Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How were the English spellings reformed in the latter part of the nineteenth century?

In the latter part of the nineteenth century renewed interest was manifested in the problem of English spelling. For nearly 400 years the English have struggled with their spelling. It was one of the chief problems that seemed to confront the language in the time of Shakespeare , and it  continued to be an issue throughout the seventeenth and to some extent in the eighteenth century.

The publication in 1837 of a system of shorthand by Isaac Pitman led to his proposal of several plans of phonetic spelling for general use. In these schemes Pitman was assisted by Alexander J.Ellis, a much greater scholar. They were promoted during the 1840s by the publication of a periodical called the Phonotypic Journal, later changed to the Phonetic Journal. The Bible and numerous classic works were printed in the new spelling, and the movement aroused considerable public interest.

By 1870 the English Philological Society had taken up the question, and the Transactions contain numerous discussions of it. The discussion spread into the columns of the Academy and the Athenaeum. America became interested in the question, and in 1883 the American Philological Association recommended the adoption of a long list of new spellings approved jointly by it and the English society. Spelling Reform Associations were formed in both countries. In 1898 the National Education Association formally adopted for use in its publications twelve simplified spellings—tho, altho, thoro, thorofare, thru, thruout, program, catalog, prolog, decalog, demagog, and pedagog. Some of these have come into general use, but on the whole the public remained indifferent.

In 1906 there was organized in the United States a Simplified Spelling Board, supported by a contribution from Andrew Carnegie. Their first practical step was to publish a list of 300 words for which different spellings were in use (judgement—judgment, mediaeval—medieval, etc.) and to recommend the simpler form. This was a very moderate proposal and met with some favor. Theodore Roosevelt endorsed it. But it also met with opposition, and subsequent lists that went further were not well received. Newspapers, magazines, and book publishers continued to use the traditional orthography, and though the Simplified Spelling Board continued to issue from time to time its publication, Spelling, until 1931, its accomplishment was slight, and it eventually went out of existence.

The efforts that have been described produced only slender results,because many people opposed to any radical change in English spelling.  But the efforts were successful  in stimulating public interest for a time and gained the support of various people whose names carried weight.  It is probably safe to say that if English spelling is ever to be reformed, it must be reformed gradually and with as little disruption to the existing system as is consistent with the attainment of a reasonable end.


A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.