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TRThursday: Roosevelt’s Attempt to Simplify the Spelling of the English Language

TRThursday

Mark Twain“There’s ‘gherkin.’ What are you going to do with the ‘h’ in that? What the devil’s the use of ‘h’ in gherkin, I’d like to know.” – Mark Twain on Spelling Reform, 1907

One may think that being President of the United States would come with enough responsibilities, say, defending liberty and the Constitution, but to believe that, one would have to not be Theodore Roosevelt. For ol’ 26 no challenge was too great or too small. In 1906, Roosevelt, though not officially part of the Simplified Spelling Board, began to champion the immediate adoption of a new way to spell English words. For example, words that ended in -ed would now end with a -t (e.g., dropped to dropt.)

In many cases these new words were actually old variations, such as ax instead of the current axe or tho instead of though. Roosevelt began putting the system in use as soon as he understood the concept and ordered all official government documents to be printed using the new system of words as well. In fact, it may be his enthusiasm that prevented the reform fully taking root.

Simplified Spelling Reform

Though (or should I say ‘tho’?) Roosevelt is credited with pushing the reform from the executive chair, it was Andrew Carnegie who headed the official Simplified Spelling Board which included a number of prominent men such as the infamous Mark Twain. Rather than a piecemeal approach which would introduce new words over time, Twain wanted to, if necessary, start from scratch. In typically humorous Twain fashion he pushes for Mr. Carnegie to take more of a clear-cutting approach to spelling reform:

Mark Twain“It’s a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone. Simplified spelling brought about sun-spots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone.” – Mark Twain on Spelling Reform, 1907

The First 300 Words

RooseveltSpellingReform

A cartoon depicting Roosevelt at work on Spelling Reform

The Simplified Spelling Board released a list of 300 words which they hoped would be adopted by schools and the general public due to their common sense, simplified spelling. However, before they could be leaked into society and taken root, Roosevelt promptly adopted the usage of the new words and directed all government correspondence be sent using them. While a number of people took to the idea, the objections were too strong to contend with. The old political leaders simply did not want to change how they had been writing words all their life.

Not a Total Loss

Whether influenced by the Simplified Spelling Board or through society’s own attempt to spell words phonetically, many of the 300 words are in use today. For example, theatreis now commonly spelled theater, though both spellings are considered correct. Valourchanged to v alor, at least in America. In fact, a number of the discrepancies between American and British English can be seen in the list of 300 words.

Final Thoughts

Part of me wishes that the spelling reform had succeeded, though when it is promoted at the government level I can’t help but feel there is too close a connection with Orwell’s 1984 and Newspeak. The English language is far more difficult than it really needs to be. However, its difficulty is one of the ways we can detect whether or not someone is a native speaker. How many spam emails have you promptly deleted because of misspellings or poor grammar usage in the subject line: “ Dear Mr. Gentleman. My plesure is to inform you of mony.” So, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to leave it as it is?

Either way, it is an interesting part of American history and shows, once again, Roosevelt’s confidence in himself to accomplish anything he believed in.

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