The American Spelling Reform Movement

By Whelan, Richard | Verbatim, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The American Spelling Reform Movement


Whelan, Richard, Verbatim


As a gradeschooler, I loved to browse through my mother's library-school textbook of the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Not only did its 1,647 pages seem to provide an extremely detailed and comprehensive outline of the entire scope of human knowledge, but the book also had the fascination of being printed throughout in the "reformed spelling" advocated by the decimal system's originator, Melvil Dewey. A note headed "Reazons" states, "Uzers of the Decimal Clasification ar entitled to kno why the author feels compeld to recognize practicaly the urjent claims for reform in English speling, by adopting enuf of many needed chanjes to call every reader's attention to the crying situation."

What elementary-school student, or what person learning English as a second language, wouldn't welcome a reform that changed the spelling of asthma to "asma" (as it is sensibly spelled in Spanish), rough to "ruf," friend to "frend," and flaccid to "flaksid" or "flasid"? The ultimate goal of such a reform--which would render the spelling bee obsolete--would be to establish absolutely logical and consistent rules for the spelling of English. Anyone hearing a word would then automatically know how to spell it, as is essentially the case with such languages as Italian and Spanish. In 1876 William D. Whitney, a professor of philology at Yale and editor of the Century Dictionary, stated that "the true and sole office of alphabetic writing is correctly to represent spoken speech." Hailing this pronouncement, Melvil Dewey elaborated, using the numeral "1" for the indefinite pronoun, "Writing is attempt to convey to 1 at a distance (either in space or time) what wud be spokn to 1 close at hand, and therefore writn word shud represent spokn word as exactly as posibl."

This was certainly not a new idea. Projects to reform the spelling of American English predated the Declaration of Independence. And even earlier proposals to reform British English had led Jonathan Swift, in 1712, to condemn what he called "the foolish opinion advanced of late years that we ought to spell exactly as we speak."

For centuries English spelling had been in the gradual process of reforming itself without any plan. Chaucerian spellings tended over time to be simplified--for example, fysshe became fishe and then fish. Well into the eighteenth century spelling remained highly idiosyncratic, even among the literary elite, and no reader coming upon an odd spelling would draw unflattering conclusions about the writer's education or intelligence. No dictionary was sufficiently impressive to establish one spelling as correct and all or most deviations as incorrect.

All that changed with the publication, in 1755, of Samuel Johnson's monumental and scholarly Dictionary of the English Language. It became so highly respected that its spellings were soon, for better or for worse, widely accepted as definitive. Melvil Dewey, incensed by the Johnsonian perpetuation of many illogical spellings, complained of the lexicographer that "uzing neither rime nor reazon he embalmd in a book, with the weight of his great name, simply the usaj of London printing offises, which wer run almost wholy by Dutch and German printers, many of whom knew no English."

As early as 1768 the polymathic Benjamin Franklin, then living in London as the diplomatic agent for Pennsylvania and several other colonies, proposed a radical reform of English orthography based on phonetic principles. His goal was to designate for each sound in the language a letter, or combination of letters, that would always represent that sound and no other.

Taking the conventional alphabet of twenty-six letters, Franklin began by removing six: c, j, q, w, x, and y. He then added four consonants of his own invention: for sh (as in shell), ng (as occurs twice in hanging), for nonaspirate th (as in that), and aspirate th (as in thin). He also invented two new vowels: one for the uh sound (as in must) and one for ah (as in not). …

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