The Peak and Decline of Spelling Reform

The Peak and Decline of Spelling Reform

Carnegie Support

The New York Times, March 12, 1906

With the new financial support of Andrew Carnegie and the ongoing support by leading scholars (see: The Rise of the Spelling Reform Movement), the movement made some immediate gains.

The formation of the Simplified Spelling Board was announced on March 11, 1906. Andrew Carnegie provided virtually all of the initial funding for the New York City based organization. The New York Times described Carnegie’s support as being based on his believe that “English might be made the world language of the future” and “an influence leading to universal peace”, but that this role was obstructed by its “contradictory and difficult spelling”. His financial support included a commitment of $15,000 per year for five years. That would be a commitment of over $350,000 a year in 2010 dollars.

The Board

The inaugural board of the Board was a diverse and well-respected set of luminaries. Among the early board members were:

Chancellor Andrews of the University of Nebraska, Justice Brewer of the United States Supreme Court, President Butler of Columbia University, O. C. Blackmer of Chicago, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Dr. Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal Fame), Dr. Isaac K. Funk, editor and publisher of The Standard Dictionary; Lyman J. Gage, ex-Secretary of the Treasury; Richard Watson Gilder, editor of The Century Magazine; Dr. William T. Harris, United States Commissioner of Education and editor of Webster’s International Dictionary; Prof. George Hempel of the University of Michigan, Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Henry Holt, Prof. William James of Harvard, President Jordan of Leland Stanford University, Prof. Thomas R. Lounsbury of Yale, Prof. Francis A. March of Lafayette, Prof. Brander Matthews of Columbia, Dr. Benjamin E. Smith, editor, and Dr. Charles P. G. Scott, etymological editor, of The Century Dictionary; President H. H. Seedley of the Iowa State Normal School, Cedar Falls; Col. Charles E. Sprague, President of the Union Dime Savings Institution; Prof. Calvin Thomas of Columbia, Dr. William Hayes Ward, editor of The Independent, and President Woodward of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. (more…)

The Rise of the Spelling Reform Movement

The Rise of the Spelling Reform Movement

By the end of the 19th Century a movement was taking root in America with the goal of simplifying the spelling of English words through the adoption of standardized rules like those used in many other languages.  The adoption of shorter and easier spellings has been an ongoing part of the spread of English around the world. Nobody in the 19th Century would have demanded that their children be taught to read and spell exclusively in the spelling and grammatical styles of Chaucer or Shakespeare. However, when American intellectuals and industrialists tried to speed up the evolution of the English language along the path it had been on for 800 years, they discovered that many people in the United States and the United Kingdom were deeply attached to the bizarre and idiosyncratic aspects of our common tongue.

Early Spelling Reformers

As early as 1554 John Hart wrote a book on the “unreasonable writing of our English tongue”, and 15 years later he published “An Orthographic” containing his proposals for the improvement of English spelling.

Sir John ChekeIn the meantime, Sir John Cheke (1557) and Sir Thomas Smith (1568), both secretaries of state of Edward VI, advocated radical reforms in spelling. Smith proposed an alphabet consisting of 37 characters. William Bullokar (1580) also suggested an alphabet of 37 characters; Dr. Gill, a celebrated master of St. Paul’s School in London, suggested a 40 letter alphebet in 1619; and in 1633, Bishop Wilkins proposed yet another with 37 symbols.

James Howell, in his “Grammar” (1662), urged a number of simplifications in spelling, some of which such as honor for honour, logic for logique, sin for sinne, war for warre, bodily for bodilie, bear for beare, wit for witt, and their analogs are now in general usage; while others bel for bell, tru for true, etc. are still regarded by many as radical innovations.


‘We have been trying for several generations to teach children to spell ‘correctly.’ A great many never learn; few learn without great waste of time and labor. The fault is not theirs. It lies in the chaos and unreason of English spelling itself. We can make it better if we will.'”

–A Simplified Spelling
Board advertisement in 1911.

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