HISTORY OF SPELLING REFORM

This is a history about spelling reform efforts in the U.S. and Britain since the mid-1870s. Some of this information comes from the research of Kenneth Ives, who has published it in a book called "Written Dialects"; some passages, noted as such, are taken intact from his work.

Back to Spelling Reform Page

In 1876, the American Philological Association adopted 11 new spellings, and began promoting their use:
ar catalog definit gard giv hav infinit liv tho thru wisht*
(*see note at end)

Then, as Ken Ives notes, "Also in 1876, an `International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography' was held in Philadelphia, during the Centennial Exposition. This developed into the Spelling Reform Association."

In 1879, the British Spelling Reform Association was founded. In 1886, the American Philological Association (which had earlier proposed 11 new spellings) came out with a list of 3500 spellings.

In 1898, the (American) National Education Association began promoting a list of 12 spellings. They were:
tho altho thru thruout thoro thoroly thorofare program prolog catalog pedagog decalog*
(*see note at end)

The Simplified Spelling Board was founded in the U.S. in 1906, and had a list of 300-plus spellings. One of the founding members was Andrew Carnegie, who donated more than $250,000 over the next several years. The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in the U.K. in 1908, as a "sister" organization. (Some more on the Simplified Spelling Society, which is still operating, a number of paragraphs down.)

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt also promoted simpler spellings. Initially, he ordered the Government Printing Office to use the Simplified Spelling Board's 300 or so proposed spellings. This order was issued on August 27, 1906 (while the U.S. Congress was in recess). There was resistance from the Government Printing Office and others who were to carry it out, and when Congress readjourned that fall, they set to revoke Roosevelt's order. From Ken Ives' documentation (his source for this is "Our Times," Volume 3, by Mark Sullivan, Scribner, 1937), we find:

Congress ... voted, 142 to 24, that "no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents ... unless same shall conform to the orthography ... in ... generally accepted dictionaries."

Thus, it ended up that simplified spellings were used only in written items coming from the White House itself, and at that, only 12 were used. (I don't know if these were the same 12 that the NEA was promoting.)

The National Education Association continued promoting their list until 1921. The Simplified Spelling Board had a fair amount of activity until about 1920, and this had been aided by the donations from Andrew Carnegie. However, Carnegie did not provide any money in his will for the Spelling Board.

Continuing from Ken Ives' research:

With the end of Carnegie funds in 1920, the Simplified Spelling Board became inactive, and the Spelling Reform Association was reactivated, by many of the same people. It aimed at a more thorogoing reform. In 1930, the SRA published its phonemic alphabet.

A few continued to carry the torch for the Simplified Spelling Board, in name at least. The remaining Simplified Spelling Board and the Spelling Reform Association were merged in 1946, and now there is a group with a different name and an additional aim. An organization today called the American Literacy Council, a group as concerned with the teaching of reading and writing as it is with spelling reform, essentially is the outgrowth of the Spelling Reform Association and the Simplified Spelling Board. The American Literacy Council has a Web site .

This next part, concerning the "Chicago Tribune," was written by Ken Ives:

As early as the 1870s, the Chicago Tribune began using reformed spellings. Joseph Medill, editor and owner, was a member of the Council of the Spelling Reform Association. In 1880 the Chicago Spelling Reform Association met at the Sherman House and read letters approving the Tribune's efforts.

About 50 years later, under Medill's grandson, Robert H. McCormick, and editor James O'Donnell Bennett, the Tribune began a new effort. This "practical test of spelling reform" started in January 1934, and continued for 41 years, with various changes.

An unsystematic list of 80 respelled words was introduced in four editorials over a two month period, and used thereafter in the paper, which had the largest circulation in Chicago. On January 28, "advertisment, catalog," and seven more "-gue" words were among those shortened. The February 11 list included "agast, ameba, burocrat, crum, missil, subpena." On February 25, "bazar, hemloc, herse, intern, rime, sherif, staf," were among those introduced. On March 11 an editorial reported that "short spelling wins votes of readers 3 to 1." On March 18, the final list included "glamor, harth, iland, jaz, tarif, trafic." An editorial that day, "Why dictionary makers avoid simpler spellings" claimed that they dare not pioneer, "prejudice and competition prevent it."

On September 24, 1939, the list was reduced to 40, but "tho, altho, thru, thoro," were added. Addition of "frate, frater" came on September 24, 1945. Changing "ph" not at the start of a word to "f" came on July 3, 1949, with "autograf, telegraf, philosofy, photograf, sofomore."

(end of passage from Ken Ives)

In the decades following this, the "Chicago Tribune" removed more words from this list. By the end of the 1960s, "tarif," "sodder," "clew," and "frate" were among those dropped. They used "thru" and "tho" until 1975, when they basically stopped using simplified spellings. The newspaper continued to use the "-log" for "-logue" spellings for a while after that, but then went back to the "-logue" forms.

The Simplified Spelling Board's list had, as stated, about 300 words, and one U.S. dictionary maker, for a number of years, listed these alongside the conventional spellings. "Funk & Wagnalls" dictionaries, at least the larger volumes, did this for at least a few decades until sometime in the 1950s. In a "Funk & Wagnalls" unabridged from 1945 that I've seen, entries read such as:

rough adj. (ruf) having the texture
ruf of coarse or ....

debt n. (det) a state of owing money
det or other ....

Thus, "ruf" was listed in boldface flush with the margin directly below "rough"; "det" was equally aligned with "debt," etc.

Writer George Bernard Shaw also expressed support for changing English spelling. In his will, Shaw provided for a "contest" to design a new, "phonetic" (meaning based on the speech of England's late King George V) alphabet for English. The contest was held during 1958. The alphabet chosen, which is referred to as the "Shavian" alphabet, has 48 characters, which are different looking from Roman letters; the designer's name is Kingsley Read.

The U.K. group, the Simplified Spelling Society, has been operating since 1908. They have promoted a few phonetic schemes over the years. In the 1960s, some British schools agreed to use an idea conceived by one of their members, called the "Initial Teaching Alphabet." (The person behind it was James Pitman; this was a compromise made with the Minister of Education after an earlier bill had been withdrawn from Parliament.) Basically, children were taught to read and write first using a totally phonetic system, then later shifted to conventional spelling. This method was also used in a few schools in the U.S. at the time. (I don't know if anyone still uses the Initial Teaching Alphabet.)

At present, the Simplified Spelling Society is officially a forum for discussing the problems of spelling and different solutions. They aren't officially promoting just one particular scheme now, but there is a scheme at the forefront of their work called "Cut Spelling." This plan calls for removing certain letters from words. The Society has a Web site.

Better Education thru Simplified Spelling, founded in the U.S. in 1978, has been trying to get reform started by encouraging people to use "tho," "thru," and "hav." (There was talk of dropping "hav," and making a "first stage" with "tho" and "thru" and a second one with "lite" and "nite.") This group is not an outgrowth of any earlier one, but they have ties with the Simplified Spelling Society and the American Literacy Council.

One item to note is that Charles Darwin and Lord Tennyson gave support to the British Spelling Reform Association founded in 1879. In the U.S., Mark Twain, in addition to Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, voiced support for the Simplified Spelling Board founded in 1906.

This last section looks first at items before the 1870s -- Noah Webster's proposals, at least later ones (Webster's earlier ideas called for more spelling reforms) -- and changes since then.

From Ken Ives, we find that "Webster's plan for reforming English spelling centered on 10 main classes of words":

The U.S. Government Printing Office adopted almost all of the words in categories 1 thru 7 and category 10 in 1864, and these forms -- color, center, offense, traveled, organize, etc. -- have been the ones used in all U.S. government documents since. Many other Americans were already using these spellings by that time.

Items in category 8 have generally not become the accepted forms in American English, and the closest case would be a word like "ax/axe," where the two spellings are equal variants in American usage.

The words promoted by the Simplified Spelling Board beginning in 1906 were noted by a set of "rules," each for a certain type of change.

Some rules simply reaffirmed the changes which Webster had set down in his dictionary and which had been adopted by the U.S. Government in 1864. One called for writing "-or" instead of "-our," thus "color," "harbor." Another covered using "-er" for "-re" as in "center" and "fiber." These spellings were already the preferred forms in many U.S. publications by 1906, but a few Americans were still putting "centre" etc. into print.

Among the additional rules, a couple called for removing silent "b's," thus "det," "dout," "lam," etc. A couple more changed some final "-rr" and "-ll" to single consonants, giving "bur," "pur," "distil."

One of the items concerned respelling "ough" when pronounced as long "o" or as the "oo" of "room." There was a section for respelling "ph" with "f," while a couple of other rules called for dropping final letters such as "-ue" or "-me."

As of 1906, "phantasy" was the more common spelling, with "fantasy" a variant. "Fantasy" then became the more common, standard spelling in the U.S. and Britain. "Programme" was the preferred, dominant spelling in the U.S. as well as other English-speaking countries at the turn of the century. "Program," one of the spellings promoted by the (U.S.) National Education Association and others at the time, went on to become the standard U.S. spelling by the middle of the 20th century. (Further "program" is standard in all English-speaking countries for the computer sense.) "Catalog," another word promoted in these movements, has become the preferred form in U.S. publishing over the past few decades.

Of the other words promoted by the (U.S.) National Education Association, "thru," "tho," "altho," "prolog," and "decalog/Decalog" are listed in American English dictionaries as acceptable variants, and "thoro" and "pedagog" can sometimes be found listed as informal or variant forms.

================================================

Other sources (all published in the U.S.): H.L. Mencken, "The American Language" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1977; there are many printings of this), pages 479-497; David Grambs, "Death By Spelling" (Harper & Row, 1989), pages 55-59; "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage" (1989), pages 864-866, 906; Also, a doctoral thesis from Columbia University: Abraham Tauber, "Spelling Reform in the United States" (1958).

See too the entry for "spelling reform" in the "Oxford Companion to the English Language."

================================================

*Notes Regarding the 1876 and 1898 Lists of Words:

I have found two slightly different lists of what the 12 words were that the U.S. National Education Association began promoting in 1898, and have also found more than one set given as being what the American Philological Association adopted in 1876. I checked this against a few more sources beyond those just noted, and for the record, here are the differences:

Per H.L. Mencken's "The American Language," "Compton's Encyclopedia Online," and David Grambs' "Death By Spelling," the 12 words which the (American) National Education Association selected and began promoting in 1898 were: tho altho thru thruout thoro thoroly thorofare program prolog catalog pedagog decalog

Per Ken Ives' "Written Dialects" and Abraham Tauber's "Spelling Reform in the United States," the 12 words were: tho altho thru thruout thoro thorofare program prolog catalog pedagog decalog demagog Thus, the first list contains "thoroly" but doesn't have "demagog"; this second list has "demagog," but not "thoroly." Additionally, Tauber shows "Decalog" with a capital "d."

Further, to the second list of words, we have this from "The Greatest Good Fortune," a biography of Andrew Carnegie written by Simon Goodenough (Macdonalds, Edinburgh, 1985): "Fifty distinguished Americans were approached who would agree to adopt the simplified spelling of several commonly used words, altho, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog, tho, thoro, thorofare, thru, and thruout."

The organization currently known as the National Education Association in the U.S. was called the National Educational Association in 1898. This organization was founded in 1857 as the National Teachers Association, became the National Educational Association in 1870, then the National Education Association in 1906.

Per H.L. Mencken and David Grambs, the American Philological Association adopted 11 words in 1876. These words were: ar catalog definit gard giv hav infinit liv tho thru wisht

Per Ken Ives, 10 words were adopted by the APA at that time: ar catalog definit gard giv hav liv tho thru wisht

Per Abraham Tauber, the APA chose 11 words, and they were: ar catalog definit gard giv hav infinit liv tho thru wich

Also, if you read H.L. Mencken's "The American Language" you will find that January 28, 1935 is given as the date that the "Chicago Tribune" made the first in its series of announcements of simplified spellings, while the source I note above gives it as January 28, 1934. I have a copy of this first announcement which I made from microfilm of the "Chicago Tribune," and it is indeed 1934 and not 1935.

by Cornell Kimball