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  • Bee Season: The annual spelling bee brings out protesters as well as nerds

    This week protesters from the American Literacy Society and London's Simplified Spelling Society picketed outside Washington D. C.'s Grand Hyatt Hotel, while inside, 286 students in grades 5 through 8 competed in the 80th annual Scripps Spelling Bee.

    Protesters carried signs reading “Let’s End the I in Friend” and “Enuf is Enuf,” hoping to draw attention to their cause, the reform of English spelling.

    Protesters at the National Spelling Bee

    It’s a good cause, though hopeless. The history of the spelling-reform movement is long, distinguished, and totally ineffectual. Reforms popped up as early as the 12th century and they’ve continued through the present, though until recently spelling reformers didn’t take to the streets to get their point across.

    Spelling reformers favor one of two approaches: creating phonetic alphabets to replace the current one, or streamlining the present alphabet to rationalize our spelling.

    Phonetic alphabets may contain as many as forty or fifty symbols, each letter standing for a single sound. George Bernard Shaw favored this kind of reform, and in his will he offered a prize for the creator of the best phonetic, or fonetik, alphabet. The contest was held, the prize awarded – it included publication of Shaw’s play, “Androcles and the Lion” using the new spelling system – and the winning alphabet was quickly forgotten.

    Less radical reformers prefer to streamline English spelling, eliminating silent letters and standardizing the representation of sounds. In a simplified system, through is thru and though is tho; civil becomes sivil and cone, kone. In 1906 the Simplified Spelling Board, funded by Andrew Carnegie and supported by Mark Twain, proposed a short list of 300 respelled words, and Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a spelling reformer, issued an Executive Order directing the Government Printing Office to adopt the new spellings immediately. But opposition to the changes was strong – Congress refused to fund the GPO unless its documents were printed “in the orthography of generally accepted dictionaries” – and Roosevelt was forced to speak softly and drop the big stick.

    One fan of simplified spelling was Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Medill imposed his system on the newspaper, but after the 1920s the Trib found itself the sole survivor of the American spelling reform movement, and instead of serving as a guiding light, the Tribune’s quirky spelling became a laughing stock. In 1975 the paper finally abandoned the spelling crusade with a headline that announced, “Thru is through, and so is tho.” 

    Despite such failures, sure signs that spelling reform is an idea whose time isn’t coming any time soon, die hards continue to argue that new spelling will make it easier for children to learn to read and for foreigners to acquire English. Simplified spelling means we’d be writing and printing fewer letters, using less paper, and spending fewer classroom hours learning language, all of which would save up to a billion dollars a year, even after you factor in the costs of converting to the new system, retooling all the presses, reprinting everything previously printed, and training us all to use it.

    spelling protest sign:

    But whether you’re using a new alphabet or a set of simplified words, phonetic spelling is not as rational as spelling reformers claim. English spelling was relatively fixed by the eighteenth century, but English pronunciation continues to change, and that’s part of the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation. Any new “phonetic” spellings would have to shift to accommodate the changing sounds of English. 

    In addition, reformers would have to decide just whose pronunciation the new spelling would reflect – Southern American speakers? New Englanders? Londoners? Aussies? And pronunciation varies by other factors too: gender, age, education, social class, even ethnicity. The phonetic spelling morass would quickly become as complex and impenetrable as the present system, which at least has the advantage of tradition and familiarity, plus our spell checkers would be rendered useless.

    It seems pointless even to discuss spelling reform, since the reformers themselves have never agreed on a single system that might work. And even if they could, we have no mechanism to implement the change. 

    Language laws don’t work – Teddy Roosevelt found this out the hard way. The schools are so decentralized that even if educators could agree on a reform it couldn’t be implemented on a  national scale – not to mention convincing the rest of the English-speaking world, or the half billion people who speak English as a second or third language, to make a switch. Publishers aren’t likely to adopt new spellings because their sales would plummet.  And spelling fundamentalists will come out of the woodwork, yelling that spelling reform is a theory, not a fact, and calling for equal time for the study of etymology.

    Language works in fits and starts, chugging along effectively, if imperfectly on its own, and not in response to somebody’s bright idea. Plus, the general public isn’t likely to sign on to spelling reform. Even though Americans seem to have an unnatural obsession with being correct in matters of language, we also strongly resist correction, and the American public is likely to greet spelling reformers with everything from a polite yawn or an invocation of the First Amendment. 

    No one wants to make a language mistake – and everybody in their right mind thinks our spelling is pretty much insane. On the other hand, correct somebody's language, even if they ask you for correction, and they’re likely to respond, “Hey, it’s a free country. You can’t tell me what to do."

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