Is Spelling Reform, 110 Years Old, STILL a Success?


On August 27, 1906, 110 years ago last Saturday, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an order to simplify the spelling of 300 English words. These reforms were recommended by a new Simplified Spelling Board. The order was promptly reversed by Congress. Despite this the public voiced strong opinions, some in support and some in opposition. Some effects of the reform are still visible today.

In 1916, 10 years after the spelling reform, Brander Matthews, an influential professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, wrote an article assessing the success of Roosevelt’s spelling reform. (Click the link near the end of this post to read it.) The Sunday Magazine, a blog which New York Times Sunday Magazine articles published exactly 100 years ago, posted Matthews’ article again with brief commentary. From the commentary:

In 2016, we indeed use honor instead of honourcheck instead of cheque or checquehiccup instead of hiccoughmaneuver instead of manoeuvre, and plow instead of plough. But we haven’t substituted stedfast for steadfast, or wo for woe.

It is interesting to note that the built-in American English dictionary on Mac OS X indeed does not recognize “honour,” “checque,” “manoeuvre,” three of the old forms. It also does not recognize “wo,” one of Roosevelt’s new forms.

Matthews’ article is also an interesting historical document for those of us interested in linguistics, specifically the history of the discipline. Matthews writes about linguists who lamented the “unscientific condition” of English orthography. This is a reminder that, despite the outside perception of linguistics as part of the humanities, linguistics has seen itself as a scientific discipline for a long time.

Read More:

Link to the Sunday Magazine anniversary posting

Link to a PDF of the original 1916 New York Times article

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About Leo Schumann 15 Articles
Hello! I am Leo. I am interested in languages and linguistics. I study many language/linguistics related topics in the college. I am also an avid language-learner hobbyist; on my own, I have taught myself some North Frisian (Nordfriesisch/Nordfriisk) and basic Spanish. I have also taught ESOL and enjoy teaching others. I am currently teaching myself to read Mayan hieroglyphs. I am relatively comfortable speaking English, German, and Spanish.

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