Today in Tedium: In their own quiet ways, spelling and grammar are each forms of lobbying. Language is one of the few facts of everyday life that started out as a variety of opinions on what things should be called. And those opinions, like a diamond pressed into form, slowly molded into a definitive shape. But there's a limit to how much we're OK with as a society—hence the popularity of dictionaries and style guides, which draw up a map for how we use words on a daily basis. At times, though, the push for changes to the English language has gotten extremely political. Today's Tedium tries to get the last word in. — Ernie @ Tedium
"The orthography of our language is extremely irregular; and many fruitless attempts have been made to reform it. The utility and expedience of such reform have been controverted, and both side of the question have been maintained with no inconsiderable zeal."
— Noah Webster, writing in the A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language of the challenges of the English Language. The 1806 book was the first true American dictionary, and it was a very opinionated work, one that attempted to scale back the complexities that pocked the English language at the time, while calling out "the corruption of language by means of heedless writers." It didn't make sense to him that "colour" had a u in it, so he just removed it. Likewise, it seemed strange that "publick" had the extra k, so off it went. Webster's strategy of whittling away at letters was controversial, but it largely worked—though not every change took, a number of them did. His work inspired later spelling reformers.
Andrew Carnegie once funded an organization that lobbied to simplify words
In a lot of ways, Andrew Carnegie was a study in contradictions. He was an empire-builder who wanted to give away the fruits of his labor as soon as he received them. He was a progressively-minded philanthropist whose company oversaw one of the deadliest anti-unionization battles in U.S. history—one, to be fair, he deeply regretted after the fact.
And he was a man who built thousands of libraries in his name—funding most of the more than 2,500 libraries he built without asking any questions—but had a vested interest in making the English language as simple as possible.
That desire for a simpler English language led Carnegie to help found and fund the Simplified Spelling Board, an organization designed to make the language more obvious and phonetic. Carnegie's reason for funding the organization in 1906 was an attempt to help push forward the idea of making English the global language.
His approach was even more aggressive than Webster's. It had no interest in graceful-looking words. The Simplified Spelling Board eyed changes that would have made the dictionary fully phonetic, with little variation from the way words are actually said. Words like "woe" would have become "wo" and "though" would have devolved into "tho."
Carnegie, being a rich man with a lot of political clout, knew that influence was the key factor necessary to push these ideas "thru." So his organization started by trying to convince a number of famous authors to begin to use the new spellings in their books—and scored big names like Mark Twain, convincing them to simplify a handful of particularly frustrating words like "altho" and "catalog."
But then the board bit off more than the American public could chew. Soon, the group's list of 12 words grew to more than 300, and the influence game reached all the way to Teddy Roosevelt, who became a big fan of the concept and soon ordered the Government Printing Office to use the list of words for all official government documents.
As anyone who follows politics today can tell you, there's nothing that some people hate more than feeling like they're being told what to do by the federal government—and soon, both Congress and the media were hating on the idea of a dramatic attempt to Americanize the English language. Within weeks of Roosevelt's call, the House passed a bill to prevent the change from going through and the president, sensing a losing battle was on his hands, quickly backed down.
"I am sory as a dog," Twain wrote to Carnegie of the failure. "For I do lov revolutions and violense."
Despite the embarrassing loss on the phonetics front, Carnegie kept funding the Simplified Spelling Board for nearly a decade afterwards, stopping after it became clear that his attempt to influence the country to spell differently had failed.
"I think I hav been patient long enuf," he wrote as he cancelled the funding in 1915. "I hav a much better use for twenty-five thousand dollars a year."
Back then, $25,000 was real money—the equivalent of more than half a million dollars now. It's a crazy amount of money to spend on anything—let alone words.
"Our spelling has become so irrational that we ar never sure how to spel a new word when we hear it, or how to pronounce a new word when we read it."
— A line from the intro of the Handbook of Simplified Spelling, a book published by the Simplified Spelling Board in 1920—the year the board disbanded, five years after it had seen its funding fall apart. The spelling of "ar" and "spel" is the same as the book uses, by the way.
Five examples of journalists getting angry at the Associated Press Stylebook
- "Do I need to hit you over the head with those numerous examples from Fowler? Or will you, dammit, cave in and begin to write English instead of journalese?" — John McIntyre, a copy editor and blogger for The Baltimore Sun, expressing frustration with the “split verb” rule in the AP Stylebook.
- "While you’re trying to stay relevant, you’re needlessly filling my mind with information that is easily obtained elsewhere." — Daniel Hunt, a designer and copy editor currently with the Sacramento Bee, in an American Society of Copy Editors blog post criticizing the AP Stylebook's editors for adding too many entries.
- "Would we talk about gravity doubters? What about people who doubt the link between smoking and lung cancer? In no other circumstance would the complete rejection of science be treated so gently." — Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post, criticizing the AP for its guidance against using the term "climate change denier," which the organization announced in September.
- "For three decades, I have included that final comma in a series only to watch helplessly as my journalism editors pluck it out with tweezers." — Roy Peter Clark, an educator at the Poynter Institute, discussing how the AP Stylebook's longstanding rule against the Oxford comma has frustrated him, left his copy missing something, and is slowly going out of style.
- "Whenever a change is made to the AP Stylebook, I curl up in the shape of a comma and emit loud cries." — Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, discussing the decision by the Associated Press to allow "more than" and "over" to be used interchangeably in front of numbers.
So here's the fun part about the Simplified Spelling Board. While the organization went away nearly 100 years ago, other organizations still exist, and they're still active to this day.
Problem is, they don't have anyone near as powerful as Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, or Mark Twain to make their case. So they've been forced to switch strategies. One of the strategies these groups have taken is to protest spelling bees. No, I'm not kidding.
In 2010, protesters from the American Literacy Council and the English Spelling Society descended on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, arguing that the whole idea behind the contest was a sham, and that words should be more phonetic.
"Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much," one of their signs said.
New Yorker writer Eileen Reynolds, responding to the bizarre protest, basically stated the obvious: the mission is a lost cause, and the final result would be nothing worth celebrating.
"The spellings of words tell stories. They tell us something about the history of words—the long or short journeys they took before reaching us," she wrote. "I’ll cling to the dreaded ough endings for as long as I live, because they remind me of the fascinating and chaotic period of the language’s history known as Middle English."
Perhaps words aren't designed to be perfectly phonetic. Maybe we just have to accept their wrinkles for what they are.