The English language was invented by a collection of hairy men with poorly healed axe wounds to the head, then refined by a bunch of guys in bad wigs who drank a pint of mercury every morning to treat their syphilis. It was spelled entirely at random until the late 1500s, when the earliest attempts at standardized spelling were made, largely out of spite. Since then, English has grown to become the second most widely spoken language in the world, but some of the most famous names in history have found themselves inexplicably unhappy with the language's rigorous development process and have proposed reforming English spelling.
They were obviously wrong. The world is a cruel place ruled by forces beyond our control, and there's no better way of teaching children that than forcing them to spell "colonel" or "enough." Does the word "embarrass" need those double letters? No! Will we be changing it? Also no! Memorize it and move on with your life, Timmy, because it's going to be about 70 more years of this bullshit. But let's at least take a moment to recognize those brave heroes who tried to find a better way ... and failed horribly.
Ben Franklin was probably the coolest founding father, spending approximately half his time humiliating his enemies and the other half plowing his way across Europe. But every jock has a boring side and Franklin was a passionate advocate of spelling form. Specifically, Franklin wanted to introduce a more phonetic alphabet, where letters correspond directly to spoken sounds.
In modern English, letters can be pronounced wildly differently depending on context. For example, in "Pacific Ocean" the first C is pronounced like you're sexually harassing a snake, the second C should sound like you're choking on an aspirin, and the third C is pronounced like a slowly deflating air mattress around 3 AM. The word "fish" can famously be spelled "ghoti" ("gh" as in "enough," "o" as in "women" and "ti" as in "action"), while "potato chips" could just as easily be "ghoughpteighbteau tchoghs." Franklin correctly thought that this was bullshit and eventually came up with his own alphabet to avoid the problem.
Franklin proposed dropping unnecessary letters like C, which could be replaced with K or S, depending on the sirkumstanses. He also wanted to drop J, Q, W, X and Y, thus making it completely impossible to spell Jamiroquai. To replace the lost letters, Franklin proposed six new ones to represent sounds like the "-ng" in "running" and "jumping," or the "sh" in "action." Of course, it took him a while to actually tell anybody about his amazing alphabet, since none of the new letters could actually be rendered on a printing press until Franklin had special blocks of type cast. But he did eventually go public with the alphabet, which was met with a complete lack of interest from everyone. Because it was terrible.
The new alphabet was incomplete, inconsistent and virtually incomprehensible to English speakers, making it a nightmare to learn. But Franklin persevered and his friends were soon staring in horror at cheerful letters asking them to "Kansider chis alfabet and giv me instanses af syts Inlis uyrds and saundz as iu mee hink kannat perfektlyi bi exsprest byi it." National Treasure would have been a very long movie if Nick Cage had to decipher that shit. One of Franklin's friends did politely write back that the alphabet could "bi uv syrvis," but Franklin himself clearly couldn't quite get the hang of writing with it, using the new spellings inconsistently from one sentence to the next. He eventually dropped the whole thing and the idea faded...or did it?!
Perhaps the only fan of Franklin's new alphabet was a guy called Noah Webster, who created Webster's Dictionary, earning immortality in the opening paragraph of every awkward "Webster's defines" speech. Webster was a huge advocate of spelling reform and is best remembered today for his war on U, which he considered an unseemly letter that had no business sneaking up on a gentleman in the middle of a perfectly reasonable word like "color" or "rumor." The English had tried to class up their language by adopting pseudo-French spellings for many words. Thanks to Webster, American spelling rejected this, replacing forms like "centre" and "plough" with the simpler "center" and "plow."
But Webster wanted to go way further than that, writing "I once heard Dr. Franklin remark "that those people spell best who do not know how to spell;" that is, they spell as their ears dictate, without being guided by rules, and thus fall into a regular orthography." Following this philosophy, Webster attempted to turn American spelling into a more consistent phonetic system by removing all unnecessary letters. If Webster had his way, "tongue" would be "tung," "soup" would be "soop" and "machine" would be "masheen." It was admittedly a logical system, although it's now impossible to write words like "wimmin," "dawter" and "obleek" without feeling like one of the Beverly Hillbillies.
Webster debuted his new system in 1790's Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings, informing his surprised readers that, "In the essays ritten within the last yeer a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment...The man who admits that the change of housbond, mynde, ygone, moneth into husband, mind, gone, month is an improvement, must acknowlege also the riting of helth, breth, rong, tung, munth, to be an improvement. There iz no alternativ...if a gradual reform should not be made under our language, it will proov we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors."
Webster's new spellings apparently sounded as ridiculous then as they do now, since they were brutally mocked across the entire nation. It also didn't help that Webster, like Franklin, was not particularly consistent about applying his new system. Even the title Essays and Fugitiv Writings seemed slightly nervous about the whole thing (by his own rules, it should have been "Essayz and Fugitiv Ritings"). The reception was so bad that Webster dropped the subject for the rest of his life, although the dream of phonetic spelling was soon taken up by others.
By the late 19th century, spelling reform had become a trendy issue in high society. Even Mormon leader Brigham Young was touting his own phonetic "Deseret Alphabet," which was generally incomprehensible to even devout Mormons, but got slapped on every street sign in Utah anyway. Beginning in 1906, town-drowning steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie spent a fortune sponsoring the Simplified Spelling Board, which lobbied for a list of 300 revised words, including "rime" instead of "rhyme" and "kist" instead of "kissed." In fact, all words ending -ed were supposed to end with -t instead, turning "snapped" into "snapt" and "passed" into "past." Needless to say, traditionalists were pist.
Carnegie thought that English was being held back from worldwide adoption by inconsistent spelling, which made it difficult for non-native speakers to learn. He pulled out all the stops with the Spelling Board, which included luminaries like Mark Twain and the guy who invented the Dewey Decimal System. But nobody could have expected just how successful the board would be, since just a year after its founding, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order making its revised spellings mandatory across the federal government.
A big fan of modernizing reforms, Roosevelt was apparently swayed by the argument that unnecessary letters cost the government millions in printing overheads every year. However, opponents of the move pointed out that all the school textbooks would have to be recalled and republished, and suggested that the whole thing was some kind of conspiracy with the printing industry. Meanwhile, the decision was ridiculed across the world. The British papers quipped "Karnegi and President Rusvelt are doing ther best to ad to the gaiety of nations (or nashuns)," while an American journalist declared that "Nuthing escapes Mr. Rucevelt. No subject is tu hi fr him to takl, nor tu lo for him tu notis. He makes tretis without the consent of the Senit. He inforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales to se those that do not soot him. He now assales the English langgwidg."
Roosevelt stuck to his guns, even giving a State of the Union address using the new spellings, but his executive order was completely ignored by several branches of the government and quickly withdrawn after the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to overturn it. A furious Carnegie eventually pulled funding from the Spelling Board, informing them that "A more useless body of men never came into association...I think I hav been patient long enuf...I hav much better use for twenty thousand dollars a year." Which was good news for Roosevelt, who famously survived an assassination attempt in 1912 because the bullet hit a 50 page speech folded in his jacket pocket. How many unnecessary letters could he afford to lose?
George Bernard Shaw is probably best known for his hit play Pygmalion, in which a loveable cockney flower girl is taught to talk properly by a fancy professor. The play was inspired by Shaw's own interest in spelling reform, which he tinkered with throughout his life. As always, consistency proved to be the problem, since the English language contains too many fun contradictions to really be hammered into a logical shape. For example, Shaw declared that apostrophes were useless and removed them from contractions like don't and musn't in his writing. But he was forced to keep using an apostrophe in I'll to avoid confusion with ill. So now there was an apostrophe in some contractions but not in others. It was an apostrophe catastrophe!
Shaw eventually seems to have decided the only solution was to go even further than Ben Franklin's pathetic six new letters and invent a whole new writing system capable of perfectly representing phonetic English. With this, Shaw thought, it would be possible to "spell t-h-o-u-g-h with two letters, s-h-o-u-l-d with three, and e-n-o-u-g-h with four: nine letters instead of eighteen: a saving of a hundred percent of my time and my typist's time and the printer's time to say nothing of the saving in paper and wear and tear of machinery." Sensibly, he decided that this problem could best be solved by somebody else, ideally after Shaw himself was too dead to hear any whining about it.
Shaw passed away in 1950, leaving a big chunk of his estate in a charitable trust to fund the development of the new alphabet. Unfortunately, he left some of the rest to the British Museum, who hadn't spent 200 years stealing everything not nailed down to let a juicy will go by. They successfully contested the trust, arguing that alphabets weren't a legitimate charitable endeavor and that they should get the whole thing. After a public outcry, a much smaller fund was grudgingly set aside to fund a contest for developing the new writing system. This was won by a guy called Kingsley Read, who had actually discussed the alphabet with Shaw before his death. Read came up with a system of 48 "short," "tall" and "deep" letters, each corresponding exactly to a unit of sound.
The smaller prize fund made it impossible to publicize the new language the way Shaw had intended, and let's be honest here, nobody was going to learn it anyway. I mean, that shit looks like it should be carved on the doors of a forbidden tomb, nobody's going to put it on a glowing neon sign and hang it outside a strip club (the main purpose of modern writing). Seriously, we can't even get rid of 'C' from our current alphabet, there's no way everyone's relearning a whole new one. Maybe it's best to think of a fully phonetic language as a nice restaurant with bad parking. It's a great idea, but are people really going to go to all the trouble of getting there? But it's still an incredibly impressive achievement, culminating the dream that Ben Franklin had all those years ago. Give it another couple centuries and maybe we'll get there after all.
Top image: John Singer Sargent/White House Collection