Word Nerd: Simplified Spelling
4 years ago
Ah, English. Famously one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Devoid of the rules that neatly structure other languages, like case (nominative, accusative, dative and so on; Latin scholars will be nodding painfully here), it’s clung on to scraps and bits of rules from history (like the plural -en, which applies to a sum total of five modern words: oxen, children, brethren, sistren* and – obscurely – swine) and promiscuously borrowed, adopted or outright stolen words and rules from languages around the world.
More than anything, it’s the spellings that get you. Where do the k, g or h in knight come from? What do they do? Why are the first and last s in schism pronounced differently, and just what the fuck is that h doing there? Explain lyre, friar, higher, buyer, choir, prior, spire and hierarchy? Wherefore deign, but disdain, especially since they come from the same root? Why in the name of Samuel Johnson’s left teat† don’t we just spell things properly?
The answer’s actually pretty straightforward. Or, perhaps, the answers; it’s a bit of a mix of things. Partly it’s those different linguistic roots of course; partly it’s Doctor Johnson’s legacy, where he collected words from any number of different researchers and didn’t always register that their spellings were inconsistent with each other. Much of the time, though, it’s because those spellings were totes phonetic at the time they were coined, and it’s just the pronunciation that changed.
Knight? Ker-NEECHT, I think you’ll find, circa the fourteenth century and before. That silent e at the ends of words, that changes the vowel in the stem? Yeah, that wasn’t always silent, and it didn’t always change the stem. Welcome to the Great Vowel Shift, a grandly-titled shift in the English language that no-one can satisfactorily explain, that mutated huge swathes of our vocabulary between 1350 and 1500, just as the printing press was starting to pin spellings down once at for all. Almost every one of those nonsensical and inconsistent spellings used to make perfect sense, and one way or another we had the linguistic rug pulled from under our feet.
But so what, right? So you have to go to the trouble of learning some odd spellings. It’s all part of English’s quirky charms. We’ve all pretty much accepted this as the case, but the thing is, there’s no real reason we should have to. Seriously; give me one reason. I love this odd, bastard little language as much as the next nerd, but I’m the first to admit there’s no actual compelling reason for it to be preserved in this state. If the governments, media outlets and educational establishments of the English-speaking world all teamed up and agreed to a new, simple, consistent and wholly phonetic spelling and grammar for the English language, life would be immeasurably improved for all. Learning it would be easier, both for our kids and for foreigners seeking to communicate with us; spelling would be easier; the Anglophone world would be brought until beautiful harmony; in all likelihood, meanings themselves would be clearer.
And a number of attempts, with varying degrees of determination and success, have been made to this very end, probably most memorably – to say nothing of most expensively, most enthusiastically and most successfully – by Scots-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie.‡
Founded in 1906 and running until 1920, shortly after its benefactor’s death, the Simplified Spelling Board is one of the most delightful, gloriously quixotic entities in the history of language (with the possible exception of l’Académie française, on which more, perhaps, in a later blog). Far from simply desiring a slenderer dictionary, Carnegie was firmly convince that spelling reform was the key to world peace itself, as a sexier, more streamlined English drew the recalcitrant nations of the world under its umbrella.
The SSB was evidently a believer in the principle of “Go big or go home,” following its announcement, within a few weeks, with its first list of no fewer than three hundred corrected words, from abridgment (losing the e after the g) to wrapt (swapping the -pped for a -pt). They sought to drop the u in colour, the b in dumb, and the e in foe, and offered up burlesk, delite and frend.
And they had extraordinary weight behind them. The SSB’s membership included university professors, dictionary publishers, supreme court judges and the US Commissioner of Education. Mark Twain was a member as was Melvin Dewey.** President Roosevelt§ was so impressed he ordered his office to deliver all his paperwork in the new spellings.
And they even had some success. Certainly the removal of the redundant u in the -our ending has stuck, and the SSB did much to bolster Webster’s preferred -ize ending (as mentioned in a previous blog). And you can even find odd examples of thru and nite here and there in the States. But ultimately people like to stick with what they know. Carnegie wrote often in frustration that he was getting too little outcome for his investment (he particularly noted how few newspapers were taking up the call), and chose not to include a legacy for them in his will, and the Board folded within a year of his death, its mission still far from complete. Arguably, in fact, it was worse than ineffective, as it introduced differences between US and UK spellings, only adding to the confusion of foreign speakers learning the language for the first time.
Farewell, Simplified Spelling Board, you mad, beautiful bastards.
Interestingly, given the SSB’s American emphasis and its greater impact over the pond, its sister organisation, the English Spelling Society, has far outlived it, at 107 years old and going strong. And they don’t let 107 years of achieving precisely fuck-all get to them, although all they really have to show for it is a newsletter and some academic papers. They do have a pretty website, though.
*Honestly not sure if sistren’s a modern word. Or if I can count brethren and sistren as separate words. Or whether sistren sounds like part of a toilet or not.
†That got away from me, there.
‡Whose Hall one notoriously enters through practice, son; practice.
**Of the Decimal System, natch.
§Teddy. I don’t know how FDR felt about spelling; my impression was always that if you couldn’t shoot it, shag it or drink it, he wasn’t interested, but maybe he felt more strongly about spelling than I know. If so, he was never associated with the SSB.