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  • A spelling reformer writes to Mr. Lincoln

    In 1859, a Methodist minister named A. B. Pikard wrote two letters to former senator Abraham Lincoln -- Lincoln had lost his seat to Stephen Douglas in 1858 -- protesting the inhumanity of the fugitive slave laws. Its no surprise to find a northern abolitionist minister opposing the return of runaway slaves to the masters theyd escaped. But a minister who uses the phonetic alphabet to argue that the practice is both immoral and unconstitutional, well that is unusual.

    Although Lincoln's response does not survive, he did answer Pikard’s first letter. This prompted Pikard to write again explaining the advantages of phonetic spelling:

    Excerpt from Pikard's letter to Sen. Lincoln 

    from the Lincoln Papers in the Library of Congress, Aug. 6, 1859, or as Pikard wrote it, Ogust 6.

    I am veri mug oblijd dat u ssud tink enuf ov min tu ansr it -- I trust u wil hav no difikulti in redin dis;-- u se it is ritn in de Fonetik Alfabet, and if u deturmin a letr in eni plas u deturmin it in evri plas--

    [I am very much obliged that you should think enough of mine to answer it. I trust you will have no difficulty in reading this;-- you see it is written in the Phonetic Alphabet, and if you determine a letter in any place you determine it in every place--]

    Pikard then laid out more reasons for repealing fugitive slave laws.

    The nineteenth century saw a number of proposals to replace the apparent chaos of English spelling with a rational system in which each letter transcribed a single sound, and each sound was represented by one and only one letter.

    There were plenty of objections to these plans – they’d require massive re-education efforts, along with reprinting everything in the new spelling. They’d obscure etymologies. And there was the insurmountable problem of deciding whose pronunciation would serve as the phonetic standard on which to base the spellings, and then getting everyone to adopt the new spellings.

    But the reformers countered that phonetic spelling would cut the time needed to learn to read and write: learn the alphabet and literacy teachers would be all but out of work. It would make English easier for foreigners to learn, which was important since they predicted English was poised to become the next world language. Plus phonetic spelling would make it easy to pronounce any foreign language, and it would teach English speakers “correct” pronunciation, thus eliminating “provincial” and nonstandard dialects.

    One influential supporter of phonetic spelling was Isaac Pitman, the creator of the shorthand method that was wildly popular with reporters and secretaries. Pitman devised a phonetic alphabet as well, and many American readers of his Phonetic Journal taught versions of his phonetic spelling, or systems they devised themselves, to school children. Lincoln’s correspondent, Rev. Pikard, who addressed the senator as "Mr Linkon," ran one such phonetic school in Mt. Morris, Illinois.

    A poem printed in Pitman's phonetic alphabet

    Stanza from a poem printed in Pitman’s phonetic alphabet, from his Phonetic Journal, 1852, p. 311.

    On Aug. 17, 1852, a Dr. Stone, of Boston, demonstrated the success of the new spelling method to the National Phonetics Convention by quizzing a group of school girls called the Boston Phonetic Children in hard words of doubtful pronunciation, including phthisic, physic, pneumatic, bow, bough, and rendezvous, as well as Hohenmamucaludapopalockacalagan. They got them all, except for luminacity, a word not found in the OED.

    Dr. Stone demonstrates the

    New York Times report of the Phonetic National Convention, held on Aug. 17, 1852.

    John M. Mott was only one of several inventors of new spelling systems who went so far as to petition Congress to fund their methodology. But while Americans from Benjamin Franklin to Teddy Roosevelt proposed spelling reforms, Congressional interest in either traditional or reformed spelling proved minimal. Franklin’s phonetic alphabet fell on deaf ears, and Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order directing the Government Printing Office to adopt 300 simplified spellings recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board generated so much public outrage that Congress actually threatened to withhold the GPO’s funding, and Roosevelt backed down.

    But for some, simplified spelling, which dispensed with unnecessary letters and regularized some common irregularities, offered an attractive alternative to the more radical phonetic reforms. Joseph Medill championed simplified spelling for his new newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, and his grandson, Col. Robert McCormick, insisted that the Trib spell thru, tho, nite, cigaret, and a number of other simplified spellings, a practice that the newspaper followed, with decreasing regularity, until the 1970s, when it finally abandoned the practice altogether. 

    Mott's Phonetic Alphabet 

    Chart of phonetic alphabet from Mott’s Phonology and Phonotype, 1902

    Spelling reform still attracts adherents today, some of whom picket the National Spelling Bee to publicize their cause.

    Spelling reformers picket the National Spelling Bee

    Members of the Simplified Spelling Society with nothing better to do picket the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. 

    But despite the fact that most English speakers insist that if they were the boss of English the first thing they’d do something about is our ridiculous spelling system, most of them resolutely ignore spelling reform proposals. Although spelling reform drew sporadic support from scholars, celebrities, and the mildly-deranged, Lincoln surely ignored Rev. Pikard’s phonetic nonsense, though he agreed with Pikard’s position on slavery, a problem in the end that was both more important than spelling, and one that Lincoln could actually did something about once he became president.

    Envelope for the letter Pikard wrote to Lincoln 

    Postmarked envelope containing the letter from A. B. Pikard to A Linkon, Esk. Springfeld, Ill.; from the Lincoln papers in the Library of Congress. Although he spelled Lincoln's name phonetically, Pikard may have abbreviated Illinois as Ill instead of the more phonetic Il to ensure that it would be delivered. Or he might simply have been inconsistent.

mashabell@aol.com Jun 8, 2009 4:00 am

I went to Washington to raise awareness of the problems and costs caused by the inconsistency of English spelling in 2007 and again this year. I found that almost nobody had trouble understanding that the inconsistency of English spelling - with changing letter sounds as in ‘our, pour, courteous, tourist, courier,’ and ‘different spellings for identical sounds as in ‘leave, sleeve, believe, even’ -  makes learning to read and write much harder than need be, but that almost nobody had ever been made aware of this link before. That is the main obstacle to reform: people are not aware of the harm that the irregularities of English spelling do.  


Ben Franklin advocated spelling reform because he thought that the proper functioning of democracy depended on having a literate and well-informed populace. The fact that the people of both the US and the UK re-elected Bush and Blair even after it had become clear that they had taken their countries into an unjustified and illegal war makes me think that this may be due to both countries having relatively high levels of functional illiteracy and millions of virtually completely uneducated citizens.   


Masha Bell

www.englishspellingproblems.co.uk (2006),

‘Spellmender’ on You Tube,
Ex teacher of English and modern languages,

now independent literacy researcher and writer,
author of 'Understanding English Spelling' (2004),
'Learning to Read' (2007)

(and 'Rules and Exceptions of English Spelling' due out soon)

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