TR and Spelling Reform

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I suppose that few people would disagree that the spelling of words in the English language is a mess.  Trying to impose rules, with myriads of exceptions, on a language that grew with no consensus as to spelling, has bedeviled generations of school children and foreigners attempting to learn the language alike.

Whenever a problem existed, Teddy Roosevelt optimistically assumed that a solution could be found.  Thus in 1906 as President he became a champion of what he called spelling reform, backing the efforts of the organization called The Simplified Spelling Board, founded early in 1906, which was funded by Andrew Carnegie.

On August 27, 1906 Roosevelt wrote to the head of the US Printing Office:

Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906

To Charles Arthur Stillings

My dear Mr. Stillings:

I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board, which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the critcism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be cahieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred. There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars—men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slighest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write “plow” instead of “plough”; which has made most Americans write “honor” without the somewhat absurd, superfluous “u”; and which is even now making people write “program” without the “me”—just as all people who speak English now write “bat,” “set,” “dim,” “sum,” and “fish” instead of the Elizabethan “batte,” “sette,” “dimme,” “summe,” and “fysshe”; which makes us write “public,” “almanac,” “era,” “fantasy,” and “wagon,” instead of the “publick,” “almanack,” “aera,” “phantasy,” and “waggon” of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.

Sincerely yours,

Theodore Roosevelt

Go here for a list of words whose spelling he wished to simplify.

When news of this got out, a furor erupted.  Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic in the US and Great Britain ridiculed the effort.  The US Supreme Court ordered that its opinions be printed in the old style.

The House of Representatives passed this resolution on December 13, 1906:  : “Resolved, That it is the sense of the House that hereafter in the printing of House documents or other publications used by law or ordered by Congress, or either branch thereof, or emanating from any executive department or bureau of the Government, the House printer should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.” The motion passed unanimously and Roosevelt, good naturedly admitting his defeat, rescinded his order.

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  1. Well, TR didn’t get his wish on ever word he wanted changed, but I am grateful that the useless “u” hs been dropped from “labor” and “honor”, as they are spelled in American English as they are spelled in Latin.

    English is the most bizarre of Western languages. Granted, I am speaking as an amateur here, but….a language that began as an offshoot of German (as did Swedish and Dutch), then having countless thousands of Latin words grafted on due to the Norman invasion of England in 1066 (how else does “machine” have a long “e” sound for the “i” and a silent “e” at the end?) along with efforts by Noah Webster and Andrew Carnegie to simplify spelling of English words (these attempts annoy Mother England, but who cares)….how can it be anything else but crazy? Then throw in slang, which differs from region to region just in the USA….

    English has no official governing body that dictates what is and what is not proper English. There exists a Royal Spanish Academy, which acts as a standard setter for proper “castellano” (the Spanish spoken in Latin America, the US and Castille in Spain, a nation with four main languages). French and Portugese also have such governing bodies. Not English, though. Because there is no “governing authoriity”, English has a built in flexibility to change and to easily absorb words from other langages that do not fit at all with any rule of English pronunciation.

    Teenagers, government, the legal profession and the business world mangle English. Teens invent their own slang, which goes “passe” quickly. Government and law…..ask a lawyer. I have to write Notes to the Financial Statements for our Annual Statement and I get totally off the wall garbage that would cause my Catholic school teachers to bring in a yardstick and smack the daylights out of the people who insist I write what they tell me.
    The business world turns “transition” into a verb…..”We will tansition responsibilities….” “speak to it”….blah, blah, blah…and there is no end in sight.

  2. If people were taught proper Orton Gillingham phonics and the applicable spelling rules (and had some familiarity with the history of the language), there would not be a proplem or fuss about how words are spelled.

  3. Interesting that some of these took root, like dropping the English “u,” but others did not. Shame he wanted to get rid of Latin traces such as the “oe” from ecumenism and “ae’ from ether, etc.

    But he was a statist, so the whole top-down thing I suppose appealed to his progressivist instinct. He’d probably have loved the whole metric push that happened when I was a kid in the 70s, that fortunately sputtered out.

  4. There has been a notable tendency over the last half-century for the spelling of words to influence the pronunciation, rather than vice versa; a sort of spelling reform, if you will.

    For example, when I was growing up, “falcon” was pronounced “fawcon” (with a long “a” as in “saw”) and “golf” was pronounced “gawf” (again, long a) Now, the “l” is usually sounded. Again, “conduit” was pronounced “kundit” (which I find rather more euphonious, as are most of the older pronunciations)

    Even on the BBC, one hears” parl-i-a-ment”; 50 years ago, it was “parlement. “ (parliamentum was a law Latin form of French parelement)

    “Mahem” is another, although English lawyers still use the old pronunciation, “maim.” Scots lawyers use the more sonorous term, “demembration.”

    The English phonetic pronunciation of Scottish surnames and place names is a great source of innocent amusement to the inhabitants of the northern part of the island: “Milngavie” (pronounced “Mul-guy”), “Dalziel” (pronounced “Day-ell”), “Menzies” (“Ming-es”),“Strathaven” (“Straven”) – Even “Edinburgh” (“Edin-borough,” as in “the burgh council”)

  5. Of course, there is another problem: the disparity between American and British spelling. If we fix the first we should fix the other as well.
    And how about those Dvorak keyboards?

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