H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Chapter 8. American Spelling > 5. Simplified Spelling
H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.
5. Simplified Spelling
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.   1
  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, batl for battleand 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 Rooselvet ordered their adoption by the Government Printing Office. But this unwise effort to hasten matters, combained 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 discret 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> Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association, it has done much to reform scientific orthography. Such forms as gram, cocain, chlorid, anemia and anilin are the products of its influence. 38 Its latest list recommends the following changes:   2

  1. When a word begins with œ or œ substitute e: esthetic, medieval, subpena. But retain the diphthong at the end of a word: alumnœ.
  2. When bt is pronounced t, drop the silent b: det, dettor, dout.
  3. When ceed is final spell it cede: excede, procede, succede.
  4. When ch is pronounced like hard c, drop the silent h except before e, i and y: caracter, clorid, corus, cronic, eco, epoc, mecanic, monarc, scolar, school, stomac, technical. But retain architect, chemist, monarchy.
  5. When a double consonant appears before a final silent e drop the last two letters: bizar, cigaret, creton, gavot, gazet, giraf, gram, program, quartet, vaudevil.
  6. When a word ends with a double consonant substitute a single consonant: ad, bii, bluf, buz, clas, dol, dul, eg, glas, les, los, mes, mis, pas, pres, shal, tel, wil. But retain ll after a long vowel: all, roll. And retain ss when the word has more than one syllable: needless.
  7. Drop the final silent e after a consonant preceded by a short stressed vowel: giv, hav, liv.
  8. Drop the final silent e in the common words are, gone and were: ar, gon, wer.
  9. Drop the final silent e in the unstressed final short syllables ide, ile, ine, ise, ite and ive: activ, bromid, definit, determin, practis, hostil.
  10. Drop the silent e after lv and rv: involv, twelv, carv, deserv.
  11. Drop the silent e after v or z when preceded by a digraph representing a long vowel or a diphthong: achiev, freez, gauz, sneez.
  12. Drop the e in final oe when it is pronounced o: fo, ho, ro, to, wo. But retain it in inflections: foes, hoed.
  13. When one of the letters in ea is silent drop it: bred, brekfast, hed, hart, harth.
  14. When final ed is pronounced d drop the e: cald, carrid, employd, marrid, robd, sneezd, struggld, wrongd. But not when a wrong pronunciation will be suggested: bribd, cand, fild (for filed), etc.
  15. When final ed is pronounced t substitute t: addrest, shipt, helpt, indorst. But not when a wrong pronunciation will be suggested: bakt, fact (for faced), etc.
  16. When ei is pronounced like ie in brief substitute ie: conciet, deciev, wierd.
  17. When a final ey is pronounced y drop the e: barly, chimny, donky, mony, vally.
  18. When final gh is pronounced f substitute f and drop the silent letter of the preceding digraph: enuf, laf, ruf, tuf.
  19. When gh is pronounced g drop the silent h: agast, gastly, gost, goul.
  20. When gm is final drop the silent g: apothem, diagram, flem.
  21. When gue is final after a consonant, a short vowel or a digraph representing a long vowel or a diphthong drop the silent ue: tung, catalog, harang, leag, sinagog. But not when a wrong pronunciation would be suggested: rog (for rogue), vag (for vague), etc.
  22. When a final ise is pronounced ize substitute ize: advertize, advize, franchize, rize, wize.
  23. When mb is final after a short vowel drop b: bom, crum, dum, lam, lim, thum. But not when a wrong pronunciation would be suggested: com (for comb), tom (for tomb), etc.
  24. When ou before l is pronounced o drop u: mold, sholder. But not sol (for soul).
  25. When ough is final spell o, u, ock or up, according to the pronunciation: altho, boro, donut, furlo, tho, thoro, thru, hock, hiccup.
  26. When our is final and ou is pronounced as a short vowel drop u: color, honor, labor.
  27. When ph is pronounced f substitute f: alfabet, emfasis, fantom, fonograf, fotograf, sulfur, telefone, telegraf.
  28. When re is final after any consonant save c substitute er: center, fiber, meter, theater. But not lucer, mediocer.
  29. When rh is initial and the h is silent drop it: retoric, reumatism, rime, rubarb, rithm.
  30. When sc is initial and the c is silent drop it: senery, sented, septer, sience, sissors.
  31. When u is silent before a vowel drop it: bild, condit, garantee, gard, ges, gide, gild.
  32. When y is between consonants substitute i: analisis, fisic, gipsy, paralize, rime, silvan, tipe.
  Obviously this list is far ahead of the public inclination. Moreover, it is so long and contains so many exceptions (observe rules 1, 4, 6, 12, 14, 15, 21, 23, 24 and 28) that there is little hope that any considerable number of Americans will adopt it, at least during the lifetime of its proponents. Its extravagance, indeed, has had the effect of alienating the support of the National Education Association, and at the convention held in Des Moines in the Summer of 1921 the Association formally withdrew from the campaign. 39 But even so long a list is not enough for the extremists. To it they add various miscellaneous new spellings: aker, anser, burlesk, buro, campain, catar, counterfit, delite, foren, forfit, frend, grotesk, iland, maskerade, morgage, picturesk, siv, sorgum, sovren, spritely, tuch, yu and yung. The reader will recognize some of these as surviving inventions of Webster. But though all such bizarre forms languish, the twelve spellings adopted by the National Education Association in 1898 are plainly making progress, especially tho and thru. I read many manuscripts by American authors, and find in them an increasing use of both forms, with the occasional addition of altho, thoro and thoroly. The spirit of American spelling is on their side. They promise to come in as honor, bark, check, wagon and story came in many years ago, as tire, 40 esophagus and theater came in later on, and as program, catalog and cyclopedia came in only yesterday. The advertisement writers seem to be even more hospitable than the authors. Such forms as vodvil, burlesk, foto, fonograf, kandy, kar, holsum, kumfort, sulfur, arkade, kafeteria and segar are not infrequent in their writings. At least one American professor of English predicts that these forms will eventually prevail. Even fosfate and fotograf, he says, “are bound to be the spellings of the future.” 41 Meanwhile the advertisement writers and authors combine in an attempt to naturalize alright, a compound of all and right, made by analogy with already and almost. I find it in American manuscripts every day, and it not seldom gets into print. 42 So far no dictionary supports it, but it has already migrated to England and has the imprimatur of a noble lord. 43 Another vigorous newcomer is sox for socks. The White Sox are known to all Americans; the White Socks would seem strange. The new plural has got into the Congressional Record. 44   3
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]
Note 38.  The Standard Dictionary, published in 1906, gave great aid to the movement by listing the 3,500 reformed spellings recommended by the American Philological Association in 1886. The publication of the Standard are also the publishers of the Literary Digest, the only magazine of large ciraculation to adopt the Simplified Spelling Board’s recommendations to any appreciable extent. It substitutes simple vowels for diphthongs in such words as esthetc and fetus, usest in place of the usual terminal ed in addrest, affixt, etc., drops the final me and te in words of the programme and cigarette classes, and drops the ue from words of the catalogue class. See Funk & Wagnalls Company Style Card; New York, 1914. [back]
Note 39.  See the Weekly Review, July 16, 1921, p. 47. [back]
Note 40.  Tyre was still in use in America in the 70’s. It will be found on p. 150 of Mark Twain’s Roughing It: Hartford, 1872. [back]
Note 41.  Krapp: Modern English, p. 181. [back]
Note 42.  For example, in Teepee Neighbors, by Grace Coolidge; Boston, 1917, p. 220; Duty and Other Irish Comedies, by Seumas O’Brien; New York, 1916, p. 52; Salt, by Charles G. Norris; New York, 1918, p. 135, and The Ideal Guest, by Wyndham Lewis, Little Review, May, 1918, p. 3. O’Brien is an Irishman and Lewis an Englishman, but the printer in each case was American. I find allright, as one word but with two l’s, in Diplomatic Correspondence with Belligerent Governments, etc., European War, No. 4; Washington, 1918, p. 214. [back]
Note 43.  Vide How to Lengthen Our Ears, by Viscount Harberton; London, 1917, p. 28. [back]
Note 44.  May 16, 1921, p. 1478, col. 2. [back]


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