Spelling Reform Movement Takes On ABCs

In the modern age of mega-stage spelling bees, there are still factions of what amount to advocates for spelling reform — those who want to simplify spellings or scrap the current alphabet all together.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The English language is full of spelling traps. There's an I in friend, but don't dare pronounce it. Why does once begin with an O not a W? Why do cough and rough both end in GH not an F? And then why does the GH in neighbor sound like a Y? Why does psoriasis begin with a P? And what's that C doing in the middle of Tucson anyway? I could go on. Instead, we'll ask Paul Collins to. There are what amount to advocates for spelling reform. Paul Collins, our literary detective, teaches English at Portland State University, and he saw some agitated spelling reform advocates at the 80th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Paul joins us from Palantine(ph) Studios in Portland. Thanks for being with us.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (Creative Writing, Portland State University): It's good to be here.

SIMON: So, what's the argument reformers make? Is it just too difficult to keep track of?

Professor COLLINS: Pretty much. It's actually been the same argument that's been made for centuries, and it's always out of a sense of exasperation with the English language.

SIMON: Can you make any generalizations about these advocates for reform?

Professor COLLINS: One thing that really struck me was - for example, on the people who were picketing the spelling bee - many of them were retired educators. These are people who had spent years working with students with learning difficulties or working with immigrants who were really struggling to learn the language. And so, yeah, a lot of these efforts grow out of a sense of frustration at being able to teach the language to people who are new to it.

SIMON: Are there some points that advocates of spelling reform agree upon, or are they as divided as any other group of reformers?

Professor COLLINS: They've been terribly divided. And that's been one of their great problems. And I would say the reformers have really for well over a century now, have split off into three groups. You have the simplifiers who just want to take the most commonly misspelled words in the English language and just fix those, just to find, say, 100 or 200 words. You have the reformers who want to reform the spelling of every word, so they're all spelled phonetically. And then you have the orthographers. These are the people who actually want to create a new alphabet to fix one sound for each character that would accurately reflect the spelling of words.

SIMON: And you've pointed out recently that, in fact, reformers came close to actually winning some reform about a century ago.

Professor COLLINS: In 1906, Andrew Carnegie and Teddy Roosevelt actually started to push through what became a presidential directive that U.S. government agencies had to start using reformed spelling in their documents. And there was actually an almost visceral reaction in Great Britain that Americans were somehow desecrating their language.

SIMON: Do you think there's a chance of reform coming into the language?

Professor COLLINS: It's interesting, because it's a movement that's attracted some tremendous names over the years. Ben Franklin had his own alphabet. Charles Darwin was part of it. So was Tennyson. Later on, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain. They all lent their names in their efforts to these kind of reforms. And it's never really taken. And I think there's actually a very specific historical reason why. I think there was a point in the 1850s or 1860s when any hope of it happening stopped.

SIMON: What happened?

Professor COLLINS: It got funny. I think you could even pin it on one guy, Artemis Ward, who was a very popular humorist of the 1850s and 1860s. And he really popularized a form of humor where you had characters whose dialogue is rendered phonetically. And this is basically meant to indicate that they're ignorant, or rubes, or whatever. I think that ever since, there's been this association culturally if you wanted to show someone as being kind of ignorant, you render their writing or their speech phonetically. And people have a great aversion to looking foolish.

SIMON: Paul Collins, professor of English at Portland State University. And his article, "Buzz Kill: Picketing the 80th Annual Scripts National Spelling Bee" is in the September issue of The Believer. Paul, very nice talking to you again.

Professor COLLINS: Thank you.

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