Background Research Notes: CODE REFORM (ATTEMPTS) HISTORY


Mark Twain


“The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn’t know how to spell, and can’t be taught.” – Mark Twain

Dramatic readings of Mark Twain’s writings by actor Bill Erwin


From his autobiography

Susy’s quaint and effective spelling falls quite opportunely into to-day’s atmosphere, which is heavy with the rumblings and grumblings and mutterings of the Simplified Spelling Reform. Andrew Carnegie started this storm, a couple of years ago, by moving a simplifying of English orthography, and establishing a fund for the prosecution and maintenance of the crusade. He began gently. He addressed a circular to some hundreds of his friends, asking them to simplify the spelling of a dozen of our badly spelt words — I think they were only words which end with the superfluous ugh. He asked that these friends use the suggested spellings in their private correspondence.

By this, one perceives that the beginning was sufficiently quiet and unaggressive.

Next stage: a small committee was appointed, with Brander Matthews for managing director and spokesman. It issued a list of three hundred words, of average silliness as to spelling, and proposed new and sane spellings for these words. The President of the United States, unsolicited, adopted these simplified three hundred officially, and ordered that they be used in the official documents of the Government. It was now remarked, by all the educated and the thoughtful except the clergy that Sheol was to pay. This was most justly and comprehensively descriptive. The indignant British lion rose, with a roar that was heard across the Atlantic, and stood there on his little isle, gazing, red-eyed, out over the glooming seas, snow-flecked with driving spindrift, and lashing his tail — a most scary spectacle to see.

The lion was outraged because we, a nation of children, without any grown-up people among us, with no property in the language, but using it merely by courtesy of its owner the English nation, were trying to defile the sacredness of it by removing from it peculiarities which had been its ornament and which had made it holy and beautiful for ages.

In truth there is a certain sardonic propriety in preserving our orthography, since ours is a mongrel language which started with a child’s vocabulary of three hundred words, and now consists of two hundred and twenty-five thousand; the whole lot, with the exception of the original and legitimate three hundred, borrowed, stolen, smouched from every unwatched language under the sun, the spelling of each individual word of the lot locating the source of the theft and preserving the memory of the revered crime.

Why is it that I have intruded into this turmoil and manifested a desire to get our orthography purged of its asininities? Indeed I do not know why I should manifest any interest in the matter, for at bottom I disrespect our orthography most heartily, and as heartily disrespect everything that has been said by anybody in defence of it. Nothing professing to be a defence of our ludicrous spellings has had any basis, so far as my observation goes, except sentimentality. In these “arguments” the term venerable is used instead of mouldy, and hallowed instead of devilish; whereas there is nothing properly venerable or antique about a language which is not yet four hundred years old, and about a jumble of imbecile spellings which were grotesque in the beginning, and which grow more and more grotesque with the flight of the years.

From: The Alphabet and Simplified Spelling By Mark Twain

Address at the Dinner Given to Mr. Carnegie at the Dedication of the New York Engineers’ Club, December 9, 1907.

…but Mr. Carnegie has brought destruction to the entire race. I know he didn’t mean it to be a crime, but it was, just the same. He’s got us all so we can’t spell anything.

The trouble with him is that he attacked orthography at the wrong end. He meant well, but he attacked the symptoms and not the cause of the diseaseHe ought to have gone to work on the alphabet. There’s not a vowel in it with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to.

….. But look at the “pneumatics” and the “pneumonias” and the rest of them. A real reform would settle them once and for all, and wind up by giving us an alphabet that we wouldn’t have to spell with at all, instead of this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief.

….Now, if we had an alphabet that was adequate and competent, instead of inadequate and incompetent, things would be different. Spelling reform has only made it bald-headed and unsightly. There is the whole tribe of them, “row” and “read” and “lead” — a whole family who don’t know who they are. I ask you to pronounce s-o-w, and you ask me what kind of a one.

….If we had a sane, determinate alphabet, instead of a hospital of comminuted eunuchs, you would know whether one referred to the act of a man casting the seed over the ploughed land or whether one wished to recall the lady hog and the future ham.

It’s a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone.

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling (

by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s,” and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c,” “y” and “x”–bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez–tu riplais “ch,” “sh,” and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.


(This article, written during the autumn of 1899, was about the last writing done by Mark Twain on any impersonal subject.)

The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn’t know how to spell, and can’t be taught. In this it is like all other alphabets except one–the phonographic. This is the only competent alphabet in the world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language.

That admirable alphabet, that brilliant alphabet, that inspired alphabet, can be learned in an hour or two. In a week the student can learn to write it with some little facility, and to read it with considerable ease. I know, for I saw it tried in a public school in Nevada forty-five years ago, and was so impressed by the incident that it has remained in my memory ever since.

I wish we could adopt it in place of our present written (and printed) character. I mean SIMPLY the alphabet; simply the consonants and the vowels–I don’t mean any REDUCTIONS or abbreviations of them, such as the shorthand writer uses in order to get compression and speed. No, I would SPELL EVERY WORD OUT.

I will insert the alphabet here as I find it in Burnz’s PHONIC SHORTHAND. [Figure 1] It is arranged on the basis of Isaac Pitman’s PHONOGRAPHY. Isaac Pitman was the originator and father of scientific phonography. It is used throughout the globe. It was a memorable invention. He made it public seventy- three years ago. The firm of Isaac Pitman & Sons, New York, still exists, and they continue the master’s work.


The New York Times, April 6, 1906

Says the “Schoolboy” is a Public Pet and a Pioneer of Spelling Reform

Mark Twain in Harper’s Weekly.

A year and a quarter ago Mr. Foley began to do schoolboy poems in a fire-new and blood-curdling and criminal fashion of spelling which no self-respecting eye could endure at first. It was phonetics carried to the uttermost limit of exactness in the reproduction of sound effects. The public felt deeply outraged, and there was a smell of insurrection in the air – a quite justifiable condition of things, too, for the poems looked like the alphabet hiccuping home in disorderly squads, a most painful and irritating spectacle – but I ask you, what has become of that insurrection? No man knows. It disappeared and left no sign. For the public had done the fatal thing; it kept on reading the poems in order to curse the spelling, and of course the natural thing happened; familiarity with the spelling modified the reader’s hostility to it, then reconciled him to it, and at last made him fall in love with it; and now – well, now Mr. Foley’s schoolboy is a pet.


But Clemens saw the crusade as an uphill battle. At one point he conceded, “It won’t happen, and I am as sorry as a dog.”

From the PBS Series Site

The House of Representatives delivered the knockout punch when, after raucous debate, the congressmen voted 142-25 to ban the new spellings from federal documents. The next day Roosevelt yielded. “I am sory as a dog,” Twain wrote Carnegie“For I do lov revolutions and violense.”