22 February 2009

are we living in the most progressive times?

Here is a letter sent by then US president Theodore Roosevelt to the government printing office.
Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906

To Charles Arthur Stillings
My dear Mr. Stillings: I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board,which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the criticism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be achieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred. There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars—men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slightest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write “plow” instead of “plough”; which has made most Americans write “honor” without the somewhat absurd, superfluous “u”; and which is even now making people write “program” without the “me”—just as all people who speak English now write “bat,” “set,” “dim,” “sum,” and “fish” instead of the Elizabethan “batte,” “sette,” “dimme,” “summe,” and “fysshe”; which makes us write “public,” “almanac,” “era,” “fantasy,” and “wagon,” instead of the “publick,” “almanack,” “aera,” “phantasy,” and “waggon” of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.
Sincerely yours
At that time, the President's wish was ignored until Congress passed a bill revoking this attempt. Since then, progress which had been made in spelling over the last centuries far almost stopped and this in spite of the support of eminent figures such as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw and Andrew Carnegie.
We think of our time as being a very advanced and progressive one. But is this really true?

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3
Some words in Roosevelt's 300 list are: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thorofare, program, catalog, decalog, demagog, pedagog, prolog. Some of which made it into American spelling.


Anonymous said...

Roosevelts mistake (and also the Chicago Tribunes) was that a campaign aiming at raising awareness of the need for change was not initiated beforehand.
Presenting such an edict to Congress and the public cold turkey was bound to get their backs up.

Anonymous said...

This was not an official executive order according to John Reilly but the tone sure looks like something more than a suggestion.

I don't think it is correct to say that Stillings ignored the request until after Congress refused to appropriate funds. Stillings did publish two books authored by the SSB. (see Google Books)

Stillings may have already been on board. If he also thought it was a good idea, he did not have to be ordered.

Unlike Allan, I don't think there was a way to bring the general public up to speed or raise the level of general ignorance in less than 2 years.

The flaw in the strategy was the failure to say that the change in the house stile was based on the (1893) Funk & Wagnall Dictionary The Standard Dictionary of the English Language.

Given the interest of Isaac Funk in simplified spelling, I would be surprised if all of the 300 words were not already recognized as variant spellings in this dictionary.

If they had been able to pass the buck and reference a dictionary, it would have taken the rug out from under Hearst and his
editorial campaign against reform. Their main argument was that Roosevelt was throwing out the dictionary.

I have yet to be able to find any published responses to these editorials.


Robert Jack Wild said...

sbett: that's interesting! thanks for commenting!

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