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Spelling Reform

May 24, 1946

One of our local papers has come out in a vigorous splash of printer’s ink on an old theme that keeps popping back for another try. That is, the effort to simplify our lopsided system of spelling. The occasion for the New York Sun taking up the cudgel apparently is the joining up of three major movements headed in the same direction. There is a Simplified Spelling Board . . . known familiarly as the SSB among the cogniscenti and a Spelling Reform Association and the Simplified Spelling Society of Great Britain. These big three are getting together now to synchronize their heaves. The reports of these efforts are always interesting because they never fail to dust off some goofy habits we’ve fallen into, which it is amusing to hold up to the light. And sometimes they actually accomplish something. Up to the time of Queen Elizabeth words like sun and war and dog were spelled with a double consonant and an e on the end. Sunne for sun and warre for war and dogge for dog. Long before that the final e had been pronounced. But even when it had become just plain sun . . . you couldn’t pry them away from the “nne” habit. However, it was finally done. Which, incidentally, should be “dun.” While they were about it though, they should have lopped off not just the final rre from war, but got rid of the whole doggone word. The word “though” that I used in that sentence could be spelled tho. And for a while back in the twenties there was a concerted effort to adopt spelling like that. Thru for through and catalogue without the U E on the end. Catalogue made it, I think. But the short streamlined spelling of through and thorough and so on didn’t quite take. What was accomplished was the direct results of the SSB work . . . endorsed, this account says, by such men as Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. So you see these efforts are not without fruit. Other academic gems in the article include the fact the word logic came into the language from the trench in the year 1066 and was spelled logique. It took centuries to cut it down to just ic. The word ghost with its waste of a perfectly good and completely ignored H was a case of English getting in Dutch . . . or vice versa . . . The Dutch getting into English. Then the numerous Latin derivatives give us trouble. The word doubt stems from the Latin dubio . . . and we have become so attached to that superfluous letter B in there that we can’t seem to rub it out . . . spelled without a B. Then there is the sound of I, which we can’t seem to make up our minds about. In the word cries . . . it’s IE in high it’s just the letter I; in Height . . . it’s El; in type it’s Y and in aisle . . . it’s Al. These words don’t see eye-to-eye at all. What the reformers hope to do is this: They want to standardize all sounds in the language and give them one standard representation. Then all you have to be able to do is pronounce a word and you automatically know how to spell it. There will even be designations for diphthongs. The combination T H for example is different in its aspirate beginning of the word Thorough . . . and in the easy “the.” The proposal is to use DH for the soft TH sound. It’ll look odd to see the word “the” spelled D H E but we’ll get used to it. As usual the Spelling Reformers have whopping statistics to show how great is the need for reform. They say that every school child spends a thousand hours learning to spell. That adds up to something like five hundred thousand million hours wasted on a study that could be reduced to about ten percent of that time. But until they succeed in making sense of our complicated spelling . . . the art of good spelling must remain a commendable accomplishment.

And that brings me to something this column is going to attempt to do in tomorrow’s edition by way of making up to you for getting you all confused about I Es and extraneous Hs. Some of you may remember . . . some weeks ago in this column there was mention of a National Spelling Bee being promoted by a combination of Scripps Howard and other newspapers. We itemed it on the occasion of the Regional Finals here in New York. Tomorrow is the day the regional champs from all over the country meet in Washington to crown the national champ. If it can be arranged I’m going to try to dip a microphone into the National Press Club down there when we meet here tomorrow and we’ll listen in on the opening minutes of the big spelling finals. That ought to straighten us out on what’s what and get us back on a solid academic footing. And besides it ought to be interesting, too. Spelled T U.