Thursday, September 24, 2015

Simplified Spelling

(This is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress.)

Although Andrew Carnegie was responsible for the creation of United States Steel, the country’s largest trust, he and Theodore Roosevelt, the trustbusting president, maintained a cordial relationship. Their detente was partly due to their shared interest in one of the progressive era’s more quixotic movements, the campaign to simplify spelling. Carnegie was a committed pacifist who believed international relations would be vastly improved if the world spoke a single language. A monoglot globe, he believed, would ultimately lead to “universal peace.” Carnegie was convinced that English could be that language, but for its “contradictory and difficult” orthography. 

Of all the phonetic languages, English is by far the most difficult to spell. That’s because, when the spelling of many words was standardized with the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century, Middle English was transforming into Modern English. So, while the pronunciation of many words has changed over the ensuing centuries, the spelling hasn’t. Middle English speakers pronounced the k in knee and the l in talk. We don’t, but we still spell those words as if we did. Same goes for the gh in words in words like night and thought. In Middle English the gh was pronounced as a guttural kh. Over time, the sound was dropped from these words altogether, but the original spelling stuck. 

At the same time, something called the Great Vowel Shift was underway. This changed the way many vowels were pronounced. Sometimes the spelling was changed, sometimes it wasn’t. So so and sew rhyme, while hear and wear don’t. Even as pronunciations changed, often radically, English speakers clung tenaciously to what have become illogical, erratic, and archaic spellings.

Andrew Carnegie was determined to change that. In March 1906, he pledged $75,000 to fund the creation of the Simplified Spelling Board, a panel of thirty “prominent men of affairs as well as men of letters,” including Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, former Treasury Secretary Lyman Gage, publishing magnate Henry Holt, and author Mark Twain. “They do not intend to urge any violent alteration in the appearance of familiar words,” the New York Times averred after the board was announced. “They wish, in brief, to expedite that process of simplification which has been going on in English, in spite of the opposition of conservatives, ever since the invention of printing, notably in the omission of silent and useless letters.”

In June, the board released a list of the 300 words that were to be simplified first. Most were minor changes that were already coming into common usage, such as dropping the “u” from colour, honour, and labour, and the extraneous final two letters from catalogue and programme. The board also proposed eliminating the double consonants in skillful, waggon, and woollen. But some of the proposed changes were more radical. Words ending in -ed were changed to end in -t: asked became askt, and advanced became advanst. The “ough” letter combination was abandoned almost entirely. Although became altho, borough boro, doughnut donut, thorough thoro, through thru.