Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY


The Simplified Spelling Movement
(see also: Other Advocates of Reform)




“It is hard to say which is more remarkable, the number of influential people who became interested in spelling reform or the little effect they had on it.” From “The Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson

America’s spelling reformers wanted to simplify and rationalize our lexicon, for reasons ranging from the anti-colonialist (why shackle ourselves with sense-defying British spellings?) to the ridiculously practical: Lopping off superfluous letters would shorten books and save ink and paper, claimed the champions of  “simplified spelling.” Moreover, American schoolchildren could shave a full two years off their studies if liberated from spelling drills.

Defenders of traditional spelling occupied the high ground of poetry and custom, while the reformers trotted out efficiency, that god of turn-of-the-century progressivism. The ensuing debate wended its way down colorful byways. The simplified spellers brandished a finding of an underemployed worker at the U.S. Pension Office, who had counted 1,690 different spellings of the word “diarrhea” in pension applications. To this, the mossback Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford replied, “Is there any phonetic system which could bring about a uniform spelling of that word?”

The game was really afoot when the spelling reformers found a sugar daddy in the person of Andrew Carnegie. The philanthropic steel titan counseled a name change for the organization (“reform” scares people, he insisted), and so the Spelling Reform Association became the Simplified Spelling Board.


The Players – according to a 1906 New York Times Newspaper ( the society included: Chancellor Andrews of the University of Nebraska, Justice Brewer of the United States Supreme Court, President Butler of Columbia University, O. C. Blackmer of Chicago, Andrew CarnegieMark TwainDr. Melvil Dewey, Dr. Isaac K. Funk, editor and publisher of The Standard Dictionary; Lyman J. Gage, ex-Secretary of the Treasury; Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine; Dr. William T. Harris, United States Commissioner of Education and editor of Webster’s International Dictionary; Prof. George Hempel of the University of Michigan, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry Holt, Prof. William James of Harvard, President Jordan of Leland Stanford University, Prof. Thomas R. Lounsbury of Yale, Prof. Francis A. March of Lafayette, Prof. Brander Matthews of Columbia, Dr. Benjamin E. Smith, editor, and Dr. Charles P. G. Scott, etymological editor, of The Century Dictionary; President H. H. Seedley of the Iowa State Normal School, Cedar Falls; Col. Charles E. Sprague, President of the Union Dime Savings Institution; Prof. Calvin Thomas of Columbia, Dr. William Hayes Ward, editor of The Independent, and President Woodward of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

From H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

The current movement toward a general reform of English-American spelling is of American origin, and its chief supporters are Americans today. Its actual father was Webster, for it was the long controversy over his simplified spellings that brought the dons of the American Philological Association to a serious investigation of the subject. In 1875 they appointed a committee to inquire into the possibility of reform, and in 1876 this committe reported favorably. During the same year there was an International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography at Philadelphia, with several delegates from England present, and out of it grew the Spelling Reform Association. 35 In 1878 a committee of American philologists began preparing a list of proposed new spellings, and two years later the Philological Society of England joined in the work. In 1883 a joint manifesto was issued, recommending various general simplifications. Among those enlisted in the movement were Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson, Sir John Lubbock and Sir J. A. H. Murray. In 1886 the American Philological Association issued independently a list of recommendations affecting about 3,500 words, and falling under ten headings. Practically all of the changes proposed had been put forward 80 years before by Webster, and some of them had entered into unquestioned American usage in the meantime, e. g., the deletion of the u from the -our words, the substitution of er for re at the end of words, and the reduction of traveller to traveler.

The trouble with the others was that they were either too uncouth to be adopted without a long struggle or likely to cause errors in pronunciation. To the first class belonged tung for tounge, ruf for rough, batlfor battle and abuv for above, and to the second such forms as cach for catch and troble for trouble.The result was that the whole reform received a set-back: the public dismissed the reformers as a pack of dreamers. Twelve years later the National Education Association received the movement with a proposal that a beginning be made with a very short list of reformed spellings, and nominated the following by way of experiment: tho, altho, thru, through, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, pedagog and decalog. This scheme of gradual changes was sound in principle, and in a short time at least two of the recommended spellings,program and catalog, were in general use. Then, in 1906, came the organization of the Simplified Spelling Board, with an endowment of $15,000 a year from Andrew Carnegie, and a formidable list of members and collaborators, including Henry Bradley, F. I. Furnivall, C. H> Grandgent, W. W. Skeat, T. R. Lounsbury and F. A. March. The board at once issued a list of 300 revised spellings, new and old, and in August, 1906, President Roosevelt ordered their adoption by the Government Printing Office. But this unwise effort to hasten matters, combined with the buffoonery characteristically thrown about the matter by Roosevelt, served only to raise up enemies, and then, though it has prudently gone back to more discreet endeavors and now lays main stress upon the original 12 words of the National Education Association, the board has not made a great deal of progress. 36 From time to time it issues impressive lists of newspapers and periodicals that have made them optional, but an inspection of these lists shows that very few publications of any importance have been converted and that most of the great universities still hesitate. 37 It has, however, greatly reinforced the authority behind many of Webster’s spellings, and aided by the Chemical>

Note 35.   Accounts of earlier proposals of reform in English spelling are to be found in Sayce’s Introduction to the Science of Language, vol. i, p. 330 et seq., and White’s Everyday English, p. 152 et seq. The best general treatment of the subject is in Lounsbury’s English Spelling and Spelling Reform; New York, 1909. A radical innovation, involving the complete abandonment of the present alphabet and the substitution of a series of symbols with vowel points, is proposed in Peetickay, by Wilfrid Perrett; Cambridge (England), 1920. Mr. Perrett’s book is written in a lively style, and includes much curious matter. He criticises the current schemes of spelling reform very acutely. Nearly all of them, he says, suffer from the defect of seeking to represent all the sounds of English by the present alphabet. This he calls“one more reshuffle of a prehistoric pack, one more attempt to deal out 26 cards to some 40 players.”  [back]

Note 36.   Its second list was published on January 28, 1908, its third on Janurary 25, 1909, and its fourth on March 24, 1913, and since then there have been several others. But most its literature is devoted to the 12 words and to certain reformed spellings of Webster, already in general use.  [back]

Note 37.   In April, 1919, it claimed 556 newspapers and periodicals, with a circulation of 18,000,000, and 460 universities, colleges and normal schools.  [back]

For Children of the Code views and notes on orthographic form see
: to the list of 300 word spellings Roosevelt ordered reformed.

For a thorough history of spelling reform see: Spelling Reform in Context

and/ or English Spelling Reform