always been a good speller, and it's somewhat a point of pride with me, so I'm usually most embarrassed when I don't catch a misspelling in something I've written and posted until after it's sent out. Joan, that inventive spelling was such a mess. My son was a victim of it, and what I thought was rather unfair is that he later was held accountable for his spelling when he wasn't given the tools to become a good speller. I did decide when he did his 4th grade writing portfolio that he needed to start doing something about his spelling. He still isn't a great speller, but auto correct does make a difference.

Lisa, I took a linguistics class in college, too. I think it was required for my English major. But, I went in having heard it was hard work. As it turned out, I loved the course. Maybe I should have taken more courses in linguistics. I remember a reading course I took, too, that involved a phonics part to it, with a workbook and tests. I enjoyed that, too. Not surprisingly, I'm a fan of phonics in teaching reading. I love the way words are put together, and I agree with you, Stephanie, that the oddities of words are part of their wonderful history and origin.

Judy said...

What a fascinating discussion! I experience great distress when I see words like "enuf" - I could never be on board with simplified spelling. As an editor, it gives me profound satisfaction to see an impeccably spelled, properly punctuated sentence.

In response to comments about invented spelling: all three of my sons went to a K - 12 Quaker school that used "kid spelling" in kindergarten. It gave kids the ability to be independent writers, and they flourished. Gradually they introduced "book spelling" - they would read the child's writing together, and would write the book spelling under the kid spelling. There was no judgment, and it allowed them to transition to proper spelling as they matured. They thought of themselves as writers from a very young age. (And my sons, now adults, are excellent writers and spellers - excuse my motherly pride!)