originally published June 17, 2014
Ask anyone who has had to learn English as something other than their first language if it was difficult to soak in all the illogical rules and quirky exceptions in our spelling and they’ll probably look at you coldly while swearing under their breath in their native tongue. The English language is an uncompromisingly fucked cluster of clusterfucks. Our language is the bastard child of every conquering tribe and proto-nation that ever set its armed and faithful sword-wielders around the English countryside. Every silly rule and wonky spelling choice has a history, they just don’t all make a lot of sense as a whole.
There have been numerous highly-placed attempts at righting the wave-flopped ship of linguistic logic between the covers of our sacred dictionaries, but those brave soldiers of common sense have far too often ended up M.I.A., lost in the murk of traditionalism and phonetic disregard. This means we are probably stuck with all the inconsistencies and incongruities on our typo hit parade. And newcomers to the language will continue to question their decision to wade into this mess in the first place.
Just as headstrong, ambitious souls have offered up entire language replacements for English, based on logic, reason and ease of absorption among the masses, some have simply tried to fix our spelling. And just like those blazers of linguistic trails before and after them, they have mostly failed. We English-speakers are a stubborn bunch.
Once the Norman leaders were scooted back to the continent after having planted three centuries’ worth of asses at the helm of England, our linguistic foreparents had to sort through a heap of French words that had filtered into the language. When the printing press showed up, things got even messier. A guy named William Tyndale translated the New Testament in 1525, and a few years later Henry VIII decided to defy the pope’s decree that the bible should never be mass-printed. The problem was, the people who did the actual printing of the bible in English didn’t speak a word of the language.
Tyndale outsourced the job.
The printers tweaked spelling as they felt necessary, often dropping in their own Dutch orthography where it made sense to them to do so. Among other things, this gave us the unnecessary silent ‘h’ in ghost, ghastly and gherkin. It also plunked a similar ‘h’ into ghossip, ghospel and ghizzard, but someone had the good sense to remove those.
Sir Thomas Smith, secretary of state to Edward VI and Elizabeth I, offered his own tweaks to the language, as did anyone with the time and inclination to piece together some sort of solution. Some of the ideas offered involved reworking the entire language – which might have been possible given the pitiful levels of literacy back then, but it was a hard sell. In his epic 1662 work Grammar, historian James Howell offered a few concepts that were soaked into the collective consciousness, like changing warre to war, toune to town and logique to logic. But there was more sabotage than repair going on in the 16th and 17th centuries.
For one thing, Greek and Latin scholars purposely added superfluous letters to words to try to link them to their Greek and Latin counterparts, sometimes in error. Det became debt to link it to the Latin debitum, and dout became doubt because of the Latin dubitare. But when a ‘c’ was added to scissors and scythe, it was done so to link it with the Latin scindere, which has nothing to do with their origin. Same with ake becoming ache to match the Greek word akhos – again, not the origin of the word. These scholars helped to create some of our most perplexing exception words.
Noah Webster, also known as the ‘Pimpin’ Pompadour of Connecticut’, had some 19th century gripes about our language. Along with his first dictionary, published in 1806, Noah offered a few suggestions to clarify our spelling miasma. The Brits wanted nothing to do with this upstart kvetcher from the Colonies, but the Americans happily dipped into Webster’s suggestion list, which included dropping the ‘u’ from words like colour and honour and swapping the final two letters in centre and spectre. His suggestion that tongue should become tung never made the cut.
The American Philological Society picked eleven spelling reforms for immediate use in 1876, including are being changed to ar, give to giv and catalogue to catalog. They also suggested that the ‘-ed’ ending in the past tense should be shortened to a ‘t’, as in mixt and kisst. The Chicago Tribune was quick to adopt all these changes, mostly because owner/editor Joseph Medill was part of the council that picked them. Still, most of these suggestions didn’t fly.
When Andrew Carnegie and the 30-member Simplified Spelling Board came up with a list of 300 words that needed immediate tweaking, President Teddy Roosevelt greeted the news with a joyous harrumph. He ordered the US government to begin adopting the new spellings immediately, which wasn’t hard since more than half of them had already become standard among American spellers. It took about eight months for Congress to reverse that call though, nixing the same ‘t’ for past-tense swap that the American Philological Society had proposed 30 years earlier, as well as most of the other changes. Some – like mould becoming mold or anaemia becoming anemia did stick around.
The British formed their own Simplified Spelling Society, but while they had a number of well-placed cheerleaders – George Bernard Shaw left a huge chunk of his estate to the cause – they have yet to see a huge snowball of change. This might be because they haven’t endorsed any particular alternative spelling system. They did give a faint slab of praise to linguist Harry Lindgren’s SR1 proposition, which featured a number of logical simplifications: eny for any, sed for said, frend for friend, and so on. Again, it never caught on.
The Chicago Tribune wasn’t about to give up on spreading spelling reforms. And why should they? As one of the largest distributor of mass prose in the nation, they were in the ideal position to squeeze new spelling standards into the mainstream. From 1934 through 1975 they championed thru, burocrat, iland, rime, telegraf, tho and a host of other letter combinations that induce a squiggly red line in any modern word processor. They claimed the majority of their readers preferred the new spelling. Eventually they were overwhelmed by the public’s lack of commitment to their cause, and the new spellings faded away.
I’m willing to throw my support behind any idea that seeks to clean up our language of its wonky rules and voluminous exceptions. Last year, Oxford professor Simon Horobin suggested we simply allow for variety. There’s no reason tomorrow can’t also be tomorow, or that committee couldn’t be comitee too. Let’s just live and let live – spell and let spell.
Hey, if we can get lol into the dictionary, why not?